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Saturday, June 30

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Keep Reading This YA Fantasy Opening?

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 July 14.

This week’s questions:

1. Would you want to keep reading?

2. Is the description too much at this point?

3. Does it sound like Fantasy or is the language too modern?

4. Does the mental and physical state of the protagonist match her actions?

5. Does this opening work?


Market/Genre: YA Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: The protagonist right now is nine years old but she will grow older as the story goes.

The little girl was exhausted, breathing in and out, too tired to even feel afraid. The pain in her right arm tied in a splint pulsed with each step. She barely held herself from falling flat on her face, her feet dragging on grass and dirt.

She followed him like a goat behind its Sheppard, ‘to what end?’ sounded irrelevant at the moment.

It is true, the scenery’s much better than the dark, damp and scary cavern, and the sum of the sounds of their footsteps in the serene quietness of the forest was soothing her numbness, except it all felt like a feverish dream.

And feverish she was.

The only thing that really bothered her; why was he walking so fast?

But he stopped now and so did she.

The boy was standing with his back to a sunny clearing, she ventured to look up, their eyes met and he sighed looking away.

“Come closer,” he said, with a gesture from his hand.

She heavily crossed the space between them save for the last five feet.

“Please sit down” he added, pointing to a tree to the left of the stairs that she now saw behind him.

“You can lean on this.”

She approached and counted seven steps all black, a narrow tree on each side, one near the second step to the left, the other near the third on the right.

The girl realized, to her rather small amusement, that she still maintained her counting habit even when her brain was in its foggiest state to date.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[The little girl was exhausted, breathing in and out, too tired to even feel afraid.] Because of the distant narrator (“the little girl” is outside looking down, not through the eyes of this child), this has a prologue feel. The pain in her right arm [tied in a splint] reads awkwardly pulsed with each step. She barely held herself from falling flat on her face, her feet dragging on grass and dirt.

She followed [him] who is this? There’s no one mentioned in the first paragraph so he comes out of the blue like a goat behind its Sheppard, ‘to what end?’ sounded irrelevant at the moment.

It is true, the scenery’s much better than the dark, damp and scary [cavern,] I wanted a little more here to help ground me. What cavern? Where is this? and [the sum of the sounds of their footsteps] awkward in the serene quietness of the forest [was soothing her numbness] not sure numbness can be soothed, except it all felt like a [feverish dream.] feverish contradicts both the numb and soothe concepts

And feverish she was.

[The only thing that really bothered her; why was he walking so fast? ] I’m not sure this is truly “the only thing”

But he stopped now and so did she.

The boy was standing with his back to a sunny clearing[,] period? she ventured to look up, their eyes met and he sighed looking away. This whole sentence is troublesome, and it's hard to understand what’s going on. Perhaps break it up so the actions flow more naturally.

“Come closer,” he said, with a gesture [from his hand.] this is usually how someone gestures

She [heavily crossed the space] how do you “heavily” cross space? between them save for the last five feet.

“Please sit down” he [added,] "added" feels wrong here since he didn’t add it right after. She took time to cross the space to reach him pointing to a tree to the left of [the stairs that she now saw behind him.] This feels stuck on, so it comes out of nowhere

“You can lean on [this.”] “This” makes me think he’s handed her something, but he means “that tree” I think. Or maybe the stairs?

She [approached] what? I’m not sure if this refers to the boy, tree, or stairs. and counted seven steps all black, [a narrow tree on each side] it referred to “a tree” before, indicating one tree, but now there are two, one near [the second step to the left, the other near the third on the right.] this is a bit confusing. I think you mean the trees are off of the second and third steps, but it reads as though the steps themselves were to the left and right

The girl realized, to her rather small amusement, that she still maintained her counting habit even when her brain was in its foggiest state [to date.] this feels a little modern to me

The questions:

1. Would you want to keep reading?

Not yet (readers chime in). I can see there’s something strange going on, but I’m having a hard time following and getting all the details of the scene straight. Things are referred to as if I already know what they mean and where they are, which makes me feel as though I’ve missed a page.

The lack of names and distant narrator also makes this read like a prologue, which often triggers “not the real story yet” to readers. I seems like a piece of the protagonist’s past that explains something about the true start of the tale, but isn’t something readers actually need to know at this point in the story. It’s possible none of this is true, it’s just how the style reads to me.

