From Fiction University: Enabling third party cookies on your browser could help if you have trouble leaving a comment.

Saturday, April 20

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This YA Opening Draw You In?

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: Four

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through May 18.

This week’s questions:

1. Do the opening and closing paragraphs grab your attention and make you want to read on?

2. Is the internalization too much like 'telling' and boring?

Market/Genre: YA Contemporary Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: Bianca has to come to terms with the fact that someone died so that she could live, especially since she wasn't in favor of the transplants. She's 18-years-old and has accepted her mortality—that the years she'd been given was her full life as predestined by God. The organs were not obtained on the black market. A kid of her neighborhood died in a freak car accident (Bianca was her babysitter) and the mother gave Bianca first option to the organs if they were a match.

Chapter 1 (Opening)

I'm going to kick these doctors in the balls so hard, it will change their blood group. And the nurses? I'm going to slap them upside the head, straight into ICU. As soon as I've recovered, of course.

How could they do this to me?

I know I shouldn't blame them though; it's mother dearest—she's like a force of nature no-one can withstand.

You can call me idealistic, foolish or an unadulterated selfish bitch—you might even call me stupid—that's your problem; see a psychiatrist about your problems, but I can't be an organ donor because I believe my body is on loan to me and has to be returned in the fully-equipped condition it was when I started using it, so how dare she decide that I have the right to be an organ recipient? And not just one organ—three! How dare she go out there and solicit organs? If I can't be a donor, I bloody well have no right being a recipient! No right whatsoever! But that's just me. Try telling mother dearest that.

(Closing)

I'm also curious to know who the donor was. The person whose given me a tomorrow—let me live another full life.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Chapter 1 (Opening)

[I'm going to kick these doctors in the balls so hard, it will change their blood group.] Not the usual attitude toward doctors, so I’m curious what they did [And the nurses? I'm going to slap them upside the head, straight into ICU.] This felt too much to me. She made her point already As soon as I've recovered, of course.

How could they do this to me?

[I know I shouldn't blame them though] you could make a head-slap comment here; it's mother dearest—she's like a force of nature no-one can withstand.

You can call me idealistic, foolish or an unadulterated selfish bitch—you might even call me stupid—that's your problem; see a psychiatrist about your problems, [but I can't be an organ donor] This makes me think she’s already an organ donor and someone wants to take her organs because [I believe my body is on loan to me and has to be returned in the fully-equipped condition it was when I started using it,] I like the idea here, but it feels a bit explanatory so [how dare she decide that I have the right to be an organ recipient?] This is a powerful statement and view, and the point of the book, but it’s slipped in here so much of the impact is lost And not just one organ—three! [How dare] already used this so perhaps use another phrase she go out there and [solicit organs?] This is an intriguing idea that’s feeling lost slipped in here If I [can't] can’t or won’t? She doesn’t want to be, correct? That’s different from being unable to be a donor, I bloody well have no right being a recipient! No right whatsoever! [But that's just me. Try telling mother dearest that.] This feels a bit dismissive to me, which weakens her anger at what’s happened

(Closing)

[I'm also curious to know who the donor was. The person whose given me a tomorrow ― let me live another full life.] Since she was so angry at what happened at the start of the chapter, this feels too soft and too much like she’s accepted what happened and is okay with it. She’s “curious” about the donor, which doesn’t feel strong enough to push the story forward.

The Questions:

Quick comment on the background notes: I’m not sure if organ donors can choose who the organs go to or if they go to the person at the top of the transplant list. If this is set in the real world, you might check (if you haven’t already) to ensure how donor organs are dispersed.

1. Do the opening and closing paragraphs grab your attention and make you want to read on?

Yes and no (readers chine in here). I like the hook behind this—a girl is given organs that save her life, but she’s against organ transplants. It’s a wonderful conflict that leads to some interesting questions. And knowing that she’ll eventually find out if was the child she babysat for and had a relationship with is even more gut-punching. There’s a lot of potential in this setup.

The closing feels like it loses a lot of that punch, however. Obviously I don’t know what occurred between the opening page and the closing line, but the narrator doesn’t feel angry anymore about what’s happened to her, and her interest in knowing who the donor was is curiosity, not a driving need for a specific purpose.

