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Saturday, December 30

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Keep Reading this YA Fantasy?

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 we 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: One 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through January 6.

This week’s questions:

Does this opening work?

Are you lost or are you able to follow what's happening?

Do you get a sense of the kind of person the main character is?

Did you connect with her and care enough to keep reading?.

Does the scene grab your attention and make you want to know what happens next?


Market/Genre: Young Adult Fantasy (Contemporary/Urban)

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

A strange boy is waiting for me at the front table, the only customer in the deli. Cute, in a rough sort of way, his nose wide and mostly flat, his short-cropped, dark hair forming a rounded widow’s peak. He’s about my age, wearing jeans and a sky-blue hoodie—just a boy—but my heart races. Staring at him, his entire body seems to vibrate and shimmer around the edges. A spike of adrenaline tingles in the pit of my stomach, radiating to my fingers and toes.

I blink a few times and the effect is gone. An optical illusion caused by the setting sun glaring through the window. That’s what it was. But for a moment, it seemed totally real.

Pulling myself together, I snatch an apron from the wall peg, and knotting the strings behind me, scoot around the display case to his table, feeling hella self-conscious. He smiles as I approach, but it’s more fierce than friendly.

Up close, his eyes are green with brown flecks. He leans forward in his chair and skewers me with his gaze. “We can save him, Gemma.”

“What? Who?”

“The boy you love.” He pauses and the corner of his mouth twitches. “Ben.”

My stomach lurches The boy’s unblinking gaze bores into me, so intense his eyes seem to glow. “Ben is dead.” I whisper.

“We can fix that. Come with me and I’ll prove it.”

He holds out a hand and I instinctively step back. A memory flashes through my mind. Blood. Panic. The gun, black and alien, like a grotesque appendage growing from the shooter’s hand. I push the disturbing images away.

“Who are you?”

My Thoughts in Purple:

A strange boy is waiting for me at the front table, the only customer in the deli. Cute, in a rough sort of way, his nose wide and mostly flat, his short-cropped, dark hair forming a rounded widow’s peak. He’s about my age, wearing jeans and a sky-blue hoodie—just a boy—but my heart races. Staring at him, his entire body seems to vibrate and shimmer around the edges. A spike of adrenaline tingles in the pit of my stomach, radiating to my fingers and toes.

I blink a few times and the effect is gone. An optical illusion caused by the setting sun glaring through the window. That’s what it was. But for a moment, it seemed totally real.

[Pulling myself together, I snatch an apron from the wall peg, and knotting the strings behind me, scoot around the display case to his table, feeling hella self-conscious.] There’s a lot of stage direction here, which feels just tad cumbersome. But this is a good spot to break that up and get a little bit more of Gemma’s personality in. Is this “seeing weird things” normal for her or was this a one-time deal (seems like a one-timer from her reaction to it) He smiles as I approach, but it’s [more fierce than friendly]. How does this make her feel on top of the weird shimmer effect?

Up close, his eyes are green with brown flecks. He leans forward in his chair and skewers me with his gaze. “We can save him, Gemma.”

“What? Who?”

“The boy you love.” He pauses and the corner of his mouth twitches. “Ben.”

My stomach lurches The boy’s unblinking gaze bores into me, so intense his eyes seem to glow. [“Ben is dead.” I whisper.] Perhaps a little more from her here? This is a big emotional moment 

“We can fix that. Come with me and I’ll prove it.”

He holds out a hand and I instinctively step back. A memory flashes through my mind. Blood. Panic. The gun, black and alien, like a grotesque appendage growing from the shooter’s hand. I push the disturbing images away.

“Who are you?”

The questions:

1. Does this opening work?

Yes (readers chime in). I’m curious about who the boy is and why he’s there, and what Gemma is going to do about this bizarre situation. I have no idea what that might be, but I assume I’d have a hint or two from the cover copy. But I don’t need to know yet, that’s part of the hook.

It starts with the action, offers a question I want an answer to, and Gemma is likable enough that I’d stay with her to see where this goes. She seems nice, and having a dead boyfriend generates a lot of sympathy for her right away. Who wouldn’t want to save the person they love?