(Here’s more on grounding readers in the story world)

2. Is the description too much at this point?

It’s not too much, but it’s not clear enough to understand. She’s hurt and following someone, but there’s nothing to suggest how she broke her arm or who the boy is. I don’t even learn about the boy until I’ve pictured a girl alone stumbling through the woods, so he’s a shock when it mentions him. I don’t know where she came from or where they’re going, or how anything I’m seeing fits together.

Not explaining everything is good, but there’s a line between intriguing and confusing. A little more to set the scene and give a greater sense of what’s going on would help draw me in. For example, I may not need to know how she broke her arm, but how does the cavern fit in? Were they hiding there? Did she live there? Was trapped there? Or did they simply pass through it on their way to the stairs?

(Here’s more on how much to describe the setting)

3. Does it sound like Fantasy or is the language too modern?

Aside from one spot, it sounds fantasy to me.

(Here’s more on developing a narrative voice)

4. Does the mental and physical state of the protagonist match her actions?

Aside from following, she has no real action, but she’s exhausted and feverish, so mostly. Noticing the scenery and comparing it to the cave might be more aware than a feverish and exhausted girl might be, but it’s an outside narrator, so I’m not really in her head.

I’m not getting a sense of the characters, however. They’re vague people floating in a vague world, and I’m not being invited in to meet them yet.

(Here’s more on character actions that match their emotions)

5. Does this opening work?

Not yet. I think it could if you clarify the confusing spots and do a bit more to ground the reader into what’s gong on. The mystery of who she is and why she’s following this boy is intriguing, as is the hints that she was hurt and inside a cavern, and now in a clearing with weird stairs. There’s something going on here, but I have no context to understand it yet.

Overall, I think expanding on this and fleshing out the confusing parts will create the mystery and curiosity you want, and still give readers enough to pique their interest. The situation itself feels pretty good, it just needs some tweaking to go where you want it to go.

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 ShifterBlue 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 Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. 
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6 comments:

  1. This strikes me as a story that's digging deep into the moment trying to build suspense, but hasn't quite mastered the tools it uses for that.

    Like Janice said, a number of the bits and pieces give different impressions, or aren't clear. The first line does distance us by saying "the little girl" when it could just say "She", and "too tired to even feel afraid" would be more immersive as saying she has some vague memory that she'd been afraid once before she was so tired. (Though if you don't say "little girl" you need to work in her youth somewhere else *soon* before we start thinking of her as adult, probably with her actual age-- nothing else is as clear for kids.) The second paragraph also jolted me with "She followed him," when "She followed the boy" would make it clearer this is someone you just didn't mention yet.

    A harder question is, how much time do you have for mood-setting like this? Focusing on a little girl who's going to grow up is almost the definition of a prologue, and those work best when they have a razor-sharp sense of why the one thing they're covering now needed to be shown so far ahead of the rest of the story. (I wrote about prologues in http://bit.ly/PrologueList.) This scene might need to get to its key reveal faster to justify itself, or it might be fine with this buildup pace if the buildup were used more carefully.

    Mostly, I'd suggest looking closely at how YA writers use both different kinds of scene pacing and their description details. Lines like "and feverish she was" make me think you're trying out a lot of different techniques and not completely sure why they work or not. Two rules of thumb: put yourself deeper into what your main character would notice ("the bartender sees the crowd, the SEAL sees the exits"), and practice reading it aloud for any phrase that doesn't flow.

    I love how much experimenting you're doing here, and your willingness to push us deep into what's going on right now. That's a commitment to quality that many writers never make-- I hope you keep working to make this flow the way you want it to.

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    Replies
    1. Wow! Ken Hughes:
      “This strikes me as a story that's digging deep into the moment trying to build suspense, but hasn't quite mastered the tools it uses for that.”
      That’s pretty much it! Digging deep is my intention, and one of the reasons I’m not there yet is that English isn’t my first language.
      Your advice hits home with me.
      Thank you for the link, and your encouraging words, your last paragraph made my day :)

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  2. Thank you very much Janice for the critique. All points will be noted in my revision.

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  3. I commend anyone who attempts to write a book NOT in their native language. One faces diverse challenges as a writer anyway, but especially a second-language writer. Good for you! Keep at it...good things to come.

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  4. How do you submit an opening to be critiqued?

    ReplyDelete