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Saturday, August 12

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This YA Fantasy Scene too Confusing?

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: Two 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through August 26.

This week’s questions:

Are the new terms too confusing, too fast? Is the inner voice too much? Does the character feel 3D? Is the fact she's scared of the ceremony and why she's hiding so close to the ceremony explained and believable? Is the voice there?


Market/Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Tizania clung to the thick trunk of The Muster Tree. Soggy leaves screened her from the throbbing hum of the gathered crowd. Her heart thumped. If she hid here, perhaps the sorcerer might skip her until next year? What were the chances? Nil, nil and none again. Not with her luck. Jelly fingers barely suctioned her to the tree. What if she possessed magic? Her kind of healing wasn’t considered magic, was it? The fact no one had been chosen at a Syphon Day ceremony in twenty years did not prevent a multitude of panicked butterflies popping in her stomach.

Her sisters’ constant taunts of, “you’re weird”, haunted her to this day.

Maybe hiding in the tree was a mistake—a monumental one—except she couldn’t listen to her fate from anywhere else. Not unless she sprouted magic ears and heard the sorcerer far away and hidden in the forest outside her village. She’d much rather be as far from this tree as she could get, but she had to hear. The not hearing her fate would be worse than enduring the danger of clinging to The Muster Tree.

Antler-like fingers brushed long hair from her eyes. Just disappear, just disappear… blend with the bark.

And, Tizania camouflaged with the trunk.

The hiding girl leapt as if a hairy spider crawled over her hand and she lost what little grip glued her to the tree. Her body slammed into branch after branch but her stomach remained hidden. Branches cracked, her dress tore and leaves raced her toward the ground. Her leg scraped against a branch and blood bloomed. The whole moment left her scarred for life and she swore she’d never climb a height again. She thumped on the hard wood of the handcrafted stage. Right at the sorcerer’s boots that peeked through the folds of his cloak. What had just happened? Besides being scared off heights for life.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Tizania clung to the thick trunk of The Muster Tree. Soggy leaves screened her from the throbbing hum of the gathered crowd. Her heart thumped. If she hid here, perhaps the sorcerer might skip her until next year? What were the chances? Nil, nil and none again. Not with her luck. [Jelly fingers barely suctioned her to the tree.] I don’t understand what this means What if she possessed magic? Her kind of healing wasn’t considered magic, was it? [The fact no one had been chosen at a Syphon Day ceremony in twenty years did not prevent a multitude of panicked butterflies popping in her stomach.] But it should. If no one’s been chosen in so long, why is she so scared?

Her sisters’ constant taunts of, “you’re weird”, haunted her to this day.

Maybe hiding in the tree was a mistake—a monumental one—except she couldn’t listen to her fate from anywhere else. [Not unless she sprouted magic ears and heard the sorcerer far away and hidden in the forest outside her village. She’d much rather be as far from this tree as she could get, but she had to hear.] This all feels repetitious [The not hearing her fate would be worse than enduring the danger of clinging to The Muster Tree.] It wasn’t until after that I thought perhaps the tree itself was a danger, not just hiding in it. Also, this last line has too much of the same feel as “The fact no one…” from the first paragraph, and it hit my ears funny.

[Antler-like fingers brushed long hair from her eyes.] I don’t understand what this means, though I suspect she’s shifting form? Just disappear, just disappear… blend with the bark.

And, [Tizania] right here it changes POV from inside her head to outside camouflaged with the trunk.

The [hiding girl] if this is Tizania, it’s now a third person omniscient POV leapt as if a hairy spider crawled over her hand and she lost what little grip glued her to the tree. Her body slammed into branch after branch [but her stomach remained hidden.] I don’t understand this Branches cracked, her dress tore and leaves raced her toward the ground. Her leg scraped against a branch and blood bloomed. [The whole moment left her scarred for life and she swore she’d never climb a height again.] Feels told and a bit retrospective She thumped on the hard wood of the handcrafted stage. Right at the sorcerer’s boots that peeked through the folds of his cloak. [What had just happened? Besides being scared off heights for life.] Feels told

The questions:

1. Are the new terms too confusing, too fast?

I didn’t stumble over any terms, but there were a few lines and things I didn’t understand, such as jelly fingers, antler-like fingers. There wasn’t enough context for me to understand what they meant. Are they intended to show she’s changing shape or form? Is this her doing or the tree itself? There was a line about the danger of the tree that made me think maybe the tree was magic, but it was never clear what was going on. It also mentioned her magic was healing, so her shape changing seemed off and maybe not her choice.

(Here’s more on tightening the narrative focus)

2. Is the inner voice too much?

The the questions felt a little too much in the opening paragraph. Questions are tricky, because if you use too many of them, they stop being things to wonder about and start sounding like directions to the reader. Often, you can just tweak them so they read more like narrative, such as:
If she hid here, perhaps the sorcerer might skip her until next year. What were the chances? Nil, nil and none again. Not with her luck. Jelly fingers barely suctioned her to the tree. No, she was safe, she couldn’t possess magic. Her kind of healing wasn’t considered magic.
Something like this gets the same ideas across, but it’s her being unsure of herself, or trying to convince herself, and not telling the reader what they ought to wonder about. It also changes the rhythm of the narrative so it isn’t all the same uptick at the end.

