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Saturday, August 18

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Young Adult Christian Opening Make You Want to Read More?

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: Three


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through September 8.

This week’s question:

1. Does the opening work?


Market/Genre: Young Adult (Christian) Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: Since his dad died two years ago, 16-year-old Will’s world has continued to crumble around him. With not much left to live for, he retreats into the fantasy worlds his books and games offer. But when another family tragedy looms, and Will is forced out of his refuge—what he discovers is that fantasy and reality are interwoven in ways he could have never imagined and the dark forces that have always plagued him are thirsty to devour his whole family. His sister is a quadriplegic which I hint at in the first half of the chapter but is made obvious a little later in the chapter

Will gripped the game controller, struggling to subdue his frustration that bordered on fury. His white knuckles the only indication that his sister’s relentless pleading for his attention had lead to another defeat by his player’s rival. Well, that and the fact that his player now stood ready at the village gate checkpoint following his untimely death. If it wasn’t for their 11 year age difference he may have connected the controller with her little five-year-old skull.

He closed his eyes pulling in breath. Miri had somehow managed to perch herself by his shoulder and the cloying smell of her hair halted his sigh. He wondered if all little sisters insisted on strawberry shampoo.

Flexing the fingers on his left hand instead, he rubbed his eyes to erase the fuzziness the shadow fed into his mind. He knew it would be watching him from the corner of the ceiling behind him. It always was when he felt this way.

Finally, he let out a sigh. He had been putting her off all afternoon and he didn’t have the patience to work his way back to the battle.

"Fine Miri,” he growled at her — just so she wouldn’t mistake his concession for surrender. Judging by the wide grin on her face, she didn’t notice.

“We’ll play Gideon,” he offered with a grunt. It was a story similar to the game he was playing, one their grandfather taught Will when he was little. The story had become like a bruise he was forever prodding.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Will gripped the game controller, struggling to subdue his frustration that bordered on fury. His white knuckles the only indication that his sister’s relentless pleading for his attention had lead to another defeat by his [player’s] Since he’s the player, this sounds like he means someone else. Typically, these are called avatars or characters, depending on the game rival. [Well, that and the fact that his player now stood ready at the village gate checkpoint following his untimely death.] This essentially repeats the “defeat” idea, since dying puts him back at his checkpoint If it wasn’t for their 11 year age difference [he may have connected the controller with her little five-year-old skull.] This seems a little on the mean side for a character readers are supposed to like and want to root for.

He closed his eyes [pulling] and pulled, since closing his eyes doesn't affect his breathing in breath. Miri had somehow managed [to perch herself] you might consider something else here that further hints at her condition. “Perch” makes me think sitting and balancing on something, which she couldn’t do by his shoulder and [the cloying smell of her hair halted his sigh.] I’m not sure how a smell halts a sigh He wondered if all little sisters insisted on strawberry shampoo.

Flexing the fingers on his left hand [instead,] instead of sighing? The transition here is odd he rubbed his eyes to erase [the fuzziness the shadow fed into his mind.] This is the first time this is mentioned, but there’s no context for it, and no hint that it’s supernatural or otherworldly [He knew it would be watching] telling a bit him from the corner of the ceiling behind him. It always was when he felt this way.

Finally, he let out a sigh. He had been putting [her] Since you last mentioned the shadow, it’s not 100% clear this has switched back to Miri off all afternoon and [he didn’t have the patience to work his way back to the battle.] I know this means the game, but the “and” makes it seems as though he means a battle with Miri he has no patience for.

"Fine Miri,” he growled at her — just so she wouldn’t mistake his concession for surrender. Judging by the wide grin on her face, she didn’t notice.

“We’ll play Gideon,” he offered with a [grunt.] He growls and grunts. Perhaps just use one It was [a story] odd way to phrase this. It was a similar game, or the story was similar to his game’s story similar to the game he was playing, one their grandfather taught Will when he was little. [The story had become like a bruise he was forever prodding.] I don’t understand what he means here

The question:

1. Does the opening work?


Not yet (readers chime in). Will is coming across as a pretty lousy brother, who growls at his little sister and wants to hit her with a controller. Most gamers can relate to having someone get them killed, so I understand the frustration, but there’s nothing here that shows he’s more than a jerk obsessed with games.

There’s also no real goal or conflict to drive the scene, aside from Miri wanting him to play with her and Will not wanting to. But that makes him look bad and isn’t likely to be something readers will side with him on or want to see how it turns out. It also doesn’t have any stakes or seem to matter in more than a way to introduce the game.

