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Saturday, April 25

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Exposition and World Building

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

WIP 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 WIP Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines. 

Submissions currently in the queue: Five

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through May 30.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this opening hook you? Would you keep reading?

2. I’ve edited down for word count and audience (MG) reasons. Are there enough world-building details to sufficiently orient readers? (More details come relatively quickly after this, but I’m worried this opening is too sparse.)

3. Is there too much exposition? I want to establish relationships and give a feel for personalities, but I don’t want to info dump.

4. Do the explanations of in-world terms (magitiere, magiquipe) flow naturally and clearly?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

“Aren’t we done with the dog magic yet?” Takia groaned. Her cat, Pickle, echoed her with a mournful yowl from his place curled up in her lap. She scratched his fuzzy black head in sympathy.

Eilax, Takia’s younger brother, thumped her in the shoulder. “What bug’s up your butt?” he whispered, so as not to disturb the audience around them. “Just because next month is for cats doesn’t mean you have to moan about dog magic. Dogs make the best magitieres,” he said, proudly patting his dog, a biscuit-colored samoyed consisting mostly of fluff. “Don’t they, Barley.”

“How would you know?” said Takia as she fidgeted, trying to get comfortable on the thin woven mat they sat on. “You’re not even bonded to Barley yet. I may not be able to weave magic with Pickle yet, but at least I can talk to him.” Eilax had trained Barley to follow simple commands, but they couldn’t talk to each other like a magiquipe—a mage with her bonded animal magitiere.

Eilax thumped her shoulder again. “Barley and I understand each other fine, bond or no.”

Their sister, Vei, turned from her place next to Eilax to glare at both of them. Takia stuck her tongue out and waggled it. Vei closed her eyes and sighed, acting the long-suffering much-more-mature older sister—even though she was only eighteen minutes older than Takia.

Lyraika, the third and oldest of the triplet sisters by twenty-two minutes, whispered from Takia’s other side: “The cat magiquipe is weaving next.”

(The scene goes on to describe the cat magiquipe weaving magic in an exciting performance. The scene ends with Takia longing to be able to weave magic, which is the goal that drives the first part of the book.)

My Thoughts in Blue:

“Aren’t we done with the dog magic yet?” [Takia groaned.] Is she “groaning” her dialogue or just groaning? Because groan isn’t a manner of speech and isn’t a synonym for said Her cat, Pickle, echoed her with a mournful yowl from his place curled up in her lap. She scratched his fuzzy black head in sympathy.

Eilax, Takia’s younger brother, thumped her in the shoulder. “What bug’s up your butt?” [he whispered,] she groans, but he whispers, so I’m bit unsure if they’re trying to keep their voices down or not so as not to disturb the [audience around them.] I don’t know what this means so more context here would set the scene better [“Just because next month is for cats doesn’t mean you have to moan about dog magic. Dogs make the best magitieres,”] Feels a teeny bit infodumpy he said, proudly patting his dog, a biscuit-colored samoyed [consisting mostly of fluff.] hehe “Don’t they, Barley.”

“How would you know?” [said Takia as she fidgeted, trying to get comfortable] feels a tad overwritten. You don’t need to use her name again on the thin woven mat they sat on. “You’re not even bonded to Barley [yet]. I may not be able to weave magic with Pickle [yet] careful of repeated words, but at least I can talk to him.” Eilax had trained Barley to follow simple commands, but they couldn’t talk to each other like a magiquipe—a mage with [her] are they all female? bonded animal magitiere.

[Eilax] Perhaps just say He to cut down the number of names thumped her shoulder again. “Barley and I understand each other fine, bond or no.”

[Their sister, Vei,] Caught me off guard since I thought they were alone in the audience somewhere turned from her place next to Eilax [to glare] telling motive, not showing action at both of them. Takia stuck her tongue out and waggled it. Vei closed her eyes and sighed, acting the long-suffering much-more-mature older sister—even though she was only eighteen minutes older than Takia.

[Lyraika] at this point, all the names are a bit overwhelming, the third and oldest of the triplet sisters by twenty-two minutes, whispered from Takia’s other side: [“The cat magiquipe is weaving next.”] If so, then why did the brother say it was next month?

(The scene goes on to describe the cat magiquipe weaving magic in an exciting performance. The scene ends with Takia longing to be able to weave magic, which is the goal that drives the first part of the book.)

