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Saturday, January 02, 2021

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

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: Two

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through Jan 16.

This week’s question:

1. Does this opening work?

Market/Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Briar’s eyes snapped open; her body lay rigid, stiff as stone, but the rapid beat of her heart frightened her. She dared not breathe as her eyes took in the room even though they appeared to be locked on the ceiling above her; she found nothing to explain this extraordinary sense of…loss?

Something had happened to wake her before the first bell, of this she was certain. She tried desperately to bring to the surface quickly disappearing thoughts and images, but they slipped elusively behind gossamer curtains in her mind.

To add to her confusion and increasing fear she felt something strange falling from the corner of her eyes. Lifting her left arm stiffly, with rigid unbending fingers she brushed the side of her face feeling a strange moistness there. She slowly brought her hand to her face to find a clear liquid coating her fingertips, lowering them to her nose she sniffed. This evoked a brief image, a flicker of memory so quick, it was there and gone before she had time to capture it. Lowering her fingertips to her lips she was unprepared for the assault on her senses at the salty taste. An explosion of visions bombarded her mind, so powerful and strong she barely stopped herself from crying out, and she clasped her hand tightly over her mouth to prevent its escape.

Her heart was thudding, beating so loud in her ears she felt sure it would wake the other occupants of the room. Her hands shook even as her body tensed and fear almost overwhelmed her.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Briar’s eyes snapped open; [this would be stronger as a sentence.] her body lay rigid, stiff as stone, but the rapid beat of her heart frightened her. [I wondered why her heartbeat was frightening unless she’s experiencing tachycardia.] She dared not breathe [why? This could be internal thought: “Don’t breathe.”] as her eyes took in the room [this is confusing, is she looking around the room or staring at the ceiling?] even though they appeared to be locked on the ceiling above her; [yes, I envisioned eyeballs locked on the ceiling (too many years watching Warner Bros. cartoons) – perhaps replace by using what the eyes are doing: looking/gazing] she found nothing to explain this extraordinary sense of…loss? [I want to know she is feeling this before she starts looking around for an explanation.]

Something had happened to wake her before the first bell, of this she was certain. [the ‘first bell’ reference is confusing, as I don’t know what it means in the scene. I also wonder what makes her so certain.] She tried desperately to bring to the surface quickly disappearing thoughts and images, but they slipped elusively behind gossamer curtains in her mind. [I like this sentence but would like a more direct intent involved.]

To add to her confusion and increasing fear she felt something strange falling from the corner of her eyes. [I can only imagine tears being released from the corners of her eyes – are tears foreign for her? Lifting her left arm stiffly, with rigid unbending fingers she brushed the side of her face feeling a strange moistness [what makes the moistness strange? Or is it strange that her face feels moist?] there. She slowly brought her hand to her face to find a clear liquid coating her fingertips, lowering them to her nose she sniffed. This evoked a brief image, a flicker of memory so quick, it was there and gone before she had time to capture it. Lowering her fingertips to her lips she was unprepared for the assault on her senses at the salty taste. An explosion of visions bombarded her mind, so powerful and strong she barely stopped herself from crying out, and she clasped her hand tightly over her mouth to prevent its escape.

Her heart was thudding, beating so loud in her ears she felt sure it would wake the other occupants of the room. [what other occupants? We don’t even know what kind or size of room she’s in yet.] Her hands shook even as her body tensed and fear almost overwhelmed her.

The Question:

1. Does this opening work? 


Somewhat… (readers chime in, please)

My first impression was that the first paragraph would be stronger and have more punch if we began with short sentences that progressively stacked the info. Everything we need is already there, but the presentation lacks the build-up of her fear and confusion. I like what’s being said, so this is more the logistics of creating the opening moments of the scene. A more staccato flow of her realizations and actions/thoughts could quickly draw readers in. And adding even one internal thought could force readers into her head. As is, you are telling us of her desperation, her fear.

I also felt her feeling of loss was something important or necessary for readers to know – a story clue – which is great – but I wanted to see it come before her searching for the explanation for it. Emotion / search / solution.

