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Saturday, March 24

Real Life Diagnostics: Do You Feel Grounded in This YA Fantasy Opening?

Critique By Maria D'Marco

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: Four


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through April 21.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this opening provide enough context for those who haven’t read the main story? Do you feel grounded?

2. How’s the pacing? Do I drag it too long?

3. What impression do you have of the MC? Does her voice come through? Do you feel connected to her?

4. Would you read on?

5. Since English is my third language, does anything strike you weird/funny?


Market/Genre: YA Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

The guy I’ve admired brought my death. No, that’s not quite correct. He didn’t realize it was me during that duel and after, and he surely wasn’t to blame for my own misstep in the mines either. Let me start over.

Normally, this would be the part where you introduce yourself—which I sadly can’t. To Malcolm and his gang I was “Hey”, “Girl”, “You” plus the combinations in my seventeen years. Grandpa had refused to simply give me a name, for Mother and Father might’ve not liked it. Too bad they died in a crash riding Wheels.

At least that’s what people said. In that town as many lies were flying around as sand corns in the surrounding desert. People also said Grandpa made some special deal with Malcolm so I wouldn’t end up a digger—which would’ve explained why he mostly wasn’t home, and why I had grown up wiping the ever-smudged wooden floor of Malcolm’s bar. Squeezing through those criminal-marked men twisted my stomach, especially in the evening when that stuffy hellhole reeked of sweat and beer. But sneaking away would’ve gotten me Grandpa’s troubled gaze or his somewhat disappointed sigh.

“A life fettered, a bird caged,” he used to murmur, shaking his head.

I was around five when he stopped coming back, and Malcolm ordered I was to live at his place from now on the next morning.

His men, having chased me outside, stormed again my former home. He himself paced in the street and glanced towards the town gate every few moments. Winds whirled up the red sand on that otherwise normal, dry desert day, but winds never bothered me much. Howls and shrieks didn’t start gang fights or make people disappear.

Of course they don’t really disappear. They either got “promoted” to a lifetime digger or lost their footing and fell off some mine cliff. The town attracted all kinds of people from various places after the rare mineral was found. And as long as Malcolm—or Ramon, the other head of the mines—had nothing against your face, you were allowed to do regular shifts and earn a living with “that stuff” used to fuel Wheels.

A rumbling engine sound rose over the clatter of boots.

“Well finally!” Malcolm spun around, his mouth spread in a grin—which turned his rat face even less trustable. Heading for his bar, he called, “Goods first, men!”

My Thoughts in Purple:

The guy I’ve admired brought my death. No, that’s not quite correct. He didn’t realize it was me during that duel and after [just because the man who killed you didn’t realize it was you, he still killed you – so what is being corrected?], and he surely wasn’t to blame for my own misstep in the mines either.

Let me start over.

Normally, this would be the part where you introduce yourself [this should be ‘I introduce myself’ or possibly, ‘one introduces oneself’]—which sadly, I can’t.

To Malcolm and his gang, I was “Hey”, “Girl”, “You” plus the combinations in my seventeen years [this feels unfinished – as it doesn’t qualify the 17 years (during? over? working/living with them?]. Grandpa had refused to simply give me a name, for Mother and Father might’ve not liked it.

Too bad they died [was the MC an infant then – or how old was she?] in a crash riding Wheels [I am assuming Wheels is short for some kind of vehicle]. At least that’s what people said.

In that town as many lies were flying around as sand corns in the surrounding desert. People also said Grandpa made some special deal with Malcolm so I wouldn’t end up a digger—which would’ve explained why he [Grandpa?] mostly wasn’t home, and why I had grown up wiping the ever-smudged wooden floor of Malcolm’s bar. Squeezing through those criminal-marked men twisted my stomach, especially in the evening when that stuffy hellhole reeked of sweat and beer. But sneaking away would’ve gotten me Grandpa’s troubled gaze or his somewhat disappointed sigh [in the next 2 sentences we see that Grandpa left her life when she was five, so is this here a reference to when she was 4 or 5…cleaning floors? The sneaking away makes little sense at that age – at 15, yes!].

“A life fettered, a bird caged,” he used to murmur [she remembers this from age 4 or 5?], shaking his head.

I was around five when he stopped coming back [‘he’ is Grandpa right? Where had he been coming back to?], and Malcolm ordered I was to live at his place from now on the next morning [this extra qualifier isn’t needed, as the text doesn’t specify a particular day/night that the grandfather stopped coming back].

His men, having chased me outside, stormed again my former home [I have buckled my seatbelt…whose men? Chased her from her home? Stormed again? Former home? This is a new scene following an opening of reflection, possibly being told by a dead girl…I read on just to hope to orient myself.]. He himself [use ‘his’ name here] paced in the street and glanced towards the town gate every few moments.

Wind whirled up the red sand on that otherwise normal [what was making it not-normal?], dry desert day, but wind never bothered me much. Howls and shrieks [this needs to be tied to the wind or readers will look for a connection, like gang fights…] didn’t start gang fights or make people disappear.Of course, they don’t really disappear. They either got “promoted” to a lifetime digger or lost their footing and fell off some mine cliff [this infers that all mines have cliffs in this place, is that correct?].

