Saturday, January 17

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This YA Mystery Opening Hook You?

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 site. 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: Six 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through February 28.

This week’s questions:

Do you think the book’s opening would hook readers? Does the chapter heading work (trying to create foreboding)? Have I got the YA voice right? Does the tone feel right for a murder mystery or is it too humorous / too light? Does my writing flow? Does my POV work (aside from the opening paragraph, trying to stick to third person limited)? And I’d love to know if you think the overall plot works? Do you think the plot / writing would appeal to agents?


Market/Genre: Young adult

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: The book’s plot centers on seventeen year old Justin Sykes who is going blind. His mother pities him and his father is embarrassed by him. Then he begins to hear people’s unspoken thoughts. Is he crazy or can he really mind read? Meanwhile Justin’s friend Donna Lamb is missing with her father accused of her murder. Using his telepathic powers Justin goes on a journey to find out what happened to Donna. It is a journey of surprising discovery that takes him from the wilds of Western Ireland to a crowded courtroom in Dublin. Ultimately it is a journey of personal transformation.

Chapter 1

Murder Verses Mind Reading


On another drizzly day in the West of Ireland, Mrs Sykes handed her seventeen year old son Justin a steaming bowl of rhubarb tart. Hardly a very exciting place to begin a story - you’d think? But you’d be mistaken, because in the few minutes it took that tart to go cold, two extraordinary events had happened. And whatever the chances were that Justin Sykes might have been expecting the first - the body being found – there’s no way he could have been expecting the second - the mind reading.

Justin glanced down at the bubbling custard concealing an especially large portion of rhubarb tart. “Hurry up and go cold,” he silently petitioned. This - his favourite dessert was all that now stood between him and escape to his bedroom. The myriad of food stains stuck to his heavy black jumper drew his attention. In the flames of the kitchen stove, they shimmered like stars in the night sky.

Justin raised his head, careful to avoid making eye contact with his father and sister sitting opposite or Victoria Small – his Mam’s obnoxious friend – positioned at the head of the table. He gave a sideways glance to his Mam; he was there purely as a favour to her. Just a few more minutes of their torturous small talk.

“Gosh there’s great heat,” Victoria Small said opening her top blouse button to reveal her non-existent neck.

“It’s powerful surely,” Justin’s Mam replied, sipping some tea.

“I suppose though a house like this is easy to heat.” Victoria gave a giggle. “You know sometimes I wish I had a small house myself.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

Chapter 1

Murder Verses Mind Reading


On another drizzly day in the West of Ireland, Mrs Sykes handed her seventeen year old son Justin a steaming bowl of rhubarb tart. Hardly a very exciting place to begin a story - you’d think? But you’d be mistaken, because in the few minutes it took that tart to go cold, two extraordinary events had happened. And whatever the chances were that Justin Sykes might have been expecting the first - the body being found – there’s no way he could have been expecting the second - [the mind reading.] Since it mentions mind reading in the chapter title, perhaps cut it here? Feels like it has more punch to leave the second thing hanging a bit.

Justin glanced down at the bubbling custard concealing an especially large portion of rhubarb tart. “Hurry up and go cold,” he silently petitioned. [This - his favourite dessert was all that now stood between him and escape to his bedroom. The myriad of food stains stuck to his heavy black jumper drew his attention. In the flames of the kitchen stove, they shimmered like stars in the night sky.] I'm a little confused by this section. Why does he want the tart to go cold? I'm not sure what the temperature of the food or the stains on his shirt have to do with him leaving the table.

Justin raised his head, careful to avoid making eye contact with his father and sister sitting opposite or Victoria Small – his Mam’s obnoxious friend – positioned at the head of the table. He gave a sideways glance to his Mam; he was there purely as a favour to her. Just a few more minutes of their torturous small talk. Why is it important for readers to see this small talk?

