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Saturday, May 15, 2021

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

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through June 19.

This week’s questions:

1. Is this a good opening scene? Would you pay to read on, if this were a genre you liked?

2. Is Prentice (the MC) likeable? Can you empathize with her?

3. Are the stakes big enough for a YA novel?

4. Prentice's family is Chinese/British and they live in the UK. Is this setting clear or confusing? (Might I need to say they're in London, for example.)

5. Is there too much information in this scene for the reader to process?

6. Is the voice right for YA?

Market/Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: I wanted this scene to set up the main conflict of the novel, which is whether/how my magic school scholarship student MC (Prentice) can go on a once-in-a-lifetime school trip her family can't afford. The trip is important to her for several reasons; the deepest is that she wants to conceal to her exclusive boarding school schoolfriends the fact she's not rich like them. She assumes if her friends discover her secret, they'll ditch her. I don't want to reveal everything in the opening scene (it would be too much) but I hope the MC's urgency comes across enough to make the reader care.

“You aren’t going on that trip, Prentice,” Mum says. “That’s my final word.” She marches out and slams my door.

I bellyflop into bed and stamp the wall. Argh! This can’t be happening. I’ve been looking forward to visiting Dreampeaks since I started Mistybanks Magical Secondary last year. Dreampeaks isn’t only a magical adventure park on top of some Swiss Alp. It’s The Place Everything Happens. It’s the first time magic is allowed outside school. It’s the thing people remember forever.

My life is over.

If I don’t go on that trip, not even Ruth is going to stay friends with me.

I turn and kick the wall again. It doesn’t help.

There must be a way I can convince Mum and Dad it’s worth this much money. I mean, I know it’s expensive. And I know we’ve moved in with Yeye and Nainai – again – because Mum and Dad’s estate agency business isn’t going well. But this is important.

Yeye and Nainai! I bet they’d get me the ticket. They’d never turn down a grand-daughter in distress.

I spring up and head into our cramped open-plan living room/kitchen/diner/laundry. Yeye is at the glass-topped table, watching a card game on TV and eating sunflower seeds. Nainai is busy stirring chicken wings into marinade with a long pair of chopsticks. Her phone's in her free hand; she's shouting into it in Subei dialect (which must mean she’s talking to my great-aunt in China). I assume this phone call is the reason Mum’s disappeared: she’s a little sensitive to noise.

It’s a bad time. But this can’t wait. I’m going back to school tomorrow.

My Thoughts in Blue:

“You aren’t going on that trip, Prentice,” [Mum says.] You might add a detail/action here to help establish the setting and/or character “That’s my final word.” She marches out and slams my door.

I bellyflop [into] onto, as into implies she’s under the covers bed and [stamp the wall.] hard to imagine stamping when she’s on her belly, not her back. It’s also a good spot to add a detail that shows her room or her personality some Argh! This can’t be happening. I’ve been looking forward to visiting [Dreampeaks] feels like this needs an extra word for context since I started Mistybanks Magical Secondary last year. Dreampeaks isn’t only [a magical adventure park on top of some Swiss Alp.] Ah, perhaps add “Park” above It’s [The Place Everything Happens] is this her opinion or their slogan?. [It’s the first time magic is allowed outside school. It’s the thing people remember forever.] I’m a bit confused here, as it seems like there are several ideas going on and I’m not sure how they’re connected. I get the sense there’s more here, and that might show readers why this matters so much to both Prentice, and the plot.

[My life is over.

If I don’t go on that trip, not even Ruth is going to stay friends with me.
] Perhaps flip these so readers understand why her life is over before she says it. It’s also a good spot to give a hint why.

I [turn] roll over is clearer and kick the wall again. It doesn’t help.

