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Saturday, May 29, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Finding an Opening that Reflects the Novel

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: Five

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through July 3.

This week’s question:

1. Is this a good "hook" / book opening?

Market/Genre: YA Contemporary with Romantic Elements

On to the diagnosis…
 
Original Text:

Grayson Hicks wasn’t about to take the blame for Jessie Walker’s death. He wasn’t a murderer. That title was reserved for people who couldn’t control their emotions, people who lost control of their senses. Crazy people. If anything, he was entirely in control. Of everything. Always.

Yet that morning, a ferocious hiss of gossip linking him to Jessie’s demise had slithered through the hallways and had coiled around the huddled knots of stunned and mourning students. By noon, the reality of Jessie Walker’s death had struck everyone dumb, and the pervading silence they held when he passed still roared in his ears.

Now, as he sat in his white Acura with the matte-black hood and rumbling exhaust, a small part of his well-organized brain acknowledged that identifying the real culprit didn’t make Jessie Walker any less dead. Did it even matter now?

He glanced at his dashboard clock and mentally corrected its time.

3:05 p.m.

Waiting. Waiting. He pressed a button and all the windows whirred down. The air, too heavy and wet against his skin, sighed with the last green gasps only the end of September could muster. Everything was still so verdant and clinging and fragrant. Summer’s final, exhausted yawn. He didn’t remember enjoying any of it.

God, it’s hard to breathe.

“You’re late,” he said, as his best friend finally sank into the passenger seat.

Val grimaced. Her dark eyes roved their high school campus, following the students as they streamed through the parking lot, the name Jessie Walker still soft on their lips.

My Thoughts in Blue:

[Grayson Hicks wasn’t about to take the blame for Jessie Walker’s death.] Intriguing opening line He wasn’t a murderer. That title was reserved for people who couldn’t control their emotions, people who lost control of their senses. Crazy people. If anything, he was entirely in control. Of everything. Always.

[Yet that morning, a ferocious hiss of gossip linking him to Jessie’s demise] So far, I assume the book is about him proving her didn’t kill Jessie, since the focus is on that had [slithered through the hallways and had coiled around the huddled knots of stunned and mourning students.] nice By noon, the reality of Jessie Walker’s death had struck everyone dumb, and the [pervading silence they held when he passed still roared in his ears.] Nice. Love the silence roaring combo

Now, as he sat in his white Acura with the matte-black hood and rumbling exhaust, a small part of his well-organized brain acknowledged that [identifying the real culprit didn’t make Jessie Walker any less dead. Did it even matter now?] Makes me wonder if this is the conflict, and if so, is he going to do anything about it

[He glanced at his dashboard clock and mentally corrected its time.] Funny. Subtle hint that he’s not as in control as he thinks if he hasn’t reset the clock after the time changed.

3:05 p.m.

[Waiting. Waiting.] for what? He pressed a button and all the windows whirred down. The air, too heavy and wet against his skin, sighed with the last green gasps only the end of September could muster. Everything was still so verdant and clinging and fragrant. Summer’s final, exhausted yawn. He didn’t remember enjoying any of it.

[God, it’s hard to breathe.] It might be the Florida gal in me, but rolling down the windows when it’s hot and humid makes it harder to breathe, and you’d want to keep the windows up and run the air. But I suspect the breathing has nothing to do with the actual air and is another hint of his stress. Just stood out to me.

[“You’re late,”] Without knowing who he’s talking to, this is a bit jarring. Perhaps show Val getting there first he said, as his best friend finally sank into the passenger seat.

Val grimaced. Her dark eyes roved their high school campus, following the students as they streamed through the parking lot, the name Jessie Walker still soft on their lips.

The Question:

1. Is this a good "hook" / book opening?


This is going to be a tough critique for me, because the author sent in the cover blurb, which reflects a totally different book from this page. So I’m torn on how to comment. But here goes.

Yes, this hooks me. I love the writing, the voice, the clever turns of phrase. I’m hooked by the first line and I'm curious how this is going to affect Grayson and what he’s going to do about it. But this reads like the start of a murder mystery with Grayson as the amateur sleuth trying to clear his name and find Jessie’s killer, and I know that’s not the case. Jessie isn’t even mentioned in the cover blurb.

(Here's more with Query First? The Query as a Plotting Tool)

So…

No, it’s not working and this is a bad opening for this book (grin—you said be ruthless). This doesn’t match the blurb about Grayson struggling to subdue his emotions after a family trauma, and trying to balance his feelings for Val and deal with issues at home, all while trying to keep his grades up and win a scholarship. The blurb is just as well done as this page, but it’s for another book entirely (one that also hooked me, by the way).

