Saturday, August 19

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Fantasy Blurb 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: Three

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through September 9.

This week’s questions:

Does it work as a blurb? Is there enough information about the story and the setting? Are you able to get a general feel for the story or is it too vague?

Market/Genre: Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Exiled from her homeland and the mystical Shagin people, Kari is abducted against her will and thrown into a life of servitude as a royal concubine to the Imperial Brothers. As she befriends the other girls within the harem, she finds a new passion to defend them from the lusts and desires of the emperors. Not content to bow before her oppressors, Kari must use the forbidden knowledge of her people if she hopes to escape captivity and protect the lives of her friends.

Destiny eventually forces her further into the maelstrom as she discovers that the fate of the entire kingdom of Xiang rests in her hands. If she hopes to save the crumbling nation and reach freedom she must find a way to turn brother against brother as she plots to topple their throne, unite the people of Xiang, and bring an end to tyranny.

Standing before the start of a new legend, will her passion bring an end to the chaos or will she be consumed by fate?

My Thoughts in Purple:

[Exiled from her homeland] why? and the mystical Shagin people, Kari is abducted [against her will] all abductions are against someone’s will and thrown into a life of servitude as a royal concubine to the Imperial Brothers. As she befriends the other girls within the harem, she finds [a new passion] what was her old passion? to defend them from the lusts and desires of the emperors. [Not content to bow before her oppressors,] this feels separate from the other issues Kari must use the forbidden knowledge of her people if she hopes to escape captivity and protect the lives of her friends.

Destiny eventually forces her further into the maelstrom as she discovers that [the fate of the entire kingdom of Xiang rests in her hands.] How? If she hopes to save the crumbling nation and reach freedom she must find a way to turn brother against brother as she plots to topple their throne, unite the people of Xiang, and bring an end to tyranny.

Standing before the start of a new legend, will her passion bring an end to the chaos or will she be consumed by fate?

The questions:

1. Does it work as a blurb? Is there enough information about the story and the setting? Are you able to get a general feel for the story or is it too vague?

Note: These questions are all interconnected, so I’m just going to answer them all at once instead of taking them one at a time.

This isn’t grabbing me quite yet (readers chime in). I get a general sense of the story, but the details that will make it unique are a little fuzzy. I don’t understand the conflict or what has to be done yet.

I can see that Kari will turn the emperor brothers against each other and somehow this will free everyone, but not how or why. I don’t know what’s special about her that puts her in the position to do this.

(Here’s more on how to test a novel idea)

It starts out staying she’s been exiled, but I don’t know what for. The exile has no bearing on the blurb that I can see (as in, her being exiled plays no part in what’s mentioned here aside from putting her alone where she can get kidnapped).

It then moves on to her being enslaved as a concubine, and she decides to help the other women also in captivity. This is a good goal, and I can see why she’d want to help these women escape this life. I was confused by the “new passion” line though. A new passion suggests she had an old passion, but nothing is ever mentioned. What did she want to do before she decided to help the other women? How is this a conflict? Is it a conflict?

Next, it talks about Kari not wanting to bow to her oppresses, which feels like a different problem from being an enslaved concubine. It has a “Kari is a citizen of another nation” vibe to it, though nothing is ever stated as such. If she lives in Xiang, and these men are her leaders, wasn’t she already bowing to them? Or is Shagin another country altogether? I got the sense they were a people, not a nation.

(Here’s more on using the query letter as a plotting tool)

Her forbidden knowledge is slipped in there at the end, though I have no idea what that is or how she knows it. She’s from mystical people, but that tells me nothing about what this mysticism consists of. Is this why she was exiled? I suspect this is key to her being the one to free everyone, so I want to know what makes her special.

Things change again in the next paragraph, and now Kari isn’t just a woman fighting for freedom, she’s a chosen one type who is trying to save a crumbling nation, even though there’s been no mention of the nation being in trouble. And I’m not sure why she’d care about this nation if she isn’t part of it. Why is it her destiny to do this?

The motives and reasons for these actions are a little unclear. Why does she need to turn brother against brother? If she’s a concubine, she’s in a great position to do so, which is intriguing, but I don’t understand the point of it. Why does she need to unite the Xiang people? If they’re all being oppressed, how are they separated?

In the final line, passion is mentioned again, which strikes me as odd since there’s no passion or romance vibe in the blurb. What is she passionate about? What is her fate? What’s the chaos? There’s not enough here to tell me what any of this means, and it’s too vague to get a sense of how it’s used in this particular story.

I’ve no doubts that there are answers to all of these questions, but they’re not coming through in the blurb, so I’m not really sure what the story is about, aside from a woman who saves Xiang.

(Here’s more on getting what’s in your head onto the page)

I’d suggest spending a little time setting the scene and what's wrong with the world before you show the specific problem. If the issue is tyrannical brothers oppressing the kingdom, perhaps start with a paragraph that describes the world situation and how it affects Kari. Maybe explain a little about why she’s been exiled if that plays an important role.

Then shift to something like, “When Kari is abducted and thrown into…” and show what problem she’s facing and what she wants to do about it. This is how she gets put into a position to change things.

