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Saturday, November 21

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Character Engagement and Backstory

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: Zero

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are open. 

This week’s questions:

1. Do you like or feel connected to Bess, the main character? It’s difficult to create sympathetic characters without being able to come out and dump all their “tragic backstory” on the page.

2. Am I giving too much away/not giving enough?

Market/Genre: Paranormal

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Dying twice—once on purpose, once on accident—gave Bess Wilcanon a lot of topics for small talk with ghosts. She regularly snuck through the haunted study carrels to access the attic she’d turned into a personal locker room, but tonight, she didn’t have any time to gossip about resurrectionists or snobby mages. Advanced Business Contracts had run over, as always with tyrants, and if she didn’t punch into the Night Mail before the clock struck six, she’d be three deep at the rail and only catch a few pieces for delivery. She needed a full satchel, or else...well. 

Bess shooed that thought away and plucked a different one out of the swarm: maybe there’d be a letter from him, and she could deliver it to herself. 

She ran up the wide, marble steps to the mostly-empty top floor of the Library of Magical Law, her best friend Daria Tremayne moaning her way up the stairs beside her. Daria was arm-wrestle-a-troll strong, but considered running to be acceptable only if you were being chased. 

“So. Many. Steps,” Daria panted.

“You don’t have to come with me, you know.” Bess smiled and slapped the fat newel post at the top of the stairs. 

“Wanna see ghosts.” Daria flicked her fingers over the brass. “I know you don’t have time to go home and change, but why’d you have to pick the nosebleed section?”

“The law library’s a good place to hide a seditious pre-war newsletter or very light throwing axes, but every time I hide my Night Mail uniform somewhere sensible, it gets turned in to lost-and-found. I’m thinking of just wearing the hideous thing to class. Do you think I’d get kicked out of Nightmare Law for lack of a billowing cloak?”

My Thoughts in Blue:

[Dying twice—once on purpose, once on accident—gave Bess Wilcanon a lot of topics for small talk with ghosts.] Great opening line  She regularly snuck through the haunted [study carrels] I don’t know what this is, so I can’t ground myself in the setting to access the attic she’d turned into a personal locker room, but tonight, she didn’t have any time to gossip about resurrectionists or snobby mages. [Advanced Business Contracts] I’m struggling to find my feet in this setting. Is this a school? Library? Both?  had run over, as always with tyrants, and if she didn’t punch into the [Night Mail] I don’t know what this is before the clock struck six, she’d be [three deep at the rail and only catch a few pieces for delivery.] I feel like is important, but I don’t know what it means [She needed a full satchel, or else...well.] Here, too. There are some very interesting things in the opening, but they're written as if I should know what they are already.  

Bess shooed that thought away and plucked a different one out of the swarm: [maybe there’d be a letter from him, and she could deliver it to herself.] Too many hints are being dropped without context, which makes it very hard to keep up 

[She ran up the wide, marble steps to the mostly-empty top floor of the Library of Magical Law,] This finally gives me some context, so perhaps reference the actual name of the Library in the first paragraph her best friend Daria Tremayne [moaning her way up the stairs beside her.] Because Bess talks to ghosts, and ghosts moan, I thought Daria was a ghost at first  Daria was arm-wrestle-a-troll strong, but considered running to be acceptable only if you were being chased. 

“So. Many. Steps,” Daria panted.

“You don’t have to come with me, you know.” Bess smiled and [slapped the fat newel post at the top of the stairs.] I don't understand why, but I suspect there’s a reason 

“Wanna see ghosts.” Daria flicked her fingers over the brass. [“I know you don’t have time to go home and change, but why’d you have to pick the nosebleed section?”] Because I’m struggling with so many of the details, it took me a few reads to realize this refers to the “personal locker room” detail in the first paragraph. But I still don’t understand why she has to change or what’s going on

[“The law library’s a good place to hide a seditious pre-war newsletter or very light throwing axes, but every time I hide my Night Mail uniform somewhere sensible, it gets turned in to lost-and-found.] Cute line, but it’s trying too hard to add too much. Perhaps just mention the uniform and move the other details elsewhere I’m thinking of just wearing the hideous thing to class. [Do you think I’d get kicked out of Nightmare Law for lack of a billowing cloak?”] Funny

The Questions:

1. Do you like or feel connected to Bess, the main character? It’s difficult to create sympathetic characters without being able to come out and dump all their “tragic backstory” on the page.

The first line makes me like her, and it tells me enough to want to know more. I like her overall voice and she seems like a nice person. I can gather that she once committed suicide, she had an accident of some kind that killed her, she can talk to ghosts, and she enjoys doing it. She’s also funny, and humor pretty much always hooks readers.  