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

Moving into the second paragraph, I was confused as to why she felt so certain that something had happened to wake her before ‘the first bell’. This statement of certainty is so straightforward I was led into believing we would next learn what supported it. However, we don’t. I also wondered how she could possibly know that this bell hadn’t rung yet. Is the sun too high or too low? Is it too quiet or she can hear her mates snoring/breathing? Perhaps you could indicate what the first bell means in her life?

With no supporting detail or explanation, readers will be left to cast about in their minds, looking for an appropriate ‘bell’ reference – school? military? church? prison? I had the ‘cheat’ of knowing this was a YA fantasy and readers would also have that knowledge from the cover and cover blurb, so we all might lean toward school. But without that hint, we would be forced to guess. And we don’t want the story to lean on cover blurbs.

This is also a good point to drop a bit of guidance about who Briar is, like her age and her situation.

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

Speaking of situation, readers really need to know more about it – beyond her reactions and attempts to retrieve any mental hints formed just prior to waking. This latter concern isn’t really clear, as it sounds more like she’s attempting to recall her last dream. Perhaps you could clarify her intent and reasoning, so it flows into the rest of her reactions?

In the so-important first words that comprise the first two paragraphs, readers know there is a female who has awakened, is suffering physical reactions that point to fear, and is disoriented. I felt like an observer, which is fine, but without more to back her feelings of fear, besides being told they are so, I am aloof and am simply waiting to get more information.

I was definitely and instantly intrigued by the name Briar and appreciated that you immediately made clear this character’s gender. This name is one of my favorite things in this piece. In fact, it sparked enough curiosity that it was easy to read on.

Any questions Briar would be asking need to fit right in with the reader’s understanding of the circumstance. So, adding very small expectations that have been compromised (or seem to be) can ground readers in her reactions. If she’s a teen living in a barracks-style sleeping arrangement and all the girls go to sleep at the same time, rise at the same time (at the sounding of the first bell), we can assume that waking early would be a never-before-happened thing. And if her life is terribly regimented, even this small anomaly might be worthy of a rapid heartbeat. But readers don’t know any of this type of information, so are depending upon you to show them why she’s so scared, frozen stiff, and can’t remember why she awoke.

(Here’s more on 5 Ways to Write Stronger Opening Scenes) 

From this bare beginning, we go into a longer paragraph that double-dips ‘strange’ in relation to moistness and falling things. Speculations blazing, I wondered if Briar was an entity who did not shed tears, making them strange to her. This was interesting, but not confirmed. However, her reaction to tasting the strange moistness could be taken as confirmation of tears being foreign.

Her reaction to the tear-tasting is nearly violent but means little beyond that. I wondered more about why she took such measures as clamping her hand over her mouth to stay silent. Why would she do this? Her action of self-controlling pushed me toward the idea that her situation is very restrictive and perhaps there is punishment for any kind of self-expression, even reacting to pain or fear.

I suggest using a few visual hints of the flood of images revealed to her would serve to support reader understanding. Those hints could then be revealed (déjà vu?) later in the story.

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

Again, I feel readers are still observing this scene, not being drawn in, with no avenues for inserting themselves into what is happening. The potential for the story seems/feels strong, but there needs to be conflict, tension, and her distress being shown, not told. By the end of this snippet, readers know Briar is very frightened, doesn’t know what tears are, feels she has awakened at an abnormal time, and her body is rigid. 

(Here’s more on Studying the Waking Up Scene: Is it Really That Bad?) 

I love the material about the (assumed) tears. I love this character’s name. I need to know how old she is and if she’s in an unfamiliar room and who the ‘others’ are in the room. I don’t need to know too many details; inferences would suffice or references to comparisons. I would also rework the pacing, so her tension and fear are established and then continue to build, while giving hints that explain why certain things aren’t ‘normal’ and therefore, frightening. Internal thought could really stimulate the entire opening.

(Here’s more on Move Along: Fixing Pacing Problems) 

Intuitively, I feel this is an interesting story and would read on to ferret out what I need to know. It may be that you’ll need to cut the material in half and replace the cut material with ‘need to knows’ or a tighter thread that pushes to Briar making some conclusions that explain some of what is going on.

