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Saturday, February 13, 2021

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

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through February 20.

This week’s questions:

1. Is this opening working?

2. Is there enough emotion?

Market/Genre: Young Adult Suspense

Note: This is a revision of a previous submission. Here’s the original if you’d like to see how the author revised.

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

High Bluffs, Rhode Island
Summer 1938

I paced in my bedroom, no fingernail left to gnaw. Once Stepfather’s footsteps travelled closer in the hallway, my feet froze. If only my room had a window, some way of escape. I hoisted my overstuffed carpetbag to my chest, a buffer between the brute and me.

He halted outside my door. “Get to the motorcar now, Rosie. We’re leaving.” The ice in his voice skittered my spine. Had he returned to inflict more rage? As though this morning’s “education” hadn’t sufficed.

I dared not look, instead kept a stranglehold on the straps of my bag. He stomped away, his weight pounded the hardwood, then muted as the front door slammed.

Rebellion surged in me, but I resisted. Proof of Stepfather’s despise stung afresh in my cheek. My pulse hammered in my ear.

Nanny Sarah ran into my room with arms outstretched. Though pain exploded under my ribs, I clung to her, my only safe harbor.

“Why do I have to go? Please, I don’t want to leave you.” I sobbed with each reminder of Stepfather’s morning lessons. “I don’t want to spend the summer with these ... strangers.” I sniffled. “What if they’re more wicked than Stepfather? Will they hurt me too? They won’t like me. No one does.”

Sarah 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. This time you’ll make friends.” Her voice lacked conviction. She patted my head and walked me outside carrying my carpetbag while I dragged my feet.

“Friends? Who would choose me for a friend?” Elbows to my hips, I kneaded my fingers. Only in sleep were my dreams of a friend fulfilled. Someone with whom I shared my secrets. But dreams only came true in fairy tales.

Who would befriend a skinny, regrettable fourteen-year-old forced to spend the summer in a strange place? Oh how I longed for Nanny Sarah to come with me. Then, I’d have someone to talk to. A reason for hope.

“We’ve been through this before,” Nanny Sarah whispered. The sparkle in her eyes had always quickened my heart, but at this moment they held only sadness. Stepfather blasted the horn, and I pulled away from her embrace to avoid more misery.

My Thoughts in Blue:

High Bluffs, Rhode Island
Summer 1938

I paced in my bedroom, no fingernail left to gnaw. [Once] Cut Stepfather’s footsteps travelled closer in the hallway[,] and my feet froze. [If only my room had a window, some way of escape.] Perhaps move this line after “gnaw” I hoisted my overstuffed carpetbag to my chest, a buffer between the brute and me. I’ll go into it more below, but notice the repeated sentence structure in this opening.

He halted outside my door. “Get to the motorcar now, Rosie. We’re leaving.” The ice in his voice skittered my spine. Had he returned to inflict more rage? [As though this morning’s “education” hadn’t sufficed.] Nice hint of tension building here

I dared not [look,] but instead kept a stranglehold on the straps of my bag. He stomped away, his weight pounded the hardwood, then muted as the front door slammed.

Rebellion surged in me, but I resisted. Proof of Stepfather’s despise [stung afresh] I like this reveal about what the “education” was, but “afresh” feels wrong since he didn’t hit her again. Perhaps “still stung” in my cheek. My pulse hammered in my ear.

Nanny Sarah ran into my room with arms outstretched. [Though pain exploded under my ribs,] I don’t know what this means. Since she was just talking about getting hit, I wonder if she’s referring to other bruises or injuries, or if this is a “my heart arched” type of sadness I clung to her, my only safe harbor.

“Why do I have to go? Please, I don’t want to leave you.” I sobbed [with each reminder of Stepfather’s morning lessons.] Since you’ve mentioned these lessons several times now, I’d suggest something that connects to her sadness at leaving Nanny Sarah here instead “I don’t want to spend the summer with these ... strangers.” [I sniffled.] Instead of a sniffle (since it just said I sobbed), perhaps use “Will they hurt me, too?” as an internal thought “What if they’re more wicked than Stepfather? Will they hurt me too? This might They won’t like me. No one does.”

Sarah 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. [This time] This suggests she’s been sent away before, but I get the impression it’s new you’ll make friends.” [Her voice lacked conviction.] Perhaps rephrase to avoid the echo from “Her lips formed...” She patted my head and walked me outside [comma] [carrying my carpetbag while I dragged my feet.] Nice

“Friends? Who would choose me for a friend?” [Elbows to my hips, I kneaded my fingers.] I can’t visualize this Only in sleep were my dreams of a friend fulfilled. Someone with whom I shared my secrets. But dreams only came true in fairy tales.

