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Saturday, July 27

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Continue Reading This YA Fantasy?

Critique By Maria D'Marco

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 August 3.

This week’s questions:

1. Would you continue reading?

2. Do you like the sentences?

3. Start of story good?

Market/Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Chapter 1

Leilani

This is my story. Let me introduce myself. My name is Leilani Pearl Merrick. I come from a long line of healers. The first mermaid ancestor I know of was named Arielle. My ancestor was the first mermaid to have visions, telepathy, and healing powers. I have lived a long happy life. First I was a typical mermaid. Later I became a goddess an immortal because I earned it helping people so the creator goddess named Maia gifted me with immortally. I was called Goddess Leilani. Now I am an elder. I have six children: three girls and three boys with my husband Zane. I have ten grandchildren. I have lived on planet Avanaria all my life living on Sirena isle and then on Maia’s isle where I live now.

I was born about 300 years ago on a warm day and on this day was a lunar eclipse. My fraternal twin Kaia was born second.

Years later, Now I am a teenager. I am of marrying age but I choose to continue my training. I have another sister. She is two years younger than me. My sister’s name is Kiana. Kiana is on Sirena isle and as well as Kaia. My grandparents live on Sirena isle, which is shaped like a mermaid’s tail.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Chapter 1

Leilani

This is my story. Let me introduce myself. [this is more than we need here] My name is Leilani Pearl Merrick. I come from a long line of healers. The first mermaid ancestor I know of was named Arielle. My ancestor [is this referring to Arielle? If so, you can combine the information in these two sentences] was the first mermaid to have visions, telepathy, and healing powers.

I have lived a long happy life. First, I was a typical mermaid. [might reconsider ‘typical’ -not sure what’s typical] Later I became a goddess an immortal [when is ‘later’? can we show how old she was?] because I earned it helping people so the creator goddess named Maia gifted me with immortally. [this is an example of a sentence that needs reconfiguring, so information is presented in a logical manner] I was called [does this mean she’s no longer called this?] Goddess Leilani.

Now I am an elder. [I wonder when ‘now’ is] I have six children: three girls and three boys with my husband Zane. I have ten grandchildren. I have lived on planet Avanaria all my life [does this mean she could have lived on another planet?] living on Sirena isle and then on Maia’s isle where I live now.

I was born about 300 years ago on a warm day and on this day was a lunar eclipse. My fraternal twin Kaia was born second. [I would move this to earlier in the story, and then add the bit that comes later, where the 2,000-year lives of merfolk is referenced]

[the next 3 paragraphs describe Leilani getting bit by an eel while exploring some caverns as a child, and then her father zapping it with his golden trident and saving her. It also introduces a priestess, Oceane, who caught her after the bite and healed her, but Leilani was left with a scar. Unknown if this scar is important to the story. Leilani is shown as having green eyes and golden-brown skin.] 219 words

Years later, [this is confusing – later from what time?] Now I am a teenager. I am of marrying age but I choose to continue my training.

I have another sister. She is two years younger than me. My sister’s name is Kiana. Kiana is on Sirena isle and as well as Kaia. My grandparents live on Sirena isle, which is shaped like a mermaid’s tail. [this would serve the story better with the earlier information about merfolk]

[this final section presents 5 more characters and some of this information is confusing and a bit disoriented. Unsure when this is happening or why Leilani is in a cavern under a nameless island – though I am curious. This material comes closer to reading like notes about the story, not so much actual written story, due to the broken presentation. At the conclusion, letters from Leilani’s father and grandfather speak of leaving for training, staying at the palace, and giving her sister’s location.] 396 words

I’m going to address the author’s questions below. This sample is 800+ words, so I have plucked some bits out and bracketed the ‘gist’ of other bits. This may make it difficult for readers to comment on the material, but I’m trying to present thoughts the author can implement.

The Questions:

1. Would you continue reading?


I feel you have a good handle on your story idea and have worked toward developing several aspects of the world setting, as well as defining primary and secondary characters and setting up an evil guy to fight and thwart. At this point, however, the story isn’t quite ‘settled’. We’re missing some important structure and organization – limitations that keep the story from rattling around too much. 