Since the game is central to the plot, it makes sense to open the novel there, so perhaps add a reason why playing this match right now is important to him. A tournament, a special event, a brand-new zone that just opened—something to show why he’d be willing to blow off his sister to do this, and readers can understand the importance of it.

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

There’s a hint of the real problem with the shadow, but the only reason that stood out was because you mentioned it in the background notes. In the text itself, the shadow could be an emotion or memory, and it’s not clear that it’s a presence or a thing “haunting” him (or whatever it’s doing). While you don’t have to give away what it is, a stronger sense that it is something would help pique curiosity.

(Here’s more making ambiguity work in a scene)

It also jumps around a bit too much, so I never really understand what he’s talking about or how he moves from idea to idea. Often, two separate ideas were in one sentence, which made it a little hard to figure out at times. Tweaking the text for clarity would fix this right up though.

(Here’s more on getting what's in your head onto the page)

Perhaps add some internalization to let me see what he’s thinking or feeling, or show his thought process. For example, if he’s annoyed at his sister, he might also have a thought or emotion that shows he loves her anyway (giving him a redeeming quality to make readers like him), even though she’s currently driving him crazy. Perhaps he likes the shampoo because it reminds him of a happy memory they share or something. It might also give you an opportunity to further hint at her condition if his memory is of her “when she could still run” or the like.

(Here’s more on developing internalization)

Perhaps add the shadow idea sooner in a way that suggests he’s always had it, for example, “he’s having a bad day because he keeps dying, his sister is making him crazy, and the evil shadow is watching the whole thing like always and probably laughing at him” (but with your worlds of course—this is just a conceptual line). I’m looking for ways to get his issues in early, while showing that they’re all normal for him, even if they’re not normal for the reader. And that they’re all contributing to his frustration when he just wants to play to escape or whatever reason.

Overall, I think the pieces are here for a good opening that shows Will’s obsession with the game and his looming problem, but it’s trying to get it all in too fast, so nothing gets enough page time to pique interest. I’d suggest slowing down a little and giving the scene time to unfold.

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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3 comments:

  1. I'd agree, the pieces are all here, but we don't quite know how to relate to them.

    It makes a real difference that our first glimpse is of Will's frustration rather than of the game he's getting into-- if we can't share why he's angry, it gets no sympathy from us.

    And the line where he almost hits Miri... you simply say he "might have" bashed her in the skull if she weren't so young, and that really is too brutal a tone. Most writers would start with him tempted to just shove her away; even a momentary fantasy of hitting her would really taint him in our eyes when she's only five. Or if you wanted to show that the shadow's getting a hold on his thoughts, he could have a dark reaction (no skulls, though) and then catch himself and try to be nicer to her.

    Balancing Will's reactions here is key. Other sides of that are just how the shadow fits in with it, what his grandfather's story and his repetition of it mean, and of course his father's death. I like that you didn't show too much of these quite yet: opening with the game and Miri establishes the heart of things. The trick might be adding the rest soon and showing what they mean without bogging down.

    This is a powerful foundation for a story, if it's more careful how it's presented. Good luck!

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  2. I actually like the unlikeability factor of Will. 1): He's got to prove himself to the story and to the reader; 2): his unlikeable front is hiding something he can't, doesn't wish to, or refuses to face unless he must--and it seems he'll have to for the story to progress and conclude; and 3): there's a reason behind his being mean to his little sister . . although this borders on unjustified unless, Author, you clue in the reader of Will's angst why he is. Maybe little sister reminds him of the tragedy pushing him TO said meanness, or why he wishes to avoid that trial having happened to start with. I love about this, though, how little sister seems so sweet, pure, and innocent in why her older brother's so cross with her.

    Everything else of Janice's assessment is correct here. I'd flesh this out a touch more to give an inkling of where this anger comes from--maybe the shadow he's seeing, feeling, or perceiving looms larger to intimidate him in not revealing the hurt behind the fire--and you've got a champ. Thank you for volunteering your work. Good luck!

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  3. I agree with Anonymous here, that the unlikeability factor may be an interesting point to explore. In reality, some kids (and adults) go flying off the handle when they are interrupted during a game. This points to many things to explore, including the possibility of a malevolent force at work. Now, that said, given that the target audience is YA Christian, there is a fine line on what's "appropriate". It's tough figuring out where to cross the line...

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