Saturday, July 2

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This YA Romance Opening Work?

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: Four 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through July 30.

This week’s questions:

Am I showing or telling how/what he thinks? What should I improve on? Does it make it obvious that he's completely in love with this girl? Does this opening work?


Market/Genre: YA Romance

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Let me tell you what me being pretty means. It means me having my gorgeous and yet feminine face. Me having some fancy make up on that face. Me being 5’10” and under 120 pounds. Me wearing my band shirts and my skinny jeans and my boots and my bracelets and my lip ring and my other things I wear. I am prettier than all the girls at my school except one. This one exception is my bestie, Alisa Rafael Manhattan.

God I swear, Alisa is the most beautiful girl in the world. Not only does she got looks, but her personality is amazing. She is so fucking awesome and funny and amazing and oh my god is she perfect. I’d kill for her to kiss me just once, but she’s a lesbian and I’m just her guy friend, Tony Lynn Schaeffer.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Let me tell you what me being pretty means. It means me having my gorgeous and yet feminine face. Me having some fancy make up on that face. Me being 5’10” and under 120 pounds. Me wearing my band shirts and my skinny jeans and my boots and my bracelets and my lip ring and my other things I wear. I am prettier than all the girls at my school except one. This one exception is my bestie, Alisa Rafael Manhattan. Since this is first person, you don’t need to say “me” so often. I’d suggest changing the first “me being pretty” to “being a pretty guy” or the like, so it's clear who the narrator is.

God I swear, Alisa is the most beautiful girl in the world. Not only does she got looks, but her personality is amazing. She is so fucking awesome and funny and amazing and oh my god is she perfect. I’d kill for her to kiss me just once, but she’s a lesbian and I’m just [her guy friend, Tony Lynn Schaeffer.] I had no idea the narrator was a guy until the end, so it really threw me

The questions:

1. Am I showing or telling how/what he thinks?

Showing. I do hear his voice, though I didn’t realize he was a guy until the end. Because of that, I read the entire thing in a different light and was wondering why this very vain girl was spending so much time describing herself, which actually felt infodumpy because of that.

(Here’s more on showing and telling in internalization)

2. What should I improve on?

I’d suggest clarifying that it’s a guy from the start. A guy lamenting over the fact that he’s “pretty” is different than a girl conceitedly describing herself.

I’d also elaborate on what being a pretty guy means to him and why this is the first thing readers need to know about this character. I like the idea behind it—a pretty guy hanging out with a lesbian probably encounters some interesting situations—but it doesn’t appear to matter to the story right now.

Since so much focus in put on his description, I wanted to know why he was bringing this up. From a reader’s perspective, so what if he’s pretty? The opening paragraph feels like an excuse to setup how pretty and awesome Alisa is. If you cut the first paragraph, the second one still works. Neither of these paragraphs needs the other, so they feel disconnected.

I almost feel as though there are two competing conflicts here: a guy in love with a girl he can’t win, and a guy dealing with being too pretty. Both have merit, but the jump in concepts is a red flag for me that this book might be trying to do two different things (and I could be wrong here, this is just a gut feeling based on 150 words). I’m sure both of these ideas can work together in a novel, but they’re fighting for attention in the opening.

What conflict and problem do you want to start this book with? What is the problem that will lead to the inciting event and the main conflict of the story? You might consider starting with that and then adding the other problem where it make sense and has relevance to the scene.

(Here's more on writing solid opening scenes)

3. Does it make it obvious that he's completely in love with this girl?

Yes, he makes that very clear.

4. Does this opening work?

This a good example on a book that would benefit from reading the cover copy. There’s a strong voice here, and some interesting concepts to play with (the “pretty guy” one intrigues me, the “in love with a lesbian” less so since it’s been done more often), but I’m not connecting with the character or story yet (readers chime in here). The main conflict is that he loves a girl he can’t win, so there’s no mystery on how that will unfold to draw me in. She’s gay, so there’s no getting around that fact.

(Here’s more on using story questions to draw readers in)

This is also less than a full page, so it really hasn’t had a lot of time to hook me. If the cover copy offered an intriguing story, I might read on, but the opening itself does not.

I’d suggest playing more with the pretty guy and what he’s facing idea (if that indeed is a conflict and affects the story). If I saw an interesting problem and something for him to do I would probably read on to see where it was going.

Overall, there’s an interesting voice here, some intriguing concepts, but I suspect it’s trying to do too much in two paragraphs and not giving readers enough to wonder about to draw them in. Slowing down a little might be a good idea and allow you to drop in a few story questions to hook your 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.

5 comments:

  1. "...having my gorgeous and yet feminine face."

    This bit is what triggered the question: why would a woman/girl further define her face as feminine? The repeated use of 'me' actually reminded me of a guy, as I've heard the use before--a kind of weird third-person approach where 'me' replaces the guy's name. "me with my big muscles, me with my wavy hair and white teeth, etc"

    The 2nd paragraph could be the gush of a girl or a guy, so that was fun.

    But then came the declarations, and giving his own name (all 3 no less), and I literally shut off like a light.

    I would have willingly followed the direction of the first paragraph, would have enjoyed being led through a few more paragraphs that sketched out the eventual romantic conflict, but to just have it dumped in --- I would have, unfortunately, clicked away to a new book.

    I agree with Janice that there are two very different things going on, and I was ready to explore the struggle of a guy who was 'too pretty'and what that might mean to his life. I would be interested in seeing what his perspective was, what conflicts he encountered and how he handled them. If the fabulous Alisa has actually become his 'protector/deflector' that would be engaging. If there are unresolved sexuality or identity issues, I would be interested.

    This story appears to have the potential for taking readers on a journey that might be very new or very enlightening or, at the least, very intriguing. Slow down, show us who this guy is, let us get settled next to him as he tells his tale, eh?

    I do like the voice -- a lot.

    Good luck and thanks so much for allowing others to read your work and comment.

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  2. This is an interesting start. I disagree with Janice's suggestion to ID this as a male from the get-go. It's revealed in the second paragraph, so while it's jarring, I don't think it's enough to lose the average reader (YMMV, of course).


    I'd suggest two tweaks:

    1)Let me tell you what me being "pretty" means.
    When I picture this scene in my head, I picture the narrator making air quotes around pretty. It's adds a little voice, and it helps hint towards the narrator being male.

    2) I'm just her guy friend, [pet name].
    Surely, if they're besties, she has a pet name for him. At the very least, I doubt she calls him "Tony Lynn Schaeffer" all the time. The sentence as-is has a CW feel to it (you know how nearly all their shows open with "My name is [protagonist], and I'm [profession][backstory].")

    I'd download a sample and read on.

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  3. I would swap the paragraphs around and open with "God, I swear..." then 'Let me tell you' The characters are clear then.

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  4. "I’d suggest clarifying that it’s a guy from the start." -No need to do this in my opinion. Sometimes surprises are nice. Sometimes surprises challenge us. For example, below:

    A guy lamenting over the fact that he’s “pretty” is different than a girl conceitedly describing herself." - Ey? Depends entirely on what type of 'guy' this is and how he sees himself. What goes on in our minds doesn't have to adhere to any gender rules what-so-ever, and what Tony thinks may not necessarily be what he says out loud.

    The voice sounds great and the set up has me asking a lot of questions. I agree with Maria; it sounds like this story has the potential to take the reader somewhere new. I can't say it's snagged my interest enough, but the voice alone would keep me reading on for a page or two more to see what's on offer!

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