I don’t know how Jessie’s death fits into the larger story, but since this page is so vastly different in plot and tone from the blurb, my gut says it’s not necessary to the story (unless there’s a lot more here I’m not seeing based on a blurb and page—which is quite possible).

(Here's more with 5 Common Problems With Beginnings)

I have questions about why the author chose to open with this, and how Jessie’s death fits into what the blurb covers. I’m not sure which is the true reflection of this novel’s conflict, though I suspect the blurb is. The author didn’t say it was a mystery, and they probably would have if that was the plot.

If my guesses are correct and Jessie’s death is just a device to get Grayson to the real conflict of the novel, I’d suggest cutting it. It sets the wrong expectations, and readers who bought the book for the blurb will wonder why this starts as a mystery. And vice versa if they read the opening page and bought it for the mystery. Although, you could keep this opening and just have Grayson as stunned as everyone else and not make him a possible murderer. It’s that aspect that makes me think this is a mystery.

If Jessie’s death is central to the conflict, then I’d suggest reworking the blurb to reflect that and give the right expectations at the start.

Overall, this is well done, and I’d read on. A few nits, but minor and they wouldn’t stop me from reading. The big issue is, is this the right opening for this novel, and without knowing more, I can't answer that.

(Here's more with The Line Forms Where? Knowing Where to Start Your Novel)

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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4 comments:

  1. Agreed, this and the blurb do sound like whole different books. This is so focused on the murder, especially the opening lines of "taking the blame" and "control", I saw this as Grayson teasing us that he's a cold-blooded killer who doesn't want to be caught. Killers often do get written that way. Or you could mean that he's innocent, or protecting someone else (since he says identifying the culprit won't make a difference), or a range of possibilities he's keeping us guessing about.

    Not the book Janice talks about at all. This opening is good at what it does, hooking us in to an initial conflict and a sense of the character -- but it's not picking a conflict and an impression that shows us what the book is, quite the opposite.

    If this is about family drama and pressure, the book has to start with that. It needs to pick factors and settings that point us in the real direction of the story. I'm not sure there even IS a way to mention Jessie on this page without it overpowering our sense of the actual story -- murders are tabloid fodder because they really are that distracting. And even if the chapter's half-over when Jessie is mentioned, you have to work hard to present it as only a bit connected to Grayson's life, and not the real plotline showing up late.

    So what is Grayson feeling at the right start of the story? What's important for him to *do* in that scene (even if it's a "get a glass of water") that serves as the right window to his issues, and gets us hooked on how that will work out in the next page?

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  2. The irony to all of this is I loved this opening. It reminded me of The Secret History by Donna Tart (that's a big compliment) - a school, a murder, a mystery. I'm in. I also liked that there wasn't a big info dump of backstory in the opening - just enough to make us intrigued. I also liked the voice - which is a great accomplishment.

    Since Grayson, Jessie and Val are on the first page, I am expecting them to be the major characters in the book. Since murderer is in the 2nd sentence, I'm expecting it to be a murder-mystery. Since it's in Grayson's POV and he's the first two words of the book, I'm expecting he's going to solve this mystery, but not without a lot of heartache, set backs, and trauma.

    Now, if that's not the story...Janice and Ken are right. Mission control we have a problem. The good news is you may have two entirely different books to write and that would be a great problem to have.

    Good luck! I'm rooting for the mystery -

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  3. I had thought this was a teacher, but now reading the feedback I think it's a student. I suppose I'd have to take my clue from where it was shelved. Despite that, it is a beautiful piece of writing and would hook me, definitely. All the best with your book. Teens need well-crafted writing like this.

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  4. Agree so much with the other comments. This is a WONDERFUL opening... for a different book. There was great characterisation and a tantalising mystery. I wondered if Grayson was the murderer, or just an innocent guy caught up in things because of others' prejudice. It reminded me of One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus. Yes, that extremely popular bestseller. I really do mean that one.

    But that certainly is not a YA contemporary family with romance story. It's a murder mystery.

    I agree with Ken that Jessie's murder could be too big for this book and need its own separate story. Can you find another, less intense problem for Grayson to deal with in the opening pages, one that relates to his family and relationship with Val? High school (I assume this is a high school setting since Grayson can drive) can be petty; you don't need to be suspected as a murderer to get damaging rumours flying around. Or, maybe Val doesn't turn up at the car and that's the moment he finally realises he likes her more than he should if they're just friends. Or he's finally decided to talk to her about exiting the friend zone when his sister/parent calls with some family drama he has to deal with, sabotaging his chances. So many dramatic possibilities!

    All the best with this and I... also want to read that murder mystery. Please?

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