Saturday, March 26

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This YA Romance Opening Intrigue You to Read More?

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: Does this opening of YA romance intrigue you to read more?


Market/Genre: YA Romance

On to the diagnosis…


Original text:


Background: The story is set in London on July, 1973. The protagonists are two sixteen years old, one a Suedehead boy and the other a Hippie girl and the story centers around them and the nine days they spent together.

Day One

The day I first met Summer, I got arrested for initiating into a fight with the Hippies, because I was one of their arch enemies, the Suedeheads, and they were making graffiti of their slogans like ‘Make Love, Not War’ and 'Flower Power' in our Bromley territory.

Summer was also a Hippie, but she wasn't one of them. That day, it was raining, it was 3:45pm and one by one, all my six friends got bail and left. I sat inside the cell, my left knuckle bandaged for punching a Hippie, watching my friends leave and then the clock tick.

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

The thought of the quote wasn’t unexpected. I’d been wondering about it for the past few days myself. Brooding was never my thing, but this one was bugging me a lot. And then I got released. While my friends needed their parents’ arrival to get a bail, I didn’t. Perks of having a Dad who works in the Scotland Yard as one of the Assistant Commissioners. One telephone call can set your sixteen years old rebellious, Suedehead son free.

To punish me, Dad didn't send me a ride. I stood by the pavement to get a cab, when a van ran past me and splashed dirty water. Before I could recover from the initial shock, it halted a few feet ahead, and backed up to me. A window rolled down and emanated out the Beatles' “…and I saw her standing there…”

It was Summer, sitting inside.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Day One


The day I first met Summer, I got arrested for initiating into a fight with the Hippies, because I was one of their arch enemies, the [Suedeheads] don’t know what this is, and they were making graffiti of their slogans like ‘Make Love, Not War’ and 'Flower Power' in our Bromley territory. The language overall in this paragraph is a little off (more below).

Summer was also a Hippie, [but she wasn't one of them.] Where was she? Watching the fight? That day, it was raining, it was 3:45pm and one by one, all my six friends got bail and left. I sat inside the cell, my left knuckle bandaged [for] from? punching a Hippie, watching my friends leave and then the clock tick. Awkward paragraph

[“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”] I thought this was actual dialogue, so it threw me when it wasn’t

The thought [of the quote] awkward wasn’t unexpected. I’d been wondering about it for the past few days myself. Why? This seems disconnected from the scene Brooding was never my thing, but this one was bugging me a lot. [And then I got released.] A little jarring While my friends needed their parents’ arrival to get a bail, I didn’t. Perks of having a Dad who works in the Scotland Yard as one of the Assistant Commissioners. One telephone call can set your sixteen years old rebellious, Suedehead son free.

[To punish me, Dad didn't send me a ride.] Wouldn’t letting him stay in jail overnight be more punishment? I stood by the [pavement] sidewalk? to get a cab, when a van ran past me and splashed dirty water. Before I could recover from the initial shock, it halted a few feet ahead, and backed up to me. A window rolled down and [emanated out] awkward the Beatles' “…and I saw her standing there…”

It was Summer, sitting inside.

The question:

1. Does this opening of YA romance intrigue you to read more?


Not yet (readers chime in here). There are some interesting aspects, and if the cover copy grabbed me I might be willing to give it a few more pages to see where it went, but there are some issues keeping me from reading on.

It reads as if English isn’t the writer’s first language (which may or may not be true, as the author didn’t mention anything). Words are a little off, so it feels awkward and a little jarring in spots. That makes it hard to lose myself in what’s going on. For example:

The day I first met Summer, I got arrested for initiating into a fight with the Hippies, because I was one of their arch enemies, the Suedeheads, and they were making graffiti of their slogans like ‘Make Love, Not War’ and 'Flower Power' in our Bromley territory.

“initiating into a fight with the Hippies” doesn’t make a lot of sense. Getting into a fight, starting a fight, fighting with, etc. would read more naturally.

“they were making graffiti of their slogans” is also off. I’m not sure if the word “tagging” existed back in 1973, but it fits here if it did. If not, a simple “spray painting Make Love, Not War in our territory” would get the same idea across.

“The thought of the quote” is another awkward phrase. Perhaps just the thought, or the quote came to me or the like.

I’d suggest finding one or two good beta readers to help you find these awkward spots. Had this read more smoothly, I would have given it a little longer to draw me in.

The other thing that kept me from reading on was the sense that the story hasn’t actually started yet. It forces on the fight, but not really as it’s all summarized backstory. And the fight doesn’t seem to matter at all except to provide some setting and setup. Summer is mentioned, but she wasn’t part of the fight and I don’t know how she fits in. The other friends weren’t mentioned until they were released, which was jarring as I’d thought the narrator had acted alone. I don’t know what any of this has to do with anything else going on.