“Gosh there’s great heat,” Victoria Small said opening her top blouse button to [reveal] struck me as an odd word, as it "reveals" something that's not there, which feels contradictory to me her non-existent neck.

“It’s powerful surely,” [Justin’s Mam] This pulls out of a limited POV some, as Justin would just call her "Mam" replied, sipping some tea.

“I suppose though a house like this is easy to heat.” Victoria gave a giggle. [“You know sometimes I wish I had a small house myself.”] I like how I'm not sure if this is sincere or an insult. Justin said she was obnoxious, so I feel like she just insulted the family in a "polite" way, which is fun.

The questions:

1. Do you think the book’s opening would hook readers?


There's an interesting voice, and the idea that a body is about to be found is intriguing, but there's nothing in this snippet to encourage me to read on (readers chime in here). If I didn't have that opening paragraph to tell me something was about to happen, I'd never know it. And since you say this omniscient narrator vanishes after that paragraph, I feel like it's there only to explain why readers should keep reading though a scene that doesn't have anything else going on. The interesting thing is that the voice in the opening paragraph is the strongest hook, so I don't want to suggest cutting it and creating more tension in the opening. You might consider using that voice and narrator for the entire novel.

As for what happens in the snippet, by the narrator's own admission it's just small talk he doesn't care about, so why should the reader care? I can see that Justin doesn't want to be there, but I don't know why, and I don't know where he'd rather be. I think the idea is interesting though, so I'd probably read on a little more to get to the mystery part. A little more from Justin to know why he doesn't want to be there (aside from he just doesn't like Victoria) could help draw readers in better. I can see there's something going on, just not what, and there aren't quite enough clues to make me curous about what's going on.

I think this one will rely heaving on personal taste. Readers who like a quirky voice and slower. literary style might be drawn in here, while those who prefer a faster, more plot-centric story might be put off. I encourage others to chime in here.

(Here's more on opening scenes)

2. Does the chapter heading work (trying to create foreboding)?

I like it, and knowing a body is going to be found was a strong hook for me in this.

3. Have I got the YA voice right?

It sounds more middle grade to me. The third-person narrator speaking directly to the reader is more common in the younger market, and this reminds me of books like The Name of This Book is Secret and The Mysterious Benedict Society. Both are mysteries, and have the same tone to them, and I can easily see readers who enjoyed those liking this opening and being interested by this story. I don't know if you can lower the ages to fit a middle grade market, but it might be something to consider since it fits so well there (based of course solely on this one snippet). Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is a YA with a similar tone, though it's first person, not third.

(Here's more on voice and beginnings)

4. Does the tone feel right for a murder mystery or is it too humorous / too light?

Murder mysteries have all kinds of tones, so it's really whatever fits the book and the market. This feels like a lighter book in tone, and if dire things are happening I get the sense that they'd be handled with the same almost Victorian flair. From this snippet, I expect the novel to be a bit genteel and non-gritty, even if it does get dark with the subject matter. It feels like it would keep more on the surface of the characters and plot and not delve into deep soul searching and angsty emotions--more reserved (which would work well with that third omniscient narrator, actually). If this assumption fits the rest of the novel, then you nailed the tone and set the right expectations. If not, then you might tweak it here to create the mood you want.

(Here's more on setting the tone in a scene)

5. Does my writing flow?

For the most part, yes. There were a few odd spots here and there, but I suspect it's a difference between American and British English.

6. Does my POV work (aside from the opening paragraph, trying to stick to third person limited)?

It feels like third person omniscient to me since it opens that way, and I don't see much internal thought from Justin here. I think the omniscient works for this, but the switch after the first paragraph might feel a little off for readers (Readers chime in here). If omniscient is used only in the first paragraph, why bother doing it? In only one spot it comes across like an infodump to explain why readers should keep reading, instead of being a narrator who will tell readers the tale and be their guide to this book.

