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Saturday, August 22

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Creating Hooks in a YA Opening

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 September 5.

This week’s questions:

1. Does it give enough of a hook, yet holds back to give a sense of mystery?

2. Does the narrator sound like a 17 year old teen?

3. Any comments on improvement in description?

Market/Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

My mind was a complete blank slate, up until my assumed seventeenth birthday. All of my childhood memories, friends and even my family had been erased. As I stared into the stingy bathroom mirror, I saw an unfamiliar face staring back. The short red hair was shaved down to the scalp on one side, creating a punk look. It might have appeared cool at first glance, except for the ugly pink scar which zig-zagged above my ear. My stomach still felt queasy looking at it, so I quickly finished changing my clothes and returned to my lonely room.

The rubber soles of the nurses’ shoes squeaked by my open door. The two women in scrubs nodded at me as I waited to begin my daily routine dressed in donated sweatpants. One of them whispered the name, Victoria, to her coworker as they continued their rounds. She gave me a pitying glance and immediately looked away. I got tense when they discussed me at the nurses’ station as if I couldn’t hear them. My hearing was excellent. The nurses referred to me as Victoria, although that was not the name I was born with. Victoria Island is an obscure tiny island off the coast of Oregon, where I was found lying on the beach with a traumatic brain injury.

From my tower window I had a view of the busy morning commute across the downtown bridge in Portland, Oregon. All those people rushing about, in a hurry to do something important, while I remained sheltered in my cozy cocoon. My teenage “Jane Doe” face had been televised all over the national news at the time of the incident. I guess Victoria is a major improvement over Jane Doe.

My Thoughts in Blue:

My mind was a complete blank slate, [up until my assumed seventeenth birthday.] This makes me think she remembers everything after that, but based on the rest of the snippet she has no memory at all. How do they even know she’s 17? All of my childhood memories, friends and even my family [had been erased.] This suggests she thinks it was deliberately done. “Erased” is purposeful. As I stared into the stingy bathroom mirror, [I saw an unfamiliar face staring back.] The “mirror description” is a cliche, though not knowing who you are is one way that might make it work. But is what she looks like really important enough to the story that it’s in the first paragraph? The short red hair was shaved down to the scalp on one side, creating a punk look. It might have appeared cool at first glance, except for the [ugly pink scar which zig-zagged above my ear.] Interesting detail, as it suggest brain surgery or an accident My stomach still felt queasy looking at it, so I quickly finished changing my clothes and returned to [my lonely room.] Nothing about this opening paragraph hints she’s in a hospital, so by the time I hear “nurses’ shoes” I’m already picturing her in her bedroom.

The rubber soles of the nurses’ shoes squeaked by my open door. The two women in scrubs nodded at me as I waited to begin my daily routine [dressed in donated sweatpants.] Perhaps add this detail to where she’s actually dressing [One of them whispered the name, Victoria, to her coworker as they continued their rounds. She gave me a pitying glance and immediately looked away. I got tense when they discussed me at the nurses’ station as if I couldn’t hear them. My hearing was excellent. The nurses referred to me as Victoria, although that was [not the name I was born with.] This sounds like she does know her given name Victoria Island is an obscure tiny island off the coast of Oregon, where I was found lying on the beach with a traumatic brain injury.] This section all feels a bit told.

From my [tower window] A hospital with a tower? I’m having trouble visualizing the setting I had a view of the busy morning commute across the downtown bridge in Portland, Oregon. All those people rushing about, in a hurry to do something important, while I remained [sheltered in my cozy cocoon] This suggests she’s “cozy” there and protected, which lessens the tension of the scene. [My teenage “Jane Doe” face had been televised all over the national news at the time of the incident.] Doesn’t sound like a teen. She’d probably also not refer to her “teenage face.” When did this happen? I have no sense of when she as found or how long she’s been a Jane Doe [I guess Victoria is a major improvement over Jane Doe.] This is interesting and a sign of her voice and personality

The Questions:

1. Does it give enough of a hook, yet holds back to give a sense of mystery?


Not quite yet [readers chime in here]. While I like the concept of a girl waking up on the hospital with no idea who she is and a blank memory, there’s nothing here that says this is anything more than a boating accident. I don’t know how long ago the “incident” happened and what people (and Victoria) thinks happened. Why is her amnesia a big deal?

