Saturday, September 12

Real Life Diagnostics: Does the YA Supernatural Romance 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: Five 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through October 17.

This week’s questions:

1. Is this an effective hook?

2. Do you think the detailed chapter headings work?

3. What opportunities might I be missing in my hook? 


Market/Genre: YA Supernatural Romance

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: After sixteen-year-old Matthew crashes his new car on his birthday, leaving his girlfriend Di in a coma, he becomes suicidally obsessed with her memory, his parents threaten to move to force him to start anew, Di’s best friend falls for him, and Di’s spirit refuses to leave her dying body until somehow, supernaturally, she can help Matthew to quit holding on and learn to let go.

1
After.
Junior Year
August 27, 2:12 am
MATTHEW: HOLD ON

"Hold on, Di... hold on..."

I couldn’t think of anything else, so I just kept repeating it.


2
After.
Junior Year
August 27, 2:12 am
DI: WAITING TO BE WRITTEN

Hold on, hold on.
It was like a looping vocal sample for some song waiting to be written.

I thought about what he was saying. I thought about his fifteenth birthday, sophomore year, when I made the first real move…

3
Before.
Freshman Year
August 28, 9:49 am
MATTHEW: AFTER MATH

After math, Geometry, on the third day of freshman year, two days after my fourteenth birthday, when I was starting to feel different about my body and basically everything, I looked for Di in the hallway where I knew our paths should cross.

The Homecoming dance at our school was a huge deal, almost like a wedding, and our Homecoming games were always scheduled early enough in the year (on the second Saturday in September), that during summer break lots of guys were already asking girls if they’d go with them. Guys like me who waited till school started were in serious danger of having to ask girls they didn’t like, or go stag, or not go.

This was going to be my first dance ever. For me, dancing in front of people seemed about as smart as inviting a crowd to watch me slowly die. That’s why I’d waited so long to get around to asking. But finally I worked up the nerve.

Today was the day.

My Thoughts in Purple:

1
After.
Junior Year
August 27, 2:12 am
MATTHEW: HOLD ON

"Hold on, Di... hold on..."

I couldn’t think of anything else, so I just kept repeating it. This is short, but rather powerful, so it works.

2
After.
Junior Year
August 27, 2:12 am
DI: WAITING TO BE WRITTEN

Hold on, hold on. It was like a looping vocal sample for some song waiting to be written.

[I thought about what he was saying. I thought about his fifteenth birthday, sophomore year, when I made the first real move…] This feels more like a setup for a retrospective novel than anything to entice me to read on. I don’t get a sense of Di or any emotion like I did with Matthew’s chapter above. The “waiting to be written” is also a little confusing, and I’m not sure if it’s just a turn of phrase or if it’s a hint that she’s actually waiting to be reborn or something.

3
Before.
[Freshman Year] This hit me as odd since she says she thought about their sophomore year, then it jumps backs to freshman
August 28, 9:49 am
MATTHEW: AFTER MATH

[After math, Geometry] Cute, on the third day of freshman year, two days after my fourteenth birthday, [when I was starting to feel different about my body and basically everything] This doesn’t feel YA too me. Feels like an older guy remembering his past, I looked for Di in the hallway where I knew our paths should cross.

The Homecoming dance at our school was a huge deal, [almost like a wedding] This too. I don’t picture a lot of 13/14 year old guys thinking about weddings, and our Homecoming games were always scheduled early enough in the year (on the second Saturday in September), that during summer break lots of guys were already asking girls if they’d go with them. Guys like me who waited till school started were in serious danger of having to ask girls they didn’t like, or go stag, or not go.

This was going to be my first dance ever. For me, dancing in front of people seemed about as smart as [inviting a crowd to watch me slowly die] nice. That’s why I’d waited so long to get around to asking. But finally I worked up the nerve.

Today was the day.

The questions:

1. Is this an effective hook?


Yes and no. It’s not grabbing me yet, but I’d probably give it another page or two to see if it did (readers chime in). It has a few nice lines that made me chuckle, and the premise reminds me of If I Stay by Gayle Foreman (which I enjoyed).

What worked for me was Matthew’s opening chapter, his obvious affection for Di, and his shyness over how to approach her. He wants to ask her to the dance, but he’s scared. Going to the dance is terrifying for him, but I get the sense he’d do it for the chance to spend time with Di. That’s sweet, and romantic, and very endearing.

What didn’t work for me was Di’s chapter. Matthew’s first chapter packs a lot of emotion and fear into a few words. I get a strong sense of his hopelessness over not knowing what to do. Di’s chapter feels empty emotionally, and a bit out of place. She sets up a flashback to sophomore year, yet the next chapter is freshman year, so it feels incongruous. Perhaps her next chapter is that flashback, but it’s a little jarring as is.

I’d suggest adding that emotional punch to Di’s chapter like you did with the first chapter. Where is she? How is she feeling? These two mini-chapters are great opportunities to set an emotional tone for the book. I feel Matthew’s hopelessness, so what do you want me to feel regarding Di? From the logline, it looks like Di is the protagonist, since she’s the one trying to help Matthew let go. So perhaps her first mini-chapter mirrors Matthew’s (and your title) and she’s about letting go.

(Here’s more on emotional and intellectual hooks)

2. Do you think the detailed chapter headings work?

Yes and no. I thought the math one was funny, but the other two were basically the same words that are in the chapter, so it felt repetitive (especially coming so quickly after one another). I think they can work if they bring something new or evocative to the chapter, like the after math one. That was creative and a great play on words that sets a lighter moment in a dark tone.

