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Saturday, May 19

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This YA Opening Strong Enough to Hold Your Interest?

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.


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Submissions currently in the queue: Three


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

This week’s questions:

Is the opening strong enough to hold readers’ interest (especially that of prospective publishers)?

Have I successfully woven background information into internalization?

Is it enough to have internalization as a response/reaction or should a physical/visceral/ physiological effect precede it?

Is the voice reflective of a well read, intelligent, yet insecure, 15-year-old?


Market/Genre: Young Adult / Coming of Age / Literary

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: Drawing on actual events, the novel is set in an industrial suburb of Melbourne, Australia in the early 1960s. Written from the point of view of the protagonist Meri (age 15), it explores the obstacles that migrants faced as they struggled to come to terms with their new life in a foreign country. It also raises a range of socio-economic issues that were prevalent at that time, such as domestic violence, discrimination and poverty.

There was a heaviness to the night. From the river end of the street right up to the bottle yard near the main road, it weighed down on the neighbourhood, hanging over the rows of cottages and factories like a shroud. To make matters worse, the few remaining lamps that had survived the rampage of the last fight between the bodgies and mods were struggling to light up the road, let alone the footpath. If her father were on his way back, the only way she would be able to see him would be when he stepped directly into the glow of the nearest street lamp. By then it would be too late to warn her sister.

“It’s too dark to see,” she said turning to Ella. “We should switch off our light.”

Sitting cross-legged on the bed they shared, Ella continued scribbling notes with one hand, and with the other, turning the pages of the textbooks that she had spread in a semi-circle around her.

“Not until I’ve finished.”

“Do you have to study now? School doesn’t start for another five weeks.”

“I need all the preparation I can get. A scholarship is the only way I can get out of this hell hole,” said Ella. “So stop interrupting.... and quit moving about, it’s hard enough writing on the bed without you jumping up and down every second.”

“Why don’t you use the kitchen table?”

“You know why,” said Ella then gave one of her long stares.

“But if he sees that we’re still up, it will set him off again.”

“I don’t know what you’ve got to be scared of,” said Ella, “he hasn’t laid a hand on you…yet.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

There was a heaviness to the night. From the river end of the street right up to the bottle yard near the main road, it weighed down on the neighbourhood, hanging over the rows of cottages and factories like a shroud. To make matters worse, [‘matters’ makes me think of actions, not a feeling or ambiance] the few remaining lamps that had survived the rampage of the last fight between the bodgies and mods [gangs of some sort?] were struggling [lamps can’t struggle-better to tie to the amount/quality of the lamplight] to light up the road, let alone the footpath. [this reads like a backwards comparison-is the path far from the road?] If her father were on his way back, the only way she would be able to see him would be when he stepped directly into the glow of the nearest street lamp. [this could use a rewrite to tighten]

By then it would be too late to warn her sister. [Nice early hook – foreboding – makes you wonder why 
the warning is needed]

“It’s too dark to see,” she said turning to Ella. “We should switch off our light.” [this made me wonder if she wanted to see better or was concerned about being seen.]

Sitting cross-legged on the bed they shared, Ella continued scribbling notes with one hand, and with the other, turning the pages of the textbooks that she had spread in a semi-circle around her.

“Not until I’ve finished.”

“Do you have to study now? School doesn’t start for another five weeks.” [this makes me think it might be late summer – why is Ella studying this early?]

“I need all the preparation I can get. A scholarship is the only way I can get out of this hell hole,” [this shows me Ella has a goal: an escape plan] said Ella. “So, stop interrupting...and quit moving about, it’s hard enough writing on the bed without you jumping up and down every second.’

“Why don’t you use the kitchen table?”

You know why,” [another sneaky hook – now I want to know why] said Ella then gave one of her long stares.

“But if he sees that we’re still up, it will set him off again.” [this shows me the father is a threat, has been a threat before, and that watching for him is a protective action]

“I don’t know what you’ve got to be scared of,” said Ella, “he hasn’t laid a hand on you…yet.” [this shows me Ella can be hard, almost cruel, revealing abuse while foreshadowing the potential for future abuse against her younger sister]

The questions:

1. Is the opening strong enough to hold readers’ interest (especially that of prospective publishers)?


I would be reluctant to speculate on any publisher’s reactions or interest to this opening, but I believe that, yes, the opening presents sufficient points of interest to read on.

