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Saturday, May 12

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Keep Reading This YA Novella?

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: Two


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

This week’s questions:

Does this opening provide enough conflict? Do you care about the main character (Nicole) based on this snippet? Is there enough of a hint at future conflict? Would you keep reading?


Market/Genre: Christian Literary YA Novella

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Nicole rested her journal on her lap and leaned back into the pillows of her bed, reading what she had written.

“It is my birthday, today, and Grandfather called me into his study to talk about my social life, again. This time, though, he is taking measures of his own to amend that situation. Evidently, there is a rising actor that has caught his attention and has spoken to him about dating me. As always, I have no say in the matter. Tyler Harwig is his name. I think he was my lab partner in eighth grade, but I do not recall. We are supposed to meet for supper on Friday night; tomorrow, that is. Hopefully, I will have homework to do, because Grandfather still insists that my studies must come first.

I intend to meet Brooklyn for supper tonight. Tomorrow, she has to be on set until close to noon, therefore I must try to stay out of harms way at school. Lunch will be difficult, since that is the prime time for targeted teasing among students. I pray God will protect me from their cruelty, but if they are, I will take it patiently.”


Grandmother gave her that verse to learn when she was four and she never forgot it. Tilting her head back, Nicole took a deep breath. Poising her pencil over the paper, she glanced at the picture on her nightstand. Grandmother, six months before she died. Sitting on her lap was a little brown-haired girl. Nicole sighed to herself. She could still remember the distinct smell of roses floating about the room whenever Grandmother was around. Grandmother let her be free to laugh. After she died, Grandfather was her only guardian. Nicole used to wonder why her grandfather hated her. She also used to wonder what happened to her parents.

“I suppose I simply ceased to care and accepted life the way it is. There is not any point in fretting over the ‘whats’ and ‘whys’ of what might have been since I will die early, anyway. I am actually grateful that all I have is Brooklyn. This way, I need not worry about the affects of my death on those around me since there is only one. My only conflict is whether or not I ought to tell her that I have cancer.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

Nicole rested her journal on her lap and leaned back into the pillows of her bed, [reading what she had written.] This immediately pulls readers out of the action.

“It is my birthday, [How old is she?] today, and Grandfather called me into his study to talk about my social life, again. This time, though, he is taking measures of his own to amend that situation. [Evidently, there is a rising actor that has caught his attention and has spoken to him about dating me]. Interesting and offbeat tidbit As always, I have no say in the matter. Tyler Harwig is his name. I think he was my lab partner in eighth grade, but I do not recall. We are supposed to meet for supper on Friday night; tomorrow, that is. Hopefully, I will have homework to do, because Grandfather still insists that my studies must come first. There’s no date on this, and I assume from the details that it’s modern day, but there’s something archaic and almost Victorian about the tone and manner of speech here. It makes me wonder what year this is.

I intend to meet Brooklyn for supper tonight. Tomorrow, she has to be on set until close to noon, therefore I must try to stay out of harms way at school. Lunch will be difficult, since that is the prime time for targeted teasing among students. I pray God will protect me from their cruelty, but if they are, I will take it patiently.”

Grandmother gave her [that verse] what verse? to learn when she was four and she never forgot it. Tilting her head back, Nicole took a deep breath. Poising her pencil over the paper, she glanced at the picture on her nightstand. Grandmother, six months before she died. Sitting on her lap was a little brown-haired girl. Nicole sighed [to herself] don’t need. She could still remember the distinct smell of roses floating about the room whenever Grandmother was around. Grandmother let her be free to laugh. After she died, Grandfather was her only guardian. [Nicole used to wonder why her grandfather hated her. She also used to wonder what happened to her parents.] There’s a lot to parse in this and I’m starting to have trouble identifying the point of this story so far.

“I suppose I simply ceased to care and accepted life the way it is. There is not any point in fretting over the ‘whats’ and ‘whys’ of what might have been since I will die early, anyway. I am actually grateful that all I have is Brooklyn. This way, I need not worry about the affects of my death on those around me since there is only one. [My only conflict is whether or not I ought to tell her that I have cancer.”] Wow, okay, so there’s a lot going on in this girl’s life.

The questions:

1. Does this opening provide enough conflict?


Although there are references to a ton of problems and issues, there’s no conflict here yet, because it’s just Nicole writing in her journal. The only hint of conflict is her wondering if she could tell her friend she has cancer, but there’s no struggle actually shown yet.