(Here's more on What Writers Need to Know About Hooks)

If it’s not already in there, I’d suggest making her desire to know who the donor is and for what purpose more clear by the ending. Does it tie into her beliefs? Is it a way for her to someone comes to terms with what's happened? I wanted to know why she feels the need to know the donor, since that feels secondary to me versus her distress at the betrayal of her beliefs.

I’d also suggest adding that sense of urgency and indignation she shows in the opening paragraph (unless of course, she’s accepted her fate and that’s no longer an issue for her). I wanted a stronger hook for what she was going to do about this situation than curiosity. This has to be terribly upsetting for her--she's alive, yet at a high cost.

(Here’s more on How Shame and Vulnerability Can Connect Us to Characters)

2. Is the internalization too much like 'telling' and boring?

It does feel a bit emotionally detached for the situation, and I think that’s what’s giving it a tellish vibe. I feel as though the narrator has taken a step back and is saying what she thinks we want to know, not what she actually feels. She addresses the reader directly, which adds to the “telling the reader this story” feel.

The focus is a bit too much on slipping the exposition into the internalization and not enough on her feeling and reaction to the situation. She repeats information, and phrases it a bit too explanatory to feel like an internal thought. For example:
You can call me idealistic, foolish or an unadulterated selfish bitch—you might even call me stupid—that's your problem; see a psychiatrist about your problems,
She’s almost attacking the reader here, which is interesting if it’s intending to show how unhappy she is and how she’s lashing out, but I don’t get that sense. It also might work better to show her lasing out at someone who actually calls her this.
but I can't be an organ donor because I believe my body is on loan to me and has to be returned in the fully-equipped condition it was when I started using it,
I love the idea behind this, as it puts her conflict right up front and come from something deeply personal to her. But it’s stated here. “I can’t do this because I believe this” is explanation. She’s not feeling it, she’s telling readers why this is a bad thing for her.
so how dare she decide that I have the right to be an organ recipient? And not just one organ—three! How dare she go out there and solicit organs?
The explanation continues here, with her mad at her mother for deciding “she has the right to be an organ recipient,” which is different from being unhappy that her core beliefs were violated, or that she had another person inside her now. It states the facts, but the interesting part of this is how the narrator feels about it and how she sees this situation.
If I can't be a donor, I bloody well have no right being a recipient! No right whatsoever!
More interesting tidbits here—I suspect it’s more won’t than can’t, as her decision seems to be based on religion and not a physical reason she can’t donate organs. It’s her choice not to do this. But her reason here for not accepting them feels based more on she doesn’t “deserve” them since she won’t donate her own, than on her having parts not her own. To her, I’d imagine having donor organs would mean something profound. Is she afraid she won’t get into Heaven (or whatever her beliefs are about her body being returned)? What does losing her organs and having donor organ mean to her belief system?

If she thinks donor organs violate a religious belief, then she’d likely have strong feelings about them on both sides—donating and receiving. She likely wouldn’t think it’s a right, but, maybe not abomination, but something similar depending on the strengths of that belief and what it means to her.
But that's just me. Try telling mother dearest that.
Something about the snarky dismissiveness of this bothered me. She clearly feels strongly about this, but “but that’s just me” weakens what she feels, as if even she thinks her beliefs are just something she thinks and aren’t that important.

Part of the appeal of this story, is that the narrator has strong (and potentially contradictory for readers) views about organ donation. Are her beliefs so strong that she’d prefer death to life with donor organs? How will she feel now that she’s alive? How will this change her? Will it? How will she cope? There’s a lot of excellent moral, ethical, and philosophical meat to chew in this story. The narrator is the reader’s guide to her stance on this, so she needs to be solid and true to what she believes.

(Here’s more on What’s the Emotional Core of Your Character?)

For example, Mom might think it’s a right and a privilege to save a life by donating or receiving organs, and she’s a good character to show that side of the argument. But if the narrator doesn’t feel that way, she won’t use words like “I don’t have the right to receive organs.” She’d more more like, “It’s wrong to donate organ and worse to force me to take someone’s organs.”

I’d suggest tweaking this with the narrator’s views in mind and letting her react as someone with her views in this situation would react. Maybe put Mom in the room so she has someone to lash out and argue against—that way, you can show both sides as well as get to the heart of the conflict.