The hints about the father being someone to fear, builds anxiety. The idea that Ella is determined to gain a scholarship to escape the ‘hellhole’ and may have been protecting her younger sister or would have guilt at leaving her behind creates the potential for compromise to this goal.

The narrator is a bit of a mystery, as that character isn’t very strongly established – in the sense that they are ‘telling the tale’.

The ‘last fight’ between ‘bodgies and mods’ would spark some interest, and due to the casual way it’s presented, I assumed these were local groups that had regular (expected) skirmishes in the area. The fact that the father coming home warranted more apprehension and discussion than the fight of the previous night added to this assumption. This mention seemed more like texture to the scene, part of the ‘hellhole’ idea.

I would like a stronger sense of who the narrator is in this material. A more direct connection. Beyond watching for scary dad to come home, I don’t know anything else about the narrator. Their concern/fearfulness is for the sister, Ella, which she confirms and nearly mocks. I have an impression of someone who watches and waits, but doesn’t take charge, which made me lean toward the narrator being a child or tween. Someone who has no demands to be ‘adult’ in any way. This doesn’t weaken this character, it just makes the opening a bit passive, as all we are doing is waiting.

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

2. Have I successfully woven background information into internalization?

Yes. The environment is aptly described and places the reader within both the personal and external elements that are affecting the characters and are the setting for the story opening.

The initial few lines of narrative do not, to me (readers chime in please), reflect the narrating character as she is presented in the rest of the material. If the text is meant as her observations, from her vantage point in her bedroom, where she’s playing ‘look out’, then her perspective isn’t really shown until the sentence about her being unable to see her father coming down the footpath.

I believe adjusting the language in the earlier sentences to better reflect her vocabulary and phrasing, giving her ownership, would strengthen the opening.

(Here’s more on how point of view affects description and internalization)

3. Is it enough to have internalization as a response/reaction or should a physical/visceral/ physiological effect precede it?

This depends on what you need to convey or express at the time and in the scene. In this opening, the pall over the neighborhood could be the neighborhood reaction to the fight of the night before, subdued, waiting to see if they would face the same violence. Since this is presented without reference to the narrator’s POV, or how it affected her, she simply observes it, without any internalization.

Perspective can alter and precede internalization. In this case, meaning from what perspective is the narrator watching? Is she secure on the second floor, with a longer, broader field of view? Or is she on the first floor, watching from a place where she can only see a few yards down the footpath?

Reactions can allow us to see how the current circumstances are affecting this character, who seems anxious and jumpy, but also hasn’t been hit by the father, per Ella. The narrator is generally reacting to the idea that her father may return at any time, but we don’t know what all is behind her reactions.

We are guided in our actions and reactions by events and the circumstances created by those events. We make decisions based on our past experiences and our hopes for the future, so internalization will be dependent upon whether we are assessing or acting/reacting. Assessing what is (waiting for father) and what was (fight between violent groups the night before) becomes personal when we show how it directly affects our decisions to act or react.

Janice has many excellent articles on internalization on-site, which offer numerous examples and explains why we use this technique to bring the reader deeper into character musings and emotions as the story moves along.

(Here’s more on crafting natural-sounding internal thoughts)

4. Is the voice reflective of a well read, intelligent, yet insecure, 15-year-old?

Not quite. (readers chime in please) I perceive the unnamed (in the text) sister as being younger than fifteen, but aware and intelligent. I didn’t get insecurity as much as anxious and fearful. I had no basis for perceiving her as well-read.

She feels a bit passive, in that she’s content (it seems) to watch for the father and isn’t pulled to do something else while watching. Plus, there is no indication that Ella has requested that she be on ‘look out’ duty.

She could be skittish from the events of the previous night, but we have no indication of that either. Her anxiety seems to stem solely from her father’s return, and not having him see the light on and being set off (again). The use of ‘again’ suggests her father’s violence has occurred before.

I don’t know if the narrator is simply anxious about the potential for violence or if she is afraid for Ella’s sake. Ella appears to be a determined and resourceful person, so it’s easy to imagine that she protects her younger sister and takes on the responsibility of being the target to deflect the father’s wrath from her.

