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Saturday, August 1

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Creating Tension in an Opening Page

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: Two

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through August 15.

This week’s questions:

1. Is this a strong enough hook?

2. Does the "voice" read as a 12-year-old?

3. Does the last paragraph contain too much internal exposition and veer into "telling"?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

The last day of school is always Field Trip Day around here. I guess all the good places were booked, because our teacher, Mrs. Bee, signed us up for the Wonders of Sewage tour.

My mom took one look at the permission form and shook her head.

“Absolutely not,” she said, tossing the paper into the recycle bin.

“Please, Mom,” I coaxed, fishing it out and waving it around. “I’ll change the ice cream tubs all summer. I’ll even scrub out the freezer and sanitize the soft-serve machine.”

“Thanks for that, Blu. I’ll need lots of help with the truck this summer. But why do you even want to go?” Mom wrinkled her freckled nose. “It sounds disgusting.”

“We do a singalong on the bus, and we get pizza, and if I don’t go, I’ll have to just sit and twiddle my thumbs in Mr. Callahan’s stinky old science class.

One corner of her mouth tugged into a smile and, for a second, I thought she was going to cave, but she shook her head and shrugged.

“Sorry, Baby-Blu. We can’t take that risk.”

I groaned and clutched a fistful of hair in each hand. I’ve always adored my hippy-dippy mom, but she frequently drives me nuts. The day I was born, she had a goofy premonition that I was going to drown so I’ve never been allowed near water. No rivers. No lakes. No swimming pools. We don’t even have a bathtub--she had a walk-in shower installed the day we moved to town.

My Thoughts in Blue:

The last day of school is always Field Trip Day [around here.] I wanted a hint of where “here” is to help ground me in the scene. There's no setting description in this page I guess all the good places were booked, because our teacher, Mrs. Bee, signed us up for the [Wonders of Sewage tour.] How the narrator feels about this. Good or bad?

My mom took one look at the permission form and shook her head.

[“Absolutely not,” she said, tossing the paper into the recycle bin.] Perhaps add something here that hints about the drowning and why she says no, such as, “Not with all those pools” or “Too many water tanks” or the like.

[“Please, Mom,” I coaxed, fishing it out and waving it around.] Perhaps an internal thought here to show why going to a sewage plant matters so much. Even a touch of emotion would be good if you want to save the reveal for the dialogue “I’ll change the ice cream tubs all summer. I’ll even scrub out the freezer and sanitize the soft-serve machine.”

“Thanks for that, Blu. I’ll need lots of help with the truck this summer. But why do you even want to go?” Mom wrinkled her freckled nose. [“It sounds disgusting.”] This is an opportunity for internal description of how gross it might be, yet the narrator still wants to go

“We do a singalong on the bus, and we get pizza, and if I don’t go, I’ll have to just sit and twiddle my thumbs in Mr. Callahan’s stinky old science class. Perhaps an internal thought here to show what that would mean to Blu. Is it more than just boredom? Or being left out? It would help show the stakes

One corner of her mouth tugged into a smile and, for a second, I thought she was going to cave, but she shook her head and shrugged.

“Sorry, Baby-Blu. [We can’t take that risk.”] This intrigues me, as I wonder what makes this risky

I groaned and clutched [a fistful of hair in each hand.] I don’t know the gender of the Blu yet, and this might be a good spot to show it I’ve always adored my [hippy-dippy] this doesn’t strike me as a 12 year old’s phrase mom, but she frequently [drives] drove me nuts. The day I was born, she had a goofy premonition that I was going to drown [comma] so [I’ve] I’d never been allowed near water. No rivers. No lakes. No swimming pools. We [don’t] didn’t even have a bathtub--she had a walk-in shower installed the day we moved to town. The rest of the page is in past tense, but Blu switches to present tense in this paragraph

The Questions:

1. Is this a strong enough hook?

Not quite yet (readers chime in). I wouldn’t put it down if I liked the cover copy, but the page itself doesn’t hook me on its own.

The drowning premonition is interesting, and a mom who won’t even have a bathtub in the house is funny, but I’m not getting a strong enough sense of tension in this situation yet. It’s essentially “Blu wants to go on a field trip and Mom says no.” As a reader, why should I care? Why do I want Blu to get her/his way here? What’s at stake if Blu doesn’t get to go?

(Here's more on How to Hook Your Reader in Every Scene)

Being stuck at school is the consequence here, but why is that bad? Is Blu having a hard time making friends and this trip might fix that? Is Mr. Callahan secretly a monster who eats the kids left behind on field trips (or something unexpected)? Does Blu need to go to get extra credit for a failing subject? Why does this trip matter so much?

