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Saturday, March 18

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This YA Fantasy 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: Eleven 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through June 3.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this YA fantasy opening work?

2. Would you read on?

3. Any red flags here?


Market/Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

As the sun rose above the withered summer trees behind the house, Niara Falrune watched her brother cry for the last time she would ever see.

She smiled and crouched down beside him, pressing her face close to his. Every time Oan cried, all she had to do was tickle him under his armpits and shout, “Chicken feet!”, and he’d burst into giggles. He would turn six in two months’ time. He was young enough that the trick would work for another year, maybe two. But not this time.

They stood in their room. It was small, with cold floors and a single dusty window overlooking the forest. This was her brother’s room now.

Niara wiped a tear from his nose. “Come on, we have to help Momma load the wagon if we’re going to make it to the castle in time. You’ve never seen the castle, Oan! It’s bigger than all the houses in Bairn. Even bigger than Old Man Holden’s house.”

Her brother sniffled, moving his hands to his splotched cheeks. His green eyes brightened.

“Really?”

“Really,” she said, giving him a squeeze. “Now go downstairs. You’re getting snot all over my new dress.”

He grinned and twisted out of her hug, bolting down the stairs. Once he disappeared, Niara took a deep breath. She got off her bare knees and stood before the mirror. She straightened her dress for the third time, wiped a smudge of dirt from her shoes, and brushed out her long, raven hair. After redoing her braids, she made sure the door was closed and sat on the edge of her bed. Then she took the knife from underneath her pillow.

Without speaking, she mouthed the words she knew by heart. Then she sucked in as much air as she could. Holding her knife over her wrist, she swiped in one clean motion. Exhaled. Did it over, and over, each time the blade sliding through the space over her skin, each time preparing herself.

After she’d done it ten times, her usual practice, she put the knife back in its place. She headed for the stairs, her hands treasuring the smooth, oak wood of the railing as she descended.

My Thoughts in Purple:

As the sun rose above the withered summer trees behind the house, Niara Falrune watched her brother cry for the last time [she would ever see.] This reads awkwardly. Perhaps cut

She smiled and crouched down beside him, pressing her face close to his. [Every time Oan cried, all she had to do was tickle him under his armpits and shout, “Chicken feet!”, and he’d burst into giggles.] I didn’t realize at first that she hadn’t done this. Or does she? He would turn six in two months’ time. He was young enough that the trick would work for another year, maybe two. But not this time. I like what happens in this paragraph, but something feels either out of order or unclear. I wasn’t sure if she actually tickled him or not

They stood in their room. It was small, with cold floors and a single dusty window overlooking the forest. This was her brother’s room now.

Niara wiped a tear from his nose. “Come on, we have to help Momma load the wagon if we’re going to make it to the castle in time. You’ve never seen the castle, Oan! It’s bigger than all the houses in Bairn. Even bigger than Old Man Holden’s house.”

Her brother sniffled, moving his hands to his splotched cheeks. His green eyes brightened.

“Really?”

“Really,” she said, giving him a squeeze. “Now go downstairs. You’re getting snot all over my new dress.”

He grinned and twisted out of her hug, bolting down the stairs. Once he disappeared, Niara took a deep breath. She got off her bare knees and stood before the mirror. She straightened her dress for the third time, wiped a smudge of dirt from her shoes, and brushed out her long, raven hair. After redoing her braids, she made sure the door was closed and sat on the edge of her bed. Then she took the knife from underneath her pillow. It feels like there are a few too many “she did this” type steps in this paragraph. An internal thought in here would break it up and smooth the flow.

Without speaking, she mouthed the words she knew by heart. Then she sucked in as much air as she could. Holding her knife over her wrist, she swiped in one clean motion. Exhaled. Did it over, and over, each time the blade sliding through the space over her skin, each time preparing herself.

After she’d done it ten times, her usual practice, she put the knife back in its place. She headed for the stairs, her hands treasuring the smooth, oak wood of the railing as she descended.

The questions:

1. Does this YA fantasy opening work?

A few bumps, but yes (readers chime in). It starts with a sense that things are going on (Niara is leaving and), it shows a general sense of the world, and drops an intriguing question readers will likely want to see answered—why is she preparing to kill herself? Does this have something to do with why she’s heading to the castle? Is this an arranged marriage and she’s not happy about it? Is her brother just sad to see her leave or is there more here as well?

(Here’s more on crafting a strong opening scene)

2. Would you read on?

Yes (readers also chime in here). I want to know what the knife thing is about and what’s going on with Niara. She seems like a nice girl, she’s kind to her brother, wants to help Mom, and practicing slitting her wrists is so contrary to that “good sister good daughter” image. It was a big surprise and made me want to know more. I don’t yet know the details (and I don’t need to at this stage), but something is clearly going on and I’m intrigued to find out what.

(Here’s more on hooking your readers in three easy steps)

3. Any red flags here?

A few awkward spots, but nothing a little tweaking won’t fix. You might consider a line or two of internalization to break up some of the longer descriptive paragraphs. You don’t need much since you don’t want to give away what she’s about to do, but a brief thought or two would help smooth the narrative flow.