(Here’s more on questions in internalization)

3. Does the character feel 3D?

She does at first, then there’s an odd shift in the point of view toward the middle. I felt in Tizania’s head at the start, but when she shifts to match the tree the POV becomes third person omniscient. That sudden switch out of her POV was jarring, and then the narrative became a bit list-like and told. Her falling out of the tree felt a little long and had a bit of a backstory feel, even though it was happening in real time.

I liked it in her POV, so I’d suggest just reworking that section so it matches the rest of the text.

(Here’s more on POV shifts)

4. Is the fact she's scared of the ceremony and why she's hiding so close to the ceremony explained and believable?

It’s a little over-explained, so you could easily cut out a few redundant sentences. For example, this one sentence says pretty much everything in that paragraph:
Maybe hiding in the tree was a mistake—a monumental one—except she couldn’t listen to her fate from anywhere else.
I can tell she’s scared of the ceremony, but not why. That she doesn’t want to be chosen is clear, but if no one has been chosen in her lifetime (you mentioned she was 18), why would she think anyone would this year, let alone her? The odds are against that. I also didn’t know why being chosen was bad, though at this point I don’t need to know that. It’s a fun hook to keep readers interested, but a small hint might be nice to provide a little context and suggest stakes.

I had no trouble believing a girl being afraid of something would hide nearby to hear the outcome of it.

(Here’s more on believability in our fiction)

5. Is the voice there?

It is at the start, then it fades when the POV changes. In the beginning, I had a good sense of the nervous girl afraid of the future, but when she falls it loses that and just describes the action. Keeping it in her POV throughout would most likely fix that.

(Here’s more on developing your voice)

Overall, this feels like it could benefit from a little tightening to focus on what’s important. There’s a bit of repetition and some clarity issues, and cutting the redundant lines would leave room to flesh out what’s going on. I get the gist of the problem (she’s scared of her fate), but not what’s physically going on with her and the tree and the shape changing. The pieces seem fine, it’s more a matter of tweaking the text to best show those pieces.

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.

9 comments:

  1. One thought in particular: in the two paragraphs and-a-bit before Tizania starts to change, we have only some sense of her environment. After the first couple of lines, most of the points are firmly in her head instead of showing us what's around her-- and description's such a basic writing tool, readers like to see a little more of it right at the start to show what you can do.

    More than that, description and thought would play off each other well. Any sensation of the crowd and the sorcerer could alternate with and would build her fear about what's said (and her need to be here to hear it), and everything about her own position in the tree she's clinging onto would build the dangers of that tree and lead up to her shifting to adapt to it.

    I could see you taking a page for this before she changes, or it could be less (or even as short as this) if you picked just the right thoughts and sensations to quickly cover each point you needed. You might look at a number of books' first pages and see how much of their basics different authors covered before that first incident happens, and how fast they made each point. (One YA example: how neatly *The Hunger Games* introduces the Reaping just in the first paragraph, because the fear of it is why Katniss finds her sister in bed with her... although in this case there'll be a chapter of more buildup before the event itself.) Actually, I like the idea of cutting to the chase as fast as you do, if you make full use of the few lines you have.

    Playing thought and description off each other is one of the most powerful tools I know. And first paragraphs are a good time to use every trick you can find.

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  2. I'm assuming the main character is non-human and the jelly fingers means she has some tree-frog tendencies. I seem to be the only one thinking this which means it might mean clarifying if I'm right. Good luck, this story seems like it's going to be interesting.

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    Replies
    1. That was my assumption as well. I think context could play a big part here.

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  3. I'm going to echo Ken Hughes above--more on the setting would help a lot. I had no idea where the Muster Tree was in relation to everything else until the very end of the submission. Finding out the ceremony is being held literally underneath it then raised the question about how no one could see her. Also, how early did she have to climb the tree that no one caught her?

    I'm a little confused as well about how magic works in your world. She wonders if her healing magic counts as magic, but then she shapeshifts into part of the tree? (I'm not 100% certain what was going on there.) How does that not count as magic?

    Finally, the ending, with her landing in front of the sorcerer, feels like what kicks off the plot. She's going to be chosen at the Syphon Day ceremony, shenanigans will occur, hijinks will ensue ... all because she saw a spider and went "EW GROSS GET IT OFF ME".

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  4. I got the feeling she had a chameleon physiology but I think it should be brought out early if this is science fiction or fantasy. It needs a better sense of place if the characters are non-human.

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  5. I enjoyed the piece. I was confused at number of points.
    As Ken suggested, more context or description of the physical place (only a few lines) interspersing with the internalization would help.
    The POV shifts were jarring and disrupted the story flow. I wasn't sure if her falling from the tree was happening in the present or was back story.
    The ideas are engaging and I like the sense of Tizania as a character. I think with some tweaks to improve clarity you will have an intriguing opening.

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  6. Thanks for the help everyone. It's a testament to how things keep improving as I plug away. I'd already changed or deleted all the bolded bits since I submitted this draft. The pointing out of how I changed POV really helped and I have hopefully changed that now.

    She isn't non-human but I need to make it clear she heals and fears the can be magic but the camouflaging surprises her so much she let's go. I've fixed that spider bit - she didn't see a spider but that's trying to explain how much she jumped because she's surprised. My bad. Hopefully that's clearer now. Thanks so much for pointing out.

    I'll work on that setting too :)

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    Replies
    1. Sorry, that should read, "she heals and fears the healing she practices can be magic, but the camouflaging surprises her".

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