From Fiction University: Enabling third party cookies on your browser could help if you have trouble leaving a comment.

Saturday, October 3

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a YA Fantasy First Page

Critique By Maria D'Marco

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: Three

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through October 24.

This week’s questions:

1. Are you connected to the main character enough to keep reading?

2. Are there too many character names introduced to keep them straight?

3. Do you have enough setting to ground you in the scene?

4. Is this opening compelling enough to believe the entire story will hold your attention?

5. Is the pacing on point or does it feel slow?

Market/Genre: YA Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Every morning started with a battle to the death That was the way of things in Valhalla. Today, the drillmaster had paired me with the only other Valkyrie I called a friend. Probably, as the final piece of my punishment for the day before.

Gertie would regenerate. But I’d rather she had been anyone else.

Toril would have been a better choice. I always loved when my sword sliced through her before she could do the same to me. She and I kept score of how many times we killed each other. At the moment we were even and I would have loved the chance to change that.

The gray clouds held their rain as Gertie and I entered the training area, a large field worn to dirt behind the barracks. The combatants fought while encircled by cheering members of the sisterhood, waiting their turn to battle. As a harvester order apprentice, I was in the largest circle. A smaller circle on the opposite edge of the field held the commanders The masters, the highest-ranking Valkyries, would train in private after we all left for our assignments.

What I’d give to watch that spectacle!

“Pay attention, Niasa!” The shrill soprano of the drillmaster’s voice spiked into my temple.

I was paying attention, at least until her scream startled me.

Bone on bone crunched in my ear as Gertie’s fist landed against my cheek.

Once the stars cleared from my vision, I focused on my friend. Her smile met mine and urged me forward.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Every morning started with a battle to the death[.] [this opening sentence is fun – made me smile and created anticipation. That was the way of things in Valhalla. Today, [torn on this qualifier, it seems abrupt/interrupting – read without this one word, the sentence maintains the cadence you’ve set] the drillmaster had paired me with the only other Valkyrie I called a [reads better without the ‘a’] friend. Probably, as the final piece of my punishment [curious as to what other punishments have been endured] for the day before. [assume this is morning, so wonder what happened the day before and adds to curiosity about prior punishment]

Gertie would regenerate. [this sounds fun – but also wonder if the protagonist also regenerates – curiosity/speculation created] But [this is a bit clumsy as a separate sentence – not sure you’re saying what you want to say] I’d rather she had been anyone else. [smoother to go straight to the next sentence and leave this unfinished bit out]

Toril would have been a better choice. I always loved when my sword sliced through her before she could do the same to me. She and I kept score of how many times we killed each other. At the moment we were even and I would have loved the chance to change that. [this would benefit from tightening – set their relationship more concisely.]

The gray clouds held their rain as Gertie and I entered the training area, a large field worn to dirt behind the barracks. The c Combatants fought while encircled by cheering members of the sisterhood, waiting their turn to battle. As a harvester order apprentice, [curious about this] I was in the largest circle. A smaller circle [confusing here – is the larger circle for all apprentices or only her order? This needs to be clearer] on the opposite edge of the field held the commanders[.] The [sentence structure is odd here and some confusion whether commanders are different than masters] masters, the highest-ranking Valkyries, would train in private after we all left for our assignments.

What I’d give to watch that spectacle! [curious again – why hasn’t she ever seen it? Are the apprentices forbidden to do so? Keeps me reading, but my question sprouts more questions that have to do with the story construction and environment]

“Pay attention, Niasa!” The shrill soprano of the drillmaster’s voice spiked into my temple.

I was paying attention, at least until her scream startled me. [this sounds like a defensive teen, no other indication of age so far]

Bone on bone crunched in my ear [this would be more forceful as one sentence – then continue with revealing what happened] as Gertie’s fist landed against [this is the first blow of a fight, so stick with active verbs] my cheek. [cheek or jaw or eye socket?]

Once the stars cleared from my vision, [good spot to use stronger language] I focused on my friend. Her smile met mine and urged me forward. [well done – the wake-up shout from the drillmaster to Gertie smacking her is a nice thread, then the smile hints at their friendship]

The Questions:

[Readers chime in with your thoughts on the author’s questions!]

1. Are you connected to the main character enough to keep reading?

Yes, but there are opportunities available to do more. I’m interested and you have triggered some speculation, so a connection is there. I am curious enough that I would read on in search of answers to my questions and to learn more of the story and characters overall.

Your singular use of internal thought is well-placed and revealing, or at least provides another opening for speculation about the character’s ambition. I’d like to see more internal thought replacing narrative so as to give readers a ‘way into’ her head, and to give more cultural background. With the latter, you are depending a lot on reader’s ‘knowledge’ of the presented culture. To be honest, based on my limited ideas of Valhalla and the Valkyrie, which are pretty fanciful, I decided to do a search – which prompted an “oooooh yeah, the Valkyrie…!” These are the handmaidens of Odin, who ‘conducted slain warriors of their choice from the battlefield to Valhalla’. There is much more to it, but this – and most likely any cover art and back cover blurb – will push readers in the right direction.