Nicole gas no goal she’s trying to achieve, no hard choice to make, and she’s facing no challenge. Her writing style feels like something from another century, so I get a sense of a teen being melodramatic rather than one facing real problems. She’s listing her issues, but I don’t get the sense that she has any real feelings about them.

Why is this in journal format instead of starting with her talking to her grandfather? This seems to be the “action” and most immediate potential conflict of the scene. He wants to set her up on a date with an actor, and she doesn’t want to go. If this were dramatized it would put the conflict front and center, and give you a chance to show why this is bad for Nicole and why Grandfather wants her to do it. You could also slip in some hints or details that show he dislikes her, and the difficult relationship between them.

As is, everything is being told to readers through the journal, but it lacks impact because we don’t know this girl or her life yet. And so much is revealed it’s hard to know what matters and where there story will come from. For example, in this single page we learn:
  • She’s being forced to date against her will
  • She’s bullied and teased at school
  • She mourns and misses her grandmother
  • She thinks her grandfather hates her
  • She doesn’t know what happened to her parents
  • She has cancer and is dying
  • She doesn’t care about anything but her friend anymore
This is an awful lot to absorb and process, and it’s a bit overwhelming. What matters? What’s the point of the story? How do these things connect? It reads more like a summary of all the bad things in her life, not a character with a problem she’s trying to resolve.

(Here’s more on getting to the heart of your story)

2. Do you care about the main character (Nicole) based on this snippet?

Not yet (readers chime in here). Nicole herself doesn’t care, so it’s hard to feel for her as a reader. There’s also little sense of who she is as a person, so I can’t connect with her. I can see she loved her grandmother, and cares about her friend, but the only sense of personality I get from this is “melodramatic, yet apathetic teen,” which doesn’t make me want to spend time with her.

I think there’s potential here, but the focus is too much on her issues and not enough on her character and the struggle that character is facing. It’s more “my life stinks” than “I have this problem I must solve.” Because of that, there’s nothing to draw me in and make me want to see how this character resolves her problems.

(Here’s more on making readers care about the protagonist)

3. Is there enough of a hint at future conflict?

There are so many hints they’re getting in each other’s way and muddying up the story. I can’t tell what the “future conflict” is. Is it her struggling to tell her friend she’s dying? Is it trying to find out what happened to her parents? Is it her resolving her issues with her grandfather? Is it her being forced to date?

You don’t have to put all the conflicts and issues into the first page. All you need is one good one to hook readers and draw them in, then you can start slipping in the next problem and build off those issues.

Use your narrative focus to show readers what matters and convey the issue that shows readers what’s driving the story. Most of these issues are large enough to carry an entire novel, so they feel like too much for a novella. They may not be depending on how you weave them together, but there’s no sense of importance or hierarchy here to let me know what the story is about, and what’s just a subplot or side issue.

(Here’s more on narrative focus)

4. Would you keep reading?

No (readers chime in here). There’s nothing drawing me in, the character isn’t connecting with me yet, and the voice feels off, caught between historical fiction and literary. I don’t get a YA voice yet, either. But there’s a lot here that could work well to hook me and make me care about Nicole and her problems.

I’d suggest picking the problem she writes about first—her social life. This allows you to get a conflict and problem in right away that would likely be of interest to teen readers. Why wouldn’t a teen girl want to date an up and coming actor? Most girls would jump at that chance, so her resistance piques curiosity. Is it because she’s dying or is there more? It’s also a chance to show the difficult relationship between her and her grandfather, and the dynamic between them.

I’d imagine she does have to go on the date (otherwise why bring it up just to have it lead nowhere), and that would give readers something to anticipate to further draw them into the story. After the setup, Nicole can meet with Brooklyn and you can show that relationship and perhaps introduce the cancer conflict.

The rest I’d save for later so you don’t overwhelm readers. And depending on what this story is about (my guesses could be wrong since all I’m seeing in this one page), you might not even need the other issues. Novella’s are short, and this is a lot to cover and still flesh out the characters and story to satisfy readers. If the focus is more on her parents and what happened to them, them perhaps use that as a reason for her to date the actor or something that connects the two issues so readers can see what the problem is.

(Here’s more on why readers stop caring about the story)

Overall, I suspect you’re just trying to do too much too soon (or possibly too much for a novella). Slow down, let readers absorb the character and the opening problem first and hook them before introducing more. A steady reveal of issues will help keep them hooked and wanting to know more, and seeing how those problems connect and play out in the story will keep them reading.

