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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.