I don’t need to know more about her backstory at this point. She’s already intriguing and fun. What I do need more of, is the world and how it works. I struggled to find my feet in this, and that kept me from connecting to the story. I spent more time trying to figure out what things were and what they meant than falling into the story.

Backstory isn’t the issue. World building is.  

(Here’s more on Backgrounding Your World Through Point of View)  

2. Am I giving too much away/not giving enough?

Both. There are so many details here that require knowing what they mean to understand the scene, but none of them are being explained. As the author, they make perfect sense to you, but a fresh reader is lost. And a reader like me, who isn’t familiar with/doesn’t remember library terminology, is even more lost. 

There are details here that say “college library,” but they’re just vague enough and mixed in with enough fantasy elements that my brain was trying to make sense of too much to make the “normal” details stand out and click for me (readers chime in here). But a word of two to clarify those normal details would solve that. 

For example, just adding “in the Library of Magical Law” after “study carrels” would immediately tell readers where this is set. Saying “Her Advanced Business Contracts class” positions her as a student in college and that this is a college library. “Punch into work at the Night Mail” makes it clear she works there. 

If you know what all these things are, those extra words aren’t necessary, but if you don’t, they add just enough context for readers to stay with you and this world. 

(Here’s more on Wait...What? Putting Things in the Proper Context)  

The hook of a woman who talks to ghosts and goes to a magical school is strong enough to hold reader attention. I suspect the Night Mail is also a good hook, but there’s no room with everything else to explain what that is. 

It seems to me that the gist of this opening is to show that Bess is a student at a magical college, she’s late for work at the Night Mail, and while she usually takes time to chat with the ghosts before work, she doesn’t have time for that tonight because class ran late. She stashes her uniform at the library to save time. Her best friend has joined her tonight to see ghosts.

(Here’s more on 4 Signs You Might Be Confusing, Not Intriguing, in Your Opening Scene)  

If I’m guessing correctly, and you focus just on these elements, you get:

Dying twice—once on purpose, once on accident—gave Bess Wilcanon a lot of topics for small talk with ghosts, but tonight, she didn’t have any time to gossip about resurrectionists or snobby mages. Advanced Business Contracts had run over, as always with tyrants, and (she was late for work). 

She ran up the wide, marble steps to the mostly-empty top floor of the Library of Magical Law, her best friend Daria Tremayne beside her. Daria was arm-wrestle-a-troll strong, but considered running to be acceptable only if you were being chased. 

“So. Many. Steps,” Daria panted.

“You don’t have to come with me, you know.” Bess smiled and slapped the fat newel post at the top of the stairs. 

“Wanna see ghosts.” Daria flicked her fingers over the brass. “I know you don’t have time to go home and change, but why’d you have to pick the nosebleed section?”

“Every time I hide my Night Mail uniform somewhere sensible, it gets turned in to lost-and-found. I’m thinking of just wearing the hideous thing to class. Do you think I’d get kicked out of Nightmare Law for lack of a billowing cloak?”

This cuts out all the others details so you can examine the core elements and decide what needs to be fleshed out further.

What I needed more of as a new reader (and readers chime in here, as everyone is different), is a bit of context on what the Night Mail is, and how this world either fits into ours or is different from ours. Is this a magical college co-existing in our like a’la Hogwarts, or is this a created fantasy world?

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

I also wondered why Daria choose tonight to accompany Bess when Bess was running late. If Daria is her best friend, she could go see ghosts any time she wanted. I suspect she’s there only to introduce the character, and if so, perhaps bring her in later. The great “lost and found” comment could easily be an internal thought and doesn’t need Daria there to prompt it. If she needs to be there, then perhaps give her a reason why it has to be now and later.

This also introduces two other thoughts—Bess is hoping for a letter from “him,” and she likely needs money or something bad will happen (she needed “a full satchel or else” implies this). You might be able to get the money idea in this if you flesh out the Night Mail, since those are connected, but I’d suggest saving the “him” until later. It’s too vague to pique interest with so much else going on, and it doesn’t appear to be the focus of the scene. But it would fit nicely when she’s actually at work getting her deliveries. 

(Here’s more on The Literary Tour Guide: How Much Do You Need to Describe Your Setting?) 

Conveying a complicated world in one page is hard. Just writing it without the explanations and seeing what beta readers need more of is a useful way to learn what you need and what can wait. Had you tried to explain all this, you would have probably bogged it down with too much infodumping and not enough drive. Tastes vary, but I find it easier to start sparse and flesh out than explain and then cut. But both ways work.

I’d suggest pairing this down to the essentials and grounding readers a bit more in this world. You mentioned this was a retelling of Alfred Noyes’ poem, “The Highwayman,” so maybe it’s relying on readers who know that poem to get what this opening sets up. But if someone hasn’t read it, all they have is what’s on the page. You need to fill in those gaps for them.