She says her memories were “erased,” which suggest she thinks it was a deliberate action, but I suspect that’s not the case. Victoria doesn’t act or think like a girl who believes her memories were erased for some nefarious purpose. She also isn’t concerned about this, and without her worrying, I have no reason to worry either.

Victoria is essentially getting dressed and waiting, relaying information to readers without any sense of how she feels about it or what she plans to do about it. She’s making assumptions based on things the author knows, and is slipping those details into the story. Such as her age, and that her memories were erased, and what's going on about her in the outside world.

There’s no sense of fear or frustration from her. She’s in a “cozy cocoon” even if it’s stingy and lonely. She mentions a “tower window” as if she views herself a trapped in a tower like from a fairy tale, but that’s merely an assumption on my part. I know nothing about her except a few details that will likely be revealed in the cover copy, so there’s nothing new here to draw me in.

Mostly, this reads as the author explaining Victoria’s situation, not Victoria waking to yet another day of not knowing who she is or what happened to her and searching for answers to a problem specific to her and the story’s conflict. There’s no hook to make me read on because the story hasn’t started yet. The situation has potential, but it’s also a common trope—a protagonist with amnesia—so why should readers pick up this amnesia books versus another? The amnesia is more like the subgenre, and the hook will come from the trouble the amnesia causes.

I’d suggest identifying the problem she’s personally facing (not just the general “amnesia”) and show what she’s trying to do about it.

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

I’d also suggest asking if this is the right start to this novel. It might be, but if she has no goal and her only problem is her amnesia, there’s nowhere for the story to go. It might be worth looking through the first chapter or two to see where a goal appears and the first conflict comes in. You might be starting too early and trying to setup the situation because the real story hasn’t yet started.

(Here’s more on The Line Forms Where? Knowing Where to Start Your Novel)

2. Does the narrator sound like a 17 year old teen?

Not yet. 17 is a tricky age since the character is close to adult, but still a kid. The vocabulary might be more sophisticated, but the worldview will till be a teen. It’s the little details that nudge it one way or the other, and this nudges it to the adult side based on what details were noted by the narrator. For example:
All of my childhood memories, friends and even my family
She’s still young, so she’d probably not separate childhood from now. Those are also probably not the memories she’d think about first. Not knowing who her parents are would more likely be the most frightening aspect of this, not losing her childhood memories. She says her memories are gone, but never wonders who she is or why her family isn’t looking for her. A scared kid (even a nearly adult one) would think and sound like a scared kid.
creating a punk look. It might have appeared cool at first glance, except for the ugly pink scar which zig-zagged above my ear.
“Creating a punk look” feels adult to me. Looks matter a lot to teen girls and she’d have a very personal and specific reaction to how she looks now. She’d likely feel she looked one way or the other. She looked badass, or she looked like a mental patient or something. And for punk, the scar would add to the look, not detract from it.
I waited to begin my daily routine dressed in donated sweatpants.
This doesn’t sound like a teen to me. It’s generic, with no sense of voice or how she feels about this. And daily routine tells readers nothing.
I got tense when they discussed me at the nurses’ station as if I couldn’t hear them. My hearing was excellent.
“Got tense” is another generic term that doesn’t show how she feels. Do the nurses talking about her bother her? “Tense” suggests yes, but how? Is she upset? Hurt? Scared? Annoyed? Teens react when adults are talking about them, especially if what they’re saying isn’t positive. Where's her teen attitude?
The nurses referred to me as Victoria, although that was not the name I was born with. Victoria Island is an obscure tiny island off the coast of Oregon, where I was found lying on the beach with a traumatic brain injury.
This is a stated fact, not Victoria thinking about her situation. This has to be terrifying to her, yet she acts as if this is no big deal.
busy morning commute across the downtown bridge in Portland, Oregon.
Teens would more likely notice lots of traffic or a desire to escape her tower, not a "busy commute." That’s an adult perspective. And if she doesn’t remember anything, how does she know specifically which bridge this is?
All those people rushing about, in a hurry to do something important, while I remained sheltered in my cozy cocoon.
“Do something important” suggests that she wants or needs to do something important, but is that really what a teen with amnesia would be thinking right now? And “remained sheltered” feels adult, while a teen would more likely feel stuck, or trapped, or something that better suits her emotional state at this time.
My teenage “Jane Doe” face had been televised all over the national news at the time of the incident.
Teens don’t typically refer to themselves as teens. She’d more likely say her face had been plastered or shown on the news. “Televised” is also a more adult word, as is “national news.” She’d more likely notice she was trending or something similar. Her experience with the media would be a teen experience, not how an adult gets their news and information.

