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

Saturday, June 8

Real Life Diagnostics: What Do You Think About the Voice in This Scene?

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: One

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through June 15.

This week’s questions:

1. Which point-of-view and tense should I choose, in your opinion?

2. What do you think about the voice in this scene?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Context: This is the opening scene of my MG novel. I'm not sure if I should write in the first-person present or a third-person past tense.

For the record, it’s not my fault I was mistaken for an alien.

My mama started it. Look, none of this would have happened if she hadn’t won that stupid Green Card lottery.

We landed at New York’s JFK airport four hundred sixteen Hamilton lotteries ago and instead of living happily ever after, I have been losing ever since. Four hundred sixteen! (Not that I’m counting or anything, but am I the only one feeling there is something terribly wrong with the world if winning a United States Permanent Resident Card is easier than getting a Broadway lottery ticket?)

“Start from scratch,” she said.

What does that even mean? How can I scratch my past out if that’s what makes me, well, me? How can I start from nothing if there is something?

My mama changed her name.

She was named after Lyudmila Pavlichenko. Lady Death. You know, one of the deadliest snipers in history. (Three hundred and nine confirmed kills during World War Two. Kinda kickass.) But now she calls herself Lucy (well, at least not Lassie). I guess that’s her idea of starting from scratch. Good for her. All I’m saying is that after twelve years of being called Ksenia, I got sort of attached to this name and had no intention to change it. What’s the point anyway? Picking a more “American” name wouldn’t turn me into one of them, so why even bother, right? Besides, that just doesn’t feel right. Can’t I be more American without being less me?

My Thoughts in Blue:

[For the record, it’s not my fault I was mistaken for an alien.] Totally gets my attention.

My mama started it. Look, none of this would have happened if she hadn’t won that stupid [Green Card lottery.] I’m trying to reconcile this and alien. Does it mean illegal alien or actual alien?

We landed at New York’s JFK airport [four hundred sixteen Hamilton lotteries ago] I don’t know what this means. I see Hamilton I think the musical and instead of living happily ever after, I have been losing ever since. Four hundred sixteen! [(Not that I’m counting or anything, but am I the only one feeling there is something terribly wrong with the world if winning a United States Permanent Resident Card is easier than getting a Broadway lottery ticket?)] I don’t understand this

“Start from scratch,” she said.

What does that even mean? How can I scratch my past out if that’s what makes me, well, me? How can I start from nothing if there is something?

My mama changed her name.

She was named after Lyudmila Pavlichenko. Lady Death. You know, one of the deadliest snipers in history. (Three hundred and nine confirmed kills during World War Two. Kinda kickass.) But now she calls herself Lucy (well, at least not Lassie). I guess that’s her idea of starting from scratch. Good for her. All I’m saying is that after twelve years of being called Ksenia, I got sort of attached to this name and had no intention to change it. What’s the point anyway? Picking a more “American” name wouldn’t turn me into one of them, so why even bother, right? Besides, that just doesn’t feel right. [Can’t I be more American without being less me?] Nice internal struggle for her

The Questions:

1. Which point-of-view and tense should I choose, in your opinion?


This feels strong as first person present tense. I’d keep it (readers chime in). It’s very personal and in the moment and I get a clear sense of who this person is and what she’s upset over. The deep internal view feels right for this story.

(Here’s more on Me or You? Choosing Between First and Third Point of View)

2. What do you think about the voice in this scene?

Love it. There’s a sense of character with Ksenia and I feel that her thoughts and feeling are driving the narrative. It also works for middle grade readers, and is consistent with the market.

However…if she’s Russian, she doesn’t sound Russian to me. This has a very American teen vibe to it (readers chime in here). Maybe she came to America as a baby and learned to speak here, but there’s no sense of when they immigrated to the US, so that’s not clear. It seems as though they just not got to the US. You might clarify that if so, or tweak it so she sounds Russian if she’s new to the US still.

(Here’s more on How to Find Your Character's Voice)

Unrelated to your questions (but tossing it in since my answers were essentially “it works” to both questions, and you should get your money’s worth of the crit -grin-), I was a bit confused about several things in this snippet. I loved the opening line, as it sets the tone and suggests things happened because she was mistaken for an alien, and I expected the story to continue about that and what happened, a’la The Lightning Thief.

But then the story shifts to them arriving in the US and makes references to lotteries and a passage of time that makes no sense to me. I don’t know how it connects to the alien line or what type of alien she’s referring to anymore. Hamilton in italics makes me think the musical, and I don’t understand what lotteries for play tickets has to do with this scene.

The name change for Mom is a funny detail, and I like how Ksenia doesn’t want to lose who she is, but it’s another detail and sidetrack that makes this snippet feel a bit unfocused. I can see that it all deals with identity—who Ksenia is, who she wants to be, who she needs to be, and even who she’s mistaken for—but I’m not yet sure what’s going on.

(Here's more on And Pretty Words All in a Row: Tightening Your Narrative Focus)

There’s no goal or actual action yet; it’s all internal musings. The voice is good, so that helps keep readers interested, but where is this going? What’s going on now? How does any of this fit into her being mistaken as an alien?

I’d suggest clarifying some of the fuzzy areas I marked and giving this a bit more focus so readers can see where the story is going. When does this take place? Is Ksenia just arriving to the US or has she been there a while? How does the alien line relate to her and whatever problem she’s facing at this moment?

(Here’s more on Get What's in Your Head Onto the Page)

Overall, this has a spark to it, and once the confusing areas are clarified, I suspect it’ll be a strong opening for a fun story. The voice is good and I want to follow along with Ksenia and see what happens to her.

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. The 1st person works. The voice is good. I get a feel for the protagonist.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Alien, whaaat?

    That's the kind of doozie of a first line that makes us think they story's going to get crazy, and may or may not have actual green men in it. It's excellent, but you may quickly walk it back to say the story's a little more grounded and a little less nonsensical. And you want to be sure you can tie it to which kind of alien you mean quickly-- the genre says it could be a green one, the character says it could just be a TSA argument.

    On the one hand, I do love the tone here. Being able to go from that line to a *Hamilton* reference so quickly does make for a savvy, fun character. On the other, it makes the character a quintessential American, whose fun comes from being so aware of our daily life. I'm not an expert on writing teenage Russians, but the Ksenia side of her feels crowded out.

    The details of the Hamilton paragraph stopped me cold too. "Four hundred sixteen lotteries later" just doesn't have what we need to orient this line to the story, and we want that quick understanding whenever you throw something that off-the-wall in. And that paragraph is so close to your start, it can do real damage to your first impression if you aren't sure you can make it work smoothly; it may be a "darling" you have to kill. But if it can be clearer, it's delightfully whimsical.

    I think you've got a delicate but promising road ahead. Your style is a lot of fun-- it'll probably be a little different once the story settles into its subject, but talk of snipers and proud names makes me think you can get more serious while staying interesting. (We haven't gotten to the alien, and/or the fantasy yet!) As you do, you want to be sure you balance the Very Contemporary Girl with the Russian tones that ought to be distinct about her. And you need to be very careful your whimsy doesn't leave us wondering what just happened.

    I know I'd want to read more. Even without the alien.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I was perplexed by the passage about the lottery and green cards too. However, I suspect there is something funny in it and I want to understand what it is. Find a different way to say it maybe? Or expand on it to explain maybe?

    This character, Ksenia is so intriguing. Please keep it in 1st person present.

    ReplyDelete