Consider a hanging mobile set up so that each piece of the ‘puzzle’ can turn in a way that reveals a 2-dimensional picture, until the pieces turn again, on the whim of a breeze. Your story is currently spinning a bit too much, so you need to tie the pieces together so the whole picture may be viewed.

So, continuing reading would depend upon your coordinating the elements of the story you’ve presented so far: the princess, her life, and her family responsibilities – and why certain things are important and may force Leilani to set aside her own desires and take up those responsibilities.

I urge readers to comment on this piece, as it’s a bit rough, but we all start from rough and any suggestions or encouragement helps.

(Here's more on Open Up! Writing the Opening Scene)

2. Do you like the sentences?

I believe you are asking about creativity in writing here. With that in mind, I would encourage you to research and consider the styles and creativity of writers whose creativity you admire. Writing to engage others is a skill that most of us spend our writing lives trying to capture to best advantage. Your reading audience will be younger readers who have volcanic imaginations and the energy to dive deep and embrace new worlds – like that of mer-people! I can tell that you have strong images in mind for your story, from how characters appear to an island in the shape of a mermaid’s tail.

With some thought and work, you will have sentences, phrases, and paragraphs that bring everything in your story to life. At this early developmental stage, you will fine oodles of support in Fiction University and the abundance of writing guidance. Just take a few points you find and apply them to a few pages or even a chapter of your novel, and you’ll discover how quickly you learn new tricks and skills that help you put your ideas and imaginings into engaging words.

(Here's more on 4 Ways to Keep Your Sentences From All Sounding the Same)

3. Start of story good?

With some reorganization, I believe you can have a solid start. The information is essentially there – it just needs to be brought into a coherent line that sets up what is to come. There are also some issues with assumed knowledge, where the reader needs to know more to understand what has been, is now, and will be.

(Here's more on 4 Steps to Establish the Beginning of Your Novel)

Overall, I feel the author has a solid idea, but may be having difficulty putting those ideas to ‘paper’, as we used to say. It appears that things begin with the birthday and the letters from the father and grandfather, but we don’t know what that means to the main character, beyond her questioning why she needs more training. Unfortunately, just a bit earlier is the statement that she’s a teenager now, of marrying age, but would prefer to continue her training – this sparks more confusion about the opening’s timeline. Speaking of the timeline, I cannot tell whether the story begins with Leilani reflecting upon her life, and we then transition to her, present day, as a teen – or what. So, we need to set up a clear, logical timeline so the story can begin.

World-building is another issue, and creating the world is one thing, while introducing that world to the reader is another. Janice has some great articles on world-building!

(Here's more on The Difference Between Setting and World Building)

This story needs a way ‘in’ – why are we here, reading about Leilani? What can be presented in the very first page that makes readers willing to dive in and commit to the story? The main character becomes a goddess for her healing, but we don’t know when this happens. Is this the tale of her life as she lies dying? Is she ancient now and is relating this story to great-great-grandchildren?

I also was confused that she was 300 years old, and a teen, because that really made living to 2,000 not that big a deal. There’s a hint that merfolk live longer and age slower, but what are the details? Do they age rapidly at beginning and end, and ‘coast’ in the middle decades/eons?

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

There’s a lot of work to do here, but then all rough manuscripts are WIPs and evolve as we prod them along, sculpt them, and even hammer them into the story we want to tell. I wish this author the best for now and a big ‘hang in there!’.

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

Maria D’Marco is an editor with 20+ years experience. She specializes in developmental editing, and loves the process of wading through the raw, passionate words of a first draft. Currently based in Kansas City, she flirts with the idea of going mobile, pursuing her own writing and love of photography, while maintaining her fulfilling work with authors.

Website | Twitter

4 comments:

  1. Love this column idea! I think this writer would benefit from learning about show vs tell. I would like to see the story start with the MC dealing with some pressing issue and then let all that backstory come out bit by bit. With all her lovely ideas, it would unfold into an epic mermaid tale!

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  2. I like the ideas here, but for me this reads as more of a story description or synopsis than the start of a story. Maybe start with a scene that prompts some of this info to come to the main character's mind. It's a lot of info to throw at a reader before they know or care about the characters. I find I get confused if there is too much backstory right away before I know/remember who people are.