[Who would befriend a skinny, regrettable fourteen-year-old forced to spend the summer in a strange place?] This feels in the wrong place. Perhaps turn it into a statement and make it an internal thought after the “choose me for a friend” question above? Oh how I longed for Nanny Sarah to come with me. Then, I’d have someone to talk to. A reason for hope.

“We’ve been through this before,” Nanny Sarah whispered. The sparkle in her eyes had always quickened my heart, but at this moment they held only sadness. Stepfather blasted the horn, and I pulled away from her embrace to avoid more misery.

The Questions:

1. Is this opening working?


Yes (readers chime in). Some tweaking would strengthen it, but the bones are good. I get a much stronger sense of Rosie’s issues, how she feels, and a sense of tension brewing. I want to see what happens when she’s taken to her grandmother’s house.

I can see the abuse from her stepfather, and how her nanny worries over her. Rosie has a sad life, and all she wants is a friend her age. She’s so used to being disliked and mistreated, she isn’t even seeing this as an opportunity to get away, but assumes the worst.

I would like to point out something though…there’s a lot of “Something said, something said” sentence construction, particularly in the first paragraph.
  • I paced in my bedroom, no fingernail left to gnaw. [technically needs a ; but I like the rhythm here]
  • Once Stepfather’s footsteps travelled closer in the hallway, my feet froze. [This tells a bit, and I’d suggest Stepfather’s footsteps travelled closer in the hallway and my feet froze.]
  • If only my room had a window, some way of escape. [This also works, or you could use or some way of escape]
  • I hoisted my overstuffed carpetbag to my chest, a buffer between the brute and me. [This almost works for me, but my ear says it needs something to connect the ideas better. But “as a” feels too told]
  • I dared not look, instead kept a stranglehold on the straps of my bag. [Perhaps make two sentences, or use but instead...]
  • Elbows to my hips, I kneaded my fingers. [I don’t know what this means]

There’s a certain drama inherent in this type of construction, so I know the appeal (I overuse it myself), but too many of them start to mess with the rhythm and flow of the writing. They can also lead to comma splices and sentences that don’t quite make sense, since our brains add the missing words and context that fresh readers don’t see. Just keep an eye out for these during revisions and make sure what they’re saying is clear.

(Here’s more on 4 Ways to Keep Your Sentences From All Sounding the Same)

2. Is there enough emotion?

Yes, though there are a few spots where I’d suggest clarifying what she feels. I can see she feels something, but it’s unclear what that is exactly (such as when Nanny Sarah hugs her). I’d also suggest swapping out a few of the Stepfather thoughts for something else, as it’s clear what the issues with him are. But your instincts on where to put a thought or an emotion are good. Just widen what Rosie is feeling to show the full range of her emotions on this page.

(Here’s more on You're So Emotional: Describing a Character's Emotions in a First Person Point of View)

Overall, this is a solid revision that piques interest and builds sympathy for Rosie. Things aren’t good for her, and there’s a chance this bad situation is about to get worse. Since it’s suspense, that’s practically a guarantee, so an opening with a layer of dread leads into that nicely. Good job.

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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7 comments:

  1. Looking at the notation of the piece, I see it says YA, yet it feels very much MG to me, especially with her holding on to her nanny. While the age falls into YA, the voice sounds and feels younger. Now I realize that this is set back in time, where that might be more appropriate, but I think it is something to consider as the book builds - as to which segment it not only appeals to but fits into.

    Despite all the terrible things happening to this character, I can't find myself being drawn into her. I want to see a little bit of a fighter, while right now she seems entirely like a victim. She says
    no one likes her - we need to see something in Rosie we like. Up to now it seems everything is happening "to her" rather than her taking some agency. I really want to see her inner strength on the page, even if it is only a glimpse.

    Also, I would consider whether the parental abuse is a key part of this story, as that might turn readers off. Today, there are lots of hot buttons with agents and editors. If it is an important thread to the novel, then I would agree leaving it. If not, and it is only an avenue of gathering sympathy for Rosie, it might be better toned down or even omitted.

    When we see a child being forced to go somewhere they don't want to go we feel sympathy. Especially if they feel lost in the world, which Rosie seems a bit lost. As writers, we want the world to be mean to our characters, as readers, we want to see them survive, to find their inner strength.What we admire about characters is their fortitude to go on, to persevere, we want someone to root for.

