Saturday, November 7

Real Life Diagnostics: Diagnosing a Story Idea

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: Zero

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…

Original text:

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

The question:

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.

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book 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! 

Janice 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.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound
 

4 comments:

  1. Thanks, Janice, for this fun opportunity!

    I had entered a comment, then spazzed out and deleted it. Will try again.

    My thoughts as I read:

    Why is the father an EX-cop?
    Was it due to him being abusive with suspects? What does he do now for money? If he wasn't dishonorably discharged, was he wounded and lives on disability? The EX-cop part jumped out at me.

    My assumption is: older brother, stronger physically. But, is he? Perhaps he's the intellectual, sensitive one of the pair. Perhaps the sister, though younger, is actually stronger, more physical - an action person - and has assumed the role of 'protector' easily.

    Where is the mom? What is her story? Dead? Left the family? Is her status a deciding factor on the EX in ex-cop? How long has she been gone?

    The journey is the story, to me, so it can have a driving force with a vague goal, like the uncle. We don't know if he's the father's brother, but if he is, the kids might think (as kids do) that the brother might be just like dad--abusive.

    They need that vague goal, which the kids could hesitate pursuing in fear of uncle being like dad.

    Cops are a close-knit society. It would be odd if the kids didn't know any other cops personally -- unless the dad's career was very short. Maybe the other cop contacts in their life were bad and further cemented their view of running without police contact.

    This made me wonder about if there was a 'good' cop somewhere in the story. One that knew of the father's explosive issues, knew there were kids, knew the mom was gone, knew the story of EX. This could be a saviour character who becomes involved sideways. Perhaps he is part of the investigation into the father's death?

    At some point, someone has to wonder what happened to the kids -- are they kidnapped, dead, or on the street?

    The shelter scene could be a pivotal point. Perhaps this 'good' cop is a volunteer there? Perhaps he sees that the sister is probably under 16, but 'covers' for them? Perhaps they find out he's a cop and run--even though he's been nice? This could create some conflict and maybe set up a string of run-ins with the cop character.

    The sister must be suffering after killing her father. This could result in all kinds of obstacles for the pair. Has she been violent before? Has she seen someone killed/shot before? Does she go silent and deep? Does she become erratic?

    I also wondered in what season and where the story takes place. The season can add drama, time limits, and even relief (survive winter to see spring). The location makes a huge difference, obviously.

    The obvious goal would be safety/sanctuary, short-term or long-term. So, the journey -- and the lessons learned on that journey -- becomes the real story.

    If this is a contemporary story, it might be supportive to research the current homeless culture. There are networks, territorial boundaries, threats specific to that life, etc that would directly affect the teen characters. Young girls have special problems and threats to their safety, and unique solutions.

    Could be a strong story about societal issues, police issues, abuse issues, etc. Will it be YA?

    Thanks again, Janice, for this fun, thoughtful posting. Loved all your direction - wish the best to the author!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ah, I remember this from Evil Editor!

    I second Maria D'Marco's idea of having the potential savior be the cop who is investigating the murder. It sets up a lot of conflict. Although I think it would be too much of a coincidence if he happened to work at the shelter too. It would be better if he were hunting them down over the course of the novel, always one step behind (maybe on purpose?).

    Other than that I agree with everything Ms Hardy and Ms D'Marco said. Good luck, author!

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  3. Good points. One thing in regard to season: with children, if it's during school, especially for 16 & 14 year olds, things WILL get more complicated than just the police. And if the children are severely hurt, no doubt they'll try to hide that at school. My suggestion is a teacher comes to help them. Maybe those miles away where uncle lives. I'm no cop, but thought they're trained to make sure firearms are locked away from children. I'd love to see how this story goes.
    Gale

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  4. My only comment is about the shelter taking the 16yo and not the 14yo. I'm inclined to think of it the other way around.
    This premise is good as it can really be fleshed out, just as the other commenters have proven. I really like the thought of the younger sister being the strong active one and the older brother being the intellectual one in need of physical protection. This makes me think, why was he abused to begin with? Why does his sister feel so protective of him to the point of killing their own father?
    Now this is just a thought, but for me this point is screaming for diversity. Perhaps the brother is handicapped physically or mentally - he could be deaf, blind or mute, be a paraplegic? Maybe he's bipolar or has an anxiety disorder? Perhaps he has a spectrum disorder like Autism or Asperger's? Perhaps it's his sexuality? Is he gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, asexual even? Or it could simply come down to his father being jealous of his youth, which can also happen?
    All I know is that I would WANT to know.

    ReplyDelete