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Saturday, October 12

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Idea Worth Pursuing?

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 October 19.

This week’s question:

Is this idea worth pursuing?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Note: This is something a bit different from the usual RLD. The author is using the query format to test the idea and would like feedback on it. Even though it reads like a query, it’s not, so please focus more on the concept and conflicts than the text.

Growing up poor in Michigan’s upper peninsula, the only adventure twelve-year-old Taylor ever has is from reading books. She can even magically step into all the stories she wants and share their experiences. She has nothing in common with her classmates who barely read but come from families that can afford to travel to actual places. Luckily, her mom just landed a job as a librarian, promising her they’ll take a real vacation.

Everything is looking up for Taylor until the town mayor announces he’s shutting the library down, plus Taylor’s dad loses his job. Taylor enters a bewitched photo from a hundred years ago and soon discovers her great-great grandmother was a witch who magicked the library—another witch cursed it.

Taylor also learns she’s a witch, too, and has the power to stop it from being destroyed. If she doesn’t find the counter curse in time, she’ll lose her only escape from the outside world, her mom will be jobless, and she and her family will be homeless.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Growing up poor in Michigan’s upper peninsula, the only adventure twelve-year-old Taylor ever has is from reading books. [She can even magically step into all the stories she wants and share their experiences.] Literally? She has nothing in common with her classmates who [barely read] because they can’t or they just don’t like it? but come from families that can afford to travel to actual places. Luckily, her mom just landed a job as a librarian, promising her they’ll take a real vacation. From this opening, I think the point of the story is for Taylor to go on an adventure vacation, although I also wonder if she’s going to wind up in a book adventure in the library. I’m not 100% sure of the focus of the book yet

[Everything is looking up for Taylor until the town mayor announces he’s shutting the library down, plus Taylor’s dad loses his job.] this seems disconnected from the point of the book Taylor enters a [bewitched photo] I thought she entered books? How does her ability work? from a hundred years ago and soon discovers her great-great grandmother was a [witch who magicked the library—another witch cursed it.] this is very cool

Taylor also learns she’s a witch, too, and has the power to stop it from being destroyed. If she doesn’t find the counter curse in time, she’ll lose her only escape from the outside world, her mom will be jobless, and she and her family will be homeless. A lot of stakes and good goals here

The Question:

1. Is this idea worth pursuing?

Yes (readers chime in here). There are some key elements missing, but the bones look good and the premise is fun.

A family of witches, a cursed library, a girl who can enter photos and books, and a quest to break the cruse and save a library is awesome. This sounds like a fun story I think kids would love.

Right now, there’s too much focus on things that aren’t relevant, so the good parts are getting lost. The fact that she can enter books is barely mentioned, and it’s not even clear at first. I suspect Taylor’s motivations and how her powers affect the overall story still need developing.

(Here's more on Where Does Your Novel's Conflict Come From?)

Going on vacation and having rich classmates who do isn’t needed, nor is her father losing his job. These are good details for added conflict, but they don’t affect the “break the curse” point of the book.

I’d suggest cutting out the unnecessary details and focus more on the relevant parts of the plot. For example, something like…

“Growing up poor in Michigan’s upper peninsula, the only adventure twelve-year-old Taylor ever has is from reading books” is a solid opening line. That establishes the character, age, and setting. I know she’s a kid who longs for adventure, since not having it is one of the first things I learn about her. Knowing more about this will help you develop her motivations and personality.

In the same paragraph, I’d expand on her “goes into books” idea. This is the novel’s hook, so make sure you understand how her power works and why. You have an opportunity for a nice pitch surprise with “her only adventure is in books” and her having actual adventures in books. This is the “Oh, cool” detail and the heart of the idea that will work well in a future query letter.

(Here's more on Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

Perhaps think more about her skill and what she does with it. Maybe she uses it to escape a hard life, or she just likes the adventures, or whatever. You mention her need to escape the outside world, so perhaps the conflict is from there. Think about how she uses this skill and even who knows about it. You might also think about how she found out she could do this. Her backstory there will likely be important to write this story, even if you never show that backstory.

(Here's more on 8 Tips for Creating Characters)

Then transition into the trigger of the story—her mother gets a job at the library (paragraph two). This sounds like the moment things change for Taylor, even if she doesn’t know it yet. She’s in the right place for the story to happen to her. It seems like her family has a connection to this library, so perhaps brainstorm more on that. What’s the history there?

If shutting the library down is what goes wrong, then this has to matter more to Taylor than just her mom’s job. It has to matter to her and her ability to enter books, and/or the curse, otherwise that skill doesn’t feel connected to the story. Losing the library means…what?

Mom’s job isn’t quite enough to carry this story—it’s a good added stake, but it’s too mundane for a story with magic and curses to be the only stake.