Perhaps think about what you want those titles to do for the story. If they can do more than just help readers keep track of whose POV it is, you can probably get them to work nicely. If they’re just literary road signs, they might not work as well.

3. What opportunities might I be missing in my hook?

This one’s tough, because in a book like this, there’s no real “thing” to do to solve the problem like there is in say, a mystery or thriller. Di is trying to help Matthew, but I’m not yet sure how that will work from a plotting standpoint. I don’t mind reading on to see what “getting him to let go” turns into (possibly something with the best friend?), but there’s no strong goal pulling me into the tale yet. I assume Matthew wants to ask Di to the dance, but it’s not actually stated, and she mentions she made the first real move. So Matthew could very well be planning to ask someone else out and I’m guessing wrong.

I think to hook readers, they’ll need to really like Matthew and/or Di and want to spend time with them even if nothing is “going on” in the traditional plotting sense. It’s a character journey, so if readers love the characters, they’ll stay with them. Voice will be key here, as well as creating a sense of curiosity and a desire to see what Matthew and Di do.

I have one tough question though: Do you need to flash back? The core conflict stated in the logline is that Matthew is getting dangerously obsessed and Di is trying to save him. There’s plenty of great conflict and emotional impact there. I don’t understand why readers need to jump back several years to see how they met and and what happened earlier. I’m much more interesting in seeing how Matthew is handling the aftermath of the accident, and what Di does from her coma to help him.

(Here’s more on flashbacks)

If the growth of the relationship is important, then perhaps establish the current timeline first, and then use the flashbacks to underscore what Matthew’s is going through as he struggles with guilt and Di’s impending death. It’s impossible to tell from a few words, but based solely on what’s here, I’m wondering why the flashbacks are needed. It feels like all backstory. You might consider looking at this and asking where the story truly is—is is about how these two got together, or what happens after the accident? (and for all I know the flashbacks stop in one more chapter and the story does continue in the present)

Overall, I suspect the focus of the story might be a little off. You have a delightful title that works so well with your idea—holding on versus letting go. Matthew trying to hold on while Di tries to let go (for both him and her) is a wonderful thematic mirror to play with. That intrigues me and I’d read more of that story. Reading the backstory about how these two got together and what led to the accident doesn’t hold much interest for me because it’s already happened and it’s over. Is this the story of Matthew and Di’s romance, or what happens after the accident? The logline suggest the latter, so the more focus is on that, the more this will probably hook readers.

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.

4 comments:

  1. I thought there was too much info in the chapter headings. I started to think about the way the novel was written as opposed to getting lost in the story. For example, Ms Hardy remarked that the opening lines were powerful, but when I read them I was too distracted to connect with the character. I was thinking, "I see why this chapter is titled 'Hold On'—that's two out of the three sentences in it!"

    I was also distracted by the time-stamps. This isn't a mystery/thriller, so why would we need to know the time down to the minute? It felt like unnecessary info and my eyes glazed over it. By chapter three I had gotten in a pattern of glazing over the chapter headings and the After Math joke flew over my head.

    I didn't feel like I was beginning to connect with the characters until the last couple of paragraphs. I could start to feel Matthew's shyness. I might read on because of that, but if we switch out of Matthew's POV too soon, or quickly start a new chapter, I may give up.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I like the use of 'before' and 'after' in the chapter headings, but as a Brit I'm hazy on the order of the years in the US school system. I think it goes Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior, but I'm not sure. Since you have the timestamps anyway I think it would be helpful to include the year as well to give people who don't know which year is which a sense of how far apart the events are.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Like Hannah, I'm British, and am only aware of the US high school system because our books and other media rarely, if ever, get localised. We regularly have to deal with terms we've never heard of, and no explanation is even provided, and have become rather accustomed to understanding through context alone.

    The "after math" joke went over my head, since we (and I'm not certain, believe most other English speaking countries) say "maths" in plural since it's short for "mathematics." At first I thought it was an error, i.e. did the author mean "aftermath" but mistakenly put a space in there?

    ReplyDelete
  4. I feel the chapter headings pull the reader out of the story too much. Very distracting.
    But instead of just having chapter one you could Title your chapters. You could use the date, location, character name, time or simply call it after math, hold on, so on and so forth. But do be careful that the chapter name doesn't give away too much of what's about to happen. Too much foreshadowing can kill tension. My personal thoughts would to be simply write it as chapter one with the date as a subtitle to direct timeline placing. Your hook from Mathew's POV was very well written, and I commend you for pulling of a two sentence chapter. Very well done. Just be aware that repeating certain writing prose like that too often will take away from the impact.
    Also as you are obviously wanting to writet this as a duel POV book be careful with timeline jumping too often. It can get really confusing really quickly.
    ow about this for thought?
    Have all of Mathew's POV done after the accident, and have Di's from before. That way we get past and present tense events with a clear idea of which character's POV we're in. Multiple POV is best done if you can pull it off without having to state at the title which character it is. This comes down to voice. Mathew is obviously distraught, so first person, present tense would suit him perfectly as the reader will actively feel his emotions as he's feeling them. Di's could be first person, past tense, giving us a sense of nostalgia, longing and regret that she isn't alive anymore.
    I think your premise is really good but also beware of overloading with too many elements. The best friend that falls for Mathew would be an excellent side character, but I would refrain from using their POV. We don't need to know what she/or he is thinking as actions speak louder than words. That can be all conveyed through Mathew's POV which will also add to his overall story telling. Having his chapter be his depressed inner monologue all the time will end up killing the emotion, not adding to it.
    This is just an opinion of how I would address these issues as I've had similar issues early on in my WIP, but you're onto something good. Just remember the age old rule of less is more. :)

    ReplyDelete