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Saturday, October 14

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This YA Opening Compel You to Read On?

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 October 28.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this opening compel you to keep reading?

2. Am I showing, not telling?

3. It feels a little off somehow. I can't put my finger on it. Can you give me your professional opinion (if that's not too vague)?


Market/Genre: YA Dystopian

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

I want to cry, but the tears won’t come. They never do. I wipe the blood off my face with my blouse and look away.

“Oh, sorry ma’am,” says a large man holding a sawed off shotgun. “I thought she was an untouchable.” He shrugged, turned around, and left. Mistaken for an untouchable. What is my family coming to? Poor Mom. She’d be ashamed.

So I begin to walk home. The corpse has no value to me. It’ll be ground up into a neat paste, sold and distributed by the government as a name brand dog food, divided up into 16 identical tin cans, and sold at the supermarket in a “value” pack overpriced at $1.99. I couldn’t afford my own mother.

And they wonder why dogs attack people. Living on a diet of human flesh mixed with high fructose corn syrup, you’d think it would be expected. One of them got my cousin.

An inspector walks by, probably doing his rounds. He puts my mother's corpse into a neat pile for the sanitation to pick up. When I turn to look at him, he glares at me, his eyebrows knit together. He must do that a lot. I wonder if the muscles in his face are capable of smiling.

I have to leave quickly. This man has a license to kill, and I don’t know if I’m out of the clear. Loitering is not allowed. I steal one more glance at my mother before hurrying away.

Now I’m alone. Actually, I guess I’ve always been alone. Now just more so than before.

My Thoughts in Purple:

I want to cry, but the tears won’t come. They never do. I wipe the blood off my face with my blouse and look away.

“Oh, sorry ma’am,” says a large man holding a sawed off shotgun. “I thought [she] who does this refer to? was an untouchable.” He shrugged, turned around, and left. Mistaken for an untouchable. What is my family coming to? Poor Mom. She’d be ashamed. It’s not clear that he shot her mother.
[So I begin to walk home.] It’s odd that she has no real reaction to what just happened. “Begin to” is also a tad tellish [The corpse] this is a cold way to refer to her mother has no value to me. It’ll be ground up into a neat paste, sold and distributed by the government as a name brand dog food, divided up into 16 identical tin cans, and sold at the supermarket in a “value” pack overpriced at $1.99. [I couldn’t afford my own mother.] Gruesome, but I love what this line says about the world

[And they wonder why dogs attack people.] So why aren’t they grinding up dogs for food? Living on a diet of human flesh mixed with high fructose corn syrup, you’d think it would be expected. One of them got my cousin.

An [inspector] what does he inspect? walks by, probably doing his rounds. He puts my mother's corpse into a neat pile for the sanitation to pick up. [When I turn to look at him] a little tellish, he glares at me, his eyebrows knit together. He must do that a lot. [I wonder if the muscles in his face are capable of smiling.] does anyone smile in this world? It seems pretty bleak

I have to leave quickly. This man has a license to kill, and I don’t know if I’m out of the clear. Loitering is not allowed. I steal one more glance at my mother before hurrying away.

Now I’m alone. Actually, I guess I’ve always been alone. Now just more so than before.

The questions:

1. Does this opening compel you to keep reading?

Not quite yet (readers chime in), but there’s a lot of interesting things here, so with a few tweaks it would. I suspect the reason is why you feel it’s a little off—there’s not enough context here for me to fully understand this world and what I’m reading. It’s too hard to make sense of it, so instead of drawing me in, it’s pushing me out.

It’s starts with an intriguing line, and what’s happening poses a lot of questions for the reader. What’s an untouchable? Why did they shoot her mother? Why doesn’t she seen to care? Why are they turning people into dog food? A girl alone in this terrible world garners a certain amount of sympathy.

However, she doesn’t seem that upset about Mom being killed right in front of her. She even calls her “the corpse” right after (though that could have been a way to distance herself from the horror of it, but I didn’t get that feel). This makes her less likable. If she doesn’t care about Mom being murdered before her eyes, why should I care about her?

I’d suggest fleshing out what you have a bit more. I like what’s here, but I need more to understand it. I didn’t know who was shot at first, and it wasn’t until the end of paragraph two that I was sure it was Mom who’d been killed. A few words to clarify what’s going on and who these people are would clear that up.

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

You might also consider a little more world building to better set the scene. I don’t know anything about this world except it’s horrible. I don’t know why the protagonist is there or what she and Mom were trying to do. I didn’t know what an untouchable was. You don’t need to fully explain it here if it slows the story down, but a few details about why Mom looked like one or what the guards were watching for would be nice. I had no context for the conversation.

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

2. Am I showing, not telling?

It felt shown to me. The information sounded like the protagonist and I didn’t feel as though I was being fed infodumps or backstory (even though I was getting necessary info). There were a couple of really nitpicky tellish bits, but nothing anyone would trip over.

(Here’s more on showing versus telling)

3. It feels a little off somehow. I can't put my finger on it. Can you give me your professional opinion (if that's not too vague)?

I think it just needs more context (readers chime in). It’s a good base to develop, but it’s not clear enough for me to care or be drawn in yet because I don’t know what any of it means. It’s essentially a scene where a girl’s mother is murdered for dog food and she walks away without feeling a thing. It certainly says this world is dark, but if the story had started ten minutes from now I’m not sure it would have mattered. The mother’s death didn’t do anything but establish the dark world.

Why is this the first thing you want readers to see? What’s critical here that had to be understood before anything else? If it’s the world, then how does this relate to what the protagonist is doing? Does she have a goal? Is she out doing anything or just standing there and Mom is murdered? How does she really feel about all this? If she honestly doesn’t care that Mom is dead, then why is her death the first thing we see? Is it to show that the protagonist doesn’t care? If so, why?

(Here’s more on grounding reader in your world)

Overall, I don’t think this scene moves the story, which is likely why it feels off. I’d suggest fleshing this out more and helping readers understand what is going on, why, and how this is creating problems for the protagonist. Give her something to do that connects to this terrible moment in her life. Let her react more so we understand a world where it’s okay to do this. You don’t have to give everything away, but share enough so the events here have context to the larger world and story.

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.

3 comments:

  1. I would agree, this scene seems to be built around slowly hinting your way to the fact that the protagonist's mother has been shot. That's a powerful goal, but it depends on making the clues lead to it more clearly. (For instance, at first it isn't clear "mom" and "the corpse" are connected, and then it's mentioned casually in the middle of a paragraph, not in a more prominent place.)

    Most of all, I think this depends on the character's reaction. You want a dystopian world where she's accepted some very "horrible" ideas. But most dystopias work by making family or friends (or an ideal) the one core thing the protagonist has an uncorrupted love for, that readers can connect with and the protagonist can try to protect under it all. So starting by showing your character being almost calm at her mother's death is a new level in darkness-- but it leaves us very little left to root for. The scene might all depend on showing she does have a proper screaming fit going on at some level, contrasted with how necessity and practice are getting her through this. Or maybe what the scene needs is another, vulnerable family member (or just a bystander) that she *is* trying to shelter from the worst of this.

    I can't remember when I've seen a story start this deep in the dystopian pits. That takes immense courage to write, and if you can keep it clear why we're siding with who, that could give this real power.

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  2. I liked the first three sentences. I was hooked. But then, there was blood and a shot gun and I was put off. Maybe it's because I don't care about any characters yet so it feels like a horror story. I agree with Janice and Ken. In dystopian novels and movies, the audience has to get a sense of who the characters are and how they deal with the hardships within the world around them before someone gets their head blown off.

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  3. I liked it a lot. I'd keep reading.

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