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Saturday, December 12, 2020

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

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through January 2.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this pique interest?

2. Is it too slow?

Market/Genre: Young Adult Suspense

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

High Bluffs, Rhode Island
Summer 1939


I tottered beside my carpetbag.

Stepfather’s footsteps echoed in the hallway, coming closer to my door. The ice in his voice sent shivers up my spine. “Get to the motorcar now, Rosie. We’re leaving.” He hesitated, spun toward the front door, and stomped out.

Though he’d neglected to inform me of our destination, he and Mum planned to leave me at Abard House, Grandmum Morga’s home.

Rebellion surged in me, but I didn’t dare resist. My cheek stung as I remembered the penalty for tempting fate. I ran to Nanny Sarah’s outstretched arms and sobbed. “Why do I have to go? Please don’t make me leave. I don’t want to spend the summer with these ... strangers. What if they don’t like me?”

She lifted my chin with her gentle, frail hand and dried my tears. Her lips formed a flat line. “There now, sweet Rosie. All will be well.” She gave my head a loving pat and walked outside with me dragging my feet. “It’s time you make friends,” she whispered, “and even have some fun.” Her voice lacked conviction.

I kneaded my fingers. If only I had a friend my age. Someone with whom to share my secrets. We would dance and sing and reveal our dreams for tomorrow.

What good could come from summer break. It was the same every year. Two long months of boredom and loneliness. Without Nanny Sarah, I’d have no one to talk with. The sparkle in Nanny’s eyes had always quickened my heart, but they held only sadness.

On the final joyless day of ninth grade, I waved goodbye to Nanny Sarah and climbed into the backseat of Mum’s vehicle. Stepfather drove, and Mum snuggled close to him as we sped from the city to drop me at Abard House. My stomach revolted.

My Thoughts in Blue:

High Bluffs, Rhode Island
Summer 1939


I tottered beside my carpetbag.

Stepfather’s footsteps echoed in the hallway, coming closer to my door. [The ice in his voice sent shivers up my spine. “Get to the motorcar now, Rosie. We’re leaving.”] She reacts to his voice before readers see him speak. Perhaps flip these two so the stimulus comes before the response [He hesitated,] I was curious why he hesitated. Is it related to the suspense part of the story?  spun toward the front door, and [stomped out.] small thing for an early draft, but the idea of “steps” is repeated three times in this paragraph, and it just caught my ears funny

[Though he’d neglected to inform me of our destination, he and Mum planned to leave me at Abard House, Grandmum Morga’s home.] If she knows where she’s going, doesn’t that mean they told her the destination?

[Rebellion surged in me, but I didn’t dare resist.] I’m unsure what this urge refers to—the idea of going to Abard House, or getting in the car. My cheek stung as I remembered the penalty for [tempting fate] I’m not sure how this fits the situation. Sounds like she talked back or said she didn’t want to go, and that’s not “tempting fate". [I ran to Nanny Sarah’s outstretched arms and sobbed. “Why do I have to go? Please don’t make me leave. I don’t want to spend the summer with these ... strangers. What if they don’t like me?”] I’m ungrounded as a reader because I don’t know where I am or who’s in the room. And all of this sounds like a flashback, since it started with her about to walk out the door, but now it's explaining how the story got there.

She lifted my chin with her gentle, frail hand and dried my tears. Her lips formed a flat line. “There now, sweet Rosie. All will be well.” [She gave my head a loving pat and walked outside with me dragging my feet.] Awkward sentence [“It’s time you make friends,” she whispered, “and even have some fun.”] Is this the reason for taking her to Abard House? Whyis that bad?  [Her voice lacked conviction.] This gives a hint that going there might not be good for Rosie

I kneaded my fingers. [If only I had a friend my age.] I’m unsure of what the actual problem is about going to her Grandmother’s [Someone with whom to share my secrets.] I don’t know if this is a girlish wish, or if she has actual secrets she needs to share. with suspense, a real secret is typical  We would dance and sing and reveal our dreams for tomorrow.

[What good could come from summer break.] An odd thing to say since she just said what she hoped to gain from it [It was the same every year.] This makes me think she goes to Abard House every year, but I don’t think that’s the case Two long months of boredom and loneliness. Without Nanny Sarah, I’d have no one to talk with. The sparkle in Nanny’s eyes had always quickened my heart, [but they held only sadness.] Does she mean right now, or in general? If Nanny Sarah is worried, that helps with the suspense  

[On the final joyless day of ninth grade,] This makes me think this entire opening has been a flashback and summary of how we go to this point I waved goodbye to Nanny Sarah and climbed into the backseat of Mum’s vehicle. Stepfather drove, and Mum snuggled close to him as we sped from the city to drop me at Abard House. My stomach revolted.