Ella comes across as a survivor. The narrator? Not so much.

Observation by the narrator of scars or bruises on Ella, reflecting on the source of these marks and what they mean to the narrator would help personalize this opening. Noting that Ella gives the narrator one of her ‘long looks’ infers that Ella might view her younger sister as a bit dense. The narrator’s reaction to that expression would also give some insight into what it means to the narrator, and if it was regularly encountered.

I am using ‘the narrator’ because no name is given. I believe this is always a loss for any story, because without a name to start with, it is more difficult to envision this character – they don’t feel real until I have their name. This could be accomplished by simply adding the name to Ella’s dialogue.

As mentioned before, I was unable, through the existing characterization, to see this character as a 15-year-old. I was pulled more to an older child or tween, 11-14.

(Here’s more on writing with a teen voice)

This sample is packed with potential and interest-piquing little tidbits. With a little amending, I believe it will easily pull readers to the next page, and the next. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this author’s first page, and hope readers will chime in and offer further support to this brave volunteer.

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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4 comments:

  1. Good hooks, but get them in faster and use some of the initial paragraph later on it. At first, I thought we were out in the street. And yes, name the main character. Focus on the immediate action. The internalization seems okay, except for first paragraph. I got that she's young, but not about her intelligence, etc. But in 250 words it's hard to do.

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  2. I'd agree, "the narrator" isn't that clear a picture yet. Ella should certainly use her name almost at once, to give us that much to connect with.

    But beyond that, first chapters are absolutely about giving us a fundamental point about the main character that the rest of the book builds on... and for a shy character like this, that probably means positioning something from Ella (or their father or the riots) so that the narrator's reaction to it at least as interesting as the fact itself. Here this person is just giving basic reactions, so it seems more like Ella's the main character, although the narrator might see enough on her own to evolve into a protagonist. "Dad hasn't hurt you, yet" certainly implies the narrator just hasn't been tested yet-- even if that test won't be about their father. So I think this scene hasn't found a way to show what has to be its center, even this early.

    Something else: starting with weather is a time-worn idea, and it doesn't seem like the style you're interested in staying with. You might want to have just one or two sentences before breaking the paragraph, so that the break draws attention to either the fights' damage or immediately to the idea of watching out for their father.

    There's a missed opportunity about the fight. You say "the last fight between the bodgies and mods" but you paint the two sides so evenly, when you could use just a couple of words to imply which side is the narrator's people, or who started it, or some other basic thing about them. You already do a lot by just working it into the description casually, and saying "the last," but it would feel more natural to say "the last time the bodgies came after the mods" or however the dynamic seems to the narrator.

    Ella's description of her scholarship is a bit of an "as you know, Bob," the way it spells out things her sister must have already heard, and readers can spot that. You might look for ways to trim it to be more natural, such as "I skip one page and it might be what gets me stuck here" (and the narrator could think "her and her precious scholarship!" to fill in the last piece). Something like that.

    You do a great job of plunking us into the middle of a setting with a lot going on. I hope you make its center clearer and show off some of the pieces more.

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  3. Excellent comments. From the editing books I've been reading lately (including Janice's), it seems the general consensus is that the protagonist and her/his goal should be established in the first chapter...or at least the set-up for one of the inciting incidents. You seem to have done a bit of that with the foreboding father and sister trying to get out of her hell-hole. However, that establishes nothing for your protagonist. I agree, difficult in 250 words, and will assume that will be taken care of as the chapter proceeds. Consider re-writing this through more focus on Meri's perspective to what Ella is doing and Meri's reaction to it, perhaps via inner dialogue.
    Right now, it seems to establish Ella as the main character.

    I like your writing style, and things could get ramped up a bit to create more tension/fear of the dad, the gangs, oppression, whatever it is Meri must overcome.
    I like the opening few sentences. Poetic in nature, but I would agree with Ken, another BIG boo-boo and one of Elmore Leonard's top ten nevers....never start with the weather :)

    Love the premise of the story and it sounds very different from typical YA offerings, so keep going!

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  4. Thank you all for your constructive comments and supportive suggestions. I am already rewriting!

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