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Saturday, November 5

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This YA Paranormal Fiction Opening Draw You in?

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 December 3.

This week’s questions:

Does starting with exposition work? Is there enough of a balance between dialogue and action? What kind of glimpse into their sibling relationship does this opening offer? How do the two characters contrast?

Market/Genre: YA Paranormal Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: This novel is told from the perspective of Gail, an anxiety-ridden teenager who is trying to salvage her identity. Before the story even begins, the flaw is set in her relationship with her half-brother (who is also her legal guardian). Andrew has been erasing her memories for over a decade, hiding from her all his mistakes along with the prophecy revolving around their family. Without knowing the extent of what he's done, she believes he has stunted her individual growth. The starting scene is meant to contrast Gail's concern for her missing portfolio, a remnant of their deceased mother, and Andrew's indifference to how she feels.

This music box was a child’s trinket orphaned in all regards. Abandoned by its purpose, it adopted a lullaby of mourning, as if each key chimed in memory of its creator. It was a gift given to the woman he loved, later given to their son, then given to me. When it became mine, it wasn’t a gift. It was my brother’s attempt to ditch his father’s ghost.

I’ve resurrected the music box from our horde of packed belongings, most of which, despite the decade past, remain ignored. My brother was quick to bury these boxes in the shed. Their contents – our mother’s spirit board, her pendulums, every item she’s ever touched – are now irrelevant. Of course I’d find the music box in here. Lost, he said. Lost like my portfolio?

“I’m done waiting.” Andrew wrestles the door free of snow. “You’ll catch pneumonia.”

Clutching the music box to my chest, I furrow deeper into the shed.

“I didn’t put your portfolio in here, I told you. Haven’t touched it,” he says, maneuvering around boxes as if they’re landmines. He freezes, his eyes fixated on my hands. “Is that...? Put it back. You can’t toy with our inheritance, Gail.”

Your inheritance,” I clarify.

“We don’t have time for this.” Andrew holds out an expecting hand, as if I’d return the music box. With a sigh, he rubs his temples. “Go inside. Get your stuff. It’s time to go.”

Outside, windchill whips by, slapping my face with some Wyoming hospitality. I squint past our barren property to the blurred horizon, rising and dipping over hills cloaked in white. Andrew nudges me towards the house. Pushy as ever.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[This music box was a child’s trinket orphaned in all regards. Abandoned by its purpose, it adopted a lullaby of mourning, as if each key chimed in memory of its creator. It was a gift given to the woman he loved, later given to their son,] this feels detached compared to the rest of the narrative, so it’s surprise to see it’s first person then given to me. [When it became mine, it wasn’t a gift. It was my brother’s attempt to ditch his father’s ghost.] Nice. “His” is a subtle detail to show their relationship

I’ve resurrected the music box from our horde of packed belongings, most of which, despite the decade past, remain ignored. [My brother was quick to bury these boxes in the shed.] I wanted a suggestion of when here, such as “after we moved” or “since Mom died” Their contents – our mother’s spirit board, her pendulums, every item she’s ever touched – are now irrelevant. Of course I’d find the music box in here. Lost, he said. Lost like my portfolio? This might be a good spot to show she's having trouble remembering things, or her frustration at Andrew

“I’m done waiting.” Andrew wrestles the door free of snow. “You’ll catch pneumonia.”

Clutching the music box to my chest, I furrow deeper into the shed.

“I didn’t put your portfolio in here, I told you. Haven’t touched it,” he says, maneuvering around boxes as if they’re landmines. He freezes, his eyes fixated on my hands. “Is that...? Put it back. You can’t toy with our inheritance, Gail.”

Your inheritance,” I clarify. I wanted a thought from her here

“We don’t have time for this.” Andrew holds out an expecting hand, as if I’d return the music box. I wanted something from her here as well, a sign of defiance, a thought With a sigh, he rubs his temples. “Go inside. Get your stuff. It’s time to go.”

Outside, [windchill] not sure this is the right word whips by, slapping my face with some Wyoming hospitality. I squint past our barren property to the blurred horizon, rising and dipping over hills cloaked in white. Andrew nudges me towards the house. Pushy as ever.

The questions:

1. Does starting with exposition work?

Not quite yet (readers chime in here). It’s a little too detached for me and feels disconnected from what Gail is doing. But if you added more of her voice it would probably flow more like her musing about her situation. Or maybe add a line internalization from her first, so that it’s clearer the exposition is her and not an unseen narrator.

I do like the last two lines though. Nice way to setup their relationship in just a few subtle words. I can already see the conflict between them.

(Here’s more on working with exposition)

2. Is there enough of a balance between dialogue and action?

Mostly, though I wanted a little more internal thought from Gail. I’m not yet getting a sense of how she feels here. I can tell she’s looking for her portfolio, but I don’t know why she’s looking or why she’s thinking about these things. I think their mother just died, but I’m not sure. One or two lines of internalization would be enough to better show her motivations and feelings.