The Questions:

1. Does this pique interest?


Not yet (readers chime in). This has some interesting tidbits, but it reads like setup so far. I couldn’t ground myself in the story, because it jumped around in time and was never clear what was happening when. I suspect it’s the day she leaves for Abard House, and then she has a flashback memory of how she found out that was where she was going and her reaction to it.

Immediately jumping into a flashback in an opening is a red flag that something is off about the scene. If seeing her parents tell her she was going to stay with Grandmother over the summer was important enough to put it on the first page, then why not start there?

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

But I also don’t think you need it, since all it does is explain the situation, and you can do that by opening with them already in the car pulling up the driveway to Abard House. Rosie unhappy and wishing she didn’t have to stay with Grandmother over the summer starts where the story starts—as she arrives in a place she doesn’t want to be.

You could even start it with her already there watching her parents drive happily away. Her being at the house seems to be the important part of this opening, not how she got there.

Suspense is all about making readers wonder and worry about what’s going on and what might happen—especially for the safety of the protagonist. Showing Rosie’s apprehension at being there, dropping hints about whatever is wrong at the house, etc., will all help develop a sense of foreboding in readers.

Right now, Rosie’s big concern is boredom and lack of friends, which doesn’t make me worry about her, or hook me as a reader. There’s a brief mention of her not knowing her grandmother, and that she might not like her, but “not liking her” isn’t a big enough draw for a suspense—a contemporary, sure, but suspense makes a promise to readers that the story will be suspenseful and tension-filled. 

(Here’s more on The Key to Creating Suspense Is...)

I’d suggest reworking this to show Rosie’s fear at having to spend her summer here, and give some concrete reasons for it. Make readers worry along with her. Even if her initial concerns are no friends and boredom, quickly shift to that foreboding tone and slip in that fear when she sees the house. Or give her a few thoughts about Grandmother that suggest apprehension.

Essentially, get readers ready to feel that suspense. Add the “scary music” in the background that will start making them feel uneasy.

(Here’s more on 4 Mistakes to Avoid When Building Suspense in Your Novel)

2. Is it too slow?

Yes, because there’s nothing going on just yet. Even Rosie says nothing is going to happen and it’s going to be a boring two months. She has no goal to drive the scene aside from “make friends,” and there’s nothing to suggest why this matters or how it would be difficult for her to do.

I suspect the real story doesn’t start until she’s at the house and senses or discovers something “off” that will trigger the suspense plot. The closer you can get to that moment, the tighter the opening will feel.

However, if Rosie has a goal or problem unrelated to the house, and she’s worrying about that and what to do about it in the opening, then you could take longer to get to the house. That would help hook readers and draw them into the story. But based on the opening pages submitted, it looks like Rosie gets to the house on page two, so I suspect her real problems don't start until she’s at Abard House.

(Here’s more on SPARK UP YOUR STORY – A Workable Plan for Adding Tension, Suspense, & Intrigue)

Try starting with Rosie either at the house already, or arriving there and see how the opening scene unfolds. Look for ways to set that foreboding, suspenseful tone right away, and remember to keep tensions taut from page one. 

Overall, I think this is just trying to explain the setup instead of diving into the story and letting readers work out the details as it goes along. Rosie can easily have a few thoughts about how upset she is at being left here for the summer, how she misses Nanny Sarah, all while Grandmother is being awful or spooky or whatever she’s likely to be.

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. I agree: there's good material here for setting up a story, but this may not be the best scene to use it in.

    Rosie is uneasy about the trip and has trouble making friends -- fair enough. But are those points in themselves so important that the opening scene should be just about those, without the suspense that's your real draw? Just saying this is a different scene, probably miles and hours away from Abard House, seems to drop a barrier between Rosie's worries now and what will actually happen there.

    I have seen writers make a story work by starting "before they arrive" like this. When they do, it's because the departure or travel scene itself shows something really interesting --maybe an ominous clue, or some memorable and insightful characterization-- that's clearly pointing to what the story will do. And that's still a slower, riskier, beginning.

    (And, it's just an assumption that the real action won't start until they get to Abard House. It's not impossible that Rosie's mother's about to give her a complex riddle challenge that really begins the story, or the enemy that stalks her around the House will try to run them off the road right here.)

    Really, the first chance a writer has to impress a reader is by choosing the first scene: it ought to show off both what kind of fun the story has and how well the writer understands that story to present it right. Picking a scene that shows Rosie's worries is a good start, but it's probably not enough if the whole scene ends here.

    --And I'm afraid using a scene-plus-flashback on the first page can look like you need multiple first scenes because you haven't found the right one scene to do the job. (It can be different if either the framing scene or the flashback thoughts are *very* brief, but it's tricky.)