(Here’s more on hooking readers through story revelations)

2. Are you lost or are you able to follow what's happening?

I can follow what’s going on, though what it means is still a mystery. It’s clear that Gemma has lost Ben to a terrible accident (a shooting of some type), and this strange boy has arrived with crazy claims. There’s enough of a hint to suggest that he might be a time traveler (the submission showed the title, which gave a clue), or some supernatural being.

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

3. Do you get a sense of the kind of person the main character is?

Yes and no. She seems like a nice girl who suffered a tragedy, but I haven’t seen quite enough to know who she is yet. The focus is more on the boy than her, and there’s not a lot of personal reflection from her, so she feels a bit general and blank. There are a few spots where you could add a line or two to get more personality in if you wished.

4. Did you connect with her and care enough to keep reading?

Again, yes and no. I care enough to keep reading, but she’s not the reason I’ll keep reading; curiosity over the situation is. I’m more curious about the story question than the character. She’s fine, and I imagine I’ll get to know her more as the story unfolds, but in this one page, she’s not showing much personality. It’s not hurting the opening any for me (readers chine in), but it’s also a missed opportunity to make readers love her.

(Here’s more on emotional hooks vs. intellectual hooks)

5. Does the scene grab your attention and make you want to know what happens next?

Yes. It’s an odd situation and there’s clearly something going on here. Gemma is very likely going to have to make a tough choice and do something that will set the plot in motion.

I’m most curious about the boy. Who is he and why is he there? Why did he choose to offer Gemma this opportunity? Is he on the level? Is he up to no good? Why Ben? She had enough warning signs about him to suggest this isn’t an altruistic offer, so what’s the catch? What are his motives?

(Here’s more on story questions and hooks)

Overall, I’d keep reading and there’s nothing here that would make me put the book down. You could flesh it out a little to show a few more unique details about Gemma, but if that all appears in the next page or two, I don’t think the lack of it hurts the opening much. The focus is more on the intellectual puzzle than the character, and that’s okay (unless this is a heavy character-driven tale, then the focus is off). It starts with the puzzle of the strange boy, so making him the focus makes sense. Once that’s established, readers can sit back and discover who Gemma is and how she’s going to handle this situation.

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.

About the Critiquer

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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5 comments:

  1. I think this is a powerful starting scene, with a fascinating concept and good description to capture the moment.

    Janice said delaying our sense of who Gemma is doesn't "hurt the story much," but I don't quite agree. Even if this is only the first page or so, I think there's some disorientation to meet a heroine who seems ordinary and focused on the oddness of this boy, then learn she has a dead boyfriend. The best openings (eg Hunger Games) find ways to focus on the protagonist's nature from the first lines, even if it's in subtle ways while other things are happening. We want to know the basics of our new viewpoint as soon as possible-- and, it would be a more vivid (and realistic) experience to hit this plot point already knowing Gemma is normally a fighter, a dreamer, or a caregiver, and understand how *this* kind of person will react to the shock.

    I do think the pace can still work like it is; we learn the basics soon, and in a sense our disorientation matches how any person would be thrown off by something like this. And of course it lets you get to the paranormal excitement as soon as possible. So it could be a matter of degree, of how important that hurry is to you and whether you want to take much time to bridge it.

    You might leave it as is. Or you could weave just a couple of lines in at the beginning, so there's some sense of Gemma observing --and showing how she reacts-- mixed in with all the focus on what she observes about the boy. It's hard to do much that if it's that quick (for instance, I don't know how you could mention that she's lost someone, let alone a shot boyfriend, without it feeling forced), but you could lay some groundwork if getting to the revelation fast is still vital.

    Or you could stretch it out with an extra paragraph or two that takes time for some small thing to happen that lets her reveal more of herself. Or there could be a whole extra page before she sees the boy (or at least until he has time to make his offer) where she's undistracted enough to think a little about herself. I think many authors would try something like the last (called "opening two minutes before the explosion"), if they worked out how that page would still have a unique sense that something was about to happen.

    Minor point: "Staring at him, his entire body seems to vibrate" jumps from the heroine doing the staring to his body vibrating. One way to smooth it would be to add something like "I think" after the comma.