Best of luck in querying, those query letters can be a bear!

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

7 comments:

  1. I think the bones are good, and there’s some intriguing details here, but for me, it’s too external. That’s making it hard for me to connect to Briar and understand what’s going on here.

    I like the sense that something is wrong, but she doesn’t know what. I get the hint that she’s dreaming of something that she’s either forgotten or has been suppressed, and that frightened her enough to make her cry. Not knowing what tears are is interesting conceptually, but crying is an involuntary reaction, so I found it a little hard to believe, and that pulled me out of the story.

    The external nature read as if details were purposefully being hidden from me to create mystery, but it created confusion instead. For example, Briar likely knows who else is in the room, so they wouldn’t be “occupants,” they’d be “students” or “prisoners” or “guests” or something that would show a hint of the world.

    This doesn’t read as omniscient POV (things would be revealed if it were), so I think it’s a tight or limited third. But it doesn’t offer any internalization from Briar to ground readers in her POV. It also doesn’t have a YA voice to me, but that’s due to the lack of internal thought and teen worldview.

    I’d suggest adding more internal thoughts and observations from Briar’s POV and let her show readers what’s going on and why it matters. Don’t just show the thudding heart, give us a sense of what’s going through Briar’s head as well. Let her recognize and understand the key elements of the setting that readers need to know to ground themselves in the scene. Show her personality.

    Overall, I think this just needs that internal layer, and that will naturally fix the clarity issues. It will also add that YA voice and make readers care more about Briar and her situation.

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  2. Congratulations on your bravery and also your hard work. The opening is complex and shows you've thought out a lot about your story and world. Here are some impressions on the tip of your iceberg. Briar sounds like a Frankenstein's monster. That would certainly explain a lot of the confusing details like why her heartbeat would frighten her or why her arms were so stiff or the strange sensation of tears. I would read a bit farther to find out if I was right. Or I'd know this from the cover copy. But as a reader, I felt disconnected from the character. Her confusion is so complete I have trouble sympathizing because I myself am confused. Switching more of the "telling" to "showing" would ground me further. Certain phrases like "even though they appeared to be locked on the ceiling" pull me out of the text because the previous "her eyes took in the room" is more from inside her head while "appeared" is from an observer's POV. The tricky, vague language reminded me I was reading instead of experiencing because I instinctively felt you as the author were trying to hide some surprise from me. Consider first that successful surprises must feel organic: not that the author is hiding something, but that when it is inevitably revealed, the reader thinks, "Oh, of course. I should have seen that coming!" Second, can you prioritize your surprise elements? As is, the character's history is a mystery, also the unknown setting she wakes up in, and the frightening circumstances. How can you give us a sense of normal to contrast the bizarre details in your opening. I think this could be a great place to start your novel, but readers will need something solid to hang on to. I love how imaginative you are and that you've tried to incorporate all five senses into your writing. Don't be discouraged: writing is rewriting. For me, that's the fun part. Enjoy the journey!

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  3. Because she didn't know what tears were, and because this is labeled as fantasy - I thought perhaps Briar was not human or just became human. I do agree that this piece would open up much more with some internal thoughts so we can "see" her better.

    I am also not grounded in the first paragraph - why is she not moving. Her eyes snapped open and she is frightened - that would lead to a flee instinct, yet she doesn't move. Why?

    The body movements indicate something not right - lifting her arm stiffly, rigid unbending of her fingers - not knowing tears - all non-human descriptions - yet she knew the taste was salty?

    The last paragraph introduces other occupants, which I think she might have known from the beginning and would better help the reader in some sense of a setting.

    Right now all we have is a POV telling us something. I would like to be more into the scene - some description, senses (does she hear anything, smell anything, what is she seeing?) - since there is no dialogue, we don't have a sense of Briar but some internal dialogue might help there.

    My overall feeling is to consider replacing some of the body part descriptions (eyes, arms, heart thudding, hands shaking, etc) and substitute internal thoughts. Let us come to the conclusion of Briar being scared through her sensory and thoughts.

    I think there is a lot here to work with and with a little clarification and digging into Briar as a person (or a robot :) will really bring this beginning to life and make for a compelling read. Good luck!

