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Saturday, May 01, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at the Importance of Clarity on the Opening 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: Two

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through May 15.

This week’s question:

1. Does this opening work?

Market/Genre: Young Adult

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: Following her mother’s death, Honey Grove discovers she can read people the way she always read fiction. The bookish teenager’s search for a missing classmate leads to discoveries about her own past and the world she completely misunderstood. Honey wishes she’d asked her mother about her adoption from a Russian orphanage. Either her grandmother doesn’t know the answers or she’d hiding something from Honey. It turns out everyone has a secret. Her grandmother’s wealthy client, Graham Brown, owns a tech company, but claims to be a magician. Sometimes when Honey reads him, she thinks he’s reading her, too.

"Honey Grove, I know you're in there!"

Allison's mother hollered again from outside our apartment.

At seven, Allison seriously outweighed her wheelchair. Last Halloween we ended up collecting a bunch of cheap candies that came jumbled up in those giant see-thru bags with lollipops, tootsie rolls and striped mints. Not like the full-size Snickers and M&M packages handed out in Blue Diamond, where my grandmother had a huge house.

I was in high school now. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was push Allison around the ground-floor apartments and then through the darkness of Green Tree's narrow streets. No sidewalks. Hardly any porch lights either. Just lots of cramped houses squished together like pieces of used-up gum.

By staying in bed, I hoped, Allison’s mother would go away. Instead, the screen door kept snapping open and shut. To distract myself I went back to my book from Honors English class, “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Besides my grandmother, I decided Atticus Finch was the best lawyer who ever lived. Except, of course, he didn't really live outside of McComb county. Which like Atticus and his daughter, Scout, would only exist inside Harper Lee's glorious mind if she were not a writer.

"Why didn't you answer the door? Look at me, when I'm talking to you."

I forgot my mom had given our weird neighbor a key.

I kept my eyes fixed on the page. There's nothing I like better than reading. Nothing bad ever happens when you're reading. All the bad things happen to other people.

I ignored Allison’s mother. Maybe if someone told me I’d never see her again, I’d have been nicer. But probably not.

My Thoughts in Blue:

"Honey Grove, I know you're in there!"

[Allison's mother hollered again from outside our apartment.] Perhaps put this after the dialogue so readers know right away who’s speaking, and to ground readers to the setting

[At seven, Allison seriously outweighed her wheelchair.] How does this connect to the opening line? Last Halloween we ended up collecting a bunch of cheap candies that came jumbled up in those giant see-thru bags with lollipops, tootsie rolls and striped mints. Not like the full-size Snickers and M&M packages handed out in Blue Diamond, where my grandmother had a huge house. Is this saying Allison is overweight because of this? And what does that have to do with her mother hollering outside the apartment?

[I was in high school now. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was push Allison around the ground-floor apartments and then through the darkness of Green Tree's narrow streets.] This makes the narrator seem a bit unlikable No sidewalks. Hardly any porch lights either. Just lots of cramped houses squished together like pieces of used-up gum.

[By staying in bed, I hoped, Allison’s mother would go away.] Confusing.  [Instead, the screen door kept snapping open and shut.] She can tell this from her bed?  [To distract myself] From what? [I went back to my book from Honors English class] I thought she had just woken up To Kill A Mockingbird. Besides my grandmother, I decided Atticus Finch was the best lawyer who ever lived. Except, of course, he didn't really live outside of McComb county. Which like Atticus and his daughter, Scout, would only exist inside Harper Lee's glorious mind if she were not a writer. There's a lot that doesn't line up in this paragraph 

["Why didn't you answer the door? Look at me, when I'm talking to you."] I never see her open the door. Is this still Allison’s mom? Why is she inside Honey’s house?

I forgot my mom had given our weird neighbor a key.

I kept my eyes fixed on the page. There's nothing I like better than reading. Nothing bad ever happens when you're reading. All the bad things happen to other people.

[I ignored Allison’s mother.] This is clear by her keeping her eyes on the page Maybe if someone told me I’d never see her again, I’d have been nicer. But probably not.

The Question:

1. Does this opening work?


Not yet (readers chime in). I suspect there’s a lot that’s not making it to the page, so I’m confused instead of intrigued. It took me several reads to figure out what might be going on. The bones aren't bad, but it took too much effort to parse things together.

