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.
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This week’s question:
I wrote a query letter to see if I can pinpoint any potential problems in the novel before I even finish writing it. Thoughts?
Market/Genre: Young adult
Note: Doing something a little different this week. The focus won’t be on the writing, but on testing the story idea to see if it can carry a novel.
On to the diagnosis…
When Tony's father is savagely beating him, his younger sister Leslie is there to save him; she shoots their father to death. Tony realizes that the police will find the dead body and look for the shooter. In his rough neighborhood, everyone makes it their mission to avoid the cops at all cost. But his neighbor is an exception to that rule. She will most likely call the police.
To make matters worse, Tony’s father is an ex-cop himself. He always told Tony that other cops won’t believe him about the abuse, that the CPS will take him and his sister away, and they will be treated even more horribly. No way is Tony letting that happen, not when he and Les can go on the run. But how long can a sixteen-year-old boy and a fourteen-year-old girl survive with nowhere to go?
The siblings tough it out on the streets for a while until they figure out a way to get to their only living relative (that they know of): their uncle, who lives miles away. But they come across a nice couple who offers to take them to a shelter.
Reluctantly, Tony takes the offer, but immediately regrets it once he realizes the shelter only accepts children at age sixteen. He meets the age requirement, but Leslie doesn’t. Where will Leslie go? Will she become a ward of the State after all?
My Thoughts in Purple:
When Tony's father is savagely beating him, his younger sister Leslie is there to save him; she shoots their father to death. Tony realizes that the police will find the dead body and look for the shooter. In his rough neighborhood, everyone makes it their mission to avoid the cops at all cost. But his neighbor is an exception to that rule. She will most likely call the police. I see a solid problem and some high stakes to get the story going.
To make matters worse, Tony’s father is an ex-cop himself. [He always told Tony that other cops won’t believe him about the abuse, that the CPS will take him and his sister away, and they will be treated even more horribly.] Adds conflict and gives a reason why the kids can’t/won’t go to the cops for help No way is Tony letting that happen, not when he and Les can go on the run. But how long can a sixteen-year-old boy and a fourteen-year-old girl survive with nowhere to go? Nice escalation of stakes
The siblings tough it out on the streets for a while until they figure out a way to get to their only living relative[ (that they know of)] nice hint of mystery, is there something they don’t know about? : their uncle, who lives miles away. But they come across a nice couple who offers to take them to a shelter. These two feel backward to me. If they have a relative they can go to, why go to the shelter? Perhaps the shelter is first and then the uncle? Unless “miles away” is farther than it sounds, and getting there is prohibitive
Reluctantly, Tony takes the offer, but immediately regrets it once he realizes the shelter only accepts children at age sixteen. He meets the age requirement, but Leslie doesn’t. Where will Leslie go? Will she become a ward of the State after all? A nice problem, but I can already tell there’s no way Tony would leave her behind, so I know this isn’t the main issue of the book. It’s also easy for them to just lie and say she is. I’m not sure a shelter taking in runaways is going to ask for ID, which would likely scare away the people it wants to help. This feels like a problem, not a major conflict of the story
1. I wrote a query letter to see if I can pinpoint any potential problems in the novel before I even finish writing it. Thoughts?
This looks like a pretty good setup so far. There’s a solid problem to get the plot started. The kids are in serious trouble and the one group (the police) they’d go to for help won’t help them (or so they believe). They’re on their own with no one really to turn to, which will force themselves to rely on their wits to survive (readers chime in with your thoughts as well).
Structurally, the shooting feels like the inciting event, maybe the end of act one if something else triggers the beating that leads to the shooting. I can see the beginning being about what these kids go through as we get to know them and see how awful their situation is, which leads to the beating and shooting when it all changes. Deciding to run is a classic “leave the real world and cross into the unknown” turning point between the beginning and the middle.
(Here’s more on writing strong beginnings)
After that, I think things are a little blurry. I like that the uncle is far away, as that suggests a long journey to get help. The shelter is also a nice problem, forcing Tony to choose to help himself or his sister. But I can already see from this blurb that Tony would never abandon his sister, so that “Do I stay with her or not?” question doesn’t feel like enough to carry an entire novel. Which it might not be intended to do that, but the placement of that question at the end of the mock query suggests it’s the core conflict.
As is, I think this is a great premise and setup, but I can’t tell what the story is about. After these kids go on the run, what’s the point of the book? What is the end goal and the big story question readers will want to see answered?
(Here’s more on premise novels)
I’d suggest thinking about your ending (if you haven’t already) and adding another paragraph to this that shows how the kids’ problem is resolved. It doesn’t fit the standard query format, but that’s fine. This pre-query is for you, not an agent. Figure out what the climax is, even if it’s a little general at this point. That ought to give you a good sense of where the novel’s conflict lies.
I get the sense you have a great story about two kids in trouble on the run, dealing with a lot of bad situations and hard questions on the streets. But I’m not yet seeing where that idea will go. There’s no core conflict in this premise to drive the story past the setup. Because of that, I suspect this is a novel that will hit a wall around page 100 or so after the kids go on the run and the story doesn’t know where to go next.
The end goal might be getting to the uncle, but it doesn’t feel like it’s enough as is. They still have to deal with the father’s death, and the running, and all the associated issues. Even if they get to the uncle in a day or two, it doesn’t fix any of their problems. Plus, how do readers know (and the kids) that the uncle is a better idea? Why do they choose to go to him? What is their plan?
(Here’s more on the novel’s ending)
Try taking a step back and thinking about the single problem these two are trying to fix, and how being in this situation is going to help them resolve that problem. From this, it seems like their main problem is they were trapped in an abusive situation with no one to turn to for help. Things got out of hand and the father was killed, which made things worse, and then the kids reacted badly out of fear and ignorance and pushed it even further into the bad. How do they get their lives back? How do they escape the situation the abuse has pushed them into? How do they learn to trust those who can help them? These all feel like big potential questions for this idea.
It also feels like “being able to trust adults/authority” plays a large role, as the father had ties to the police that makes it impossible for the kids to go there for help. The conflict could come from this area if that’s a theme you want to explore. Kids who never had anyone but each other to rely on are now in the world alone and in big trouble. Where do they go? Who do they turn to? How do they deal with this and to what end?
(Here’s more on the core conflict)
It’s a little hard to tell, but is Tony the protagonist here? The question at the end makes me think so, so maybe him trying to be the responsible “Dad” and take care of his sister could provide some internal conflict for him. She saved him, and he now wants to save her back. You might try doing some character studies to flesh him out more to see where the goal and conflicts might come from.
(Here’s more on fleshing out your protagonist)
To help answer some of these questions and see what you plot turning points might be, try filling out a very basic outline. I’d suggest at least the three-point outline to start with, and then moving onto the three-act structure. Or choose whatever outline or structure format you enjoy working with. I think when you start figuring out where the story is going and what has to happen, the pieces will start falling into to place and this premise will turn into a plot.
(Here’s more on story structures)
Overall, I think this a great premise to explore, and the more you dig into what the core conflict is and what Tony and Leslie need to do to resolve that problem, the clearer the plot (and novel) will become. If you’re an outliner, I’d suggest writing a outline and working synopsis to work out the novel. If you’re a pantser, you might just dive in and see where this premise takes you. If you’re not sure which you are, I’d recommend a little outlining and adjust as needed. I think it’s easier to ignore your outline and write than to add structure after you have hundreds of pages written (my opinion of course).
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.
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the
teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own
dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those
with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels
include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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