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

Saturday, October 10

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a YA Dystopian First 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: Three

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through October 31.

This week’s questions:

1. Is Madison (protagonist) likable?

2. Does this hook the audience?

3. Am I overwriting for YA?

Market/Genre: YA Dystopian

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Her fingers skittered over the loom. The long wooden needle, worn to a smooth shimmer, formed shadows within the fabric, whispering as it slid through the warp strands. Madison Prentiss sighed into the early hours when the world belonged only to her.

Edges and lines blurred into shades of grey, and a breeze kissed her bare legs. She tied off one colour and reached for another, her hands moving without instruction. Soon a dark gash stretched across the width of her loom, her metal comb tamping the arcs of wool into place. She continued, changing colours, creating curves and arches until a golden sunbeam shot across her work. Her fingers stilled and the silence was complete.

Granda said birds in the hundreds used to greet the day first. Tinkles and tweets had filled the forests in a cacophonous cloud. But no more. Only the occasional chirp pierced the quiet.

A sigh and rustle came from the room beside hers. Charlie would wake soon. For months after Mum had gone, he’d crept to Madison’s closed door each night and settled himself on the floor outside—a small-boy barrier that returned to his bed before dawn.

One rare night, when Madison had woken from a haunting dream laced with colour and shadows, she opened her door and tripped over her little brother, tumbling onto the timber floor beside him. After that, she’d moved his bed into her room until he was old enough to believe Madison wasn’t planning to vanish like his mother had.

Charlie was 12 now and back in his own room, but both doors remained open.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Her fingers skittered over the loom. The long wooden needle, worn to a smooth shimmer, formed shadows within the fabric, whispering as it slid through the warp strands. [Madison Prentiss sighed into the early hours when the world belonged only to her.] Perhaps shift this to the opening line? It sets the scene, introduces the protagonist, and establishes the world a little

Edges and lines blurred into shades of grey, and a breeze kissed her bare legs. She tied off [one colour] of what? I assume thread and reached for another, her hands moving without instruction. Soon [a dark gash] I don't know what this means. stretched across the width of her loom, her metal comb tamping the arcs of wool into place. She continued, changing colours, creating curves and arches [until a golden sunbeam shot across her work.] Since it’s pre-dawn, I’m not sure if she wove a sunbeam or this means the sun came up and this is a real sunbeam Her fingers stilled and the silence was complete. This is nice description of weaving, but there’s been two paragraphs of almost nothing but description

[Granda said birds in the hundreds used to greet the day first.] Intriguing line that helps establish the world, but why is she thinking this? Just because it's quiet? But if that's normal, why is it worth thinking about?  Tinkles and tweets had filled the forests in a cacophonous cloud. But no more. Only the occasional chirp pierced the quiet. How does she feel about this?

A sigh and rustle came from the room beside hers. Charlie would wake soon. Her thoughts? Is she sad to see her quiet time leave? Does this mean she has responsibilities now?  For months after Mum had gone, he’d crept to [Madison’s] using her name here instead of “her” pushes the narrative distance away. Is that the intent? I’m not yet sure where my narrator is yet closed door each night and settled himself on the floor outside—[a small-boy barrier] a fun phrase but I don't know what it's trying to say. He wanted to keep her in? Be close to her? Protect her?  that returned to his bed before dawn.

One rare night, [when Madison had woken from a haunting dream laced with colour and shadows,] If this is rare, why is it in the first page?  she opened her door and tripped over her little brother, tumbling onto the timber floor beside him. After that, she’d moved his bed into her room until [he was old enough to believe] I’m unsure of when all these events took place Madison wasn’t planning to vanish like his mother had.

Charlie was 12 now and back in his own room, but both doors remained open.

The Questions:

1. Is Madison (protagonist) likable?


I suspect yes based on how she treated her brother in the past when he was struggling over their mother’s death. But there’s not enough of her to get a solid sense of who she is. There’s only one line in this that reads clearly “Madison” to me and that’s:
Granda said birds in the hundreds used to greet the day first. 
There are a few other lines that could be her thoughts, but it could also be an outside narrator. Because of that extra layer of narrative distance, I don’t feel that I’ve truly met Madison yet, but I’m getting a glimpse of her life described to me.

I don’t have any sense of:
  • Why she gets up before dawn to weave
  • How she feels about her mother’s death
  • How she feels about her brother
  • How long ago her mother died
  • How she feels about her dreams
  • How she feels about the world around her
Seeing a bit of internalization about some of these would help me get a better sense of who Madison is and how she fits into this world.