I suspect this is more a point of view issue than a voice issue. I’m not yet feeling in Victoria’s POV, so the information I’m getting is coming from the author, not the narrator. Shift this into Victoria’s head and see this world though her eyes, and the YA voice will come. There’s a glimpse of it with, “I guess Victoria is a major improvement over Jane Doe.” This feels like a girl who’s frustrated with not knowing who she is.

Remember...teens are full of emotions and opinions about everything. They're trying to figure out their world and their place in it, and that's reflected in what they think and do.

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

3. Any comments on improvement in description?

A more solid point of view will likely shift this to a more YA voice, as well as develop the hook. Show this from Victoria’s perspective with all her attitude, emotions, opinions, and judgement on her situation. Don’t tell readers the nurses call her Victoria, have one walk into the room and use the name, then show how the narrator reacts to it.

Perhaps show her asking questions about her parents, or anyone looking for her. Let her worry and wonder and do all the things a teen would do if they woke up with no memory and had recently been severely injured. 

Give her something to do to help drive the scene. One benefit to not remembering anything, is that she can question everything and wonder about what she sees, which gives you plenty of opportunities to look at and describe anything you want–as long as it relates back to Victoria and her problem, and what she’s doing to solve that problem.

Opening scenes are more than just explaining the setup for the story. They pose questions for readers and make them curious about what’s happening. This page says “I’m a girl with amnesia” and nothing else. What about this will make readers curious to know more? Does she have flashes of something that doesn’t make sense? Has it been weeks and no one has come looking for her and she wonders why not? If her memories really were erased, what gives her reason to suspect that?

(Here’s more on Write What You Don't Know: POV and Description)

Also, this is a YA fantasy, but I’m not yet seeing any fantasy elements. This reads as contemporary so far. I suspect this is either urban/paranormal fantasy, or maybe a portal story if she ends up in another world by the end of this first chapter (or she’s from another world and is now in ours). Where does the fantasy come in?

Overall, I’d suggest tightening the point of view and centering this firmly in Victoria’s head, showing readers this world and situation through her eyes, with her teen attitude and perspective. Also look at where Victoria starts acting to resolve a problem and decide if starting the story later works as a better hook. I suspect this just isn't the right opening and that's throwing the story off.

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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4 comments:

  1. I'm a little confused on what Victoria knows and doesn't. Like Janice says, how does she know her name is not Victoria? How does she know what punk is? If her mind is a complete blank slate, how does she know she had family? friends? To me that is a bit of the problem when amnesia comes into play. Total amnesia is, I think, more difficult to pull off than some memory lapse.

    I don't have a feel for who Victoria is, what she wants, or where the story line is going. Obviously, she wants to piece together her past, but I'm not connecting to what else is driving her or what makes this story individual to Victoria. What is going to make a reader follow Victoria? Is she brave and will try to escape? What virtue is Victoria going to have that will make us root for her?

    Because Victoria's memory is so empty, it makes our connection to her more difficult. She's passive in the piece, I want her to be doing something. Asking questions, begging for help, trying to escape...

    The second paragraph does feel told, and I think using past tense makes me feel even more separated from the character. I want to be in the moment, feeling what Victoria feels, not being told. I want to be closer with detail.

    In the last paragraph, we see words I'm not sure a 17 would use. tower - how does she even know she's in a tower? cozy for a hospital setting gives a different feel for the piece.

    I would take the time to envision waking up with little or no memory in a strange place, with your body transformed (no hair, scar, etc.), and thinking how you would feel. Scared, panicked, frantic, caged are a few feelings I might have. The nurses interaction seem sterile- how would they react to a child feeling this way?

    I also agree that perhaps this isn't the starting place of the story, or if it is, we need to buy into Victoria's plight and follow her. I think the link above for goals, motivation, and conflicts will be a big help in figuring out this piece. Outlining might also be a help with this novel.

