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Saturday, October 17

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Setting the Scene in a YA Dystopian Romance

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: Four

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through November 14.

This week’s question:

Does the scene introduces the MC and environment well enough?

Market/Genre: YA Dystopian Romance

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

I pedaled the wheels of my bike, wincing as I went over a bump. I didn’t want to call any attention to myself. Where would that get me?

A child waved at me from their yard. The mother gave her a look and whispered a scolding, and glanced fearfully up at me. I didn’t wave back.

I had memorized the way to the market a while ago. I could get there in my sleep. Biking to it every day tends to do that to you.

I shifted on my seat, and the coins in my pocket jingled. Two Silvers to buy two loaves of bread, like every day. No more, my father insisted. I was fine with that. Two loaves of bread was enough to keep Carter and I alive.

I could see the tents now. Dirty brown canvases that had once been white. Nothing stays white for long in this village.

I steered up to the bike pole and locked it on. Not like that would do anything. Everyone in their right mind knows how to pick a lock.

Stepping carefully over a garbage can, I made my way into the maze of tents. The noise of people that had once almost knocked me onto my knees had now become background noise.

A hand grabbed my hair, yanking it backwards. “Beads for your pretty neck?” A hoarse voice whispered in my ear.

I wrinkled my nose and jerked my hair back.

Eyes on the prize.

The smell of warm bread caught my nose like a fishing pole, and I followed it. It was the smell of the baker’s shop.

My Thoughts in Blue:

I pedaled [the wheels of] Don’t need my bike, wincing as I went over a bump. I didn’t want to call any attention to myself. Where would that get me? I get the idea that she’s trying to be inconspicuous, but I don’t get how going over a bump draws notice to her

A child waved at me from their yard. The mother gave her a look and whispered a scolding, and glanced fearfully up at me. [I didn’t wave back.] Perhaps shift this to after the child waves since this is a reaction to that, not the mother looking at her. This paragraph suggests that whatever happened has been recent if the child still waves at strangers.

[I had memorized the way to the market a while ago.] This made me think this trip was new and she’d had to prepare for it, but the next line corrects that assumption. Perhaps a different way to say she’d been doing this trip for a long time I could get there in my sleep. [Biking to it every day tends to do that to you.] I’m curious why she bikes to the market every day when being seen could be bad. Why isn’t she buying more food per trip? I don’t need to know that yet, but I do wonder

I shifted on my seat, and the coins in my pocket jingled. Two [Silvers] This suggests money isn't called the same thing, so this might not be our world. Or so far removed "quarter" no longer has any meaning. to buy two loaves of bread, like every day. No more, my father insisted. I was fine with that. Two loaves of bread was enough to keep Carter and I alive. This reinforces my curiosity. All they eat is bread, yet they have enough money to buy it every day. Why isn’t her father buying it if this trio is dangerous? More questions for me to wonder about.

[I could see the tents now.] Something about the way she says this again suggests to me that this trip is new to her, but I know it’s not [Dirty brown canvases that had once been white. Nothing stays white for long in this village. ] Nice

[I steered up to the bike pole and locked it on. Not like that would do anything. Everyone in their right mind knows how to pick a lock.] Nice sense of voice and world building here. Does she expect the bike to get stolen then? Would she watch it? 

Stepping carefully over a garbage can, I made my way into the maze of tents. The noise of people that had once almost knocked me onto my knees had now become background noise.

A hand grabbed my hair, [yanking it backwards.] This felt more violent than what is portrayed afterward “Beads for your pretty neck?” A hoarse voice whispered in my ear.

[I wrinkled my nose and jerked my hair back.] She was fearful of getting noticed before, yet a man grabs her and she brushes it off like it’s no big deal with no fear at all. So I’m a little uncertain about the dangers of this world

Eyes on the prize.

The smell of warm bread [caught my nose like a fishing pole] nice, and I followed it. It was the smell of the baker’s shop.

The Question:

1. Does the scene introduces the MC and environment well enough?


Yes and no (readers chime in).

Yes, because I get a sense of people struggling, poverty and starvation, potential threats from strangers, and that something has happened to change the narrator’s way of life. It feels modern with bikes and locks, and with the tents I picture something like the tent cities from the Great Depression. But it also uses "Silver" instead of money I'm familiar with, which suggests a created world or our world in the future.

No, because I have no sense of when or where this takes place. This could be a war-torn country or economically collapsed state in our world. There’s nothing yet here that says “dystopian” in more than a grander sense, and no specifics about this world and this story.

This is another good example of a page that would benefit from knowing the cover copy. If I knew, for example, that this was set in “Dayton, OH after an EMP destroyed all electronics in the US,” then I’d have some context for what I was seeing. It feels like our world after a catastrophe, but there’s nothing that confirms that.

I’d suggest adding one or two details that clearly ground this in your dystopian world. Is this the US after a collapse? Is this a created world? What’s unique to this dystopian? What might give a hint about what a happened if this is our world?

(Here's more on The Difference Between Setting and World Building)

As for the protagonist, I read her as female, though there’s nothing to suggest that until the man yanks on her hair and calls her neck pretty. But I also know it’s a romance, and the female character is typically the main protagonist in YA romances, and seen first.

She seems cautious about her surroundings, but she’s been doing this for a while so it’s no longer scary. She doesn’t engage with people, even when a child waves at her. She’s focused on what she needs. I get the sense she’s a dutiful daughter and good sister, risking something (not clear what) to get food every day.

But she doesn’t seem fearful enough for someone who is worried about calling attention to herself, and who is so close to starvation she only gets a loaf of bread a day to eat. She has the feel of a girl walking through a rough neighborhood who knows she has to be cautious, but doesn’t really expect bad things to happen to her. Which might be what you’re going for.