You might focus those lines more on her worry about the portfolio to bring out that aspect more. She seems to care more about the music box than the portfolio, but your background note said that was the important element of this scene. Based just on this, I'd think the music box meant something more than what it probably does.

(Here’s more on balancing stage directions, action, dialogue, and internalization)

3. What kind of glimpse into their sibling relationship does this opening offer?

I can already tell there’s friction here, and that Andrew is the one in charge. It doesn’t look like there’s any love lost here, and there are hints of resentment (for example, “your inheritance”). But he does show a little concern with wanting her not to catch pneumonia, so it could mean he actually does care.

(Here's more on fleshing out your characters)

4. How do the two characters contrast?

Andrew seems a little tired, maybe frustrated. He comes across more parental than brotherly. Gail feels less formed right now and I’m not getting a solid picture of her yet. She seems resentful and a little antagonistic (she goes deeper into the shed even though Andrew is trying to get them to leave), but I don’t know why, so I can’t tell if she’s the problem or he is. Again, one or two lines of internal thought would clear this right up.

(Here’s more on writing with emotional layers)

Overall, it’s a fairly solid opening scene. I can see conflict, there are hints of something about to happen (where are they going and why do they have to leave?), there’s a missing portfolio that’s driving Gail to act, though I don’t yet know why it’s important. Knowing that would help develop her character some. I think if you made minor tweaks to clarify some of the motives and flesh out the protagonist and this would work well.

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.

6 comments:

  1. I love the sense of subtext and layering here. What I wonder is if there could be more sense of what it means hinted in it.

    One method I like is that the spine of a scene is what the character wants right now-- and if there's only a small desire or an amorphous scene, using that goal as the spine becomes more important than ever. Gail is looking for a portfolio, but we don't have many hints about why it's important.

    For instance, like Janice says, you start by showing us the music box rather than the portfolio. And at first you don't show that in context of how long she's been looking for the portfolio; it feels more like she just came across the box on her own and it reminds her of something else that hadn't been on her mind at first. More about how much she's dug through the shed already and she's resuming that process now would put the moment more in context, and put more focus on what she really wants and the story trying to move forward.

    Or, you do show that Gail doesn't suspect Andrew or anyone else of taking the portfolio (by having him say so and her not doubt him at all), but that means we could use more sense of what she does think instead that brings her out here. Is it more the general sense that most lost things wind up here anyway, or does she just want it so much she wanders around everyone and this was only the next place she came to?

    One other thought: you do show Andrew is indifferent to her, but it's easy to write him off as a shallow jerk because that's all we see here at his first scene. If you can work in a clear hint that he does care for Gail (maybe more about keeping her from freezing, or that whatever they're going back to do would be good for her), you can show from the start that he's got some good mixed in him in his own unhelpful way. And you'd be set up to expand that potential or subvert it any way you want.

    This scene really does use tone and subtlety well. I hope it uses a bit more focus to get more from those layers.

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  2. First, let me say I love your voice. Sentence two is superb. As suggested, make the first couple sentences first person to match the rest. Dialogue and action mix work for me. I can feel tension between the two, and as suggested, Andrew is dominant. I won't comment on the focus of the music box or portfolio importance since I haven't read the entire scene. Very intriguing. I would read more. Delete I clarify. Not needed. Use said instead of says.

    ReplyDelete
  3. First, let me say I love your voice. Sentence two is superb. As suggested, make the first couple sentences first person to match the rest. Dialogue and action mix work for me. I can feel tension between the two, and as suggested, Andrew is dominant. I won't comment on the focus of the music box or portfolio importance since I haven't read the entire scene. Very intriguing. I would read more. Delete I clarify. Not needed. Use said instead of says.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well done. Like everyone else I'd like to hear more from Gail, especially in that opening paragraph. The way it's written now it's too distant, which is too bad because there's a lot of emotion there that's lost because the reader is struggling to catch up. Her relationship with her brother and her sense of how she fits is beautifully set against the Wyoming landscape and climate. I think you could go further with this. I can say this because I lived there many years and well know the sense of isolation and sting of the barrenness and bitter wind (there are beautiful aspects, too). How does the music box feel in her hand? How does she perceive the frigid interior of the shed? What does she share with the landscape outside? You've got this. You're close!

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  5. I think some of the issue with the first sentence could be resolved by saying..My music box instead of this music box...

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  6. The first sentence sounds a little awkward. As in, it confused me (I'm not a native English speaker, so YMMV).

    "This music box was a child’s trinket orphaned in all regards. Abandoned by its purpose, it adopted a lullaby of mourning, as if each key chimed in memory of its creator."

    I feel like there should be a comma between child's trinked and orphaned. I'd also substitute "Abandoned by its purpose" (which sounds super awkward to me) with "Purposeless". The other comments pretty much cover what I'd say, and I agree with Janice's points.

    ReplyDelete