Right now, there are a lot of potentially interesting details, but the focus is more on the external and very little on the internal. I have a sense of the what and the where but not the who or the why.

I’d suggest adding the personal side of Madison through her thoughts and judgement about the world around her. What are her opinions on some of the things described and introduced here?

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

2. Does this hook the audience?

For me, not yet (readers chime in here), because nothing is happening and there’s no sense of a problem or a goal at hand. Madison is weaving, but it reads like a hobby she likes to do when no one else is awake. Then the focus shifts to her little brother and shares a lot of backstory about life after their mother’s death.

The imagery and tone is peaceful and a bit sad, so there’s no tension or sense that anything is wrong. There's also no conflict or sense of inherent conflict in the world itself. 

Most of this page is dedicated to backstory and description, which leaves little left to show a character with a problem to pique reader curiosity. If the cover copy had hooked me and I knew this was heading somewhere I found interesting, then I’d keep reading, but this page alone isn’t drawing me in yet.

Where’s the problem? What’s Madison’s goal or need? What is the looming threat?

If we take a peek at other YA dystopian first pages we see:

A girl gets a letter that will solve her family’s problems and possibly make her royalty and she doesn’t want to do what it says (The Selection

A boy is unsettled because an aircraft overflew his community and he thinks something terrible is going to happen (The Giver

A girl wakes up and looks for her little sister, who is sleeping with their mother because it’s the day of the reaping (The Hunger Games

A boy wakes up with no memory of who he is in a strange, dark elevator (The Maze Runner

A girl is getting ready for graduation day and hopes she’ll be called for The Testing (The Testing

In each of these, there’s a sense of something going on, and in many of them, that something isn’t good. I don’t need to know what it is to get a sense of forward momentum for the story. They also show the emotions of the narrator, and hints of the conflict. If we describe this page in the same way, it’s:

A girl weaves in the early morning light and hears her little brother stir.

Boiled down like this, it’s easy to see what aspect is still missing. There’s no hook yet. I suspect it’s there in a few more pages, but there aren’t any hints of it in this opening page.

So how might you add a sense of the problem here? What could Madison be thinking about that would show there’s a problem or something she wants, fears, needs?

Of all the above examples, this is closest to The Hunger Games, in that it’s a quiet opening that focuses a lot on the past. The difference with THG is that Katniss’s musings show a hard life and some hard choices she’s had to face (can’t feed the family, the family shares one bedroom, a beaten-down mother), and her feelings about all of it. It paints the world, but in a way that suggests hardships and conflict and the person who lives in that world (who tried to drown a kitten once, so she's not exactly likable in this).

But it also mentions “the reaping.” It’s just one line, but one line is often enough to pique curiosity, especially when readers know what it means, as in this case. And honestly, with the "kids battle to the death on TV for food" premise, almost any opening page would have worked.

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

3. Am I overwriting for YA?

No, I’d say you’re under-writing. There’s a lot of external information, but almost no internal, and YA tends to be more internal. For example, there’s an entire paragraph about weaving, but nothing about how it makes Madison feel, why she’s doing it, or any sense that it’s her thoughts describing the weaving to readers. It reads like someone who knows how to weave describing it.

So far, I see this world through the author’s eyes, but not Madison’s. How might you make this hers? Why is weaving so important to her? And if it isn’t, then why is it the first thing readers see, and why does it take up a third of the first page (94 words out of 267)? 

If weaving isn’t an important detail, then perhaps cut it way down and use those words to add the hook.

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

Overall, I think all this is missing is that personal, internal layer and the hook. And there’s a decent chance the hook will appear once that internal layer is added. If the hook doesn’t appear until later, then perhaps look there for your opening. It’s possible tis just isn’t starting in the right place.

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. 
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

5 comments:

  1. Definitely a well-written moment. Finding a scene like this at the start does so much to tell us we're in the hands of an expert writer.

    On the other hand... like Janice said, you probably want more.

    *The Hunger Games* is one of my favorite openings like this, because it stays completely in the moment and yet builds it all around that little line about "the Reaping." With enough care, it only takes one line to be certain we notice the hint of something else coming. Or a less risky approach would be to make the first line about what Madison was trying to distract herself from, or mix in a few lines during the scene about the larger problem that keeps tugging at her attention. You have a whole range of options besides "opening with an explosion."

    The most important thing might be to pick the right hook. What is the most essential point about the conflict ahead, or maybe the most unique one, that will get your readers on board if they just know that one thing? Is it the central point of the conflict, or some misconception or early stage of it that's all the character (or reader) should know about it at first? You mention missing birds, and a missing mother and worried brother, but are those really the ideal hook for this?

