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Saturday, December 15

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This YA Scene Hold Your Interest?

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: None

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are open.

This week’s question:

1. Is this scene working?


Market/Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Please note: This is a young writer, so please keep that in mind when leaving feedback.

Today is my birthday, I am turning one and seventeen years old equivalent to seventeen years old. I am asleep on my seashell bed. Something tiny stirs me out of my bed “Time to get up Leilani.” a voice says in my head.

“Five more minutes please,” I say.

“Leilani, Leilani, Leilani. It is time to get up.” This time it is my family priestess calling my name.

I love to sleep in because then I can be grumpy if I get up early.

Priestess Kendall now comes to me and shakes me to come awake. “Your royal highness, you need to get up, I have a letter here from your parents that you need to come to Sirena isle,”

“Sirena isle, where is that?” I wonder then I stretch out my body including my turquoise and amethyst colored tail.

“It is an island where your grandparents are,” Kendall replies. “Trent, you are going to come with us to give us safe passage to Sirena isle. Your royal highness, I need to fix your curly hair because it is a mess,”

Priestess Kendall and Priestess Cara work on my hair making it better for today since it is my birthday.

Priestess Cara is an older mermaid with chocolate brown hair. Kendall is an elder mermaid with salt and pepper hair.

My hair is raven black streaked with dark turquoise.

Priestess Cara hands me the letter and it is written in Avanarian runes which I can’t read.

Cara reads the letter for me.

“To my loving daughter Leilani,

I am writing to you because you need more training as a healer. You need to be a warrior to fight the evil sea deity not just with your powers but with other skills that you need. You need to help us fight the evil sea deity who plans on setting fire to our planet Avanaria. To destroy all life here. I love you very much. Your grandparents Jewel and Kai are on Sirena isle. I want you to continuing your training as healer to know more of using herbs creating salves and remedies and also learning runes to write in them so if I need to get a message to you then I can.

Please tell the priestesses Kendall and Cara that you will start your training after your birthday.

You need to leave now.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

Today is my birthday, I am turning one and seventeen years old [equivalent to seventeen years old.] I don’t understand why she’s not eighteen then [I am asleep on my seashell bed.] this is present tense and first person, so how would she know she was asleep? Something tiny stirs me out of my bed “Time to get up Leilani,” a voice says [in my head.] In this telepathy?

“Five more minutes please,” I say.

“Leilani, Leilani, Leilani. It is time to get up.” This time it is my family priestess calling my name.

I love to sleep in because then [I can be grumpy if I get up early.] Does this mean she likes being grumpy and would prefer it?

Priestess Kendall now comes to me and shakes me to come awake. “Your royal highness, you need to get up, I have a [letter] how do mermaids send letters? What’s it written on if not paper? here from your parents that you need to come to Sirena isle,”

“Sirena isle, where is that?” I [wonder] wonder implies she’s thinking this, but there are dialogue tags, so did she speak or just think? then I stretch out my body including my [turquoise and amethyst] how would mermaids know the colors of gems found on land? colored tail.

“It is an [island] mermaids go on land? where your grandparents are,” Kendall replies. “[Trent] is there another person there? you are going to come with us to give us safe passage to Sirena isle. Your royal highness, I need to fix your [curly] how would her hair be curly underwater? hair because it is a mess,”

Priestess Kendall and [Priestess Cara] There are two priestess? work on my hair making better for today since it is my birthday.

Priestess Cara is an older mermaid with [chocolate brown] hair. Kendall is an elder mermaid with [salt and pepper] hair. How would mermaids know these food terms?

My hair is [raven] has a mermaid ever seen a raven? black streaked with dark turquoise.

Priestess Cara hands me the letter and it is written in Avanarian runes which [I can’t read.] Wouldn’t she know this? Or is this a secret?

[Cara reads the letter for me.] If she knows Leilani can’t read, why hand her the letter?

“To my loving daughter Leilani,

I am writing to you because you need more training as a healer. You need to be [a warrior] I thought she needed to be a healer? to fight the evil sea deity not just with your powers but with other skills that you need. You need to help us fight the evil sea deity who plans on [setting fire] how would this affect mermaids? to our planet Avanaria. To destroy all life here. I love you very much. Your grandparents Jewel and Kai are on Sirena isle. I want you to continuing your training as healer to know more of using herbs creating salves and remedies and also learning runes to write in them so if I need to get a message to you then I can. This entire paragraph is infodump explaining the problem of the book

Please tell the priestesses Kendall and Cara that [you will start your training after your birthday.

