Saturday, August 1

Real Life Diagnostics: Establishing World and Mystery in a YA Opening Scene

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: Five 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through September 5.

This week’s questions:

1.Does this work as an opening?

2.Do you start to get a sense of the protagonist's voice and of the relationship between the two boys?

3. Am I trying to establish too much (ghost, small people in a forest, their relationship, and the problem) for an effective beginning. I don't want to confuse the reader but I do want to start at an interesting point without having to explain everything.


Market/Genre: YA fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

The ghost was back. It coiled through the trees like a wisp of smoke. Lando gritted his teeth and refused to look. Ignore it and maybe a cold gust of wind would waft the creepy old thing away.

He shivered and tightened his grip on his spear. Layers of rabbit wool and his thick mouse-skin jacket kept him warm enough, but a chill ran down his spine all the same. He scanned the lattice of bare branches far overhead. Nothing there . . . maybe it was gone.

As usual, Ari didn’t see it. He pushed past Lando and forged ahead. The adults back at TreeHome, even Ari’s own father, said that the two boys should take turns in front. But Ari seemed to think that he should always be the one in the lead--just because he was a year older. Lando stopped to adjust the straps of his heavy pack.

“C’mon, Lando, keep up. Let’s get this grain home before dark.” Ari edged around a clump of withered ferns. Lando followed him. A beetle was lying on its back on a patch of half-frozen ground, its thin legs churning sluggishly. It was a big one, longer than his arm. Silly thing must have been fooled by the false spring. Last week’s sunshine had tempted it to emerge from its winter hidey-hole and now it was helpless and freezing.

“The ghost is following us again.” Lando flipped the beetle over and crouched down to watch it scuttle under the bark of a rotting log.

“You and your dumb ghost,” Ari said. He looked back over his shoulder. “And stop rescuing beetles. Watch for weasels or ravens, instead.”

“It’s real, Ari.”

Ari stopped, then turned around and glared at him from under his thick, black eyebrows. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

[The ghost was back.] Intriguing opening line It coiled through the trees like a wisp of smoke. Lando gritted his teeth and refused to look. Ignore it and maybe a cold gust of wind would waft the creepy old thing away.

He shivered and tightened his grip on his spear. Layers of rabbit wool and his thick mouse-skin jacket kept him warm enough, but a chill ran down his spine all the [same.] I wanted personal something from Lando here, a thought or reaction He scanned the lattice of bare branches far overhead. Nothing there . . . maybe it was gone.

As usual, Ari didn’t see it. He pushed past Lando and forged ahead. [The adults back at TreeHome, even Ari’s own father, said that the two boys should take turns in front. But] This feels a little info-y, so perhaps rephrase more in Lando’s voice Ari seemed to think that he should always be the one in the lead--just because he was a year older. Lando stopped to adjust the straps of his heavy [pack.] This feels like a good potential spot for a thought aimed at Ari.

“C’mon, Lando, keep up. Let’s get this grain home before dark.” Any response to this? Lando’s been silent so far

Ari edged around a clump of withered ferns. Lando followed him. A beetle was lying on its back on a patch of half-frozen ground, its thin legs churning sluggishly. It was a big one, longer than his arm. Silly thing must have been fooled by the false spring. Last week’s sunshine had tempted it to emerge from its winter hidey-hole and now it was helpless and freezing. I like this since it helps show scale and character, but perhaps have this the reason Lando stops and Ari tells him they need to keep moving? It feels a little stuck in otherwise

“The ghost is following us again.” Why does he pick now to say something vs back when he first sees it? Lando flipped the beetle over and crouched down to watch it scuttle under the bark of a rotting log.

“You and your dumb ghost,” Ari said. He looked back over his shoulder. “And stop rescuing beetles. Watch for weasels or ravens, instead.”

“It’s real, Ari.”

Ari stopped, then turned around and glared at him from under his thick, black eyebrows. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.”

The questions:

1.Does this work as an opening?


Pretty close. I’m intrigued, and I’d read on a little more to see if it fully hooked me. What’s holding me back is a lack of urgency or sense that something is about to happen. The ghost is interesting (and I love the “was” back, as this suggests he’s seen it before), but I don’t feel that it’s a threat or problem to them yet, so there’s nothing at stake in the scene.

“What is the ghost?” is a good story question, but oddly not hooking me as much as I’d expect it too (readers chime in here, as this could be just me). A little more to create mystery or show a potential problem would probably draw me right in. How does Lando feel about the ghost? Is he scared? He shivers, but it could be due to the cold, not fear. Is he worried about the ghost and what it might do?

How Lando answers Ari’s question could fix this, though, so see how your beta readers feel.