(Here's more on One Common Way Writers Weaken Their Descriptions )

I'd suggest looking for places where you can add a word or two, maybe a line, that takes those dirty tents and a crowded market and grounds them in your world. Are there logos or real world images or sounds she could see or overhear? If this isn't our world, is there something that would clearly show this is a fantasy or science fiction environment? 

Overall, it’s a good base, but it’s a tad generic as is. I wanted just a teeny bit more to flesh out what’s here and show what’s unique to your world and this character. It wouldn’t take much at all to establish the dystopian world of your novel. Even one line could be enough. 

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. "Yes and no" are definitely my reaction.

    You put us right in the middle of this world: the girl's worries, the bike, the beads, and descriptions like being grabbed like a fishing pole. This is a believable world with a hint of danger, and it's clear you'll make any time in it interesting.

    On the other, we're a whole page into the story and have only the vaguest hint about what our heroine will be dealing with, or what distinctive about her (which is probably how she wants it) or her world. And one page is a HUGE distance into a book to not give us any stronger hints about what this tale has to offer. Some readers will be perfectly happy to keep going a while because the tone of this is so good, but others will expect a more specific opening and hold it against you.

    An easy fix would be if you have a single, unusual thing you can show about what the threat is, and she can catch a glimpse of it as she first rides in. Or it could be a piece of worldbuilding (eg if this is a post-EMP world she could ride past heaps of abandoned machinery and note how much of it has been scavenged for metal). Or you could say a bit more about her family's issues and risks (why does she make the trip herself, every day?). The trick is to show what's unique, with a sense that it could clearly lead to problems later -- keep it in passing, not slowing anything down for it now, because it won't trigger quite yet.

    Or the scene itself could be different. In that EMP world, she might start with a paragraph or two about trying to salvage metal herself, and then head on to town -- that would be a more distinct opening but move quickly on to the trip as a whole. Or the scene could be much more different, more specific or dramatic. It's all about what you want to highlight first, and how to set the balance between that point and her day in progress.

    One of my favorite points for a first scene is how it makes it clear that the character will be playing off against the rest. Here I like the sense that the heroine is practical, nervous with crowds until she had to face them, and generally a survivor -- she doesn't do anything that stands out yet, but the impression is consistent here. That's a good start, at least if the rest of the book will zero in on how she tries to live that way while the story pushes her to something else.

    I like your voice and your world. This could use a faster hint about what else it will be doing soon, but if it has that I'd be happy to pedal on and see where it goes.

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  2. Like Janice, I began by wondering why she would wince at the bump. With a few minutes of speculating, I decided her bike was old and the fenders could rattle alarmingly whenever the road jostled it. So, the environment must be extraordinarily quiet to have a rattling old bike draw attention to her. Also, she must be having to watch like a hawk for any bumps or holes in the road, so she remains as quiet as possible.

    Speculation unleashed, I wondered if the need for not making noise or being noticed had to do with pirate-types who roamed about and might consider her easy pickings.

    When you don't clearly define what's what, you allow readers to roam free to create their own world, their own situations, using your character.

    That settled, I next encountered the waving child. This small encountered reads like this is something new, but that the child's mother's reaction isn't new. Why is she fearful of our protagonist? This bit allows me to decide that our protagonist is 'unclean' or 'other' -- and her focus on her bike riding becomes more important.

    Then, we are advised that she rides this route every day! Instant confusion, as I wonder if the child waves every day and the mother recoils, scolds, and looks fearful every day. The conflict is that the waving child encounter reads like it's something new, yet the child is in their yard -- a yard the protagonist must ride by every day. Surely, the child has waved before?

    The next paragraph brings us to silver and bread. You establish here that things are still purchased, not bartered for, and that silver is still held as a thing of worth, but maybe worth in this reality is only silver/gold/copper, etc. So, this world has been pushed into a situation of basics, less complex, simpler.

    I was confused by the idea that she had two silvers and her father insisting she only buy two loaves of bread. Is there something else she might have considered buying? Is she overpaying for the bread or could she haggle the price and get three loaves for the price of two? I had no speculation for this conundrum. :O)

    Like Janice, I envisioned a tent 'village' as in the Great Depression, but, tents also instantly are attached to a desert environment in my mind, so that had to be pushed aside.

    The following paragraph captures the idea that thievery is commonplace or that common folk know how to get to possessions thought safe by using locks. This let me envision a circumstance where people had to be opportunists, to the point of stealing, to maintain their survival.

    I like the reference to almost being knocked to her knees by the noise, but now it was background only. This reminded me of my curiosity about how quiet it might be outside the village, and again made me wonder if the mother, being outside as well, knew some truth or rumor about our protagonist. So, good one on hooking me enough there to want to read on! :O)

    I might suggest changing 'A hand' to 'Someone' grabbing her hair -- or even 'something' -- as the hand isn't going to speak, but someone or something will. Also, the creepy person (dunno if this is a male or female) doesn't seem to fear her, so I wonder if she is only viewed as to be feared in the lands outside the village?

    I'm very curious about your story and would read on. As Ken suggests, just a bit of spice here and there will do a lot to ground readers and force them to build a world and this scene as you wish them to envision it.
    Good start overall -- like a black-and-white photo, it can be deepened with a little 'color'. Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Sasha Anderson10/18/2020 4:04 AM

    Something that stood out to me when reading the whole piece in one go was that some of the sentences were a little repetitive in structure, which made the scene feel somewhat disjointed. Of course, it's more important to make sure that the world-building, plot and so on are solid than to polish prose in scenes which may not survive the next round of revisions, but it's still something to think about. I find reading out loud helps :)

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