The Questions:

1. Does this opening hook you? Would you keep reading?

Maybe (readers chime in here). If the cover copy and story idea hooked me, I’d give it a few more pages. I like the idea of mages bonded with pets they could talk to (like a witch’s familiar), and Takia’s desire to weave magic is a goal that could drive the story.

What’s keeping me from connecting so far is the lack of understanding what’s going on in this scene, no clear goal for Takia, and too many names to keep track of. The omniscient narrator feels detached for me as well, but that’s a personal taste issue, so unless your goal is to write a tight third person point of view centered on Takia, it’s not a problem (I point this out only because many writers struggle with POV and write omniscient when they really want to write a close third person).

This opening focuses more on one detail of the world (the animal bonds) and mentioning all the siblings than on a problem Takia is facing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if the world detail is intriguing and fleshed out, but it’s not clear enough yet to fully understand what’s going on. I'm told what the magic is, I don't see it in action in an intriguing way.

(Here’s more on How to Ground (and Hook) Readers in Your Opening Scene)

2. I’ve edited down for word count and audience (MG) reasons. Are there enough world-building details to sufficiently orient readers? (More details come relatively quickly after this, but I’m worried this opening is too sparse.)

Not yet. I’m getting enough on the magic bonding, but nothing on the world and setting itself. The siblings are in an audience watching dog magic, and Takia is bored, but I don’t know what any of that means. Is this school? Is this a show? A training session of some type? Is the room large or small? How many others are there? Is this just for children or anyone? Why are they there? It needs more context.

I know how old the triplets are relative to each other, but not how old they are. This is MG, so I assume twelve, but that’s never made clear. Had age not been mentioned as important, it wouldn’t have stood out as much to me, but since it was “first-page material” I assumed it must matter.

Describing fantasy world-building details is tougher than your normal setting, because nothing is familiar to your readers. But characters also don’t describe what’s familiar to them in detail. So you have to find that balance between putting in just enough to show how the world works without over-explaining things the characters wouldn’t notice.

Takia is bored, so that could be a good way to add more world building details and still keep the story moving. What about the dog magic does she find boring? Would she look around the room for distractions? Is there anyone else there that catches her attention? What are her own goals and plans that could be reflected in what she notices in the room, such as an older cat mage she admires?

What elements of this world need to be present on page one to visualize it and ground readers in this world? The animal bonding is clear, so perhaps look for ways to add more setting details, possibly showing how the bonding works in the world. For example, if bonded pairs work in law enforcement, there might be a “police officer and their dog” type mage working as security. Maybe there’s an example of what Takia wants to be when she grows up she can notice and remark on.

(Here’s more on Painting Your Story World)

3. Is there too much exposition? I want to establish relationships and give a feel for personalities, but I don’t want to info dump.

No, though some of it felt a tad infodumpy to me due to the detached narrator. Any time motive is explained, it pushes readers away from the point of view character. This is common in MG fiction though. For me (readers chine in here), the omniscient narrator kept me outside of Takia’s head, so I never felt that I was getting her thoughts and views on her world. There was no internalization, though there was one spot that sounded like Takia’s thoughts—the fluff comment (which was great).

Internalization is a vital component of character voice, and thus personality. That inner voice tells readers what the character feels and how they think about the world around them. It shows their inner desires and fears.

The sisters are briefly seen, and what they say is generic, so their personalities aren’t showing yet. The brother is proud of his dog and seems to like annoying his sisters, but that’s common to most kids his age.

I’d suggest adding more internal thought from Takia to help set the scene and develop her character. She’s the reader’s guide in the story, so she can “explain” without explaining, because what she shares with readers is what she thinks about her world and the people in it.

(Here’s more on It's Exposition, Yeah, Baby! Handling Your Exposition.)

4. Do the explanations of in-world terms (magitiere, magiquipe) flow naturally and clearly?

Yes. The one line with the brother felt a teeny bit infodumpy because it didn’t sound like natural dialogue, but it wasn't bad. Sometimes we need to do that to make something clear. Though how he explains his dog bond is an opportunity to further show his personality. What he says sounds more like the author, so what words would he choose?

If the magic is the most critical aspect, then perhaps start with Takia watching the cat magic performance instead. Show it in action, show her fascination and love of it, show her desire to become one. Maybe let the brother pester her about dog magic instead.