    What's the most perfect way you can position the hook in the scene? Hunger Games again: "the Reaping" is just a line, and yet it's mentioned in terms of how Katniss's *sister* is afraid of it -- a perfect omen for Prim being chosen, and implying how Katniss will react about it. The more precise and creative you are with that one point about the larger story, the more you can open with something smaller and cover everything.

    For integrating the two, I love the "speed bump principle": we tend to see life as going along quickly and smoothly, and slow down at what interrupts that. So even here when Madison has time and a chance to find some serenity, she's still aware of any way that problems impinge on the moment or on how the day ahead looks. Again, you could make those a major intrusion in the scene, or else just the smallest sense of it -- as long as they're positioned where we can't miss them, and they make a big enough hint.

    Janice has a point about being more YA internal. This does have a kind of mature feel, of a grown person who describes the weaving in itself and then lets other thoughts and background creep in as separate things. A YA character (or at least the way YA readers want to experience a new viewpoint) might be a bit more mixing acts, emotions, and memories together.

    This really is a beautiful moment you begin with, and the facts you follow it do add depth. I hope you, well, choose the strongest threads you have, and weave them all in.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wow. I am a beginning writer and thought this writer was very talented. I immediately liked Madison because of how she cared for her little brother. I would read further wanting to know why the birds don’t sing and where her mom went.
    Janice and Ken’s critique made me take notes. Pushing the narrator out at a distance by using her proper name instead of using ‘her’ was an eye opener. Knowing now that YA is more internal and learning about the ‘speed bump’ approach were big helps for me. I do want to read more about Madison’s life.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm going to respectfully disagree with all except the second use of "Madison". This opening is so well-crafted in terms of language that I'd keep reading just for the rhythm of the words.

    YA readers are also very attracted to books that are written in verse (Ellen Hopkins, Sarah Tregay), and this opening creates a bridge between prose and poetry. I'm a firm believer that a book doesn't have to fit a formula in order to be successful: creativity ranks higher for me.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Overall, I found this opening a pleasant and relaxing read, and I didn't mind the material taking it slow -- but then, I'm not a young adult. I'm not consumed with the desire to 'relate' or have an instantaneous bonding with the protagonist.

    Janice mentioned the distant narrator, which allows the flowing, lyrical text to unfold, but doesn't allow an 'in' to the protagonist.

    The line with the sigh made me wonder what this meant, was she wishing her time at the loom could be longer - or perhaps suspended in time?
    The weaving material is fine, but we aren't told why the weaving is important and must (or can only) be done at pre-dawn/dawn. As she weaves, she could let her thoughts roam, revealing how this time made her feel. Currently, she is weaving without passion or fervor, the movements are shown as automatic, which contributes to the distant feeling -- she doesn't seem to be doing this for artistic release or even to portray her feelings. This would be a great vehicle to show how she viewed the piece she's weaving. I also equated the quiet time you paint as being the only time she could work on this piece -- so, expected her to be emotionally tied to the work she was doing.

    This passage is very well done, but it's also presented in a very adult voice. As I say, I enjoyed it, but then I'm a patient reader. If I was 14-18, I would feel left out and might only give you one more page to show me who Madison really is.

    This scene seems to be a peek into Madison's reflective, artistic moment of the day -- so, I'd like to hear her thoughts and be shown what she feels. Are her weaving skills so advanced that they allow her to create art without having to give thought to how to achieve the 'look' she wants? What is she weaving? A rug, a tapestry, a blanket, an article of clothing?

    You did manage to tweak my curiosity with the idea that the mother had been seen as abandoning Madison and her brother, not that she died, but that she had (apparently) disappeared. I did tuck this bit away to see if you gave more clues or if the idea of abandonment was simply character viewpoint.

    I keep falling back to my attraction to the material, overall, that I was ready to give you time to develop the opening scene. I assumed that it was important to you to have serenity at the beginning. So, any real changes I might suggest would be small and done simply allow us to 'get into her head' more directly -- a more intimate position.

    I applaud the bit about her brother - although it did make me think that Madison was much older than he, like 5-8 years. Her age is not defined, and what I gathered pushed me toward an age of 16-18. It's not what she did for/with her brother to protect him, it was how this reflection was presented, her insight to his situation seemed very adult for a teen. If she assumed the role of mother, this would be understandable.

    I enjoyed your opening -- step out of your head and into hers, then let us all in, eh? :O)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Definitely well written but I'd agree that there is a lot of description and i have no sense of the characters or the story.

    ReplyDelete