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Saturday, January 11

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This YA Romance 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: One

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through January 18.

This week’s questions:

As an opening, is it hook-y enough? Does it draw the reader in? Do you get a good sense of the protagonist?

Market/Genre: YA Contemporary Romance

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

The relentless, fever-pitched screaming reached all the way to the 28th floor.

I pressed my forehead against the penthouse suite window and peered down at the sea of Beaumont Avenue fans swarming the street. The growing mass pushed and surged, the momentum of the crowd like a wave crashing against the foot of the building, and Joy whistled long and low beside me, shaking her head. I was surprised the band’s usually-secure schedule had leaked. Particularly after the incident in Munich last year.

Joy waved me back to the dining room with the flick of her hairbrush, and I slid into a chair, drumming my fingers on the polished mahogany table. The heel of my ankle boot tapped a rhythmic, hollow thud against the chair leg. And the constant shrieks reverberating through the window sent goosebumps skittering across my skin, despite Joy’s curling iron warming the back of my neck.

I didn’t hate crowds – I attended music shows and conferences and other large events all the time – but the frenetic energy from wild, obsessive boy band fans always unsettled me. It was the way the crowd swelled, their intensity, their uncontrollable nature, and because being caught in a fanatical stampede and trampled to death wasn’t the way I wanted to go.

“Kate, it’s just a meet-and-greet and a quick photo shoot,” Joy said, misinterpreting my sudden restlessness. I glanced at her reflection in the large mirror set up in front of me, and she smiled reassuringly. “You’ll be great.”

I nodded but the nerves weren’t just from meeting Beaumont Avenue for the first time. It was everything else this interview, this job, the next six weeks, represented; opportunity, credibility, career-advancement, followers.

My Thoughts in Blue:

[The relentless, fever-pitched screaming reached all the way to the 28th floor.] Because there’s no context for the screams, this sets a different vibe for the story. Perhaps consider adjectives that suggest these are fans and not someone in trouble

I pressed my forehead against the penthouse suite window and peered down at the sea of [Beaumont Avenue] I assume this is a band, but since she’s looking at an actual street, this might throw some readers fans swarming the street. The growing [mass] of what? I know it’s “fan” but there’s an opportunity to be specific here pushed and surged, [the momentum of the crowd like a wave crashing against the foot of the building] perhaps a more original simile? “Waves crashing” is a fairly common one, and it's often associated with calm, not chaos, [and] Perhaps end the sentence here and start a new one. It’s a bit long Joy whistled long and low beside me, shaking her [head.] I wanted a bit of dialogue here from Joy [I was surprised the band’s usually-secure schedule had leaked.] She spends most of the paragraph describing the situation, yet this is her first internal comment, and Joy acts "surprised" first. Perhaps move this to after “swarming the street?” [Particularly after the incident in Munich last year.] I wanted a but of dialogue from the narrator here. They’re standing there looking, but neither one comments on what’s going on. But since this is the first thing you show readers, it must be important, and I want to know how the narrator feels about it.

Joy waved me back to the dining room with the flick of her hairbrush, and [I slid into a chair, [drumming my fingers on the polished mahogany table.]This reads as if she’s doing them at the same time [The heel of my ankle boot tapped a rhythmic, hollow thud against the chair leg.] There are two “making noise” details in a row. [And] Doesn’t really connect the two thoughts the constant shrieks reverberating through the window sent goosebumps skittering across my skin, despite Joy’s curling iron warming the back of my neck. This paragraph is a bit tough to figure out. It also doesn’t tell me much, even though it’s very specific about the details. I suspect it’s trying to show she’s nervous and on edge, but it also giving off a bored or irritated vibe.

I didn’t hate crowds – I attended music shows and conferences and other large events all the time – but the frenetic energy from wild, obsessive boy band fans [always unsettled me.] I’d like to see her think about this earlier. [It was the way the crowd swelled, their intensity, their uncontrollable nature, and because] A little repetitive after the opening [being caught in a fanatical stampede and trampled to death wasn’t the way I wanted to go. ] Cute, but she’s actually in no danger of this in a penthouse, so it feels off here

[“Kate, it’s just a meet-and-greet and a quick photo shoot,”] I don’t understand Kate’s role here. She’s a teen, right? Joy said, misinterpreting my sudden restlessness. I glanced at her reflection in the large mirror set up in front of me, and she smiled reassuringly. “You’ll be great.”

