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Saturday, February 20, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a Fantasy Short Story 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: Zero

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

This week’s questions:

1. Does it grab attention?

2. Would you want to read on?

3. Do the characters have personalities?

4. Does it work?

Market/Genre: Urban Fantasy Short Story

Note: This is a revised piece of a previous submission. Here’s the original for those who’d like to see how the author reworked it.

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

She stood up bravely, "Um, my name's Maria, and um…. And I want to know why wizards always have beards."

"That is an excellent question, young lady," Sam said as the fourth grader sat back on her blanket under the old elm. The cool breeze and smells of spring made it the perfect day to conduct his Sorcery Sensitivity Program outdoors.

"It is written, in the oldest of the ancient texts, that a true wizard must have a beard because it hides many facial expressions and inhibits lip reading. That makes it harder for an opponent to intercept the wizard's spells. Of course, these days, most sorcery is beneficial--few sorcerers or wizards seek to harm others. Instead, we practice what we call 'benign' magic. The biggest spells we cast help to avoid plagues, droughts, and famines--or sometimes just to have fun!

"I am letting my beard grow as I await promotion to Full Wizardry," he added, hiding a wince.

The teacher caught his eye with a hand gesture.

"Now, I'm afraid that it's about time for you to return to your classes," he said.

"Oh, please, Master Sam, just one more trick." The school kids clapped and clamored for an encore. "Pretty please!"

Sam struck his most dramatic pose. "Furiee sabiat goshone!" A gesture with his wand.

Instantly, a large white dove appeared over his left shoulder, crapped on his cape, and flew off into the clear azure sky. The children "yucked" and "eewed," and then laughed and waved as Ms. Mulford shepherded them toward their classroom.

As he cleaned the mess from his shoulder, Wizard Franklin approached.

"I trust that was not planned," the wizard said to Sam.

"I did it again" He looked around furtively. "This is so embarrassing! In front of all these kids! I wanted a treed bird—up there on that big limb there—but got a freed bird." Sam shook his head. "I know my chants are correct—they’ve worked for almost 6 years. It must be my focus—or lack thereof—that is causing these miss spells."

My Thoughts in Blue:

She [stood up bravely,] how exactly does someone do something “bravely?” What specifically is she doing? Head high? Shoulders squared? "Um, my name's Maria, and um…. And I want to know why wizards always have beards." Her dialogue suggests nervousness, not bravery, so perhaps use another word. Also, I don’t know if this is the opening or not, but it reads as if something came before it.

"That is an excellent question, young lady," Sam said as [the fourth grader] perhaps use this instead of “she” above to provide some context sat back on her blanket under the old elm. The cool breeze and smells of spring made it the perfect day to conduct his Sorcery Sensitivity Program outdoors.

"It is written, in the oldest of the ancient texts, that a [true wizard must have a beard] my first thought here is that means women can’t be sorcerers because it hides many facial expressions and inhibits lip reading. That makes it harder for an opponent to intercept the wizard's spells. Of course, these days, most sorcery is beneficial—few sorcerers or wizards seek to harm others. Instead, we practice what we call 'benign' magic. The biggest spells we cast help to avoid plagues, droughts, and famines—or sometimes just to have fun! This paragraph feels a little long and verging on infodump. Perhaps break into two? Let another kid ask something that lead here?

["I am letting my beard grow as I await promotion to Full Wizardry,"] perhaps have the girl ask him about his beard to prompt this answer he added, hiding a wince.

The teacher caught his eye with [a hand gesture.] Such as? Does she wave? Hold up a finger?

"Now, I'm afraid that it's about time for you to return to your classes," he said.

"Oh, please, Master Sam, just one more trick." The school kids clapped and clamored for an encore. "Pretty please!"

[Sam struck his most dramatic pose.] If he’s been having trouble with spells, then this is a good spot for him to become nervous and worry the spell might not work "Furiee sabiat goshone!" [A gesture with his wand.] tense is off here

Instantly, a large white dove appeared over his left shoulder, crapped on his cape, and flew off into the clear azure sky. The children "yucked" and "eewed," and [then laughed] perhaps add something internal from Sam here to show his reaction [and waved as Ms. Mulford shepherded them toward their classroom. ] Perhaps make this its own sentence

As [he] Perhaps use Sam so it doesn’t sound like Franklin was cleaning his shoulder cleaned the mess from his shoulder, [Wizard Franklin approached.] Perhaps something to show how Sam feels about another wizard seeing that?

