Saturday, September 17

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This YA Opening Too Slow?

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: Three

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through October 8.

This week’s questions:

I'm worried that the opening that I've written is too slow. Does it give too much background info too fast? Is there enough happening here to keep a reader interested in the protagonist?

Market/Genre: Young Adult Fiction

Special note: We have a young writer today with a first novel, so please bear that in mind when commenting.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: This story is told from the perspective of the sixteen-year old protagonist, who lives in a "quarantine zone." There has been an outbreak of a deadly disease, forcing the military to block off roads and separate the citizens from the outside world to avoid having them contract the disease. The town has been sealed off since the protagonist was very young.

I took a look at the empty, metal can perched on the tree stump in front of me, settling it in my sights, right in the middle of the V-shaped notch of my slingshot. My methods for firing were just natural reflexes to me at this point. Breathe in, pull back, exhale, release. This can was dead to me.

Whack! The rubber tubing snapped forward, sending a small rock sailing toward the can. It struck with a satisfying pop as I watched the can jump from its spot on the tree stump and land softly in the grass behind it.

There wasn’t much room in the town of Mayberry for a creative person like me. Supplies were limited. It was rare to have pencils and paper to draw or write with. If you wanted to stay occupied here, you had to think outside the box. Even when you’re still kind of inside a box.

Mayberry, Pennsylvania exists in a state far gone from its former glory. Mayberry was formerly a quiet, small town in the northwestern corner of the state. People used to come here to hunt, fish, camp, and other things that they apparently thought were fun before the outbreak. Today, Mayberry was surrounded completely by a ten-foot tall chain link fence, topped with massive coils of razor wire. Every few hundred feet, an armed guard sat in a roofed tower that was a few feet higher than the fence. The guards were always found staring out into the forest beyond, watching for threats. No one was allowed in or out without special permission, and the only way in or out was a giant, barred steel gate.

But like I said, not very much to do here. So I had to get creative.

My Thoughts in Purple:

I [took a look] perhaps "aimed" to tighten at the empty, metal can perched on the tree stump in front of me, settling it in my sights, right in the middle of the V-shaped notch of my slingshot. [My methods for firing were just natural reflexes to me at this point.] Could cut to pick up the pace Breathe in, pull back, exhale, release. This can was dead to me.

Whack! The rubber tubing snapped forward, sending a small rock sailing toward the can. It struck with a satisfying pop as I watched the can jump from its spot on the tree stump and land softly in the grass behind it.

[There wasn’t much room in the town of Mayberry for a creative person like me. Supplies were limited. It was rare to have pencils and paper to draw or write with. If you wanted to stay occupied here, you had to think outside the box. Even when you’re still kind of inside a box.] This paragraph feels disconnected from what’s going on. I really like the, “think outside the box when you’re inside a box,” concept though.

Mayberry, Pennsylvania exists in a state far gone from its former glory. Mayberry was formerly a quiet, small town in the northwestern corner of the state. People used to come here to hunt, fish, camp, and other things that they apparently thought were fun before the outbreak. Today, Mayberry was surrounded completely by a ten-foot tall chain link fence, topped with massive coils of razor wire. Every few hundred feet, an armed guard sat in a roofed tower that was a few feet higher than the fence. The guards were always found staring out into the forest beyond, watching for threats. No one was allowed in or out without special permission, and the only way in or out was a giant, barred steel gate. This paragraph feels a little infodumpy.

But like I said, not very much to do here. [So I had to get creative.] This has an interesting “I did something” feel to it that makes me wonder if he’s about to reveal or do something against the rules

The questions:

1. Is the opening too slow? Is there enough happening here to keep a reader interested in the protagonist?

Yes and no. There’s an interesting setup here with small town life behind razor wire, and a nice mix of bored teenager trapped in basically a prison. But nothing is happened to draw readers in quite yet. That’s not necessarily a bad thing when the world and setting have clear conflict, but I’m not sure what the narrator’s “problem” is. He’s bored, but he also mentions art supplies and then the situation in a bit of a list-like way, so I’m not feeling part of his world just yet.

