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Saturday, July 14

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Keep Reading This Christian Fiction 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 28.

This week’s questions:

Is the scene active enough? Do you care about Nicole? Is the main problem obvious? Would you read on? Would this be acceptable to begin the querying process?

Market/Genre: Christian Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Nicole strode into her bedroom and shut the door firmly behind her. Hot tears welled up in her eyes. She went to the window and pulled back the curtains, letting the evening sun warm her face.

“Grandfather does not even care about what I think of Tyler.” Pursing her lips, Nicole took a deep, shaky breath and swallowed. “Neither of them are Christians, and I know the ‘unequally yoked’ argument would not stand with Grandfather. He would probably just get angry and say something about not having raised me to depend on a crutch.” Nicole shook her head and turned away from the window. “Plus, Grandfather does not seem to understand that a shy girl and popular boy do not belong together.”

Going to her desk, Nicole sniffed and found her journal. She needed to process, and writing it all down was the best way for her to do that. Pausing for a moment, Nicole sighed and picked up her pen.

“I am seventeen, today.”

She stared at the words, her throat constricting. Grandfather was barely keeping his promise to keep her out of the public eye until she was seventeen. Grunting under her breath, she kept writing.

“Evidently, that means that I must now start dating Grandfather’s most successful acting student. Tyler Harwig is his name. 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 do not know why Grandfather needs me to get him into the spotlight, again. I would think that he could merely ask Tyler to mention their student-mentor relationship during an interview or something.”

Tilting her head back, Nicole took a deep breath. Poising her pen over the paper, she glanced at a picture on her nightstand. Grandmother, six months before she died. Sitting on her lap was a little brown-haired girl. Nicole sighed. It was Grandmother who led her to the Lord when she was young. It was Grandmother who wanted to tell her about her parents. It was Grandfather who stopped her every time she tried.

“I do not understand why Grandfather hates me so. He acts like I am merely a tool to make him popular again, even though I am the shyest person in school. Even Brooklyn sees that.”
Nicole stopped and smiled a little, thinking of her best friend.

“I intend to meet Brooklyn for dinner, tonight. Our birthday tradition. Before Grandmother died, the three of us would go out to dinner and have a girl’s night out. Brooklyn and I have not missed a birthday, yet. By what miracle, I do not know, but I hope we do not have to break that tradition until the day I die.”

A lump caught in Nicole’s throat. The day she died would be sooner than she had thought when the tradition started.

“Of all the things we talk about, we really do not talk about health. Perhaps we should. I am actually grateful that she is all I have, because she is the only one who will be affected by my death. My only conflict is whether or not I ought to tell her I have cancer.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

Nicole strode into her bedroom and shut the door firmly behind her. Hot tears welled up in her eyes. She went to the window and pulled back the curtains, letting the evening sun [warm her face.] Something about wanting the sun on her face when she has hot tears in her eyes just hit me funny.

[“Grandfather does not even care about what I think of Tyler.”] Since this uses italics for the journal entries, I’d suggest putting her internal thoughts in the narrative in third person. Otherwise, half the page is italics, which makes it difficult to know what it what. Is this her writing or thinking? Pursing her lips, Nicole took a deep, shaky breath and swallowed. [“Neither of them are Christians, and I know the ‘unequally yoked’ argument would not stand with Grandfather. He would probably just get angry and say something about not having raised me to depend on a crutch.”] This doesn’t yet feel like Nicole thinking, but the author telling us what her issue is Nicole shook her head and turned away from the window. [“Plus, Grandfather does not seem to understand that a shy girl and popular boy do not belong together.”] This isn't in italics, so is this her actually speaking out loud? This paragraph has some overall issues. It reads a bit awkwardly with the “statement - movement - statement” structure, and it doesn’t flow as natural thought.

Going to her desk, Nicole [sniffed] this struck me as an odd way to locate a journal. Or do you mean she sniffled since she’d been crying? and found her journal. [She needed to process, and writing it all down was the best way for her to do that.] Telling. Pausing for a moment, Nicole sighed and picked up her pen.