"I trust that was not planned," the wizard said to Sam.

"I did it again" He looked around [furtively.] how does this look? What’s he doing? ["This is so embarrassing!] Perhaps show signs of this when it happens. In front of all these kids! I wanted a treed bird—up there on that big limb there—but got a freed bird." Sam shook his head. "I know my chants are correct—they’ve worked for almost 6 years. It must be my focus—or lack thereof—that is causing these miss spells." Sam’s dialogue verges on infodumps, because he says a lot in one large dump without promoting.

The Questions:

1. Does it grab attention?


Mostly (readers chime in). The setup is cute, and it gets to the issue fairly quickly and shows Sam has a problem. What’s lacking for me, is a sense of conflict and stakes. Sam seems more embarrassed than worried, and there’s nothing yet to suggest this is a bad thing for him.

Why is this a problem for Sam? What does this series of miss spells mean for him? Does he have a goal for this scene? Is he trying to make it through this presentation without miss spelling, and then he fails?

(Here’s more on Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

2. Would you want to read on?

I’d read on a bit longer to see where it went, but if there still wasn’t a larger sense of why this was bad and where the story was going, I’d probably stop. There’s nothing here that’s piquing my curiosity enough to carry an entire story yet, and no sense of urgency driving it forward.

But I think you can easily add that by showing more of Sam’s internal thoughts and letting readers see he’s worried, and this is bad in some way.

(Here’s more on 4 Reasons Readers Stopped Caring About Your Story)

3. Do the characters have personalities?

Not quite yet. There’s a bit of voice there, but Sam gives speeches more than holds conversations, and his dialogue feels just shy of infodumpy. But breaking it up and letting other characters prompt the information would fix that. For example, maybe another child asks about battle wizards, or if he’d ever fought another wizard, and that lets him talk about the modern uses of magic. And maybe someone asks about his beard so he can answer that he’s growing it.

As is, he answers Maria’s question, then goes on to share history about how magic works in this world. He does the same thing later when he talks to Franklin—he dumps a lot of info and never gives Franklin a chance to speak.

There’s also nothing internal from Sam to show his personality. He has no traits or even a description aside from a beard. Does he enjoy talking to the kids? Is his dramatic pose for their sake, or is this normal for wizards? His "most" dramatic pose suggests maybe he's hamming it up, but it's not super clear.

(Here’s more on Keeping Your Characters Compelling Beyond the First Draft)

4. Does it work?

Yes and no. I think the bones are good and could work if you added the tension and conflict to drive the story. The setup of a wizard who’s having trouble with his spells having to speak to kids is cute and has potential. He can worry if he’s going to miss spell again, and how embarrassing that would be, and how bad that would be for X reason.

(Here’s more on What You Need to Know About Internalization)

Overall, this is getting close. With a short story, there isn’t as much time to set up the conflict as a novel, so every paragraph has to do multiple things. This shows Sam has a problem, but not why it’s bad or how it will negatively affect him. Even if this is lighthearted and fun, he’ll have a real problem to deal with. What is that? If you get that larger issue in here even a little bit, then it’ll have the drive you want to pull readers in.

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 paranormal thriller series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.
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7 comments:

  1. I like the story and where it can go - that's 90% of it. I agree with Janice that short stories are very different in that they have far less time to work and everything needs to be focused and do double time. That being said, we really don't know much about the characters, which is one of the questions asked. The only one we are at all connected to is Sam and we have a little sympathy because of his missed spell but what is the bigger picture being drawn here? What does Sam want and who is going to be preventing that from happening? And why is he distracted?

    I was a little confused initially about who was who, not sure who Sam was in the beginning. That's easy enough to fix. I think some internal dialogue would help us see Sam's worries and set up the failed spell to land even better.

    Good point from Janice on the beard - what do the women have that is special? I'm sure you can find something!