Let’s break this down and dig in a little deeper than my inline comments above:
"Honey Grove, I know you're in there!"
Starting with dialogue is always tricky, because readers have no context for what they’re “hearing.” I don’t know who’s speaking, where they are, where Honey is. I don’t know why this person is looking for Honey, and while that has a teeny bit of mystery to it, it’s not enough to make me intrigued.

(Here’s more with Writing Dialogue: 4 Ways to Avoid Floating Head Syndrome!)
Allison's mother hollered again from outside our apartment.
Since this isn’t a tag for the opening line, I don’t know for sure if this is the person who just spoke or not. I gather it is, but was the opening line the first or the “again” time she hollered? And where is “outside the apartment?” At the door, by a window, three floors down? There’s not enough context for me to visualize the scene. 
At seven, Allison seriously outweighed her wheelchair.
I don’t know who Allison is, or why she or her weight are being introduced. I’m trying to figure out how outweighing her wheelchair and hiding from her mother are connected to Honey, or the hollering.
Last Halloween we ended up collecting a bunch of cheap candies that came jumbled up in those giant see-thru bags with lollipops, tootsie rolls and striped mints. Not like the full-size Snickers and M&M packages handed out in Blue Diamond, where my grandmother had a huge house.
This seems like it's meant to explain Allison’s weight, but I don’t know why that matters to Honey being “in there.” It also makes the narrator seem mean, picking in a poor kid for being overweight.

(Here’s more with 3 Steps to Ground Readers in Your Story World)
I was in high school now.
This has no context because I don’t know how “now” relates to anything else I’ve read. Was she not in high school last Halloween? That’s the only time frame mentioned.
The last thing in the world I wanted to do was push Allison around the ground-floor apartments and then through the darkness of Green Tree's narrow streets. No sidewalks. Hardly any porch lights either. Just lots of cramped houses squished together like pieces of used-up gum.
Things start to make a little sense now, but it took several reads to figure it out. I suspect Allison’s mother is trying to get Honey to take Allison trick or treating, and Honey doesn’t want to do it. Right now, her reasons seem a bit mean though, and that makes her unlikable. 
By staying in bed, I hoped, Allison’s mother would go away. Instead, the screen door kept snapping open and shut.
These sentences aren’t lining up. It reads like Honey hoped if she stayed in bed, Allison’s mother would go away, but instead, by staying in bed, the screen door kept opening. What I suspect this is trying to say is, “I stayed in bed, hoping Allison’s mother would go away. But she kept opening and closing the screen door.” There’s still confusion about why she’s doing that to the door, but I think that’s the action you’re trying to convey.

(Here’s more with Why You Should Tighten Your Novel's Narrative Focus)
To distract myself I went back to my book from Honors English class, To Kill A Mockingbird.
She just said she was staying in bed, so the jump to her reading threw me. She could easily be reading in bed, but “staying in bed” suggested she hadn’t gotten up yet, and without anything else to provide context, that’s where my mind went. I also don’t get what she’s trying to distract herself from. Maybe Allison’s mom, but “distract” implies her mind is going to something she doesn't want to think about, and that's not what she's doing.
Besides my grandmother, I decided Atticus Finch was the best lawyer who ever lived.
Another shift in topic, and I don’t know what this has to do with anything I’ve read so far. Perhaps Honey is trying hard to read or study, and Allison’s mom keeps interrupting her to get her to do something she doesn’t want to do. But that’s not clear.
Except, of course, he didn't really live outside of McComb county. Which like Atticus and his daughter, Scout, would only exist inside Harper Lee's glorious mind if she were not a writer.
There are a lot of clarity problems with these sentences. It’s been a long time since I read To Kill A Mockingbird, so I don’t know if McComb county is part of the book or not. And does Honey mean McComb county would only exist if Harper Lee wasn’t a writer? Or would the characters only exist? Except what I suspect you mean, is that "they all only exist in the mind of the writer, Harper Lee." 
"Why didn't you answer the door? Look at me, when I'm talking to you."
Another line of dialogue with no tag or context. Nothing tells me Allison’s mom came inside, so this comes out of the blue. It’s also not clear who’s speaking or where they are.
I forgot my mom had given our weird neighbor a key.
This is a strange reaction when someone appears in, I assume, your room.
I kept my eyes fixed on the page. There's nothing I like better than reading. Nothing bad ever happens when you're reading. All the bad things happen to other people.
Honey is clearly ignoring Allison’s mom, but I don’t know why aside from the trick or treating thing (which is just a guess). I also don’t understand why it’s important to tell readers reading is so important to her, as it doesn’t seem to matter to the scene (unless she’s unhappy about being interrupted, but she never says that). "Nothing bad happens when you’re reading" comes out of the blue, and I have no context for why she says this now. Is she expecting something bad to happen? Is she scared of Allison’s mom? She doesn't seem scared, just annoyed.
I ignored Allison’s mother. Maybe if someone told me I’d never see her again, I’d have been nicer. But probably not.
I don’t know what Honey wants, aside to be left alone to read, or why she isn’t responding to her at all. She isn’t even trying to get her to leave. And her admitting she wouldn't be nice is another hit to her likability. Allison's mom isn't very nice either, but for all I know, Honey's attitude is what's causing her behavior. I've already seen Honey be mean to a little girl, so she doesn't have any "nice" credibility built up. 