“I am seventeen, today.” I’d suggest another way to format the journal entries. Perhaps indent and don’t use quotation marks.

She stared at the words, her throat constricting. [Grandfather was barely keeping his promise to keep her out of the public eye until she was seventeen.] This intrigues me and I want to know more as a reader. Grunting under her breath, she kept writing.

“Evidently, that means that I must now start dating Grandfather’s most successful acting student. Tyler Harwig is his name. 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 do not know why Grandfather needs me to get him into the spotlight, again. I would think that he could merely ask Tyler to mention their student-mentor relationship during an interview or something.” This all feels too formal for a journal

Tilting her head back, [Nicole took a deep breath.] She’s done this a few times, and she’s starting to feel a little melodramatic Poising her pen over the paper, she glanced at a picture on her nightstand. Grandmother, six months before she died. Sitting on her lap was a little brown-haired girl. Nicole sighed. [It was Grandmother who led her to the Lord when she was young. It was Grandmother who wanted to tell her about her parents.] How does this relate to her problem now? She says this as if the problem with her grandfather is that he won’t let he do these things, so how does dating Tyler connect to thee details? If they don’t, then this isn’t the spot for these things to come out It was Grandfather who stopped her every time she tried.

“I do not understand why Grandfather hates me so. He acts like I am merely a tool to make him popular again, even though I am the shyest person in school. Even Brooklyn sees that.” Feels too formal

Nicole stopped and smiled a little, thinking of her best friend.

“I intend to meet Brooklyn for dinner, tonight. [Our birthday tradition. Before Grandmother died, the three of us would go out to dinner and have a girl’s night out. Brooklyn and I have not missed a birthday, yet. By what miracle, I do not know, but I hope we do not have to break that tradition until the day I die.” ] This is all information Nicole knows about wouldn’t write about, so it comes across as telling for the readers’ benefit

[A lump caught in Nicole’s throat. The day she died would be sooner than she had thought when the tradition started.

“Of all the things we talk about, we really do not talk about health. Perhaps we should. I am actually grateful that she is all I have, because she is the only one who will be affected by my death. My only conflict is whether or not I ought to tell her I have cancer.” ] This still comes out of the blue

The questions:

1. Is the scene active enough?


Not yet, because she’s writing and not doing anything. And even if you switched this to her thinking abut her life and problems and not writing in her journal, she’s still not doing anything.

There are three potential conflicts here to drive the scene and give her something to do. The first is her problem with dating Tyler, the second is whether or not to tell her friend she has cancer, and the third is her being shoved back into the spotlight for unknown reasons. I’d suggest mixing these ideas earlier. Perhaps the reason she doesn’t want Tyler is that she’s dying and she wants to do certain things and dating him and being in the spotlight won’t let her. Or being in the spotlight means X (whatever her story reasons) and she doesn’t want that because she’s dying and Y (her reasons). Connect the pieces that relate to one another so readers can understand what’s really the problem here.

The only aspect that made me curious to know more, was why the grandfather promised to keep her out of the spotlight until she was seventeen. This made me wonder who she is, who her parents are, why she’d need to be out of it. This actually felt like the real issue of the story, even though it’s tossed in there (though I could be wrong).