(Here’s more on writing the opening scene)

2. Do you start to get a sense of the protagonist's voice and of the relationship between the two boys?

Yes. I like Lando, he seems quiet and contemplative, and annoyed by an older “friend” (I’m not sure if they’re actually friends or not, which is interesting and gives me something to wonder about and discover). I see he’s a good guy when he helps the beetle, and that makes me like him.

There was one section that felt a little info-y when he talks about TreeHome and the adults, but a little editing would put that right back in Lando’s voice. This might be a good place to mention any conflict or problems they’re facing (if it fits of course).

There were a few other places I thought might be good spots for internal thought from Lando, so perhaps add a little more from him to really show his character. I wanted to see some reactions from him over things Ari said to get a better feel for his personality. A few more thoughts would also give you an opportunity to raise the emotional level a bit which would help draw readers in.

(Here’s more on internalization and third person)

3. Am I trying to establish too much (ghost, small people in a forest, their relationship, and the problem) for an effective beginning. I don't want to confuse the reader but I do want to start at an interesting point without having to explain everything.

I don’t think so, though I’m not yet sure what the problem is (which is probably that “something” keeping me from being fully hooked). The ghost idea fits fine with them being out getting grain, their relationship is established as they interact, the sense of small people is coming through for me (readers chime in here, as I have read this before so I knew that going in). It’s all working together nicely.

What problem do they face? Nothing seems to be keeping them from anything. You might look for ways to slip that in so readers are clear about what they’re trying to do.

Good news is, I don’t think adding that will overload readers or be too much for the scene. What you want to establish all works wells together to layer the scene and offer multiple ways to convey setting, character, and plot. It’ll probably wind up being the glue that holds it all together and really piques reader curiosity.

(Here’s more on establishing your setting)

Overall, this is a strong revision and I think a few minor tweaks will get this where you want it to be. Just strengthen that missing sense of a problem/goal and this should hook readers nicely.

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.

12 comments:

  1. A couple of thoughts. First, thanks to submitter, and to Janice for hosting.

    I didn’t get the sense of small people at all, rather, I had the sense of large beetle. Preconceived notions, I think, but if that’s critical, you might want to play it up more.

    I agree with Janice that there’s little sense of a problem beyond the minor conflict between the boys, but I’d probably give the story a few more paragraphs before that was a major issue.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  2. I also didn't get the sense of small people from this. I think you could add a little more to the comment about weasels and ravens being a threat (because they are small). Maybe with internalization from Lando?
    I am intrigued and agree with Janice - a little more hook with a sense of danger and you have a nice opening.

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  3. From this scene only, I read the characters as regular 'kids' and the beetle as gigantic - which was fun for me. I did wonder about why weasels and ravens were a threat, but was open to any possibility. I also did a full stop at the mention of the mouse-skin jacket, thinking it would take a heckuva lotta mouse hides for a jacket...but I still didn't re-size the characters. I believe this is less the author's problem and more my own perceptive limitations (lazy brain).

    The relationship between these two characters is nicely defined, even gives me a sense of their ages (as relates to regular human tween/teens). There is also a good balance between fanciful scary things and 'real' scary things.

    I would read on because I like the characters and want to learn a bit more about them. My interest is held, but not hooked. However! Just like meeting different people, I don't mind getting to know a book before I'm thrown into something intense with it.

    I would suggest heightening the conflict about the ghost-seeing. If it's happened before, we assume these two friends/brothers/cousins have this belief/disbelief established as a point of contention between them. This focal point can be used to sharpen their exchange and define the relationship through that conflict.

    I consider this a very good draft and can see that the author is capable of producing engaging material. It may be that their pencil just needs to be a bit more pointed in this scene. Even the blood-letting in a tiny pinprick of conflict can illicit strong reader reaction and emotion.

    Good luck and thank you for standing on the ledge.

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  4. I had the opposite reaction about their being small: I didn't quite notice that they were in the introduction, and then I stumbled over "mouse-skin jacket." That's a clever point, but it may not be a good pick for your first hint about their size-- it's not as conspicuous or clear as is being worried about ravens or seeing arm-sized beetles, and yet readers who do notice it may stop cold and think it's an error (or a typo for "moose" skin). But all of that applies mostly to venues like this, where the reader hasn't already seen a cover and the rest to shown the premise.

    I agree, the sense of purpose is a bit light here-- especially because we expect a "ghost" to be dangerous or a sign of something important, and this one is refusing to be so far. (Though it does do a lot to adjust the relationship between the boys.) If the ghost isn't the immediate issue, could you work in more hints about other dangers of their march, or what makes it urgent that they get through?