You need to leave now.”
] These don’t match. Does she leave immediately and then start training when she gets there? Or does she have her birthday, then leave, and then start training?

The question:

1. Is this scene working?


Yes and no. It does have something going on to pique reader interest, but much of it is description that isn’t helping the story. I also had a lot of questions about the world these characters live in.

I like that it’s Leilani’s birthday and it seems like things are about to change for her. That shows something is about to happen and makes readers want to know what that might be. The answer comes quickly and we see that she’s received a letter from her parents to travel to Sirena Isle. It might be a dangerous journey since they ask Trent (who seems like a guard of some type) if he’s going with them. This makes readers wonder what’s in the letter and what Leilani is about to face. We find out right away that there’s an evil sea deity who threatens the planet, and she needs to train to prepare to fight it. This all gives us a good idea of the story and what the book will focus on.

(Here’s more on three ways to tell a good story)

What isn’t working yet, are the descriptions, the world building, and a sense of building the story. Let’s go over these one by one.

The descriptions right now read more like the writer telling readers that things look like and why they are the way they are than the protagonist noticing things how she would in her daily life. You might try looking for ways to mention the details in a more natural way, for example, maybe have Leilani notice that Cara’s tail is darker turquoise than hers, or just leaving out the details if they aren’t important to the story.

The terms used to describe things are also human words for things you wouldn’t see underwater. How do mermaids know what salt and pepper are? How do they know what colors gems are? You also might want to look for ocean details to use instead. Maybe something is coral red, or seaweed green. Salt and pepper hair is a human term to show someone is older, but how might a mermaid refer to something old? What looks old under water? Think about things they’d see that might be old and how that would look.

(Here’s more on description)

The world building confused me in many places, because some of the details didn’t fit with mermaid life (or at least what I think of when I think about mermaids). Leilani gets a letter, but there’s no paper underwater. How do mermaids send letters? What do they write with and write on? How does she have curly hair when hair is all the same underwater? How do mermaids live on an island, which is land? I didn’t understand this world yet, and it uses too many human things to really show what these people are like.

Think about how mermaids might live. Maybe do some research on oceans and living underwater and what that’s like.

(Here’s more on creating a believable fantasy world)

For the plot, the letter gives away all the things that are going to happen in the story, so readers have no reason to read it now. Try keeping most of that information secret for now, and revealing it in little bits at a time. That will help make readers curious and want to know more.

For example, maybe just have her father summon her to the Isle immediately but not say why. Maybe he doesn’t want to put that information in a letter where he bad guy or someone who works for him might see it. Readers will wonder why she must go so fast. Maybe she doesn’t know about the sea deity yet. Maybe she just thinks she’s going for training as a healer and then later, starts getting put into warrior classes and doesn’t understand why. Look for ways to make Leilani curious about what it going on, and you’ll also make readers curious.

(Here’s more on plotting)

Overall, this is a good start to get the story and world down, but think about how you want that story to unfold for readers. Start with smaller problems and them have them get bigger to build tension. Give Leilani problems to overcome before she’s ready to fight the sea deity. Think about how a mermaid world works and use things you’d find in the ocean. Have fun with it.

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. Like Janice said, this is a promising start, that is still working out the right balance for some of its descriptions. That's a challenge for every writer on every page, how to work in pieces of your world that give us enough of a picture of where we are, without slowing the story down.

    Here's one thing that stuck with me: "Priestess Kendall now comes to me and shakes me." We've been thinking of Leilani as half-asleep, with her eyes closed-- but "comes to me" sounds like she's already watching Kendall come closer. It would be more natural if Leilani just feels someone shaking her, and *then* either looks up to see it's Kendall or knows it has to be her because Kendall was speaking to her before. It's one of the most useful rules in writing: for every single thing you write, is it written in the order it really happens in? (Or sometimes, what's the order the character notices it in?)