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

I can see bits and pieces of things in this opening page, but there’s no clear narrative yet to make me curious enough to work for the details. There’s some conflict, but without a sense of who Honey is and why she doesn’t want to help Allison’s mom (that isn’t mean), I’m not drawn into her life or problem. She doesn’t even seem to care about her problem, so why should readers?

I’d suggest stepping back and thinking about what you’re trying to show with this opening. All of this is clear to you as the author, but new readers don’t have your knowledge, so they'll get lost. Tighten your narrative focus so things move clearly and logically from one thought to the next. Give readers a few more details about who these people are, where they are, what they’re doing, and why it matters.

Overall, this feels like a clarity issue more than anything else. I’m just not getting enough information to understand what I’m reading without working for it, but if things were clearer, it might have the right hooks to pull readers into the story. I doubt it would take much to fix this--add a few lines here and there to provide the context, tag the dialogue, and add a few key details, and it would probably clear it right up.

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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8 comments:

  1. I agree, this isn't set up as well as it wants to be. The idea of a teenage girl who chooses reading over helping a pushy neighbor is a good start, but this isn't coming across well... although there's a reason it could.

    I have to say, there's a lot of rich detail in this scene. Alison and her trick-or-treating experience seem very real, and Honey's love of the book comes through. Janice has a lot to say about making these clearer and easier to follow, but I do like the sheer grasp of detail that produced them.

    But, it's HARD to make a first scene about not helping someone in a wheelchair, period. Yes it's "not helping" and drawing boundaries rather than trying to be mean to Alison, but it's still aiming the laser pointer of that first scene at a wheelchair and a protagonist on the wrong side of that moment. You can lose readers right there, and it's hard to see how the choice will help you with any readers who stay.

    Is Alison's wheelchair necessary? If she's just an ordinary kid, it's easier to understand Honey saying no, and then the mother's demands do make Honey sympathetic. The same's true if the mother isn't asking Honey for trick-or-treating help and she seems to be acting weird for her own reasons. That might not even be what the mother wanted at all -- but since the candy route is what you talk about first, we assume that's what this is about, and so we blame Honey.

    Another method would be to mention the mother's death/disappearance from the start. That would still put Honey in the same ugly starting position but keep it in the shadow of something much bigger, and just saying it implies from the start that she'll take right side when it matters. (Then how Honey treated them becomes darkly ironic, and might be just what you're going for -- if we got that full context sooner.) It also has the benefit most stories gain by mentioning their larger conflict in the first lines: some stories can just use the immediate clarity about where they're going.

    Alison and her mother are pretty much the only things I can comment on here, because they're the only things in this page besides Honey's love of a familiar book. From the summary this seems like an exciting, multilayered novel with a lot going on, and it may be that this section simply ended before it showed how it connected to one of those threads.

    You do make this moment feel real. I wish I knew how it led into the story itself, and that it managed its impressions to suit that.

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  2. It seems this opening is trying to get us to the last sentence - that someone is going to go missing, die, or have something else happen to them. I would ask why is this important? Is this the hook/inciting incident that will drive the story?