(Here’s more on Get What's in Your Head Onto the Page)  

Overall, I think this has a lot of promise, and I’m intrigued. It will likely take a few passes to find the right balance on the world building, but that’s normal in a world as complex as this one appears to be. But remember—fantasy readers are used to a little extra explanation to set the world, so you don’t have to be as vigilant about infodumps as a non-genre novel does. Don’t go overboard of course, but use those few extra words and lines to help readers understand your world.

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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5 comments:

  1. Sasha Anderson11/21/2020 7:57 AM

    *by* accident

    Apart from that, I love it! I think I have slightly more patience than Janice when it comes to not understanding things - I'd happily read on and trust that it will all fall into place, and I'd much rather that than too much 'infodumping'. I consider "they're written as if I should know what they are already" to be a good thing!

    That said, I also like Janice's version, although I'd like it to be followed by the bit about the Night Mail, so it's up to you :) And I agree with the suggestion about considering whether Daria really has to be there, and if so whether this is the best way to introduce her. The "her best friend" bit felt slightly over-explained - I'd rather you just mention Daria by name and we figure the rest out later.

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  2. This is a superb example of "throw the kid into the candy-store and let them goggle." You simply immerse us in how much delightful stuff is in Bess's life, and our scrambling to catch up is a lot of the fun.

    There's actually an argument that you *shouldn't* explain or clarify anything, or rather not for a couple of paragraphs -- that you might do best by daring the reader to keep up and then, very soon, filling them in and letting them know if they made the right assumption. It's a delicate balancing act, and of course you don't want to go too far in disorienting the reader. This could be going for that, but it doesn't always give that followup clarification when it's needed.

    You might also look at this from the opposite direction: maybe the details of her life can be deliciously muddled at first, but her *goal right now* is driving through the center of it all and is clearer than the rest. That's the key to making most scenes work, and it might be even more useful here where you have so much whimsy to contrast it to.

    I agree, Diana's presence seems a bit forced: as the friend of a friend of ghosts, she doesn't have a clear reason for being here this particular night, except your convenience. She might say something more like "You keep talking about these ghosts" that hints this is just something could happen any time between them, and the timing just got worse than they expected.

    Mostly, this is Just Plain Fun. Humor's hard to write, and humor that turns around and gets serious is harder yet. If this keeps holding together this well, I definitely want to read it.

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  3. Even with being confused who was who and who was a ghost, I enjoyed reading it--which means that you have the bones to a great start. I would like to feel a little more grounded, but that would not take much to do.

    The voice is terrific, the setting inviting and anything with ghosts--well, I'm in. Great start and fun read.

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  4. I was hooked by the first sentence and really enjoyed the writing style and wanted to learn more about the world. I like Ken's use of the words 'whimsy' and 'delightful' to describe the snippet. But I was also *very* confused, and I think that would have kept me from reading much farther.

    For example, I was imagining Bess in the attic when she described it (though in looking back she doesn't actually say she's in the attic) and had a jolt when I realized she wasn't.

    I also thought she was a ghost and didn't figure out until reading Janice's comments that she wasn't. I was just confused when she did things that seemed unghostly, but I was wondering if maybe that was a feature of this world.

    I'm willing to wait to understand some things (like how she could have died twice), but not being able to figure out where or what she was kept me from enjoying the otherwise intriguing start to the story.

    I think Janice's comments should help ground readers like me in the story, and then I would absolutely read on!

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  5. What great fun! However, I was waaaay off in my perceptions of what was what. :O)

    I thought Bess was a ghost and we were with her in a world of the deceased. I thought she was part of a slew of ghosts 'haunting' an old library. I didn't 'get' the idea of suicide at all, but was curious about the origins of the first line, which earned a grin -- and yes, "by" kept me from easily absorbing it. But then, I have editor-brain.

    The interesting thing for me was that the voice was so strong that I didn't seem to care too much that I was confused. I just assumed/trusted that this author would rush me to a spot (the Night Mail probably) and suddenly everything would just gel. I rarely give that kind of trust to any author, but in this case, I did/do.

    The enthusiasm of this piece is just infectious, and I have always liked the name Bess. Overall, this material left me no room to make demands. It was like a parachute jump where I felt certain that I would eventually hit the ground, maybe even take a bit of a tumble, but I would be excited and open to new or confirming information.

    This isn't quite slap-dash, but close enough that, as Janice's notes and suggested rewrite positioning show, I would lean toward trimming so the 'ride' becomes even slicker and more exhilarating.

    Excellent start -- as all have mentioned, fun and we're all willing to go along and find out more -- just use a deft touch to steer everything. Kind of like hurtling through a luge course...no real steering there, just instinctive movements to keep speed and reality moving along together without breaking every bone in the body.

    Good luck and please come back with your rewrites!

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