(Here's more on Three Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Stakes in Your Story)

How are Taylor and her family connected to the library and the curse? This is the reason why Taylor is the one to break the curse and will show why she’s the protagonist.

Ideally this would be something that leads her to the photo. Without a connection between losing the library and her ability, her going into the photo risks being just a convenient way for her to learn the backstory about the library for plot.

How does Taylor seeking out this photo relate to her mom losing her job or the library being shut down? I’d assume this is her attempt to try to save it? So what led her there?

(Here's more on Three Questions to Get to the Heart of Your Story)

Entering the photo sounds like the inciting event, so you’d probably start paragraph three with a “But when Taylor enters the photo, she finds out the real problem and what she has to do about it…” type paragraph.

This will sum up the core conflict of the novel, so this is where the bulk of your plot will come from (your act two or middle). Her discovering the curse, her family of witches, why her ancestor fought to save the library and why the other witch cursed it. All the really cool stuff about this premise will happen here.

Last paragraph, you’d wrap up with the ticking clock (end the curse by X time or else), and a sense of what’s at stake. Taylor has to do X before Y or Z happens. This will cover your third act and the general ending of the story.

(Here's more on Beware the Vague Goal When Outlining a Scene)

I’d suggesting looking for the different story themes and arcs that will tie it all together and flesh out the conflicts. You know what she has to do, so brainstorm more on the why.

Overall, the idea is sound and there’s a lot of fun to be had in this premise. The gist of the story is a young witch who can enter the stories in books has to use that skill in order to break a curse affecting a library. It’s worth developing and writing.

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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2 comments:

  1. I love this. I love seeing a core idea that works, and so many elements around it that add to it. There's no question that there's a great story in here, worth searching for.

    The key to it might be the balance between the world of the books, the struggle with the witches, and the rest of Taylor's life.

    The books: Taylor can enter books and that’s certainly your central coolness, so how much of the storyline is in those stories themselves? Is there a side-plot where she's trying to change the course of one book to help her friends in it -- that struggle might even reveal the keys to her outside struggle (has her great-great-grandmother been hiding in that book?). Or it might be a strong but general presence: a friend in the books she keeps visiting as a big sister, or how she goes to an adventure book for fighting lessons when she's bullied. It's a matter of degrees: how much does the world inside the books take up your story's time, and how much does it affect the action outside the books?

    Then there's the witches and/or the closing of the library, the obvious physical battles. I'm assuming the witch's curse is still dangerous: how is it spreading and threatening what (someone in the books, or Taylor’s life and family, or the town?), or at least holding something prisoner? Is it causing the mayor to close the library, or does the mayor have his own petty reasons and his decision is simply worsening Taylor’s magical troubles? This is a classic plotline (or two) you can take in any direction you want.

    (And I agree with Janice: there should be a connection between her magic and the library itself. Endangering the library actually matters less if Taylor can enter any book anywhere—unless she can only enter books (and photos) that are part of that library’s collection. That would make sense, if this began with her ancestor casting a spell on that library. If you don’t go that way, you’ll have to create more tension with how the curse endangers people’s lives or might take away Taylor’s power.)

    And the rest of Taylor’s world. You present her as someone with an isolated, sad life except for her power, but just what potential does she have there? You probably shouldn’t have a whole town of unreachable yokels—it’s unrealistic and unfair. So what people does she have some hope of befriending, and who does she end up connecting with, whether it’s adults or kids? How in particular do they get in her way in the meantime? What about the creatures YA loves to neglect, her parents, including their own interests in the library and the family magic? (See Mythcreants’ https://mythcreants.com/blog/five-ways-to-handle-parents-without-killing-them/) You’ve defined this story by how Taylor has nothing except her magic books, but what are the other parts of her life really like, and how will they and the rest of the story change each other? You probably want a happy ending that’s a happy medium between book magic and at least one human friend. (But not “she has to give up her magic to save a friend, because real people need people more than books.” Yuck—we need both!)

    This concept is simply beautiful, and your ideas have you well on the way to seeing a complete story that would be at home on anyone’s shelf. Go work the rest out!

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  2. Okay, now this will be fun...

    My question, after Janice and Ken's great comments and thoughts was: why was the library cursed in the first place? Is this part of an ancient rivalry with another coven? Is there a special book, talisman, etc. in the library that needed protection -- or is the library on sacred ground that allows powers to be gathered there? Do the witches connected with the library all have special powers to live through any of the books? Is the great-great-great guiding the MC to certain books? And once within those books, does the MC meet certain characters who have clues to achieving her goal?

    This concept seems to have endless, fun routes to take -- and to be more than a single book, of course!

    Good luck and come back when you get started please. :O)

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