I think the bored teenager behind razor wire is intriguing enough on it’s own to work as a hook until something happens to start the story (I’m assuming it’s not long before the narrator discovers something—or very likely someone). The contrast between dangerous setting and boredom is interesting, and should work to make readers wonder why he lives like this and what’s going on (readers chime in here). Some of it they’ll get from the cover copy, but they’ll also want to see the world the narrator’s perspective.

I’d suggest adding a little more about what the narrator struggles with. Nothing to do seems to be the issue, and you might play that up more. The art supplies paragraph feels a little stuck in, so perhaps save that until it’s relevant, or maybe show him finding something he can use as “art supplies” and store away. Such as a burn stick, or berries, or whatever he might be able to make paint out of.

(Here’s more on writing the opening scene)

2. Does it give too much background info too fast?

I think the amount of background is fine, but it’s the infodump paragraph that’s the problem. You have a great situation to show most of that information by how the narrator interacts with his world. He might wander close to the fence, maybe grabs rocks near it, wave at one of the guards, etc. Maybe he fires rocks at an old quarantine sign.

(Here’s more on the difference between good setup and bad setup)

Look for ways to show all of those worldbuilding details in action. Your narrator is out and about anyway, so you have plenty of opportunities to show the world without having to explain it. I think slowing down and letting the world unfold will get all of these elements in more smoothly while drawing readers into the world. You’d also let them get to know the narrator better as well.

(Here’s more on backgrounding your world)

Overall, I think what you have can work with some tweaking. Try showing the world through the narrator’s eyes, and letting sense of danger mix with a teen’s sense of boredom. It’s different, and he’d see his world very differently than readers would. It’s the classic “teen longs for a more exciting life outside his dull hometown,” but in this instance, that hometown isn’t so boring since it’s a quarantine zone. Many people would consider where he lives to be exciting and dangerous. There’s a lot there to play with to evoke some poignant emotions.

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 (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

4 comments:

  1. Great start..keep going:) My first thought was, how does a chain-link fence and barbed wire contain a disease? It helps keep people in or out, but if it's airborne, the fence wouldn't necessarily help. Is the town way out in the country, in the middle of nowhere? Maybe a bit more description of its remote location. Also, keep in mind the tv shows "Under the Dome" and "Wayward Pines", so you don't get too close to those scenarios:) But awesome start.

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  2. I liked this up until the Mayberry paragraph. This is the point where something has to happen and quick. Like after he shoots, is there a person watching? Is there something hidden that shooting the can exposed? Suspense and conflict need to appear after that shot. Very nice writing and good luck with your story.

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  3. Congratulations on your first novel! :) I agree that the stuff about Mayberry is infodumping. My guess is those are things you needed to spell out for yourself so you'd have a strong sense of place. Now that you know where you are, you can easily edit out the infodump. Maybe the main character glances up at the barb-wire and thinks about how they'd rather be drawing but the don't have a pencil, paper is scarce, and there's nothing to draw here anyway. But at least they're becoming a crack shot with the sling. (I like your line `that can was dead to me'. I thought it gave your character some nice voice.) It sounds like you have an interesting world. :) Oh, and my example of how I'd change it is just that -how I personally would change it. Please don't feel like I'm telling you what to write. You are the one who knows the character best.

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  4. Wonderful voice here along with some well-timed, melancholy humor. There's a listless, hopeless feel that conflicts with a protagonist who's hinting they can rise above it. I agree, the (now infamous) Mayberry paragraph is an info dump that stops the story dead in its tracks. I further agree with Janice: sprinkle that information in via action and/or dialog.

    It might be I differ with most everyone about the "box" paragraph. I think it suffers because of the paragraph that follows. Those two last lines felt like a great lead-in to—something. Announcing the stakes? A bombshell of some kind? Something big (instead, Mayberry follows). For an instant my breath caught expecting, "That's why I..."

    You're skillfully building to a great reveal (or, it seems like you are). Don't backtrack. Don't wait longer. You don't have to put it all out there, but here's where you should toss something out to hook the reader. You already have them swimming near. Good job.

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