    If Allisons' mother disappearing is the inciting incident (or is it Allison?) then I would think perhaps it's landing too soon, as we are not yet grounded in the story. With so much information thrown out on the first page, it becomes confusing. What I would like to know on this first page is something about Honey, where we are, why is a neighbor yelling for her, who is home with Honey...

    The Halloween scene doesn't seem to connect with anything else here. The way Honey talks about wheeling Allison about does make her seem mean - we want our readers to connect and to follow our protagonist - think how this opening addresses those two objectives.

    Looking at the summary (which a reader would not know when the open the book) it has a lot of things going on. I'm wondering if narrowing it down to what would appear on a book cover might give the opening and the story more clarity.

    The first page needs to grab the readers attention, but it also needs to ground the reader - make them curious enough to want to follow the protagonist on a journey. Thinking about that might help shift and focus this opening piece.

    Openings take a long time to perfect, many authors write multiple ones trying to decide which works best. With some more tries and flushing out your story, I am sure you will land upon an opening that hooks the reader and gives your book a great start. Good luck!

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  3. First of all, I liked the writing style. Good word flow and voice. However, I agree about all the "scene" jumping which is distracting because we're trying to tie everything together in our minds, but have little context with which to do so.

    Some other little "nit-pick" items not mentioned: I've gotten the impression Honey lives in an apartment, so saying Allison's mom kept banging the screen door threw me off. Also, when she enters, she talks to Honey like an angered parent, not a neighbor who wants help with her daughter. Even if she's annoyed with Honey, she seems too nasty.

    Would it make sense to start the book with Honey "reading" someone? That would pull us in...then maybe we could get back to how she discovered this gift. I'm not sure this opening scene would grab a YA to continue reading.

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  4. What if you started with "There's nothing I like better than reading. Nothing bad ever happens when you're reading. All the bad things happen to other people"...and then let the world intrude? That sentence has a real voice, and it makes me wonder about her, what happened to her? What is she avoiding with her nose in a book (which is how I survived my childhood, so I can relate!)? Instant empathy. I agree with the other commenters that the story you described sounds intriguing but the opening is confusing. I didn't get "At seven, Allison outweighed..." My initial impression was you meant 7:00, a time cue,not the child's age, so I had a --wait, what?-- interuption.I lie that you have strong women characters.
    Keep going! I want to know what happens.

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  5. Many thanks to Janice and her wonderful writing community. I will make changes. Good suggestions to either start with "There's nothing I like better than reading. . . ." OR the mother's death. As you can see, I've struggled with the opening of this book. I think the rest flows well. In fact, there is an agent full request for this book.

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  7. There were some good lines in here, like the one about reading (relatable!) But, like some of the other commenters, I was really put off by the way Allison gets described and the selfish reasons Honey has for not helping her. It makes Honey quite unlikeable. On the very first page, this is unfortunately going to lead to DNFs.

    I'm guessing you put in the stuff about Allison because you need a reason for Honey to refuse Allison's mother. In which case, this is easy to fix. If something tragic has just happened to Honey and she's grieving, that would help us feel more sympathetic to her refusal to leave her room. (But we'd need to know this up front before anything else happens.) Alternatively, Honey could have some good reasons for refusing Allison's mother's request: you hinted she doesn't feel safe outside (lack of sidewalks, darkness) so maybe she doesn't want to put Allison in danger (which would add nice foreshadowing if Allison's mother is about to have Very Bad Things happen to her); Honey's reading a school book so maybe she has a test tomorrow to study for; since it's Halloween and she's in high school she could have already promised she'd meet a friend later, be getting ready for a party, etc. Reasons like these would make me sympathise with Honey and make Allison's mother come across as unreasonable. This would make Honey much more likeable and add tension as we'd wonder if she's going to be roped into something dangerous/undesirable/damaging to her studies/friendships.

    How exciting that you got a full request! I hope this goes really well for you. All the best!

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  8. Sasha Anderson5/02/2021 4:23 AM

    "Which like Atticus and his daughter, Scout, would only exist inside Harper Lee's glorious mind if she were not a writer."

    Here's how I interpreted this: If Harper Lee were not a writer, these characters would only exist in her own head. Since she was a writer, the characters also exist in the heads of everyone who reads the book.

    But I agree: clarity issues throughout.

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