The sequence of events are just disjointed enough that I’m having a tough time following what’s going on and what’s important to the story. It feels like it could all be summed up with, “I met Summer right after I got out of jail for beating up some Hippies.”

However, it has a nice Romeo and Juliet vibe with the love story between Hippie and Suedehead, and there is a sense that something is about to happen as Summer backs up to talk to the narrator. The setting itself it filled with inherent conflict, the tail end of the Flower Power Vietnam War Era. There’s a lot of potential places this could go.

I suspect this is not quite starting in the right place. If the fight means something (even if it’s only to show that he gets into trouble and this is something he needs to work on), then perhaps show the fight and him getting arrested. Make it part of the story so it helps show his character and give a sense of the setting and world and how he interacts with that world.

(Here’s more on determining if you’re starting in the right place)

If the fight isn’t a big deal and it’s only the trigger to get Summer and him together, then perhaps start with her approaching him in the van. It might be more interesting if the details of the fight come out as she asks him questions about it (such as she asks, “so why’d you beat up those Hippies?” or the like). Though be wary of starting too late here and leaving readers struggling to keep up. It can be tough to find the right balance between starting with the action and not giving enough clues to keep up with that action.

(Here’s more on the trouble with starting with the action)

Overall, I think it’s more a matter of smoothing the text out and making things clearer than anything else. I suspect these events mean more than what is getting on the page, and once you show the deeper or larger meanings it’ll draw readers in better and work the way you want it to. As the author, you know what all this means and how it unfolds, so it all makes sense. But to a fresh reader who doesn't know anything about the story, there's not enough yet to understand what's going on. Fix that disconnect, and you'll probably have a good opening.

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.

6 comments:

  1. It's a little detail but Scotland Yard is never preceded by the word 'the.' I found that jarring.

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  2. This beginning has a lot of voice, so it has that going for it! Voice is a huge part of what sets one story apart from another when basically every story has been told before. The narrator's voice makes this story fresh in my opinion. I think pushing the voice too far might be the culprit behind a couple of the awkward spots Janice pointed out, though.

    I like the setting and the West Side Story vibe as well as the voice, and I really wish we could read the first "in-the-moment" scene. This first page feels more like the Spark Notes or summary of what happened so far rather than planting us directly into the first scene with the narrator. I like Janice's idea of starting with the fight, or maybe even the arrest as he and all his friends are being taken into custody. The interactions between the narrator and the police and the narrator and his friends in the cell have some great potential to show us more of his character.

    Thanks for sharing!

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  3. The writer might do well to read the work outloud. It may help with those awkward phrases.

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  4. I agree with what Janice said. It's very intriguing and I get the sense that the girl is watching him or maybe spying on him. It's mysterious and makes me curious. However, the English is off and the sequence of events is choppy. The author should focus on what's important in the story. Who is the girl? Why did he notice her? Why didn't he beat her like the others? Describe the first time their eyes meet because that's an important connection. And how did he learn her name? Who told him? Did he see her more than once? Where? What was she doing. Also, I'm concerned that a protagonist who beats other people to a pulp just for fun of it might not be liked and would sound more like a weirdo. How does he justify his acts?

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  5. Overall, while the work is in rough shape, it does have potential. I agree with Janice that this might not be the story's beginning. But on the whole, the mystery and romance elements are there, albeit brief.

    What I found most troubling: the author mentions 1973 and the hippy-dippy, flower-child movement here. I'm old enough to remember this year and this time, and this year wasn't so much about hippies as the mid-60s were. Or, depending on where this story takes place, the flower-child movement could've reached here when the U.S. pop culture was just leaving it and entering disco. in either event, research might be in order.

    As for the English being off, this either could be the author's voice showing English isn't his first language, or he's giving this choppiness to the character. In one line--"Brooding wasn't my thing, but this was bugging me a lot. And then I got released."-- "And then I got released" in and of itself isn't wrong, as kid use the word got in their language and speak all the time. But in context, "I got released" from the brooding, while grammatically it's not incorrect, in context, he's indicating freedom from the sensations or how one broods, and then, rendering it a possible wrong choice of words. On the third hand, again, it could be he's lending his broken use of the English language as a new flavor in which this IS his voice, and this IS how he wants the character to speak. For that, I'm offering the benefit of the doubt.

    Finally, Author: I'm familiar with graffiti and those who do this type of street art. Janice is right here, too: I don't believe the term "tagging" was around or urban art in 1973, but double check this. Graffiti's been a world phenom long before big cities in America found its architecture decorated with it, and those familiar with this urban aspect as a reader might call you on this.

    Good start. Lots of polish will make this work.

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  6. Pavement is right for the language of the UK, as set in London; sidewalk feels very American so wouldn't fit. Like one of the above commentors, I love the voice :)

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