    I was confused about the 300 years part and the whole teenager thing until Maria mentioned the whole live to about 2,000 thing. To connect the idea, can I suggest something like, 'being a 300 year old teenager', though that doesn't seem right either since 300 isn't a teenager, but an adolecent/young adult.

    I'd also like to see something happen NOW to bring us into the actually story you're wanting to tell. Look at some of the backstory you have here and see if any of it is recent enough for you to have a starting place for things to happen. I hope some of this helps! You really have a great idea and I'm sure it's a lot of fun to write :)

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  3. Often the hardest and most important single choice in writing is picking the opening scene. Maria said it well: the start needs an "in," an instant reason we want to know more about Leilani-- so that that first revelation and scene leads on to the next ones that build on it.

    A common rule of thumb is that the first scene should be built around the moment the character's life is changed. But even with that, some writers pick the very first clue that something's changing and slowly build it, and others take the moment the hero has to act on it, or even when they're already responding to the adventure and try to catch us up on why it's happening as it goes.

    Consider three famous movies: Thor II (often called Marvel's worst movie), Avengers Infinity War, and the first Iron Man (or Thor I, for that matter). Thor II opens with a voice-over about Asgard's ancient enemy, but it mostly gives us cold facts about who they're supposed to be-- and the rest of the film never fixes that in making the threat seem real. Even if Infinity War wasn't building on a decade of other movies, it would still give us Thanos in the first scene and plenty of conversations (usually with his daughters) that make us understand why he's doing it, along with specific reactions from the heroes. And Iron Man opens with Tony in parties and limos just being his crazy self-- until things blow up. (Thor I starts with a coronation and an interruption too.)

    And those are somewhat villain-focused examples. How much of the villain or the challenge appears at the start is a key question, but it's even more important how we see the hero. The hero's first scene ought to show us how she's *changing*, with a clear sense of both who she is now or was just before this plus what she has to deal with now. How she deals with that is what can hook us right off, and it's the main clue we'll get about what kind of person she'll be by the end. Thor II has Thor fighting and Jane investigating and trying to get back together-- and those could have led into a good movie if they'd been handled better. Infinity War is Thor and Hulk on the run from Thanos, knowing they need help. Iron Man and the first Thor are the heroes thinking they have everything, and about to lose it for different ways-- Tony because of the thugs he's been arming without noticing it, Thor because he responds by trying to start a war.

    What's the best moment to see Leilani start to grow, and how can that moment show both who she is until now and her first steps in the direction that is going to matter? Can you fit in enough glimpses of why she has to change (whether it's showing a villain or not), why she was who she used to be, and what about her as a person makes her react a bit differently from most people?

    Of all the things you've said about her so far, what's most important? Is it her lineage of healers, or some hint that she'll be chosen by a goddess some day? Is it her sister? Her choosing to maintain her studies instead of marrying? Or something else that's underlying one-- maybe the heart of the story is that she has healing gifts but she's always secretly afraid that she won't live up to them, and that's what the first scene and the story will be drawing out and resolving. Seasoned writers look at a whole book and ask if every single scene relates to their core point; the first scene certainly should.

    (And, doing it with any kind of prologue or introduction is seriously hard, but not impossible. I wrote about that in http://www.kenhughesauthor.com/the-prologue-checklist/)

    If you pick the right essentials, they can show you an opening that puts the story straight down the right path, and makes the reader eager to see the rest.

    It's your story. What matters most?

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  4. It seems to me the writer is flushing out her story here, which is great and necessary for the novel to have shape, develop a plot and story line. Once all this information is down, it will provide a vast pool as to where to begin your story - which is often not in the beginning. Backstory often gets flushed out later in chapters with the help of setting and dialogue.

    I agree with comment above, we want to be shown not told the story and I believe Janice has a great book or two on that craft. I would also suggest reading beginnings of other novels to get ideas of the set up and hook that is needed to draw the reader in.

    While there may be a lot of characters in this story, an author needs to be careful how to introduce them and most importantly to make sure they are all necessary.

    The first pages should introduce the protagonist and set up a problem/opportunity/adventure. Somewhere soon, we should feel that inciting incident where the world we've been introduced to is changed in some way for the protagonist prompting to him/her wanting/needing something - and from there a novel begins.

    I believe once the author flushes out these questions they will have a great story - who doesn't love a mermaid?

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