Then perhaps show how escaping the harem escalates and becomes Kari trying to topple the government and save the kingdom. What specifically is she trying to do? What is at stake if she fails?

Unless this is intended as cover copy for a published novel (where you wouldn’t want to give it all away), be specific about these things. Vague phrases such as “bring an end to tyranny” sounds like they’re full of conflict and can create plot, but when you sit down to write it, your protagonist has nothing to do. It’s how she tries to end that tyranny that will create the plot. It’s why she does it that will create the motivations and conflicts.

(Here’s more on deciding what to put in a query letter)

Overall, I think just fleshing this out and being specific about what Kari has to do and why will clear up a lot of the confusion. It sounds like there’s a cool story in here, it’s just not quite making it to the page yet.

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. A couple of thoughts:

    One, I might disagree with Janice on one thing (it had to happen some time) when she suggests starting with the background and problem. I agree that has to be clear early, but I think a query is a dangerous place to start with anything but the specific protagonist and her main or initial problem: "When Kari is abducted..."

    --Or you might start with a more abstract one-line paragraph before that, like "Can a courtesan destroy a corrupt empire?" if you wanted to make a nutshell appeal.

    Second, I think a lot of making this clearer could come down to showing those main story problems for Kari, and using other issues (like her forbidden secrets and being an outcast even from her own people) only as contrasts that play off the buildup of the main one. Also, I think part of her central challenge is that it shifts between two stages: protecting herself and her friends, and then expanding to bringing down the whole empire.

    (Or it might be three stages with saving only herself first. But it might be better to merge that into the friendship level, talking about her making friends at the same time that you mention her challenges in the harem, as if it should be assumed that when she picks her first goal there it already includes her new friends. Unless it's key to also contrast her as a loner and outcast who first has to change to care about any friends, long before she expands her goals to the empire.)

    So I'd suggest thinking in terms of that one goal and its shift between two (or three) stages, and what background and buildup you need to do to bring that to life, while keeping the side conflicts on the side. This sounds like an epic, distinctive storyline (very Janny Wurts), and I think you could do great things with it if you keep that in focus.

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  2. Is a blurb the same thing as a query letter?

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  3. hmmm... back cover (meant to entice a reader to buy) or a query letter (for agents?). I recently had this discussion with my brother who does not write but has a good pulse and instinct for fantasy. I'd asked him to look a my "blurb" but I used that term to save my having to explain what a query is (I can't speak, so explaining a query with writing is a tad daunting). He said it's too long - it's not even a page. That's when I had to try explain a query after all.

    There's a story there you just need to tease out the right details. I suspected "the new passion" was a love interest but I couldn't be sure. How can a new passion defend against the emperor? Need to know if this a person or skill?

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  4. The use of the blurb was never specified. It's for a work in progress.

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  5. Many of these terms mean different things depending on who's talking about them. In fact, I think one of the keys to writing any is to know what length the back cover, agent's rules, ad space, or whatever specifically calls for, and write a version that's just dense enough to fill out that length right.

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  6. The material lost my interest at abduction>>concubine, and then, 'befriending', as a reason for deciding to help the other girls, put my reading at full stop, with a 'whaaaa?' attached.

    I needed to know who Kari is...before hearing the rest. Is she a warrior princess who rebelled against her people or her leader -- therefore was exiled? Were her parents murdered by the foul leader of her people? Was a mystical entity involved? etcetcetc...

    Is the need to help the others girls a misplaced passion, since she cannot wage real war against a previous evil -- righting the wrong that caused her to be exiled?

    The concubine culture is ancient, so what is it about this place she was abducted to that makes it worse? Does she already know of this land of the Imperial Brothers, so she has fodder for fury?

    Are girls abducted in a wide-ranging manner that means the Imperial Brothers are terrorizing the lands beyond those they claim?

    I'm struggling to find the thread, the big goal, the passion that drives Kari. My feeling so far is that she failed at being a rebel or escaped some kind of peril, and perhaps lost people dear to her -- causing her to take a grander view of compassion.

    It all sounds huge and epic, but I-just-don't-care because I don't know the gut of the story or the main character or the flashpoint that put her outside her people.

    She was abducted, which to me means she wasn't 'captured'for being special, but simply for being a female alone in the woods (so to speak), and thus vulnerable to the 'nets' of the Imperial Brothers.

    And then, there's the last line -- which includes the word 'legend'... and I want to envision a girl standing on a mountain, lightning bolts streaking across the sky, her fist held high, sword/some weapon thrust outward in defiance. But, I just can't -- yet. :o)

    I know it's all there -- but as a reader, I'm just having to make up too much of it on my own.

    When working with my author clients on blurb creation, I urge them to create a 250-400 word synopsis of their novel, then read it aloud, rewrite, read aloud, rewrite...until it flows, creates emotion, and is filled with specific, concise words that poke and prod the reader's imagination in the right direction.

    I hope you rewrite and come back with the changes -- you undoubtedly have a solid story, I'd love to see it again.

    Good luck!!

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