I nodded but the [nerves] I’m not really feeling her nerves yet weren’t just from meeting Beaumont Avenue for the first time. [It was everything else this interview, this job, the next six weeks, represented; opportunity, credibility, career-advancement, followers.] This sounds like a woman in her twenties, not a teenager. Also, she speaks about their location leaking, and the incident in Munich, which made me think she was part of the band in some way and had inside knowledge.

The Questions:

1. As an opening, is it hook-y enough?


Not quite (readers chime in here). Kate is going to meet a boy band for an interview, but I don’t fully understand the problem she’s facing. If it’s only a meet and greet and a photo shoot, how does that translate into a six-week job that could advance her career?

“Career” is also a confusing word. Teens don’t have careers (celebrity-status ones notwithstanding). Kate’s concern about her career makes her seems more like a woman in her twenties, which throws the tone of the opening off. It doesn’t feel YA to me, it feels like adult romance or women’s fiction. There’s also no YA voice that firmly puts this in the YA market.

(Here’s more on How to Write With a Teen Voice)

Questions are good in an opening page, but there’s an annoying fine line between teasing and obfuscating. Kate’s situation and goals aren’t clear enough yet to tease me into wanting to know more, because there’s not enough information for me to understand what’s going on. Why would this girl be doing a photo shoot and meet and greet with a boy band? How is this connected to the interview? Is it with them? If she doesn’t get it, so what? She’s a teen. How does this hurt her? Who is Joy? What’s her role there? Are they friends or does she work for the band?

I’d suggest clarifying the goal and conflict a bit more, and showing readers why this is so important to Kate, and why it might be a potential for trouble.

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

2. Does it draw the reader in?

Not yet, because the focus is mostly on the description of the crowd below and Kate’s external fidgeting. I’m also not getting a sense that something might be about to go wrong, or go anywhere interesting. Kate isn’t excited about meeting the band, and excitement could be a big draw for readers—especially if they’re huge fans of a boy band. If readers could live their “meeting the band” fantasy vicariously through Kate, they might be eager to see what happens next.

Right now, Kate is almost giving off a bored vibe. If she’s not excited about this, why should readers be?

I’d suggest kicking up Kate’s emotions a notch so readers fully see and understand how she’s feeling here. Show her fear, her nervousness, her excitement. Let us inside her head more so we know what’s going on in there. Her eagerness and apprehension about this job is where the hook and the goal lie, and if readers don’t care if she gets it or not, they won’t want to keep reading.

(Here’s more on You're So Emotional: Describing a Character's Emotions in a First Person Point of View)

3. Do you get a good sense of the protagonist?

Not yet, because I’m not in her head much, and what she says isn’t supported by what she does. Her physical actions could be nerves or boredom, and I don’t fully know she’s nervous until she says so. What she’s nervous about is also muddy. She’s worried about crowds trampling her, yet she’s in a penthouse. She acts as though she’s familiar with the band and their issues, but then I find out she’s meeting them for the first time. I don’t know how old she is or what job she’s there for, and she doesn’t think about the job in more than a vague, abstract way.

There are several opportunities to add dialogue and internalization in this page, so I’d suggest slipping in a few to better flesh out who Kate is and what’s she feeling. Joy gives her a good opening for a quick exchange when she whistles, and if her whistle echos what Kate is already thinking, it provides a nice transition to a conversation about the situation.

Kate can also worry as she’s having her hair done, giving you a chance to elaborate some on why she’s there. Is she the one giving the interview? Would she think about the questions she’s going to ask? Would she debate how tough she’s going to be on the band? Maybe she’s thinking about how she can use this interview for a larger purpose in a more meaningful and informative way.

Being nervous about something important is a relatable situation that can help readers connect to Kate and root for her, so let readers see that through how Kate feels and thinks, not just her fidgeting.

(Here’s more on How to Write First-Person Internalization)

Overall, I suspect this isn't the right start of the book. It might be after a revision, but there's more setup here than Kate acting or facing an problem to solve. You might try looking ahead to where Kate acts and test that as an opening. See if it works better. Right before she goes into the interview itself might be a good spot, giving her more goals, conflict, and things to do that will pique reader curiosity and get to the story a bit faster.