    You have a good idea here. Beginnings are challenging. As you play around with the plot and structure, this will all come together to be a great story.

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  2. This is a scene that isn't owning its viewpoint.

    Just how much does Victoria remember? There are signs here and there that leave me in doubt: "blank up until... seventeenth birthday" could mean she's actually just regained her memory, and "been erased" makes it just possible that someone did it deliberately and she knows that. "Not the name I was born with" sounds like she does know it.

    But I *guess* what you want is that she's just recovering from being found on the beach and remembers nothing before then, plus she's heard about it on the news and that they've given her this name and assumed she's 17. If that's the situation, there shouldn't be any doubt at all about it, because "Victoria" should be immersed in that problem.

    Who is she? Why can't anyone find how she got on that beach, and is her family going to walk in 5 minutes later or never? What kind of LIFE can she have if she's got nothing and no memories? --Plus, is she under a lingering sedative, or has a vague sense that she's escaped something or desperately needs to be somewhere? Those can filter her perspective too, but they ought to be clear.

    This is the kind of focus that first chapters beg to have: she WANTS something right this minute, and doesn't even know if it's possible.

    (Related point: any opening also needs to give us a sense of what kind of person the protagonist is so we care about her. Victoria may be a blank slate in memory, but she's still someone more compassionate than most people, or more feisty or more shy or something else. Can this and the next pages make that stand out, even in the unique situation she's in?)

    Put yourself in Victoria's hospital gown: what would you think first, what would you do, and what would come next? Then, can you pick the best moment in that sequence to start the story -- when she first wakes up and can't say who she is, or an hour later when she's trying to process what she heard about being found on the beach, or some other time?

    You do have facts to give us about Victoria, and a plot to start. But you want to present them as part of *being* her.

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  3. My suggestion would be to do some research on actual amnesia cases. Determine people's actual reactions and use that information to craft this character.

    All the issues Janice and others have brought up I agree with -- and for me, the material currently sounds more like notes regarding the book than actual text for the novel. The lack of character presentation supports the feeling that you are talking through what the scene is instead of writing the scene.

    This is okay, just recognize the position you've put yourself in and let the character go 'first'. :o)

    We assume that with a head injury, Victoria may have been in the hospital for several days at least. Was she in a coma for a bit? Is all her current information about herself confined to the day or few days after she regained consciousness?

    She has a daily routine, which was the first point that piqued my interest, thinking that she would be interacting soon with someone, her doctor? her physical therapist?

    I wondered if she had seen the newscasts about her being found, perhaps shortly after she first awoke? The TV being left on as is sometimes the case? She wouldn't know she was the girl who had been found. She wouldn't know anything. But what does that mean?

    You will need to show/quantify the extent of her lack of knowledge. Not remembering people in our life is one thing -- not remembering what a toilet is or clothes or hospitals or how to speak is another. And keep in mind that in order to be afraid, we have to have enough knowledge to register that something is a danger to us. Amnesia can be the mind's way of shielding us from trauma, but it can also be due simply to literal, physical brain damage. The former may allow certain situations or people to trigger reactions/fear or partial memory return. The latter can have memory recovery across the spectrum. Also, forgetting your past might only be disturbing if someone told you it should be (like a doctor) or showed that with body language, gestures or facial expressions.

    Many things are presented in this scene that we don't know how she knows them, for example, the 'donated' sweatpants (I immediately wondered if she was without a shirt). And with the whispering nurses, I'm with Janice. Any teen I know would be defensive or hide. Her reactions would tell us what kind of instincts and personality she has.

    One overwhelming purpose to this scene is to ground the reader in the situation. This might mean lots of internal thought.

    A young girl looking in the mirror would accept that this was her reflection. I would think she would have some judgments based simply on her gut reaction. Confusingly, she seems to know about 'punk' hairstyles.
    No one would just accept this situation, unless they were drugged. Has she already been very very emotional...and is now sedated somewhat to keep her safe/docile?

    I'm interested to see what you can bring to this scene -- lots to work with -- perhaps even read up on some novels that have a basis using amnesia. A trope is only a trope if you allow it to be... what makes Victoria's story special?

    Good luck and thanks for being brave. :o)

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  4. small technical note that may put of a reader...
    There are no true Islands off the Oregon coast. Victoria beach may be better believed.

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