    This really is a solid opening, and it does so much well. I think there's room for even more precision in it, but I already love how it's working.

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  2. Oh: another way you could introduce the paranormal quickly would be to make pretty much the first line be the boy making his offer-- and go right to just which kind of disbelief Gemma has. Outraged, dazed, compassionate, or whatever else would show us the basics about her. The next few paragraphs could be her catching us up with the description and what she thinks is a strange but mundane evening, until he does something to change that.

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  3. I like this idea. Starting with the hook:
    “We can save him, Gemma.”
    “What? Who?”
    “The boy you love.” He pauses and the corner of his mouth twitches. “Ben.”
    My stomach lurches The boy’s unblinking gaze bores into me, so intense his eyes seem to glow.
    “Ben is dead.” I whisper.
    “We can fix that. Come with me and I’ll prove it.”

    This opener has powerful impact...then just go from there.

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  4. I’ve never authored novel, but I like creative writing. I own, read copies of Janice’s books and I visit the website from time to time. I’m no expert but If I may offer a re-write of the current scene and learn something too. I maintained first person point of view, present tense and attempted to get closer to Gemma so that reader can experience Gemma as opposed to viewing two people interacting in semi-detached context.

    I turn. A male figure sits at the front table tapping his fingers. How did he get passed me? I just unlocked the door. He leans back in chair and widens his legs, his blue jean snugging against his thighs. His sky-blue hoodie shadows his eyes, revealing his flatlike-wide nose and round lips. My heart races.

    I take a breath. “I didn’t see you walk in.”

    He grimaces, and I stare at him or is it that a glimmer as if it were some kind of vibration emanating from his body. Never seen that before. A lightness fills my head as if I’d taken an extra headache pill and tingles dance about inside me, radiating and racing from my fingers to my toes.

    I blink. The glimmer and tingling dissipate as quickly as it raced through me. What just happened? An illusion of sorts. Perhaps the sunlight’s glint arcing through the deli window. That’s what it was. But damn, it was real or wasn’t it?

    He slides his hoodie back, revealing green eyes with brown flecks and casting a gaze upon me. His eyes glow as if there something in him. It’s the feeling again, the tingling. Its returning. I break eye contact and snatch the apron from the wall peg. “I’ll be right with you.” I knot the apron, grab a menu and dart to his table.

    Our eyes connect again. “We can save him, Gemma.”

    His voice is smooth and assertive. “How do you know my name”? I glance at my shirt. Duh, the name tag. “I mean, save who?”

    “The boy you love.”

    Hazy guns blazing away cloud my mind. No, there are no boys. Not anymore. He is gone. Tingles course through me.

    His mouth twitches. “Ben.”

    Tears swell, blurring the room. I exhale. “No. Ben is dead.”

    Reaching toward me, a godlike figure stands up and his voice deepens. “I will show you the power.”

    I step back. Memories of blood, panic and an alien like appendage growing from the shooter’s hand stab me like a thrusting kitchen knife. I drop the menu. “No. He’s gone.”

    “Take my hand. I will you to bring you to him.”

    “Who are you?”

    Observations:
    A male figure with power or confidence will not lean forward into other people, especially women. It’s called pecking. Typically, men who lack self-confidence peck as if trying to acquire attention or seek validation from others. So, I changed the text and cut out the leaning body language. Whoever this guy is, he demonstrates power.

    Another oddity between Gemma and the “boy” is age. Gemma is a waitress, so she is a woman. The boy is not really a boy but a man since they are the same age. From my own personal point of view a girl or boy is an individual before puberty. I struck out boy, replaced with a male figure, and added ambiguity as to who he may be.

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  5. I need to know more about Gemma in order to care about the mysterious boy and dead Ben and the promising plot that's about to unfold. The strange encounter happens very early in the first chapter, and there could be more set-up so that we know where we are and who Gemma is before the boy speaks to her. W/out knowing or caring enough about Gemma, we may feel manipulated by the boy's odd statements and Gemma's strong reactions, rather than drawn into the story. That said, I'm very, very curious, so I would definitely read on anyway!

    ReplyDelete