    I think a lot of what you want to say about Rosie is already here. She has a stepfather, is leaving someone she loves (nanny) going somewhere she doesn't know she'll be accepted, and wants to fit in. All things we can totally relate to. It is a great start to build a character ARC - how she starts and how she ends. It is undoubtedly hard to know where a story is going from these first few paragraphs, but it is often these same paragraphs that will hook your reader.

    Good luck!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your time and help!! I enjoyed your take on these opening paragraphs!

      I toyed with adding something after Rosie states she's 14 ... Something like - Just wait until I'm eighteen. I'm running away." That's not the right lines but along that vein. Your thoughts?

      Thank you again for all your help!! I appreciate you! :)

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    2. Hi Amre - what I have learned about openings is everything there needs to mean something. It is on that first page because it is a glimpse into the heart of the book. I found in my earlier writing that I would pile a load of ideas on the first page and most of them never appeared in the novel again.

      Think about what you are landing on the first page. The tone you are setting for the reader. In THE HUNGER GAMES we find on the first page The Reaping. It sets the tone for the entire book and it is what changes the protagonist's life.

      I agree with Ken's post - someone in an abusive situation is going to try to flee, not want to stay. And once again, that abuse is on the first page- is that what will develop through the novel - child abuse is a big subject.

      You have much to work with for sure. Pull out some MG books and some YA books - look at the difference in their internal and external dialogue. Even though your book is based in the past, it is current age readers you are attracting. Deciding on whether to go MG or YA will help you make good choices when choosing words, dialogue, setting, and desires (both internal and external). You're doing a great job - keep up the good work and you will be amazed how it all comes together!

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  2. Vivid, powerful stuff here. Rosie is going from a frightening situation to... something else, that might be worse.

    Those emotions are also one thing that limits this scene, because they don't feel quite like they fit together. The big defining impression comes at the start, describing Stepfather's "rage" and "lessons" and wishing she could get away. That sounds like outright physical abuse, and it also sounds like something that hasn't been happening that long because she still comfortable thinking about "rebellion" and escape. (It makes sense that this is "Stepfather" rather than her father.)

    After that, it feels wrong that her first reaction to leaving is fear. Yes she'd miss Nanny Sarah, but any chance at freedom and safety ought to be worth that, if her stepfather is that bad. Also, her sense of herself as too plain and ordinary feels wrong if her priority has been surviving the abuse; that shouldn't matter so much to her if she can just be *away*.

    I think the core question here is, how much abuse has Rosie been taking, for how long? The girl who dreams of escape seems like a much more recent victim than the one who's afraid to leave and thinks of herself as unworthy. Abuse is a complex, subtle subject --especially for YA readers who either don't understand it yet or may know real victims in their own lives-- and you want to capture it right. The more of it there is, the more completely it should change her voice.

    You could make Rosie much more beaten down, or more eager to go, or you could downgrade the abuse to lower-level emotional pressure that leaves Rosie ragged and uneasy about life but not so certain any of these people and prospects are so good or bad. Or you might emphasize how Stepfather makes the people she's going to sound at least as bad as him (he could talk about them teaching her a proper lesson, or just that they're "good honest folk" that have his kind of ominous approval) -- that gives her a reason (besides total despair) to see leaving as anything but an escape. It might be that Stepfather isn't that bad, it's simply that there's nothing good in her life except Sarah -- and now she's losing that.

    You've played a number of powerful emotional notes in this passage. That can make some compelling music, if you're sure the sounds are in harmony.

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  3. Hi and thank you!! Finding a balance in this opening would be wonderful! I hear the Mission Impossible music playing, the match is lit, and I better get busy!!!

    Thank you for your time and help! :)

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  4. Thank you, Janice, for all your suggestions, time, and wisdom!! I've got more work to do on this...

    I am grateful for all your help - you are amazing, and I'm so thankful for your University!!! Blessings! :)

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  5. Amre, I think is speaks volumes about your seriousness as a writer (and your fortitude!) that you're submitting your revision for another round of critique. I respect you greatly for that.

    Someone mentioned they thought it sounded middle grade; I'm not so sure about that. I think historical fiction, for whatever age it's meant, should be true to the age of the setting. I think you're on pretty firm ground on that.

    Your beginning would definitely pull me in, but then I'm an old softie for children in difficult situations.

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