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  5. Same here as Maria, the beetle was huge in my mind and the mouse-skin stopped me as I envisioned many a mouse being sacrificed for a coat! Even though these things threw me I still loved the tone of it and the ghost and Lando, especially when he helps the beetle (total save the cat moment :) and I'd definitely read on.

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  6. Maybe if you put Ari calling for Lando to keep up as Ari is pushing ahead, that would be a trigger for Lando to think irritably about how the adults in Treehome want them to share the lead, but Ari just doesn't seem to get it.

    I really love this opening, but I'm partial to stories about tiny people. :) I, too, didn't realize that they WERE tiny people until the beetle (and then I got it, because Tiny People!) but Treehome was a clue. Maybe if you emphasized the massive, towering height of the trees when Lando looks up at the branches, and bring out the danger of crows and weasels a little more?

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  7. I would read on. Love that the ghost had been seen before and that only Lando could see it. The characters miniature size evaded me, as well. I too calculated the number of mice bodies to make a coat. The only way I knew their size was to revisit the author's question.

    Perhaps if the boys were shown with a recognizable PLANT towering over them. Trees tower over the tallest regular-sized people, but if the boys were half the height of a dandelion or smaller, we would know immediately. Mention the mouse-skin coat AFTER the relative 'dandelion' size.

    Very nice writing. It does sound more like a middle-grade read (age ten to twelve)

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  8. Thanks Janice for your valuable advice. It really got me thinking about those last tweaks to get this to read better.

    Also, thanks to all my fellow writers. Your input showed me that I simply MUST establish the size of the boys right at the beginning. I have revised the opening paragraph to read:

    The ghost was back. It coiled through the pines like a wisp of smoke. Lando gritted his teeth and refused to look. He tightened his grip on his bow. It was good to be out foraging in the woods with Ari, but weasels and ravens were enough of a threat when you were no bigger than a stunted squirrel--so why did he have to be haunted by a creepy old ghost?

    I hope this will clearly establish the size of the characters so readers are not confused and pulled out of the story.

    Once again, thanks to all for taking the time to comment :)

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    Replies
    1. Better :) I like the sense of apprehension.

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  9. I love this! The whole idea has me captivated. I feel like you're getting through the idea of small people really well in a nuanced way with the details you're throwing in. 'Mouseskin' is early enough to establish that, but what makes mouseskin feel like a jolty 'ohh I get it!' moment for me is that you describe the ghost floating through the trees, and at that point I'm just picturing a normal sized person in the forest. I feel like some size comparison in this first paragraph would help, and then details like mouseskin and an arm sized beetle will slot in better. I can tell that you're doing a lot of worldbuilding for this story, and I love world building. I agree with Janice for your problem, maybe apart from 'Lando sees ghosts and no one believes him'. At this point, I already know this ghost is going to be a part of your conflict somehow, and it feels like the action is about to pick up very soon after this point, but that's just how it's reading to me.

    Overall, I really like it. The only thing I could point out constructive wise is more of just a pet peeve for me, but: 'grits his teeth' is a pretty tired phrase. There's a wealth of different ways that the human body shows anxiety or tension and I think you can find something more fresh that fits who Lando is better (because gritting teeth to me always comes off as super masculine/aggressive and Lando seems like a pretty gentle soul.)
    You should put me on a mailer list if you plan on releasing whatever this is! I really, really like it!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks so much, Jason. I really appreciate you comments. You are right about Lando being a gentle soul but he does have an explosive temper when pushed to a certain point
      I always think of gritting teeth as a way of putting up with something unpleasant or for holding back words that you really want to say but know you shouldn't. Hey--maybe I've been gritting my teeth at the wrong time for all these years :)
      I would love to put you on a mailing list. I do hope to get this published and I am hoping to finish revisions by this fall/winter at the latest.
      One thing I am also doing is a series of illustrations about the TreeHome world (I'm more of an artist than a writer, actually). I hope to put these up on a website or blog this winter. If you like I will send you the relevant details when I get this ready. Add me on Linkedin or Google+

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  10. I had a hard time understanding why the protagonist feels the way he does about his situation. I get the sense that he's seen this ghost before, but it's nothing remarkable to him. It's not scary or dangerous. He seems annoyed that his friend doesn't believe him, but that's it.

    You have a situation with elements that could be eerie, or scary, or tense, but the tone isn't eerie or scary or tense. The tone is more "regular day" during which the two boys are walking home.

    So that's what I change: tone. Try to convey the protagonist's emotional state as something out of the ordinary for him,. For example, if he thinks something like "On any other day, I would've been annoyed that Ari insisted on leading. But the ghost was back. It was back and Ari still didn't believe me."

    Good luck!

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