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

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including 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 (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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5 comments:

  1. What Janice said.

    A good first scene is about picking a conflict or two to lead us into the story and the sense of the character, and using a moment that shows it off well. Here you have your conflicts, but with so many they seem to run together, and Nicole's lack of reaction about them keeps us from connecting to the girl who's facing them. And a journal scene can be as good as you make it, but here using it seems to be a way to mention all those problems quickly.

    I like that she builds up to the biggest one, the cancer. Perhaps you want to start with a scene about one or two of the other issues, that hints at the cancer and builds up to it; it could give you more space to mention the rest in passing. She could be meeting with her grandfather or the actor, or Brooklyn, or being teased at lunch, or whatever works.

    First chapters are by far the hardest single thing we writers do; they're three times as tricky and at least four times as important as any other chapter (so 12x work!!). Janice has some of the best pieces out there about pulling them together, and you could look at other first chapters and find out which ones are best designed.

    Two other things that got in my way: the grandfather picking a rising actor for her completely changed my picture of the situation, because it implies that the family is rich enough to boss Hollywood around, or maybe her grandfather's a powerful director or she's an teenage actress herself living on a movie studio. We don't know anything about this side of her situation, so a claim like that took up more of my attention than I wanted. Also, you say Grandmother "gave her that verse" but you don't show anything that looks like a verse-- so I had to stop and work out that it meant the original words for praying for protection and patience.

    There's a lot going on here, and you seem to know Nicole very well. I hope you can pull back from her head a little and choose situations that give us a more vivid view of what she's facing.

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    1. Thanks for the advice; beginnings are my weakest place, and I appreciate all the help I can get!

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  2. Overall, this opening page is a maelstrom of 'sucks to be me' things.

    Our MC is reading her journal, not writing in it, so we don't know when all this was written. The assumption is that she's just written it, which leads me to believe that the fact that it's her birthday has driven her to express in her journal all the 'sucks to be me' stuff in and about her life.

    She seems to be caught up in loss -- loss of control, loss of her beloved Grandmother, loss of her parents, potential loss of her life. It appears that her only immediate issue is whether she will tell her friend about her cancer.

    The language of the journal is stilted (like Janice notes) and reminds me of a teen trying to write in a purposefully formal way, to reflect how above it all they are.

    To me, the journal entry also reflects someone who has become resigned to all the loss and has reached a stoic depression and is now enumerating her crosses to bear as a validation of her current state.

    We could care -- deeply -- about this character if we set the scene a bit, exposing the perspective of her reading her journal. It's her birthday -- and she has little to look forward to besides bad or sad things, and clings to her friendship with Brooklyn, claiming it is all she has. This is enough to give her sympathy, at the least.

    To be honest, without a set up, once the journal entry text began, I was ready to stop reading, as I immediately 'felt' the author's decision to leave the reader out and not do the work required to engage the reader. Consider setting the scene, so we know who this journal-writer is, what her state of mind is, what time of day it is, how old is she? Then, we will 'get' that she's putting ducks in a row and trying to decide what to tell her friend. That this is the main concern to her, and her journal entry is a way of working through that decision.

    oyes--the most interesting line in the entire page was the comment about her wondering about her parents. My mystery-loving mind perked up at that and instantly spun out questions: whose side of the family is the Grandfather on? What might the loss of the parents have to do with her thinking her Grandfather hated her? Does her birthday have something to do with her parents?

    And finally>> my journal entries never, ever had decent grammar in them - never, ever. I scribbled stream-of-consciouness drivel with few commas, let alone a semi-colon! :O)

    Best of luck to you -- you have some interesting things going on, as Janice and Ken both recommend, slow down, make clear what's happening and when, show scene, and go active -- not passive.

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    1. Thanks for your comments! What do you mean by setting the scene? I'm afraid of being too expository and tell-ish with character description, so what else could I do? Also, Nicole is incredibly introverted and introspective, so I wasn't sure how to do that apart from a journal entry. If you have any ideas, please let me know!

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    2. If Nicole is introverted, that tells us she spends time alone-- but it doesn't mean her first scene needs to be. Starting her with others lets you pick what issue comes up there and how she deals with it, and that may be a more useful first impression than her journal. (And, she might be trying to write in the background, or thinking "How will I journal this?", while it's happening to her-- that makes her nature clear but also shows the challenge you need for her anyway.) After the basics are set up, you could make sure to keep bringing her back to her journal or introversion, if you're careful each of those scenes is different and genuinely brings out a change of its own.

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