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Saturday, December 21

Real Life Diagnostics: Does the Opening Page of This Magical Realism Tale Work?

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: Zero

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are open and taking submissions for next year, starting on January 4.

This week’s question:

Does this opening work?

Market/Genre: Magical Realism (Gothic Fairy Tale)

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: A woman possessed by a water daemon must lead the ghost of her best friend to a door to the afterlife before a shadowy soul-eater named Mr. Whiro steals him.

Kakaru had never eaten a living human. Just a dead one. Once. Thankfully, she wasn’t expected to eat this next corpse; she just had to bond with it. And it wasn’t even a corpse yet.

The taniwha was sick of waiting; even so, she prayed for more time. Overhead, the ocean liner trudged through black swells, with no indication that one of its passengers was about to die. Actually, most of its passengers were going to die, but Kakaru was only interested in the girl.

Her thoughts roiled with questions that didn’t matter. She wished she could just drift and enjoy the way the sea pressed her body. The most beautiful thing about being underwater at night was how the moon shimmered on the roof of the world. But tonight even watching the moon undulate in the waves brought little relief.

Her mind wouldn’t stop spinning. She had never bonded before. And bonding, even with a dead girl, could be tricky.

The girl was so young, too.

When children die, do their lives flash before their eyes? Or does that just happen to people who have lived long enough to experience a lifetime’s worth of happiness and pain? Kakaru supposed she was about to find out. Young in her own way, she felt a pang of sympathy. And guilt.

The ship’s massive shadow slid by, its wake a foamy tail glistening in moonlight. It seemed so serene. Kakaru half-hoped she had followed the wrong ship. It would make things so much easier. She could just go home.

My Thoughts in Blue:

[Kakaru had never eaten a living human.] Love this opening line Just a dead one. Once. Thankfully, she wasn’t expected to eat this next corpse; she just had to bond with it. And it wasn’t even a corpse yet. I’m intrigued

The [taniwha] I don’t know what this is. Is it what Kakaru is? [was sick of waiting; even so, she prayed for more time.] I like the conflict here [Overhead,] Gives a sense she’s in the hold of the ship or maybe underwater the ocean liner trudged through black swells, with no indication that one of its passengers was about to die. Actually, most of its passengers were going to die, but Kakaru was only interested in the girl. More intrigued. 

Her thoughts roiled with [questions that didn’t matter.] I actually wanted to hear a few to know what’s on her mind and what didn’t matter to her, but might to humans. Or cut this and leave the “mind spinning” line below She wished she could just drift and enjoy the way the sea pressed her body. The most beautiful thing about being underwater at night was how the moon shimmered on the roof of the world. But tonight even watching the moon undulate in the waves brought little relief.

[Her mind wouldn’t stop spinning.] Don’t think you need, as you basically said this above, but if you cut that, this works better here. Or move that line here instead. Both feels like too much, but either in either spot could work She had never bonded before. [And bonding, even with a dead girl, could be tricky.] Nice way to mention stakes and hint as potential problems to come

[The girl was so young, too.] Don’t think you need. The previous line packs a lot of punch, and this lessened it for me

When children die, do their lives flash before their eyes? Or does that just happen to people who have lived long enough to experience a lifetime’s worth of happiness and pain? Kakaru supposed she was about to find out. Young in her own way, she felt a pang of sympathy. And guilt.

The ship’s massive shadow slid by, its wake a foamy tail glistening in moonlight. It seemed so serene. Kakaru half-hoped she had followed the wrong ship. It would make things so much easier. [She could just go home.] Don’t think you need. The previous line packs a good punch and shows her conflict over this act

The Question:

1. Does this opening work?


Yes (readers chime in). I’m intrigued by the opening paragraph and the sense of disaster, and I feel for Kakaru even though she’s possibly about to sink a ship to do something she wished she didn’t have to. I’m guessing she’s the water daemon, but I don’t feel she’s a villain. She's has a job to do (so to speak), and she's ambivalent about it. She worries, and cares about the little girl. This all makes her likable and relatable.

(Here’s more on The Triangle of Likability: How to Make Your Characters Come Alive) 

I had a few small confusion points—I wasn’t sure if the taniwha was her or something else, and I’m don't think you need to say what she is yet. Readers will get “water daemon” from the cover copy, and knowing her actual species here doesn’t add anything to the scene unless you know what a taniwha is. I guess something from Japanese mythology.

I also wasn’t sure if she was in the ship or under it, and my first thought was in the hold. Perhaps “On the surface” instead of “overhead”? I did like the combination of the sense of disaster on the water paired with her serenity of being in the water.

I suggested a few text tweaks to tighten, but they're all minor fixes. The "thoughts spinning" idea is expressed twice, and once is all you need. I think it goes better with the actual thoughts spinning in her head, but either spot could work with either line.

There are a lot of good hook lines in this, and a few of them felt weakened by having text come after them. End with the stronger hook. They keep readers hooked and reading, and they works well here to do that.

(Here’s more on Hook Lines and Stinkers: Crafting Hook Lines to Draw the Reader in)

I'm hooked by the end of this page, but I'm ready to see her act now. I’m not sure how long it is between this and her doing what she’s about to do, but if she spends more time thinking, I’ll get a little impatient and might skim a bit, because I really want to see what comes next (readers chime in, could just be me). 

Overall, I like Kakaru, I’m curious to see what happens and how big a role she’s about to play in the ship’s demise, and what she does about the girl she’s supposed to bond with. It’s her first bond, and she’s worried, so I worry something might go wrong. I'm also curious how she gets involved with the protagonist and the soul-eater, and I wonder if this has anything to do with that, or is just a way to show who and what Kakaru is. I can already see why she might be willing to help the woman she possesses later. I’d read on.

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'm also intrigued... but I don't think you're on track to developing that intrigue as well as you could.

    The main experience we have here is that Kakaru sympathizes with the human, combined with how she'll bond with this soon-to-die girl. That's a combination that gives us intensity plus empathy, two of the best first things a story can have.

    What I'd like to see more of is a hint about why this is happening. How does she suspect the girl and the ship are doomed, and why is she "supposed to" (your words) bond with this girl in particular? I'm not saying to go very far into the details this soon, but you give her a lot of time to dwell on her regrets and her sympathy. Those are important, but on their own they give me a certain sense that she's a creature made of duty and sympathy because the story needs her to be.

    It's a small thing, but it bothers me to see your first character begin by being so focused on someone else, and not on the world as it seems to her own inhuman eyes. It's interesting that Janice says she wants to see Kakaru get involved with "the protagonist," even though from the description (and assuming this is the first scene) I'd expect Kakaru to be the protagonist herself. Yes the story's start should be about the mission ahead, but not so little about the creature on that mission that it's out of focus.

    So just a line or so about a larger picture here would help. Does she want to get back to her usual life drifting with the deepest tides, or is she excited because she isn't usually allowed near the surface? Is she here because some higher spirit ordered her to look after this girl, or can she herself sense both the possibility of disaster and something important about the girl?

    A strong purpose and sense of sympathy really are great things to start a story with, especially combined with the uniqueness of your concept. There's room for just a little more about your character herself as you do it, but really you have us where we like our fish: hooked.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Ken, you give me a lot to think about!

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