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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3 comments:

  1. My first thought was, there would be so much more power in an adjective-less "The screaming carried all the way..." Of course you do need to make it clear it's not the most common kind of screaming, but it's worth thinking what a simpler line can do if it still covers what it needs to.

    Like Janice said, what this could use is more Kate. You have three significant paragraphs before Joy speaks, all easing through the description of the crowd and some of Kate's reaction. But besides the sheer energy of the crowd, can you give us a few lines that hint at what this means for *Kate*? (Tip: even a couple of words can change our sense of everything if they're where the reader can't miss them, at the start or end of a paragraph.)

    (Or their own paragraph.)

    What pulls us into the start of a story is what the character wants. Can you give us an earlier something to go on about what Kate is planning? Even a hint at first would help, and it would also ground us in how she can be a teen who's thinking of six-week plans and "careers."

    Because this description of the crowd's energy and her reaction... it's the most important thing of all to include, but you aren't quite tying it into where the story is going. That is, the emotional impression of "This crowd is Serious Business" is perfect for powering the opening page, but only if we also see what it means to Kate's plan. We want early, immersive hints that Kate is actually *intimidated* by the scale of the band and the job ahead, or physically afraid of the potential riot down there, or eager to get a chance this big, or whatever all that energy down there means to her.

    --And, one other thing: to completely cover the basics right at the start, you can also show the one thing we need to understand about what kind of person Kate is. Is she more personally shy than she wants to be, for someone with such big plans? Is she eager or enthusiastic and liable to get in over her head? Driven by her love of the music itself, or her friends, or something else? Any story is really about how the character's essence puts a spin on how they deal with everything, and it's never too soon to show the reader what that essence is.

    First scenes are seriously hard work to write. But you've given us all this energy of the crowd -- just keep that in terms of how it's in Kate's way, what she herself wants, and who she is. You're all set to bring it all together and pull us in.

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  2. Ditto to Janice's comments...

    I initially thought Kate was part of the band. The name of the band did, for me, what Janice pointed out and had me wondering if there was something bad about the street below.

    A bit of internal thought would help there - a comment to self, something as brief as 'crazy boy band fans...' - this would instantly reveal how she felt about one aspect of the situation she was in.

    She could have sat for the hair dressing and looked over notes, checked a recorder, whatever -- done actions that pointed to what she was getting ready to do. Like Janice, I wondered if she was prepping for an interview, but then there was the comment about Munich. So, was she in Munich with them or just knew about it?

    And, does she have to do this 'thing' within the hotel? She's in the penthouse, is it bothering her to have to go down, closer to the mob?

    In the end, I know she has a task to face, but am not sure what it is. I don't know how she came to be in this situation, who she is or her age. And I am interested enough to want to know more about her.

    You have some elements in place to begin a story, but you may want to bounce ahead a bit, where perhaps we learn about her and her goals as she rides down the elevator with Joy and the window-pounding, keening fan noise is pushing her into...what? :O)

    Readers - please chime in and offer your impressions/thoughts, you never know, your comment might resonate with your fellow writer.

    Hang in there! You'll get that satisfying 'click' soon.

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  3. I agree with the feedback from Janice, Ken, and Maria. The opening doesn't feel YA, and it would help me as a reader to know who Kate is, what she wants, what's standing in her way, and maybe a hint of her arc-- what is the thing that she's going to have to overcome to "win" or participate in the romantic relationship? Just a hint. Because you start with her focus on the intensity of the crowd, I have the idea that maybe that's where she'll need to grow. But if that's it, maybe the focus on the crowd is misplaced. What else could she be worried about/anxious over/excited about as she prepares for this interview?

    A few other questions/reactions: I thought at first that she was part of the band, and the name of band slid past me, because I thought it was just the name of the street the fans were on.

    She's getting her hair done-- that seems like she's already a professional interviewer-- Is Joy an adult hairdresser? A friend? If they are teens, how can they afford to be in a penthouse suite?

    Hope this helps. For what's it's worth, I like the idea of a teen romance that involves a boy band and a budding journalist/interviewer/influencer. Keep at it!

    ReplyDelete