(Here’s more in internalization)

Overall, this works for me and I’d read on. A little polish would make it stronger, but it didn’t stop me from reading.

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.

8 comments:

  1. I agree, this is a sweet, appealing opening with a good sense of place and characters.

    It looks like you're building the scene all around contrasting that sweetness with two ominous moments: the first line's "last time" and the moment with the knife. You tell us almost nothing about what they mean, to tease us. But I think you could clarify just a bit more in the first line about why Niara thinks she won't see her brother again and what that means to her-- unless of course that moment is just you warning of a tragedy the character can't see coming. Her moment with the knife is deliberately vague; she does it to "prepare herself" but you refuse to hint what it's for.

    I get the sense that you don't want to take more than a few words for these things yet, both to keep suspense and because you don't want to bog down taking more time for them than Niara actually would in that moment in her day. Those are two excellent writing instincts, but I think you've gone further than you want in leaving the moments unclear, when we readers want just a little more to hang our thoughts on for now. And you can make the suspense stronger without slowing down the moment by weaving in more moments, more times in this and that paragraph where Niara thinks in passing about another piece of what's coming. That would let you clarify more of your mysterious points and keep us more aware of them, without revealing too much mystery yet.

    (Another method might be to leave the knife moment unexplained for now, but build it out of some shorter paragraphs, so a thought like "preparing herself" or "her usual practice" is its own tiny line. By isolating it you'd make it clear to the reader that it's the most dramatic clue in the moment, but it's one you're not going to give more about quite yet.)

    Sweetness and suspense are a powerful combination. With a little more care about the suspense, I think this scene could do everything you want it to.

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  3. I found this disturbing. Last time she would see him...takes out a knife a cuts her wrists 10 times? I've known friends of my sons that were cutters. Never would someone slit their wrists unless they wanted to kill themselves, too many vessels. They cut inner thigh and thick skinned places cuts can't be seen by anyone. I have issue with encouraging YA to cut, if you're trying to point out the disease and help them, this isn't the way to do it. Sweet?No. Suspenseful? Yes, you had my attention when she pulled out the knife. And if she is indeed planning to kill herself, that's more disturbing.

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  4. Maybe I'm being an "old fogey" here, and admittedly don't read YA, but I find it disturbing that the opening page of a story directed at vulnerable young people includes a scene where the protagonist practices slitting her wrists with a knife. Cutting and suicide are real problems in today's climate and if I were a parent of a pre-teen I would think twice before offering up this book choice. Again, I know it's fantasy, but a lot of fantasy can become reality to today's young people. Just my take. :)

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  5. I agree with Lori ans Anonymous. YA (and I read a lot of it) shouldn't promote cutting. Though...I didn't read it as that is what she was doing since there is no mention of blood. I read the paragraph three times and it read as if she is holding it over (above her wrist) not against it. Perhaps she is practicing for a ritual.

    I would read on after some editing if: you told us what she said while slicing the air above her wrist. I found it frustrating that you did not. And, since I am not invested in the story yet, I can easily walk away from it.

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  6. I was intrigued enough to read on. At times I was confused about what Niara was doing. I thought that she had tickled her brother before she tried to.

    I like the world building; just enough detail to give rise to a Medieval European feel, if that's not teh case I'd like some key details soon.

    The sweetness contrasting with the sense of foreboding is what hooked me.

    The knife scene is a little unclear, I had to read it three times to realise she was mimicking the action not really doing it. The scene is what adds the most intrigue... (What did she say? Is it a spell? A ritual blood letting? Does she plan on sacrificing herself? Is she required to perform a ritual at the castle? Does her mother know? Might she feel suicide is her only option at some point in her future? Does she self harm?) All questions that made me want to keep reading.

    Although I agree that promoting self harm or suicide is not desirable in MG or YA, certainly in YA, many readers find solace in shared emotions if not experiences with characters. If this is an element in the story it wouldn't put me off as a reader or as a parent selecting for my kids.

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  7. I don't usually chime in on the comments, but I felt I needed to explain a little more. This snippet is a very good example of how something can spark wildly different opinions.

    I never got a cutting sense from this (though I can easily see how it could indeed come across that way). I read so much fantasy in general that to me, it was just a gal going off to someplace she thought she'd have no other choice but to kill herself. Horrible as that is, she's the protagonist, so clearly something was going to happen between now and then to change her mind. But it setup set a strong sense of foreboding and dread that it hooked me.

    And yes, while authors shouldn't promote cutting and suicide, stories where characters face these very real situations and find their way out are stories some teens DO need to hear. For them, books that address the topic are the thing that finally gets them to seek help or admit they need it. Authors who write about such difficult subjects have also written many times about the fan-mail they get where a troubled teen said that book saved their life. Difficult books can be the safe place a troubled kid goes to when they need help.

    The submitter knows what the truth about this snippet is, and what they're trying to do here and with the story, so I certainly would advise them to carefully consider all the feedback and decide what's best.

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  8. This scene worked for me, with the same caveats Janice mentioned. I don't read much YA but I do read fantasy, and what this felt like to me was a fantasy, not a psychological, cutting, like it was part of some magic ritual. I think you could easily highlight that aspect, possibly by actually actually having her say the words or something, to tip the reader in that direction.

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