The reason doesn’t have to be end-of-the-world dire, but a hint of why Blu wants to go so badly and why it’s bad if she/he stays behind will help show the goals and stakes. The conflict is Mom and her premonition, but without understanding Blu’s motives for going and risks for not going, it doesn’t grab as much as it could.

I’d suggest raising the tension by adding a few lines here and there to show why this matters to Blu, and a hint of what’s at stake if they stay behind. There’s no hint that this might lead to a bigger problem or any type of adventure. That’s a tall order for a first page, I know, but it doesn’t take much to raise the tension.

(Here’s more on The Key to Creating Suspense Is...)

The hook here, I believe (readers chime in here as well), is why Mom doesn’t want Blu to go--she’s afraid Blu will drown. So perhaps drop a few hints that Mom has a non-typical reason for saying no to make readers wonder what’s really going on. Tension is what will hook readers, and wondering why Blu wants to go so badly paired with why Mom says no could be enough to draw readers in to the reveal.

Think about where this opening leads, and how you might tease readers with questions that will make them read on to get those answers. Perhaps “what will happen if Blu stays?” and “What will happen if Blu is near water?” or “Is this premonition real?” (Has Blu had any close calls before to lend legitimacy to Mom’s claim?).

(Here’s more on So What? Making Readers Care About Your Story)

2. Does the "voice" read as a 12-year-old?

Yes, aside from “hippy-dippy.” It sounded like a 12 year old telling this story. Though I couldn’t determine gender from the voice or details. Baby-Blu suggested female, though excitement about a Sewage tour seemed more male.

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

3. Does the last paragraph contain too much internal exposition and veer into "telling"?

No. It read like a kid ranting about the unfairness of their situation. It’s in the narrator’s voice, and that makes all the difference with exposition.

(Here’s more on What You Need to Know About Show, Don't Tell)

Overall, I think this is going in the right direction, and a few tweaks could raise the tension and create some story questions to draw readers in better. “Why does this matter?” is the question to answer most, and that answer should be something readers will care about. Add things that will pique reader interest and make them wonder why this field trip is so important, and what might go wrong if Blu goes/stays.

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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12 comments:

  1. I agree, it's appealing, but could use some focus.

    Which is more important to the plot, and is going to be the real hook: the trip or Blu's mother's fear? If it's the trip, definitely capture why it's important to Blu -- that need is what's pulling the reader along until we see more of the story. If it's the fear and the trip is just the latest example of it, shift the focus to how many unfair ways this has hurt Blu over the years. (In this case, the last paragraph really has to be right: Blu catching us up on how long this has gone on is okay, but making it sound like this has been Blu's normal for so long and now it's wearing thin might be even better.) Or if the two are connected because Mom actually knows something about Blu and water, you can play up both sides and hint at that connection.

    One line that bothers me is "all the good places were booked," because Blu wanting to go is essential for this. The line might be "all the boring old places" to make the sewer seem interesting. Or if it doesn't sound fun but is just better than staying behind, it may be better to leave that complaint out at first, until you've established that Blu's reasons for going are strong enough that it being a sewer wouldn't matter.

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    1. Thanks for your insights, Ken. You are right about Mom knowing something about Blu and water. Blu is a manatee shapeshifter (only shifts when immersed) and Mom hasn't told her yet (stigma and danger). As to "all the good place were booked" I was trying to give Blu a bit of a snarky preteen voice. Thanks for your imput :)

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  2. Sasha Anderson8/01/2020 12:02 PM

    Sorry, Janice, but I completely disagree with the tense changes you've made. Stuff that is still continuously true now (Mom drives me nuts, we don't have a bathtub) is in present tense, and stuff that happened (Mom shook her head, I groaned) is in past tense, and it's absolutely fine (better, even) as written. I see it as the narrator telling this story from not very far ahead.

    To the author: forgive me if I'm stating the obvious here, but has it ever occurred to Mom that kids (and adults) are more likely to drown if they never learn to swim? Or does she just believe (presumably wrongly) that she will always be able to keep Blu away from bodies of water? I'm hooked, and I want to know what this premonition is about, and how everything goes horribly wrong, although I do agree with Janice about wanting just a hint more of Blu's feelings earlier, so that we can see why this trip is so important to them despite the fact that they see it as the short straw ("all the good places were booked").

    And for what it's worth, I read Blu as a girl, rightly or wrongly.