However, it also will make crafting your characters more demanding, as you will need to include their purpose in life as part of who they are. Fortunately, this cultural environment is very rich in legacy and established lore, so you have a lot to choose from for each character.

I’m interested in the fact that Niasa is an apprentice and wish there was a bit more revealed about what the ‘harvester’ designation denotes. Thinking of the lore of the Valkyrie, perhaps that term alludes to the duty she will eventually perform. Giving a bit more clarification here (and in other places) will cancel out any assumption of knowledge and will steer readers along the path you need them to take.

So, a bit more internal thought replacing narrative and putting a stronger cultural stamp on the environment and activities are a good start to making this character more striking and engaging. The Norse legends are immense, so have fun incorporating that information wherever it can be a part of your unique story.

2. Are there too many character names introduced to keep them straight?

Not to me… I’m very clear on what ‘position’ each character occupies. Gertie, called friend and shown as such (in this beginning anyway). Toril, preferred combatant – I want to know why she holds that status with the protagonist.

I felt the introduction of the characters was well balanced overall and would only suggest looking for places to tighten the presentation/narrative or add internal thought to create the most precise image possible. You have created questions and curiosity with both Gertie and Toril, so I would determine where you need to answer questions now and where you can leave information hanging.

3. Do you have enough setting to ground you in the scene?

Overall, yes…but then, I’ve read this at least six times to try to gather as deep a reaction as possible to the material. This means I speculated, asked questions, thought about potentials, etc., which many readers probably wouldn’t do.

You use the term ‘barracks’, which was a little bit of a jolt, because I hear it as a modern word, as relates to the ancient traditions of the Norse culture – but also because it conjured a rather crass image, also not relating well to my other mental images of the Valkyrie and Norse gods, etc. That is a very small opportunity to inject environment that isn’t generic or ‘blah’.

This would be a small chance to make the space unique.

The idea of a barren, worn-to-dirt field is great – I wondered if it was also scarred and stained with blood. But then, do those who regenerate bleed? (grin)  You do go on to give the impression that the field, though barren, is of a certain size or shape, but it’s too generic to grasp and easily visualize. I can see the other assumed apprentices gathered in a circle around the combat area, but the idea of a second circle of ‘masters’ seemed odd. My confusion was mostly regarding Niasa’s internal comment about wanting to see the masters’ fight. I wasn’t sure if she was missing it because she would be fighting that morning or if they weren’t allowed to watch (and why would that happen?). This is a small example of creating a question that doesn’t make me curious – it bugs me not to understand the what and why of a scene.

Another thought here is that I see no weapons, no dressage/costumes/armor/etc., no flags flying, no mention of shouts or other noises. I’m not quite floating in a white space, but very close. Niasa seems to feel the pairing with her friend is punishment for something that happened the day prior. This is a good hint, but it dropped and then left to die. If there was some resentment show with body language or internal thought, I would retain this curiosity.

Knowing that there is battle to the death each morning, I’d like to know what Niasa thinks about this aspect of her training, since the story begins with it. I want to know if she regenerates as is noted about Gertie. I want to know if she learned something from her last battle that she hoped to try on her rival, Toril, and anticipated fighting her, only to find out she was pitted against her friend. And why would this be a punishment? I want to see some reactions to that pairing that tells me what state of mind she’s in…

4. Is this opening compelling enough to believe the entire story will hold your attention?

It’s close… just take advantage of some of the opportunities available to frame each of the curiosity-piquing bits more concisely to set up reader anticipation – and urge them to read on.

5. Is the pacing on point or does it feel slow?

I like the pacing and the fairly staccato sentence structure, which are a good anticipatory use when going into an action scene. This pacing can work to build the reader up to Gertie’s punch. It doesn’t feel slow to me, but then I have suggested tightening different bits, which would quicken the pace.

I guess I’d like to ‘feel’ Niasa as she steps into the circle – is this just another morning and another battle? Is her heart racing? Does it always race? Does she relish fighting or is she soldier-like? I want to see the history, the culture revealed in her mindset and physical anticipation. Does this ancient race no longer feel fear or pain or boredom at this endless life of battle and training?

Start with your opening sentence and shove me into the story with that level of strength. Let me see what these warrior women feel and who they are – if they are larger than common ‘man’, show me.

I like the environment you’ve chosen and would want to know more – so have fun with it and be as bold as you want. You can always lighten up a scene, eh? Good luck and thank you for sharing with us all!

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

Maria D’Marco is an editor with 20+ years experience. She specializes in developmental editing, and loves the process of wading through the raw, passionate words of a first draft. Currently based in Kansas City, she flirts with the idea of going mobile, pursuing her own writing and love of photography, while maintaining her fulfilling work with authors.

Website | Twitter

4 comments:

  1. The first line caught my attention and drew me in, and I was curious to see where this went. I love Norse mythology, so I was further hooked when I saw these were Valkyries in training. Having to face your friend in a battle to the death as punishment made me wonder what she did and how she’d handle this.

