Saturday, August 9

Real Life Diagnostics: A Look at a Fantasy Opening: Would You Read On?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Three 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through August 30. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some if my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware of the submission to posting delay.

This week’s questions:

Does this work as an opening? Would you read on? (Is there a strong enough hook based on what you've read?) Does the genre come through based on what you've read so far?


Market/Genre: Fantasy (YA-Adult. I don't think there's an in-between age group)

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: Celestia returns to the scene of the tragedy that resulted in the destruction of her home. She intends to pay her respects and gain closure, however, she is confused by what awaits her and is confronted by dangerous figures from her past.

Confronting the past was hard, but it was even harder when there was nothing left to confront.

Celestia stared wide-eyed at the vast expanse of nothing in front of her. Only a year ago this was still a thriving town, a cozy community, and her home. On her eighteenth birthday, a year ago, her hometown of Garrow had gone up in flames. Celestia could still feel the heat of the flames that scorched the earth, hear the screams of her friends and fellows dying around her. Worst of all, she kept seeing their faces every time she closed her eyes. And it was all because of her.

She knew she wasn’t meant to be here, but she had to see it with her own eyes. See the destruction caused by the raid on her town, witness the cruel fate that befell the abandoned town, and pay respects to her fallen family. Yet the one thing she came back for was nowhere to be found. No ruins, no graves, no indication that a town had ever existed here. Only dust and dirt. What on Serentia was going on?

“You shouldn’t have come here,” a stern voice called from behind her. A voice she knew all too well.

Celestia grabbed the knife from her belt and clutched it to her chest. She had one chance at this. Only one. She whirled around and flung the steel fang at the man. It shot straight at him like an arrow, only to be plucked out of the air like a feather. The man in front of her twirled her knife in his hands and chuckled.

“Your telekinesis has gotten better. Looks like you’ve been practicing.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

[Confronting the past was hard, but it was even harder when there was nothing left to confront.] Intriguing. Makes me curious what happened

Celestia stared wide-eyed at the vast expanse of [nothing] two "nothing" in a row so perhaps change one to avoid the repetition in front of her. Only a year ago this was still a thriving town, a cozy community, and her home. [On her eighteenth birthday, a year ago] just said "a year ago" so this also feels repetitious. The sentence is also a little confusing, [her hometown of Garrow had gone up in flames.] Are there any signs of this in what she's looking at? Celestia could still feel the heat of the flames that scorched the earth, hear the screams of her friends and fellows dying around her. Worst of all, she kept seeing their faces every time she closed her eyes. [And it was all because of her.] I'm curious why. Small thing, but this starts with "wide eyed," which makes me think she's surprised by what she's looking at, but if she thinks it's her fault, and she was there when it burned, being surprised by it feels off. Unless she was expecting burned ruins and that's not the case. If so, that's not coming through yet. This is also a good transition into something personal from her.
She knew she wasn’t meant to be here, but she had to see it with her own eyes. See the destruction caused by the raid on her town, witness the cruel fate that befell the [abandoned town] she said this was a thriving town before, but here she says it was abandoned, and pay respects to her fallen family. A potential spot for something personal. Yet the [one thing she came back for] a little confusing, as she just mentioned several things she came back for was nowhere to be found. No ruins, no graves, no indication that a town had ever existed here. Only dust and dirt. [What on Serentia was going on?] Though this has a modern "what on earth" feel, it's the first hint that this isn't our world. It also focuses on the what and not the emotion. She comes back to pay respects to her dead family, but her reaction is "what is going on?" not "where is my family?" A subtle shift, but it moves the story focus off the emotional impact of this

“You shouldn’t have come here,” a stern voice called from behind her. A voice she knew all too well. Perhaps a hint of emotion here. Is she scared? Angry? Happy?

Celestia grabbed the knife from her belt and clutched it to her chest. She had one chance at this. Only one. She whirled around and flung the steel fang at [the man] if she knows who this is she'd probably use his name here. It shot straight at him like an arrow, only to be plucked out of the air like a feather. The man in front of her twirled her knife in his hands and chuckled.

[“Your telekinesis has gotten better.] Suggests science fiction or fantasy Looks like you’ve been practicing.”