(Here’s more on How Over-Explaining Will Kill Your Novel)

Right now, this page is explaining how things work, not introducing a protagonist in the middle of something. Think about how Takia feels in this opening. What is she hoping to see beyond cat magic? Why does this matter to her? How does this gain her something she wants? If the brother’s pestering her can be a threat to that in some way (such as getting them kicked out for making noise), even better, as that could add a little conflict and stakes.

Overall, it has decent bones, but it feels like it’s missing that “character with a goal” drive to focus the story and show what matters at the start. Ground Takia more and find that right mix of world building and character goal and this should work the way you want it to.

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. I like the idea of magic and cats and dogs, so the premise has me intrigued. I, too, became confused with the numerous names in this opening. I think when we try to introduce too many characters too quickly, the reader becomes more focused on trying to keep the characters straight than following the storyline.

    I agree with Janice that the POV feels distant. Who's story is this? What is their desire? Janice - I'd love to read a blog on choosing close third vs. omniscient - not sure if you wrote one on that -

    I'd also would like to see a bit of a conflict. Is there something they are doing that they shouldn't? Are they trying to solve a problem?

    I love the names Pickles and Barley. Lot's of good things here - with a little tightening it will be a great start to a fun story.

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  2. I agree, the scene could use some thought about what should be added and what should be delayed.

    Part of that is definitely the question of bringing in Takia's goal soon. Janice suggested starting the scene with the cat magic, and that might well be right if learning that is her goal for a third of the book. Showing this fidgeting first puts a lot of the spotlight on sibling issues and the contrast with dog magic instead; are you sure that's the emphasis you want? (And like Janice said, there's room for the family butting in during the cat magic anyway.)

    Or, if you do need to start with dogs and the family, we still want to see the magic itself right away. You could show a bit of what the dog does (probably in less detail than the cat) and the siblings reacting to that. Here they seem to be talking during intermission.

    How much setting to mention how soon is tricky. But the scene's definitely incomplete if there's any kind of crowd here and you don't mention it at once. The purpose they're gathered here for (school, carnival, etc), and the rest of the environment, ought to get hinted soon too.

    And there's Just No Way you can leave out Takia's age. It's essential.

    For explaining the terms: I think fully spelling out who's bonded or what animal is trained this soon slows the story down. You'd do better to show the magic and trim their side explanations down to pieces like "Someday I'll be doing magic like that" -- we don't yet need to know if they're unbonded or just need more practice. The dog/cat debate is fun for contrasting the siblings, but you can convey it just a couple of words, or a few more if you think it's important to add a bit like "Dogs are easier" / "Cats are smarter."

    As a rule of thumb, "Dogs make the best magitieres" is less of a problem than "they couldn't talk to each other like a magiquipe—a mage with her bonded animal magitiere" because the one is defined by the words around it and the other needs to stop and explain. That stopping can really hurt our early engagement, and if you can't find a smooth way to get a fact in on the first page, it would be better to leave that fact out. (Or if you must, use the word without explaining it at first: readers trust you'll get to it soon. Little questions like this that look like questions go over better than glossing out something key that *affects* what's going on, like "Wait, they're whispering because there's a crowd? since when?")

    All in all, it looks like you've got a great sense of your characters and your world. You can make us comfortable with them, but that doesn't mean we should be too comfortable too soon -- we want some focus and some momentum in the drama too. Figuring out what to explain and what to push back until after we get our first impression can really bring this to life.

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  3. One of the reasons I don't read "fantasy" is all the weird names and words I have to try to guess at pronunciation. Takia (tah-kia or Tah-key a) Eilax (I-lax or Eelax...reminded me of Exlax when I first saw it ;) ) Vei (V-I or Vay) Lyraika (Lie-ray-ka or LarI-ka or la-reeka) and fuggadabout magiquipe(magi-wipe, magiquip) magitiere (magi-tare, magtire) takes too much effort ;) I know when our book club comes across names like these, we spend half the time debating the pronunciation than the story..haha. And they're all thrown at us in the first page. That's just my personal taste, I guess, and maybe MGraders are used to it. ..and all you fantasy readers. I think if one is going to use "strange" names and words for things, the spelling should make the pronunciation clear. Just my two cents.

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