    Who else is going to be the main character here - perhaps having that person(s) be more involved in this opening may help the information come out in a less obvious way.

    Beginnings are always hard, and always carry so much weight. In a lecture I recently participated in, the advisor suggested writing three or four openings for our piece, to see which one we liked and what came out of writing different ideas. I thought that was a great idea and it helped me revise one of my beginnings. Just a thought.

    Again - fun story -lots to work with - a little tweaking and you will be there - Good luck!

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  2. I would read this. I found Sam engaging and charming. The conflict about his miss spelling was enough for me to keep reading. Because it is a short story I assumed the importance of the miss spelling.
    It is working for me enough as it is to read a full short story. It feels like middle grade fiction at this point and a short story is a good idea for kiddos on the run.
    I agree largely with all of what Lynne and Janice have said except I would caution too much internal thought and feelings. You can show much in a short story by elevating the physical world. For instance instead of the brave fourth grader standing, describe her. What she is wearing how tall and in what manner does she stand. What is she standing from, a log, a bench, a cozy chair hauled outside by magic?
    The point of view also needed to be clearer. If Sam is the POV here, then he can see all of this about the first speaker and in so doing he can ground the reader in scene and character without us having to plod through much internal reckoning.
    As for the miss spell, also give that in detail. (I really got a kick out of the notion of miss spelling, btw.) Let the reader see the tree branch he aims for and the season by seeing the tree. Is it verdant or only bearing the lattice of branch without leaf?
    Let us see the dove or even some other bird if Sam is aiming for a dove. Maybe he inadvertently brings forth a chicken that pecks his ear and draws blood?
    Anyway thank you so much for posting. Bev

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  3. I'd agree, this is an interesting world and a fun place to begin (beards? I never know I always wanted to know that!), but that only goes so far.

    I think the key here is precision in the first lines. If Sam's conflict is mastering his magic, how fast can you get that in, and how can you weave this conversation around that? A start would be to begin with the beards question and then immediately contrast it with Sam's real thoughts, eg

    "Um, why do wizards always have beards?" asked a girl in the front row.
    *Beards? Some of us don't even have magic that works right--* Sam quashed that thought and tried to give the class the friendly answer they deserved.

    Or make one of the kids keep innocently pushing him about what magic he's done, or he worries Franklin will strand him here as a teacher instead of a real wizard. See how you can weave this point around the conversation so it's at least half of what's going on -- or adjust the conversation so it comes closer to the real subject from the start, before he tries his demonstration. That kind of efficiency is key to giving any story a first page that launches it, and it's triply important for a short story.

    A related part of this is, not only *can* Sam do proper magic but *why* he wants to. Of course we can sympathize with someone failing at his work, but we want there to be more than that for him. What particular good does he want to do, or fear does he have, or whatever else is involved? It's worth hinting at that within a few paragraphs too.

    Many authors brag about how their first line hints at the whole story to come. You don't have to be that insightful, but it's worth thinking how quickly you can show us what's really going on.

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  4. Thanks, all, for your helpful comments. I appreciate your time and knowledge.

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  5. P.S. Thanks to Maria D'Marco for the question!

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  6. Yay! I really enjoyed this version! I had trouble getting oriented in the last version, but this one fixed that. I also found it more engaging and would read more. I think if you do as some of the other commenters have suggested and add internalization that shows some of Sam's personality and why this matters, it will be perfect!

    One thing I enjoyed was that the fourth grader actually sounds like a fourth grader. One of my pet peeves is kids in stories who sound like adults. The point about her being brave made sense to me, as I think she was being brave in that she is speaking even though she is nervous. But I could see how someone else could see it differently.

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  7. Why do all wizards have beards? - because all wizards are men! Little do we know at this point that "Sam" is really "Samantha" and she's not likely to grow any sort of beard (we hope). With her now nervous of being found out, "Sam" messes up the last trick. Later on, the fun increases as Samantha casts a "grow beard" spell only to find that it won't stop growing.

    OK, not how I suspect the story will be unfolding but a fun vignette that could take us anywhere.

    Personally didn't like the double "um"s at the very beginning though that might just be me.

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