Overall, this is a fascinating concept with a lot of potential. I think it’s trying to explain the situation instead of showing it, and once that’s fixed it ought to be a strong opening.

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. 
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

3 comments:

  1. This has to be one of the more challenging Real Life Diagnostics I've seen in a while.

    You seem to be reaching for a *The Fault In Our Stars* situation where a character not dying is actually bittersweet. You need a lot of complex, intense, feelings and beliefs to make that work.

    Organ transplants are a hard way to do that, because to most readers, they're an act of generosity that saves lives. Bianca's Just Not Believing In them will some work to make her feel authentic, when her belief could easily be seen as more story-convenient than organic to her. Meanwhile the readers who actually have a similar belief may think you're taking their faiths lightly. (And you didn't say this was Christian fiction, which would have changed your audience.)

    So the story is going to rise and fall on how well you can make Bianca's beliefs and other feelings real, and play them together for drama. Right here her flood of anger is the only thing we see, except for slipping out of that enough to say it isn't the doctors' fault, and mentioning at the end that she's "also" curious. And "live another full life" is the first mention that she's partly happy after all.

    There are other emotions she could have too. Joy, of course; that's still the natural reaction that everything else would be played against. Disappointment in herself, that she feels that joy when her faith tells her she should have accepted her fate. Fear, that she'll get her hopes up and the transplant won't take, or that she's still facing months of pain that she thought she was leaving behind. Survivor's guilt, irrational but very real, that she lives because someone else died-- and of course that's one that will get much stronger as she finds out about the donor.

    Conveying any mix of that calls for a very delicate touch. Her anger is a valid response, and it is how many people process complex emotions at first. But I think it's too easy to say that since it's the most exciting reaction she could have, it's the only one she needs, even on the first page. If anything, the first page should convince us you can show the contradiction of emotions that will make this story.

    Most of all, I like Janice's idea about starting with dialog-- maybe her mother, maybe someone else so we build up to that clash. Bianca has so much emotion to sort out, I think a rule of thumb would be to *not* go into her head enough to fully describe a feeling and everything that relates to it. Clearly describing an emotion puts her halfway to dealing with it, or it seems like it to the reader-- we call it "on the nose" and suspense-killing when a character speaks too accurately about their deeper feelings, and talking to the reader can have the same risk.

    The story is about how long it'll take her to work through emotions that are this big and contradictory. So you might look for more ways to build the story around who Bianca talks to and what she sees and does, and keep her thoughts involving enough for YA but still limited in how quickly she can process what it means to her.

    You've set up a hugely challenging story here. I hope you keep looking at how many different ways YA like this has been written, and decide what balance is going to work for you.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I thought it was an interesting snippet, and the critique was very thoughtful. It brought up some things that I would not have thought about or
    even noticed. I did wonder about something. If she is 18 years old, couldn't she decide for herself whether or not she wanted an organ transplant? I don't know the legalities of a situation like this. I believe that potential organ recipients are interviewed by both medical doctors and by psychiatrists or psychologists. Since the narrator is so vehemently opposed to being an organ transplant recipient, I wonder how medical professionals would handle this. As someone else stated, I don't know how recipients are chosen. I guess it would depend on the organ and how close of a match is necessary between donor and recipient. Somehow I just can't imagine the narrator's wishes being totally ignored when she didn't want the transplant or didn't believe in the process. Maybe I'm totally off-the-wall here, but I was thinking that as I was reading, knowing the girl is 18 years old and can think for herself.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I think the subject is a very powerful one. While I agree there are many emotions tied to receiving (and giving) organs, I found the internal dialogue too angry. Perhaps because I don't really know the character yet, but the entire piece feels one of rage to me. I would feel more of that anger, I believe, if it was quiet. There would also be more emotions than just that - I'd like to see those as well--conflict (I live, they die), sorrow (for the person who did die, especially since she knew her), guilt (for the others who didn't get the organs that could have), etc.
    Of course, Joyce's point is well taken. At 18, this girl would have had a choice in the matter, and I do believe when you are an organ donor there are preliminary discussions that must be approved upon.
    Sometimes when people are the most angry, they say nothing.
    Tough subjects, like organ transplants, certainly require delicate handling. I am sure the author will find that balance and make this a great story.

    ReplyDelete