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    1. Thank you,Sasha. I appreciate your comments. You're right about what I was attempting to do with the tense. At times, Blu, is speaking as if in the moment, inside her head. The story is in recent past. Obviously I have not yet nailed this technique. Mom wants to keep Blu away from water because she has a secret that she hasn't yet told Blu. Blu is a shapeshifter that will turn into a manatee if she is fully immersed. So Mom just made up the premonition to justify why Blu can't be near water. The inciting incident involves Blu going on the school trip and being outed as a shapeshifter (not a good thing). And you read rightly - Blu is a girl (I forgot to make that clear). Thanks again for your help.

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    2. Sasha Anderson8/01/2020 7:39 PM

      Wow - I have so many questions (which is a good thing!). Can't wait to read this! :)

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    3. Haha - thanks Sasha. If it ever gets published, I'll be sure to let you know :)

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  3. With such a short piece to read from, I was intrigued and would go on.

    I grew up next to a house where the 3 year old resident drowned. I was 12 at the time, and the entire neighborhood was heartbroken. The first thing I did when my children were old enough to learn, is give them swimming lessons. So, I would have to believe with such a premonition, the mother would do the same. Even swimmers drown, so I would still buy she was afraid of Blu going near water.

    The trip and the sewage plant - I want to know if that is going somewhere and is important to the story. If it is on the first page it should be. Perhaps this is where the inciting incident happens - where something changes for Blu...? I also want to know (like all novels) what is the internal desire of Blu - we know the external desire - to go on the trip - but what is the inner desire that is driving the story. Does she want to be more independent? Does she want to show she can be near water and not drown? Is there something going on at school and it is important she's there? I think those to desires will tell you a lot about the character.

    I did not think Hippy Dippy sounded like a 12 year old nor the word "frequently" - but the rest of the dialogue sounds true. I also saw Blu as a girl.

    Lots to work with and with a little exploring - a great story.

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    1. Thank you for your helpful comments, Lynne. What a horrible tragedy for your neighbors. It makes sense to teach kids to swim. Mom is hiding a secret from Blu because she thinks she's not yet ready to hear the truth. Blu will shapeshift into a manatee if she's completely immersed and, in the world of my story,that means she will be taken away and sent to a remote training facility on an island. So Mom has a motivation to keep Blu away from water. I like your idea about making Blu's internaldesire more clear. She just wants to fit in. As a chubby, new girl in town, she wants to be accepted. This desire follows her to the training facility and influences a big decision she makes there. Thanks again for your help. It's always good to see thing from a fresh POV.

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  4. Thank you so much, Janice, for your helpful advice. I will try to raise the stakes and create a irresistible question in the reader's mind

    My original opening line was: "I didn't know I was a manatee until I fell into the lagoon at the Sweet Pines Waste Water Treatment Facility."

    I liked it, but an agent told me that I was giving away my inciting incident right at the beginning. She wanted me to show Blu's everyday life before the inciting incident that changes Blu's whole world (she's arrested as a fugitive shapeshifter and sent to a government Shifter Training Academy). Maybe I should go back to my original opening line?

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    1. I think your current opening line is terrific. Hooked me immediately with the voice.

      I'm not sure, though, what this book wants to be. It sounds like an MG kid-gets-into-trouble story with lots of humor, a la Wimpy Kid... and so the manatee feels like bait and switch. Maybe some hint that they lived in, say, Everglades City might not only provide a sense of place but a hint that manatees are in the picture. I wouldn't hesitate to set this in a real location rather than make up Sweet Pines, which sounds phony (it might be real, but it doesn't sound that way). But overall, great voice.

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    2. I'd agree that opening line gives too much away too fast. If she's a new girl who wants to fit in, being left behind plays into those fears, and could work to show her motivation for wanting to go so badly. You might use that to play up her fear of being different and not fitting in or being accepted. So when she discovers something that truly makes her different, that fear is compounded and readers understand why it's so hard for her.

      If this is a world where shapeshifters exist, you might also look at ways to show the magical side in the opening. (unless that's all secret). Just hints, or a suggestion that magical things are real.

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  5. Wow! This is really great feedback. Janice, I am going to make her fear of being left out and feeling different much more evident in the opening page. This is a world where shapeshifter children are regarded as dangerous and are isolated from society. Blu and her classmates know about this but even Blu doesn't know that she's a shapeshifter. I introduce the idea of shapeshifters in the conversation on the bus on the way to the field trip. Maybe I should try to throw in a hint earlier in her conversation with her mom. Thanks!

    Brent, thank you for your advice. I really struggle with the sense of place. I'm Canadian and have never been to the everglades but what a fascinating world it would be if I knew how to write about it. I like the idea of my story being more firmly grounded in an actual place. I've done that with the Shapeshifter Island where Blu is sent, but I didn't think about an actual place for the town where the action starts. Thanks for pushing me to think about this!

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