If the opening paragraph is there solely to tease the idea of what comes next, that's a red flag that the scene itself isn't doing its job of enticing readers to read on. It's like saying "I know this scene is boring, but hang in there because the good stuff is coming." (I'm not saying the scene is boring, as I've only seen 280 words of it, just that starting in this fashion could indicate a problem in that area). You want the good stuff to show up right from the start.

(Here's more on omniscient POV)

7. I’d love to know if you think the overall plot works?

I like the idea and it's a classic murder mystery with a twist premise, but I don't see a plot yet so I can't say. It has solid potential--a murder to solve gives you lots of things to do, a protagonist going blind offers challenges in solving those problems, family issues provide both inner and outer conflict, dealing with the discovery he can read minds is rife with potential problems and moral conflicts. How all those things work together to illustrate this story will determine your plot. The strongest hook in all this for me is that Justin is going blind. Solving a murder mystery when your sight it failing is something I haven't seen before, and I love the twist on "other senses getting stronger" by him developing telepathy at this time.

(Here's more on the difference between premise and plot)

8. Do you think the plot / writing would appeal to agents?

I'm not an agent so I can't speak for them, but one thing I hear them say over and over is that they're looking for strong voices--especially in YA fiction. This has a strong voice. You'd have to research the agents you'd like to query and see who represents authors who write with this kind of style and tone, or who have mentioned liking this style. It has a literary vibe to it, so agents looking for literary YA/MG as well as mysteries could be good possibilities.

Overall, there's potential here, and I suspect it will come down to how much the agent/reader likes the blurb. If they're hooked by the story, and enjoy this narrative style, I can see readers settling in for the journey and reading on. If the blurb doesn't grab them, this feels like it starts a little slow to hook them as an opening on its own (readers chime in here). However, it wouldn't take much tweaking to add a greater sense of something about to happen to draw readers in. A line or two to heighten the anticipation of the body would probably do it.

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.

7 comments:

  1. Thanks very much Janice for your critique, it has given me lots to think about and work on and I look forward to hearing any thoughts your readers may have. Kind wishes, Andrew

    ReplyDelete
  2. The first paragraph intrigues me very much. I stumbled just a little bit through the rest of the sample. But after reading your notes, Janice, I think you've hit the nail on the head about how to remove the stumbling moments.

    Because of the chapter heading, I'm intrigued enough to read on :-)

    Thank you to the awesome writer who submitted this sample.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Angela, thanks for your encouraging feedback, I'll definitely work on those stumbling moments. Thanks again!

      Delete
  3. I think this story has potential. The "background" bit has me intrigued for sure! I think it would be a good idea to ditch the "mindreading" from the title and let it dangle at the end of the first paragraph--hello, hook! I'm far more interested in the mindreading than the murder, but that's just me. Thank you, author, for sending this in for critique; your bravery helps us all. And thank you to Janice, for sharing your knowledge.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment anon, I'll keep that in mind! Best wishes Andrew

      Delete
  4. It's very hard to judge the premise you mention based on these 250 words. So far there's no murder and there's no mind reading--mentioning them abstractly doesn't do much for me. I need to see why this these things matter to the protagonist through scenes.

    The idea of the opening scene is good (protagonist loves his dessert but doesn't want to be around the obnoxious lady). If the dialogue/interactions are entertaining then I'd wouldn't have any issue not encountering the plot for a little while. You don't need special qualities like the murder/mind reading to keep me reading for a bit if I enjoy the characters. So far, I'd read on.

    About the omniscient narrator: I'd say either go with it and give it a strong voice, making comments on the scene/characters (like you would do with internalization) or drop it entirely. I found it odd as a reader to encounter only a single paragraph like that. From what you said about "a journey of personal transformation" in the background, limited third throughout sounds more appropriate overall. You're better off using that important space to establish the protagonist as a character who is interesting enough to engage the reader (due to personality, not special qualities).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Peter, thanks for very helpful feedback. It has encouraged me to stick with third limited.
      Andrew

      Delete