    I like Rosie's bond with Nanny Sarah, and her unease around her stepfather and her mother's way with him; they do a lot to give weight to those sides of her troubles. (Though I'm not sure if the tone is YA or if it might be a bit young and earnest for that, even if it's a period piece.) The question is, which needs should you turn that spotlight on *in the first scene* and the first paragraphs, to promise the reader where this could really be going?

    In fact, you can go further to make us care about Rosie's worries. If you're certain you've got a scene idea with all the right subjects, you'll have more focus to show us a couple of layers of her reasons for wanting friends, being afraid of the House, or whatever it is. The faster you can get us on Rosie's side in depth, the better -- if you do it without slowing down the story, that is.

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  2. If the genre is young adult/suspense, then we need to feel that right away. I don't feel any suspense in this passage, and I thought the voice sounded young for YA. Perhaps MG? And while some of the words might be correct for 1939, works liked "tottered" may not resinate with today's reader- certainly not enough to be the first sentence.

    On to the bigger picture - who is Rosie and why do we care about her? What does she want and what is preventing her from getting it? If it is suspense, what is happening that makes the reader feel like the stakes are big? I hate to go back to The Hunger Games, but it is one of my favorite openings of a book. On the first page we know things are not good there, and probably not going to get any better. In fact, the first paragraph set the tone, the setting, and hooks the reader. We all want to know what the reaping is, and why Prim would be having bad dreams because of it.

    Look how the first page of that book (and others) set up all of those things. See how you can utilize those techniques in your book. Personally, I find "tears" and "shivers up my spine" cliche and not doing anything to endear us to this character. Use tears and body parts sparingly is my motto.

    If Rosie was going to the Abard House and there had been a murder there years prior, then perhaps she would be scared. Maybe the house is haunted. I'm just throwing out random ideas, but you see how something like that could cause suspense and raise the stakes of her leaving.

    One of the things I continuously try working on in my own writing is word choice. Again, look at The Hunger Games first page - words like cold, rough, bad dreams, cocooned - all give the page meaning. Find those words that work for your story and set the tone.

    Above all, give us a reason to want to follow Rosie. We need to have a look into who she is before we will want to follow her. Rather than crying to the other grandmother, maybe she brings her in her favorite tea and says how much she will miss doing this for her -some action that lets us see her.

    Whether this is the right spot to start or not doesn't matter as much as having the scene set up so we are hooked into turning the page. Remember, often buyers only look at that first page.

    Good luck - you have lots to work with and with a little time and research, you will have a great beginning.

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  3. I thought this idea had the elements to hook me, but not yet in this version. I wondered why Rosie was so hesitant to leave when she just got slapped for talking back. The element of the unknown can be frightening, but weighed against the chance to leave her domineering parents seems worse, and so I'm not rooting for her yet. If you don't want this impression of the dad, then you'll have to show how the anger in his voice and the slap in the face were unique rather than common. Enjoy the process! and thanks for letting s see your work

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  4. I see all the bits lined up for this scene, just not quite stitched together yet.
    Rosie's final day of the 9th grade...so, she's being sent off on that very last day? Parents in a rush? This caught my mind as I wondered what the hurry was.

    Rosie also appears to be ready to try out her independence and was met with violence. Why is the stepdad so angry? Obviously (to me), Rosie is simply an obstacle to something he wants to do -- what might that be?

    I'm hunting for clues and hints that there is something amiss yet there isn't enough for me to indulge in much speculation. And I love speculation! :o)

    The line about rebellion surging is confusing, as she doesn't dare resist it -- yet she must resist that surge or risk another slap in the face.

    The elements of this scene might be a flashback Rosie indulges in while traveling to the Abard House. We could see her anger, her squashed rebelliousness (betting she could still see the red impressions of her stepfather's hand on her cheek), her irritation (perhaps?) at her mother, who snuggles close to the man she now fears (and hates?).

    Perhaps she envisions Nanny Sarah and indulges in a few tears before steeling herself to the coming 'torture'. Perhaps Nanny Sarah gave her something to keep with her for the summer? A talisman? A secret phrase? A gentle warning that made no sense?

    I believe I'm missing the drama that comes with 9th grade-going-on-10th grade, where the world is stupid and mean and ignores you and doesn't understand and...

    You have some great advice for reworking this scene. Use it all! Don't hold yourself to one approach as you experiment -- mix 'n match -- and remember: you control the reader's speculations and anticipations on this adventure of yours. Cut a clear path while giving plenty of clues to fill their mental pockets.

    Good luck -- and have fun!

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  5. Thank you, Janice, Ken, Lynne, Joanne, and Maria for your time and expert help!!! I appreciate you and will get busy on what isn't working in these opening paragraphs!!! I am grateful that you would share you wisdom - THANK YOU!!! :)

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