The questions:

1. Does this work as an opening?


For the most part, yes (and readers chime in here). Celestia is facing something difficult for her, and I'm curious what happened to the town and how it was her fault. She mentions raids, so I assume she caused the raid (or thinks she did) through action or inaction, or by who she is (with fantasy, odds are it's by something she is, as that's a standard trope). She's obviously has a problem with the man who just appeared, and it looks like he has some kind of powers as well if he can grab her knife like that. I'd guess her powers had something to do with the town's destruction.

Structurally, there's a goal: Celestia wants to return home to see the graves of her family and people, conflict: the graves are gone and there's a "bad guy" of some type there, a suggestion of stakes: she "shouldn't be there" but I don't yet know why, and story questions: what happened to the town and why? Why shouldn't she be there and who is this guy?

The part that's missing for me is why I should care about Celestia. There's not much internalization for me to get to know her yet, and I'm not feeling any emotion in the scene. It's sad, but nowhere does it show her being sad. She remembers what happened and sees the faces, but I don't know how she feels about any of that. I'd suggest adding a few emotional clues so readers understand how she feels about this trip home.

(Here's more on adding emotional layers to your scenes)

2. Would you read on? (Is there a strong enough hook based on what you've read?)

Intellectually I'm hooked, but not emotionally. I'm intrigued by the story questions, so I'd read on a little longer to see where it goes, but I'm not yet hooked by the character, because she feels like an observer so far. If you swapped out her name and just said "the woman," the scene would read the same since there's nothing personal from her yet. Adding some personal details and showing how she feels would fix this though.

You also might consider another hint or two about the stakes (though that might appear in the next few lines). Why shouldn't she be there? You don't have to give the secret away yet if you don't want to, but a general sense of why not might help draw readers in. Is she risking her life by coming there? Her sanity? Again, this is a potential area for adding emotion, as knowing what she's risking and how that affects her would make me care more about her.

(Here's more on hooking reader's hearts and brains)

3. Does the genre come through based on what you've read so far?

There are a few science fiction/fantasy details, but overall it's a general "destroyed town" setting, which could be any number of genres. That's not necessarily a bad thing though, and this does bring the speculative into it fairly quickly with the telekinesis.

If you wanted to add a few more fantasy details, perhaps pull some elements in her memories, such as flames that scorched the temples, or something relevant to your world that suggests fantasy.

(Here's more on how soon should we show genre in our novels)

4. YA-Adult. I don't think there's an in-between age group

There actually is these days--New Adult (NA), aimed at the 18-25 age group. This has its own set of "rules" though, and it's still developing as a market so your story may or may not fit. Maybe take a peek at the NA fantasy titles and see how yours compares.

If you're unsure of the market, what age is the protagonist? If she's a teen, and her problems are more teen-focused (such as coming of age types, or trying to find herself or "grow up" to her potential) then it could be YA. If she's older and this is more about her dealing with a problem in a more adult fashion, then it's likely adult. However, this snippet has a more adult voice to me than a YA voice, and that combined with a 19-year-old protagonist makes me think this is adult rather than YA.

(Here's more on the new adult market)

Overall, this is off to a good start and a few tweaks here and there would help round it out.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

3 comments:

  1. I would read on. I did have to look up a fang knife though. :) I hadn't come across that before. It found several definitions, so you might want to describe the shape of this one.

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  2. Glad you mentioned the New Adult. It's emerging, mostly linked to stronger sex scenes in romance, but it's spreading its wings with more stories fitting the NA category as sci-fi, fantasy and more.

    I think the main items you hit on are the ones that kept me from fully connecting with the MC, but I would also read on.

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  3. This is a solid start, and with some tweaking, could be improved even further. Couple of things I thought of, though. Personally, I don't find an empty landscape interesting. If this place truly is empty, I need to imagine that something was there. I would suggest having the protagonist move through the landscape, stopping at spots where buildings she remembers used to stand. This would help show us the town that was there, instead of being told. This might also present opportunities for some personal details and observations from the protagonist, so that readers can form more of an emotional interest in her. Just some ideas I had--free to take them or leave them!

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