The town attracted all kinds of people from various places after the a rare mineral was found. And as long as Malcolm—or Ramon, the other head of the mines—had nothing against your face, you were allowed to do regular shifts and earn a living with “that stuff” [I believe you mean ‘earn a living mining ‘that stuff’] used to fuel Wheels.

A rumbling engine sound rose over the clatter of boots [where? by the former home? I believe ‘clatter’ could be bettered here, perhaps ‘stomping’ or ‘tromping’?].

“Well finally!” Malcolm spun around, his mouth spread in a grin—which turned his rat face even less trustable. Heading for his bar, he called, “Goods first, men!”

The questions:

1. Does this opening provide enough context for those who haven’t read the main story? Do you feel grounded?


No, not quite. There are some clues and I got a general idea of the immediate environment. I didn’t know if the duel was part of this world/place, this desert mining spot. I cobbled a place where the MC, as a toddler apparently, lost both parents in a crash, was taken in by her Grandpa, who may have struck a deal with a local bar-owner, who is also head of some mines, where a rare mineral is being mined. The deal was struck with Malcolm, one of the head miners and owner of a bar, and was to keep the MC from being doomed to a life of a ‘digger’, apparently a drone existence of digging-‘til-you-drop. At the age of five her Grandpa leaves and she becomes Malcolm’s ‘property’, cleaning the floors at his bar. The MC may now be seventeen. She was never given a name.

The opening paragraph made me curious about who she admired, how she managed to be killed by that someone, and why she was in disguise when she was killed – though the text is a bit confusing.

I did not feel grounded in the story, but easily could have if the POV set up would have been stronger. As it is, I was busy figuring things out and trying to confirm her role as narrator.

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

2. How’s the pacing? Do I drag it too long?

Readers chime in here, please. The pacing in the text I consider to be a ‘scene’ (Malcolm in street, watching gate)moves along well enough, and there is some strong text. I did not feel certain where the MC was during the scene though or what the attack on her former home meant. This struck me as a re-living of something…again, the ghost narrator. :o)

I am invested in the story but feel the assumption of knowledge makes for a difficult way forward. When you hit your stride in some places, you immediately connected with me.However, the scene wasn’t set up, so entry into it was a bit of a jolt.

I didn’t feel anything was dragging on – when the continuity smoothed out, I was looking forward to learning/reading more of the story.

The opening is reflection and appears to come from someone already dead, so the push to read on is mostly to try to learn/figure out what is being presented. I didn’t mind the slight mystery involved or the potential of a dead girl narrating. I just minded the confusion and conflicting elements in the material.

(Here’s more on balancing your pacing and world building)

3. What impression do you have of the MC? Does her voice come through? Do you feel connected to her?

Well, my impression is that she’s dead…

Yes, I believe her voice comes through, though we only get to ‘see’ her/experience her from a reflective mode.

She’s dead, so no, I don’t feel very connected to her – yet – but I am interested in the story around her life and what led to her demise. Though I am not certain that’s where this piece will take me.

(Here’s more on developing character voice)

4. Would you read on?

Yes. As many re-reads as I had to do to make and maintain a connection with the story, I still wanted to know more. There are enough true ‘story-questions’, meaning curiosity-drivers, that I would keep reading. Though, to be honest, I might not give you too much time to hook me properly.

(Here's more on creating story questions to keep readers hooked)

Pushing readers to create connections or assume story facts can wear thin. Every story needs structure and a few, well-placed, significant facts that bind the story together in a logical progression. You can bring out fantastic ideas and concepts, but they still need to be presented in a solid manner, so readers can depend on them – and the story.

I feel there is much more going on in this story – perhaps the main story covers it all. I like the feeling of this material, that this is the soul of something – so, on that feeling alone, I would read on.

5. Since English is my third language, does anything strike you weird/funny?

Not really. I regularly work with ESL writers and am accustomed to the difficulties those writers face. It isn’t just the words being translated, it’s the syntax and rhythm of phrasing, plus the ‘flavor’ of some languages, as well as (most definitely) the assumed knowledge that can vary from country to country. All those things (and more, of course) make a difference in the flow and creation of beautiful language, one from the other.

>>Since you were called to put this character’s life into its own bubble, will you be including it with the main story as a separate ‘section’? Or can it be included within the main story? Is it strong enough to be another book? Can it be tied to what happened to her Grandpa, or her parents?

Best of luck to you!

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

Maria D’Marco is an editor with 20+ years experience. She specializes in developmental editing, and loves the process of wading through the raw, passionate words of a first draft. Currently based in Kansas City, she flirts with the idea of going mobile, pursuing her own writing and love of photography, while maintaining her fulfilling work with authors.

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1 comment:

  1. I loved how it it started. Nice choice of words and impactful telling. But I got lost on the transition you made. Suddenly there was a grandpa and Malcom situation, which didn't connect directly to the first paragraphs.

    On a few sentences you throwed at us three concepts: liars city, grandpa and malcom. Take easy a bit, and show us one idea at time.

    I would like to read more about how how grandpa disappeared, you could hint at liars city and then connect on how how MC life had been and then explain Malcom/Grandpa lie.

    As an ESL comrade, I'd say you have a great writing style. Good choice of words. I thin you have a great opening here, you just need to arrange the elements better with less information.

    Great job.

    ReplyDelete