    Janice has a great point about images like "salt and pepper"; the more you can use undersea images instead, the more you build the feeling of a mermaid world. But you can also decide how much Leilani has seen of the surface. Maybe all mermaids have spent time watching birds, and they might have human friends or use magic to spend time walking on land (is that what the island's about?). If you think "salt and pepper" is too hard an image to replace, she could think "that's what the humans call it, and I always wondered why." The trick would be to use many more mermaid images than surface ones, and build the sense of a person who knows a bit about life up top but lives down below. (Or if she's never seen land or a human up close before, her descriptions would be *much* more sea-centered, and that would show how she lives too.)

    (Since the letter's so important to the scene, it's one thing that definitely needs to say what material or magic lets it work underwater!)

    The letter... that has to be one of the hardest things to write. You want to tell the reader what's coming, but saying so much about the situation all at once can startle the reader, when the story's been taking its time so far. A lot of writers have used an idea like Janice's here, where the news just doesn't tell her too much of what's ahead yet. (Of course that's partly about deciding what her father actually has reasons to put in the letter: would he tell her everything at once, or only part of it?) Another way would be for Leilani to guess part of the news just before the letter's read-- that would show she's aware of the fight on her own, which she should be. And it could set up what might be the strongest moment in the scene: how what Leilani expects (maybe that her father's almost won the war on his own) is different from what actually happens (she's starting her training maybe years sooner than she thought she'd have to). And maybe the contrast between those two and the priestesses too; they might be even more sure she's not ready, but they have their orders.

    This is a good pick for being your first scene, because it gives us time to get a glimpse of Leilani's life and then see it changing. Those two things are exactly what stories are about-- the rest is just how well you can show both. Good luck!

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  2. I enjoyed this story start because it seemed to offer so many options in world-building and quirky character elements. My first thought at the outset was to wonder why the sleeping 17-plus-one counted her years that way, and then to wonder if she slept underwater or on a half-shell or in a whole shell filled with water, and then how big was that shell -- and how big was she? I wondered if she had gills and lungs. I wondered if her eyes were like fish, with no lids, or if she had double-lids or translucent lids. Or if she had ears that adjusted to sound underwater and above water. And how did her vision compare to humans?

    Which led me to wonder if there were humans in her world, or only oceans and seas filled with water creatures? And if there were islands, who lived on them? I wondered about the grandparents living ON the island and did that mean that these mer-people could mutate to land-based folk? And I wondered why the evil enemy was a sea creature who was capable of using fire to destroy Leilani's world?

    In a rough start like yours, these questions and my involvement through them are signs that you've piqued my imagination. If you apply Janice's spot-on guidance, you'll learn how to answer my questions, the way you envision things in your story to be -- and will write what I need to read in order to let my imagination run wild - within the parameters you've set.

    As Ken says (and Janice, too), the letter becomes pivotal, as it demands immediate action from Leilani. And I'd like to get her reaction to what the letter says, once you get the info-dump under control.

    I took the liking to feel grumpy as something a child might feel -- one who was resisting adulthood, and who had discovered that she liked the extra attention and loving fuss focused solely on her.

    As Janice noted, so much of this opening is dependent upon human 'stuff', so Leilani seems limited in who she can be and how she can behave. When she's released from these human-type behaviors and references, she'll be free to operate within the 'mer' culture.

    Maybe she sleeps on a half-shell filled with water that is snuggled into the soft sand of a little tide pool, near the beach, and blue crabs -- and it's against the rules to do that. Maybe she likes to wake at dawn, instead of whatever drives the life cycle underwater. This taboo is her secret, she thinks, but really, the priestesses watch over her. Or maybe her shell bed is just beneath the water's surface...

    It appears that this is the 'standing on the brink' scene that springboards Leilani into a life that means setting aside childish things -- does she have a suspicion about what the letter means? Is the letter written on strips of seaweed? Or does a luminescent fish magically flash the symbols of their language to form the message?

    Like Janice encourages you to do: have fun! Who knows where your story will take you?

    Come back and show us what your rewrites have created! Good luck!

    I want to see this kind of quirky, truly-non-human kind of thing being shown. Maybe she doesn't stir when called because she's where she shouldn't be.

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  3. Thank you. I am writing about Leilani’s daughter Pearlina who goes by Lena. I only want to not do a big detail in descriptions for the character of what her hair color is eye color and skin color and so on.

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