Why is this is journal format? It’s hurting the story by making the action passive, and forcing the narrative into a very formal and explanatory voice. It doesn’t feel like Nicole talking about her life, but the author explaining her life. It also feels historical, not modern day. For example, let’s look closer at one paragraph:
Evidently, that means that I must now start dating Grandfather’s most successful acting student. Tyler Harwig is his name. 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 do not know why Grandfather needs me to get him into the spotlight, again. I would think that he could merely ask Tyler to mention their student-mentor relationship during an interview or something.
This is all information Nicole knows and is writing down “to process.” But there’s nothing personal here, or any sign of processing. Consider something more like…(in your voice and style of course)
He wants me to date Tyler Harwig. It’s not about me, but getting him into the spotlight again, and if he wants that, he should just ask Tyler to mention their relationship in an interview or something. I’m not going out with that guy, ever. I’ll have homework to do, or whatever will get me out of this. I’m meeting Brooklyn for dinner tonight, same place as always. Can’t wait to hear what she has to say about the Tyler problem.
But you don’t actually need the journal for any of this information to come out. You could have Nicole thinking these same things without the journal.
He wanted her to date Tyler Harwig of all people. It wasn’t about her, but getting him into the spotlight again. He should just ask Tyler to mention their relationship in an interview or something, because she was not going out with Tyler Harwig—ever. She’d have homework, or whatever would get her out of it. She sighed and wiped away a tear. One good thing abut today—she was meeting Brooklyn for dinner tonight. She couldn’t wait to hear what her best friend would say about the Tyler problem.
This puts all the same information into Nicole’s head, with her voice (using your voice, naturally. I did this as an example), and gives a sense of Nicole being prepared to get out of it instead of “hoping” she’d have homework.

(Here’s more on mixing action and internal thought)

2. Do you care about Nicole?

Not yet, because she’s so formal and detached I can’t connect with her. But letting her sound like a teen and showing her personality more would help.

(Here’s more on making readers fall in love with your characters)

3. Is the main problem obvious?

No. There’s too much going on and it’s overwhelming. I suspect her actual problem isn’t here yet, and these are all aspects of her life making that problem worse. I have a feeling her issue is really about the spotlight and whatever happened to her parents. But that’s just a guess.

What problem drives the first part of the book? What connects the opening scene issue with the core conflict of the novel? Use that. If the core conflict is in this snippet, then focus on that and let the rest come out at a slower pace where they matter.

(Here’s more on the core conflict)

4. Would you read on?

Not yet (readers chime in). There’s no clear problem or story question I want to see answered, and I don’t care about Nicole yet. One major reason why is the journal entry. I think this would be much stronger without it.

(Here’s more on three things every story needs)

5. Would this be acceptable to begin the querying process?

I’d say no, because the opening isn’t hooking me as a reader yet. I’d also have concerns that the book itself is still unfocused since there’s so much here it’s hard to know what the actual story is about. Although it’s unfair to judge an entire novel on a few hundred words, agents do, and problems seen in an opening pages typically affect an entire novel (not always, but it happens often enough it’s more likely to be true than not).

(Here’s more on what the query says about the book)

Overall, I think the journal entires are holding this back and keeping the author from getting inside Nicole’s head. They’re being used as a crutch to explain, and that keeps readers at a distance and makes everything feel passive and told. I’d suggest reworking this from Nicole’s POV more, putting the information into her internal thoughts and the narrative, and letting her goal drive the scene. Don’t explain her situation, show her reacting to it and deciding what to do next.

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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8 comments:

  1. Too Biblical for me. Stilted phrasing and wasted words.

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  2. I'd agree with Janice: her main problem just isn't clear.

    I think this scene is being defined by how it covers so many issues in her life-- you've chosen this journal opening because it lets Nicole stand back and run through them all. But I think it's giving a false impression that they're all equal, and stopping you from using a stronger opening.

    What's Nicole's most important problem for your story? Is this a reluctant love story with Tyler, or is it reconciling with her grandfather and Tyler's only a symptom, or is it the "spotlight"? Or are those all just distractions to her coping with her cancer?

    I think you should pick one and build your opening scene around it, with the others brought up in the process. A scene about one thing can gain a lot of extra power by using another issue as a complication or contrast, or can mention it as just one line (if it's a conspicuous line) and leave us eager for that problem to get its scenes too.

    The biggest question might be: how important is it that you introduce all these problems as complete equals? I have an impression that you hate to pick one yet, and that's had you locked into this scene that Tells us Nicole's problems as a set. Would it be so bad if you Showed us one problem's drama and how well the others built off of that?

    A slow, multisided scene like this is a real challenge to make compelling enough for an opening, and I'm just not sensing you being comfortable enough with what few tools it gives you. I hope you consider what other approaches might be stronger, when you look beyond the idea of introducing everything equally.