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  4. That you showed bravery and submitted is to be commended. This is a tremendous opportunity for you. Well done.

    In a nutshell, we have a girl named Briar who's unfamiliar with her own emotions. That's a good starting point. Unfortunately, beyond that all we have is speculation. The fact that all the comments include guesses as to the story is proof that more is needed. I'm no different in that regard. As someone who enjoys fantasy, I was intrigued by her violent reaction to her own tears and the visions that resulted. Is that hinting a special ability? If so, that should be your hook, not waking up.

    The biggest problem I see here IS hinted information. Coyness doesn't equal tension, it equals withholding for whatever reason, be it hesitancy or trying to be too clever. Instead, jump in, plunge ahead. If Briar has a special ability don't hedge, give her a voice and pull us in. Let that be your hook. Ditch those opening couple of paragraphs and let Briar win us over. Briar's circumstances and/or (maybe) ability are your hook, please reconsider dragging out the opening. Despite the frustration I felt reading the first couple of paragraphs, I wanted to like Briar, I wanted to know about her, but my patience was wearing thin. Many readers, especially YA readers, may not be so patient.

    You have good ideas and, it feels like, a winning protagonist, let them shine right away. I also sense a promising voice. The best of luck to you!

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  5. This is a daring start: it absolutely dives into sensations and descriptions for its first page, to make us focus only on those. In fact the narrator's senses, and thoughts, refuse to reach more than an inch away from her for now. That's powerful stuff.

    If a scene goes this long without giving us more context, I wonder two things. One is, how well does it excite me using just those limited tools?

    Here, I like a lot of the territory you explore with Briar's sensations, and how fearlessly you cover it all. I'm less impressed when you slip into Telling instead of Showing some of these sensations: you say her heartbeat "frightened" her (naming an emotion is always Telling) instead of showing other reactions that it provokes in her. You say there's a "sense of loss" without saying more to make that sense feel stronger, and you talk about an overwhelming explosion of visions without giving a sense of those either. (At least not right then when it happens.)

    Can you paint the picture by actually showing some of the specific fragments she has (images, clearer emotions, physical sensations to go with them), and picking just one or two to make the impression clearer without slowing down? The main paragraph has a great sense of those specific motions, but it's also where you stall on saying what the visions themselves are.

    (One particular: the second sentence says her eyes are taking in the room and yet locked on the ceiling, and I found that contradictory. Either her eyes can move or they can't -- or you mean they can't and it's the corners of her vision that are scanning, but you don't say this. In fact it also raises an expectation that you'll describe the look of the room next, and you don't at all. I found myself justifying that by saying the room looked too dark to make out much at first, but that isn't there either. It's okay to say emotions and touches stop her from noticing much yet, but hard to believe those happen before she finishes seeing *anything*.)

    My other question is, should this page loosen its "rule" and tell us even a bit more about who Briar is, what she sees, and what she expects, rather than delaying those to cover her sensations first. I think you could go either way -- it's possible to keep those facts on hold and capture how fast the feelings overwhelm her like this. (As long as the lights are dim; otherwise feelings can't be faster than her first light-speed glance of the room.) Or you could choose a few more establishing facts and interlace them with all of these, so we're learning about Briar's situation (before now) and the moment at the same time, playing off each other. It only takes a few words to say "Where was Mom?" or "Were the other students asleep?" and tell us so much. You can take it either way.

    I love finding a writer who has this much nerve to commit to one moment in the story. You may want to keep thinking how you grasp that moment, but that kind of passion means more than anything for a tale.

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    Replies
    1. Ken - I loved your point that if we are "saying" the emotion - we are telling - scared, happy, frightened - all good trigger words for us to go back and say, "how can I show this?"
      Be well!

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    2. Thank you all very much for giving my work the most precious gift you can - your time. I am humbled at the extent of the thoughtful comments and have taken them all on board. I have gained much from this exercise and am glad I worked up the nerve to push the send button. It is a wonderful thing you do for new writers. So thank you again, I have a lot more work to do and I will now go back and do my best to show more and tell less.

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