    I got the sense that Niasa has ambition to be the best, but it also a bit rebellious. She did something to get into trouble, she’s only friendly with one other Valkyrie (suggests competition), she keeps score with another trainee (another clue she’s competitive and has a rival), she’s caught up in the private training and so distracted by daydreams she misses a first strike and takes a blow.

    I’m positioned to like Niasa, but Gertie is the one who tips the scales there. She smiles to urge her friend on, even though they know this will end in one of their deaths. I like Gertie from that one gesture of support, and if she likes Niasa, Niasa must be worthy of it. I’d like to see where the fight goes.

    I had no trouble with the number of characters—each name was coupled with clear information on them, and also on how Niasa felt about them. Toril is the nemesis and Gertie is the friend. Toril sounds like “turmoil” and Gertie sounds like “bestie” so even their names subliminally remind me who they are (if that was intentional—well done!).

    I ran into some confusion with the training grounds and circles, and the fight itself. She describes the grounds and how they fight in circles, then she’s getting punched in the face and I hadn’t realized she had stepped into a circle. I felt lost through there.

    When Niasa is describing the training grounds, she mentions the circle, but never actually says she stepped into one. She does say “I was in the largest circle,” but I thought she was still giving an overview of the grounds, and that was her rank or designation of some type, such as “I was in Miss Johnson’s homeroom.” Since she’s not really paying attention, so I didn’t realize the fight had started. (Which might have been the point)

    I’d suggest a little more clarity there to show Niasa stepping into the ring and beginning her session. This would also allow you a moment to show how she feels about this daily routine.

    I’d also suggest bringing more Norse details into the setting. I have an image in my head since I already know the world, but there aren’t many details beyond gray clouds and a worn field. What do the buildings look like? The weapons? The armor? Are their mountains? What does Gertie look like? I don’t need to know all of this right now, but ever a quick detail here and there would help flesh this world out some.

    Overall, I’m curious and would read on. Part of me worries something bad with happen to Gertie, even though there’s nothing in the text to suggest that. But this sets up a story world that intrigues me.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I agree, this is a strong opening and a good flow of things for the first page. Of course Valkyries train against each other, and fighting a friend makes it more interesting, plus the hints of being punished and stealing a glance at the other circles hints at more going on. Very good.

    Completely agree, you need to say "we" would regenerate. When you open with "death," you need to quickly clarify that none of them are dying in the usual sense. That would have been an *entirely* different story.

    If there's room for any improvement here, it's in thinking about exactly where you want to focus as you go through this. It's already very good, with Niasa watching her opponent and letting a couple of thoughts in as she does. Think about *exactly* what Niasa would be paying attention to in every instant, and how that can be the keyhole you reveal your story through. The "punishment" has us interested, so should she think a little more about it-- or is it better that she's too busy to fill us in and it leaves us hanging? Should there be more about her friendship and rivalry? About the other circles, if they're important? Or, about why it's important that they're all fighting?

    If you look at the best books that start with an action scene like this, you see how they use even the tiniest mentions of different things to give us clear hints of the larger world and some of the challenges ahead, without ever slowing down what's happening now. And they strengthen the sense that we know the character because we agree with why they notice those things: "The bartender sees the crowd, the decorator sees the barstools, and the soldier is counting the exits."

    Maybe the strongest beginning you can have might be like this, if the hints also show some kind of contradiction or injustice. Niasa fighting her friend is close to that, but we don't know enough about it to feel it's odd or wrong. (And we have to feel it matters, if they're all here to train and they all regenerate anyway.)

    You asked about your setting. I think it's okay, but you could show more -- though you probably want to add just a couple of words here and there to add the most obvious one or two things without slowing down. Some writers say to "use all five senses," but I think that's too much at once. I like to play up how we focus our attention (there's that word again) through sight and touch, and then sound and smell are the things that keep jumping at us from whatever is making those whether we're locked on it or not. One particular: you said Niasa's fight is "encircled by the sisterhood," but it would do a lot to give the scale of all this if you said that crowd was a dozen valkyries, or a hundred, or many more.

    One thing that stood out a little to me: your three names. "Niasa" and "Toril" are exotic, fantasy-sounding names, while "Gertie" is real-world and often used for frumpy characters (even though "Gertrude" is an actual Nordic name). Names are tricky, subtle things, but what matters most is the impression they make. You might think about these.

    This is both a good first scene and what looks like good choices for what to show along with it. I hope you do great things with this story.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I enjoyed reading the entry, as well as the comments, and I do agree with what's been said above. While in USMC Boot Camp (1968) we trained with "Pugil Sticks" (simulated rifle/bayonets with padding) and other painful combat techniques. We fought until a DI declared one combatant dead. Even though I ate breakfast with my opponent, in those fighting moments, I never thought of him as a friend, or anything but an opponent. Any smile that I might have seen, I would regard as a sneer of challenge. I believe being in training changes one's mindset.

    Just my opinion, though. I do think your work has an excellent beginning.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you all so much! Love the insight and appreciate the time you spent to help! It’s all super helpful.

    ReplyDelete