There must be a way I can convince Mum and Dad it’s worth this much money. I mean, I know it’s expensive. And I know we’ve moved in with Yeye and Nainai – again – because Mum and Dad’s estate agency business isn’t going well. [But this is important.] Why? I don’t yet know if it is, or if this is a teen wanting her way. Without some hint, this is coming across as either whining, or the author holding back

[Yeye and Nainai!] Perhaps a physical action associated with this, such as a jerking upright, or a gasp. I bet they’d get me the ticket. They’d never turn down a grand-daughter in distress.

I spring up and [head] perhaps a stronger verb into our cramped open-plan living room/kitchen/diner/laundry. Yeye is at the glass-topped table, watching a card game on TV and eating sunflower seeds. Nainai is busy stirring chicken wings into marinade with a long pair of chopsticks. Her phone's in her free hand; she's shouting into it in Subei dialect (which must mean she’s talking to my great-aunt in China). I assume this phone call is the reason Mum’s disappeared: she’s a little sensitive to noise.

It’s a bad time. But this can’t wait. I’m going back to [school tomorrow.] feels like this needs an extra beat that shows why, but maybe it’s in the actual text.

The Questions:

1. Is this a good opening scene? Would you pay to read on, if this were a genre you liked?


Yes and no (readers chime in). If the cover copy grabbed me, I would, but you said above that the main conflict is her trying to go to a theme park she can’t afford, and hiding the fact that she’s not well off from her friends. That’s not a conflict that interests me, so I wouldn’t read on. But that’s me, and that has nothing to do with your book.

This conflict is a common YA trope (not a bad thing), but I don’t see anything “fantasy” about it. If I pick up a fantasy, I want the fantasy tropes—the magic, the dire conflicts connected to that magic, the wondrous world around a magical society—and I don’t see any of that here. The conflict doesn’t appear to stem from the magic side, and I don’t see what’s magical about Prentice. If you replaced the word Dreampeaks with Disney, the scene unfolds exactly the same, minus the references to magic (which are just references right now, as they don't do anything).

Objectively, Prentice is a kid who wants to go on this trip, is sure her future and friendships depend on it, and it obviously means a lot to her. Teens will relate to parents who can’t afford to give them things they want. She’s acting to solve her problem and has reasons for doing so, even if those reasons aren’t clear enough to understand why this all matters yet.

The bones are good, and I think it will appeal to readers who like this trope, but it can also be stronger to add the fantasy-world side and give a better sense of the stakes and Prentice’s motivation. There's nothing yet for the fantasy readers to latch onto.

I’d suggest adding a few details to get the larger world and fantasy elements in here. You don’t have to do a ton of description or infodumping, but a bit more would help readers understand this world and Prentice’s problem better.

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

2. Is Prentice (the MC) likable? Can you empathize with her?

I empathize with her, but I don’t yet like her because I don’t understand why this matters. She knows her parents can’t afford this trip, but she wants it anyway, and without knowing why, she comes across a little selfish. I don’t dislike her, and I think teens will relate to her more than an adult (even one who reads and writes YA).

I’d suggest making it clearer why she’s willing to push so hard to go on this trip, and be specific about what she’s going to lose if she doesn’t. She does recognize that she’s asking a lot, but without knowing why, it doesn’t come across as regretful, just selfish. “I know we can’t afford it but I want it anyway.” You might also look for a spot to have her do something nice (and selfless) to show she’s a good person, which will help offset that.

(Here’s more with The Triangle of Likability: How to Make Your Characters Come Alive)

3. Are the stakes big enough for a YA novel?

For the whole novel, no. Not fitting in and losing friends is more a middle grade conflict, and YA—especially YA fantasy—is typically much bigger and life-threatening. YA fantasy teens save the world and face death.

For an opening scene, yes, if readers know why this is so important and what’s at stake. They’ll assume this trip will get Prentice in trouble and she’ll find the real plot conflict at the park.

If there’s another conflict tied to the plot, and this "go to the park/friends" conflict is part of the character arc for Prentice, it could be enough for that side of the story. But if the entire conflict is whether or not she goes on this trip, that’s not enough, based on what I know about the novel. There doesn’t appear to be any way for those stakes to escalate over the course of the novel, and if she fails, so what? (from a plotting standpoint).