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  3. I agree with what Janice said, but I would also suggest finding a way to talk about spiritual things with different language, particularly in the voice of your character.

    Search out books that talk about spiritual things with unsentimental emotional language (I highly recommend Francis Spufford's Unapologetic, or anything by Marilynne Robinson).

    I'm curious about the main problem (staying out of the spotlight, the conflict with her grandfather, and what happened to her parents); try to bring that out in the opening lines. Is this supposed to be set in modern times? If so, I'm guessing she probably doesn't call her grandparents by such formal names, even in writing. (I was taken out the story the minute she said "grandfather" as if that was how to she referred to him).
    Ours is a much more casual age. If it is set in an earlier time, make that clear from the outside, either by describing the swish of a long skirt, the creak of stays, or whathave you.

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  4. I like the journal aspect, but introduced later in the story. Her cancer diagnosis intrigued me- maybe open with that, alluding to her spiritual thoughts. Just a suggestion. Don’t give up—keep on working to make it the best it can be!

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  5. As for setting, time period, and Christian slant, most of us have an idea where a book will fall just by looking at the cover, so you don't have to be blatant, but I try to infuse the writing with the feeling of these things in the opening paragraphs at the very least. And why not start with a conversation with Grandfather instead of journaling about a past interaction? It would give you an opportunity to show Nicole's feelings, her relationship to her grandpa, her indifference for this boy, and allude to her spiritual dilemma. Plus, who isn't drawn in by realistic interpersonal relationships and dialogue? I'd love to see this character come alive through her actions and reactions, rather than just her thoughts. I hope these suggestions will inspire you to dive back in and revise. Editing is always my favorite part of writing!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your encouragement; I love editing, too! There's just nothing like taking a bit of writing and making it better than you thought possible!

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  6. I read, review, and edit Christian fiction, so this is the genre I'm most familiar with.

    The first few lines gave me the impression I was reading historical fiction, probably set in England (it had the same vibe as Lady Jayne Disappears by Joanna Davidson Politano).

    But then there was a too-contemporary name, a too-contemporary occupation, and other references that didn't gel with the setting ... Yes, I got the time setting 100% wrong. That confused me.

    That confusion made it hard to relate to Nicole. I thought she was one thing, but she was another. The result ways I didn't even make it to the end of this sample, so never got to your hook: that Nicole has cancer.

    (On that note, have you read This Quiet Sky by Joanne Bischof? You should.)

    Is this ready to begin querying? No. I judge several writing contests each year, including two run by American Christian Fiction Writers. I'm sorry, but your opening isn't good enough to make it through the first round. Your writing isn't bad, but this opening isn't compelling ... yet. It can be. It will be.

    You've got some great feedback from Janice and the other commenters. Yes, I get it's hard to hear your manuscript isn't ready for querying.

    But it's better to hear that before you query, because (cliche alert!) you only get one chance to make a first impression. If you submit a less-than-stellar manuscript, you'll be rejected and you won't get invited you submit again.

    Also (at the risk of being the bearer of bad news), the CBA isn't great with contemporary YA. If you want to see what the CBA publishers are buying, check out authors like Nadine Brandes, Rachelle Dekker, Melanie Dickerson, and Sara Ella. Basically, it's fairy tale retellings, and dystopian fantasy. That brilliant YA romance I mentioned above? Self-published.

    Do you live anywhere near Nashville? If so, I recommend checking out the American Christian Fiction Writers conference, which includes the opportunity to hear from some of the big names in Christian publishing, and to book one-on-one meetings with agents and editors.

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    Replies
    1. What would your advise be as far as where to look for publication, then? I was hoping to end up traditionally publishing... Also, thank you for your honesty! I appreciate your feedback, especially since you know the audience I would be writing for.
      The fact that you didn't make it to the hook was a big eye-opener. Do I need to set the scene more? The way Nicole talks is a large part of her character and how she was raised, so I am extremely reluctant to change it; what would have cleared up the time setting for you?
      Thank you so much for commenting!
      A. Julian

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