(Here’s more with Three Questions to Get to the Heart of Your Story)

4. Prentice's family is Chinese/British and they live in the UK. Is this setting clear or confusing? (Might I need to say they're in London, for example.)

I got the British from “Mum” and the Chinese from her grandmothers’ names, but there aren’t any other distinctive setting details in this opening page. I don’t know what the (I assume) flat looks like, what her room looks like, or what any of the people look like.

There are places where you can add those, and I’d suggest dropping in a word here and there to help readers see the setting and these characters. For example, maybe a detail or two about Mum in the opening line, or have something that characterizes Prentice fall off the wall when she kicks it, or she picks up her magical-i-pad and looks at the website for Dreampeaks. Use the character’s interaction with their world to show details about that world.

(Here’s more with Is Your Description Helping Your Story or Holding it Back?)

5. Is there too much information in this scene for the reader to process?

Not to me (readers chime in). But those details are mostly generic, so they didn’t tell me anything about this world or these characters. I did want more information, but not in a “hooked to read on” way, but in a “I don’t yet understand” way.

Adding in a few details would fix this, and you have room to flesh this out.

(Here’s more with 3 Steps to Ground Readers in Your Story World)

6. Is the voice right for YA?

Yes. Prentice sounds like a teen, the worldview is from a teen, and it reads like a YA novel.

(Here’s more with How to Write With a Teen Voice)

Overall, this is working, but it’s missing those little details that really grab a reader (and take it from good to great). Luckily, those aren’t hard to add, and there are good spots in this to tweak and raise it up that extra level to hook readers. My biggest concern, is that the core conflict and stakes might not be enough for a YA fantasy. If there’s nothing else in the novel but the conflict mentioned here, you’d probably want to rethink it and look for ways to further develop that.

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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6 comments:

  1. I like this a lot. It really does feel YA, it drops us into a very particular family and makes everything about it come out naturally, and there's no question it's fun.

    I see what Janice means about the need for stakes here. I have a picture of Dreampeaks as a real rite of passage for magic students, a place that's just safe enough to use their magic in a larger setting. (And the idea itself is Harry Potter-familiar, with its restrictions.) So you could do more to capture just how thrilling that sounds to her, both in its own right (she could feel constricted sitting at home denied her magic) and amplified by how it's a social thrill that's meant to be shared.

    As to how you add Ruth to that: I actually like your first saying "my life is over" and then adding Ruth with no explanation -- if you want the idea of richer friends to be something you're working up to explaining. As it is, it feels like a natural jumble of frustrations that you can separate out a few pages later, if you're sure you make her general interest in the trip seem like it's enough for now. But you do want to be sure that's enough sympathy to carry the story for those pages, and if you have any doubts about that you could make those lines more about a bit of detail with Ruth, maybe "Worse, if Ruth finds out... my life is over" or go further right then.

    This is a passage where I feel like I know more of the mood and the setting than I really do. That means I'm nicely involved here, but it also means there's room for you to pick a few key details here and there that could really bring the place to life. Especially, what can capture Prentice's mood right now and really hook us with that? Some cheerful homey touch that just isn't enough right now, and/or bothers her because it's so shabby? A memento from Ruth to show how much she needs her friend? A sign of Prentice's magic, or maybe of the frustration of not being allowed *any magic at all* outside of class -- plus this one escape she can't get to?

    This has great heart and a lot of texture to it. What can you do to make that core clearer and more compelling?

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  2. This felt a little more MG to me- but perhaps, like Janice said, the stakes did not feel that important-something she wants, but not must do. Kicking the wall seemed something I would see more in MG as well as saying, "My life is over." There needs to be bigger stakes for that statement.

    I also felt like there was a lot of telling in this opening--I'm wondering if that couldn't be easily fixed with the mother explaining why she couldn't go and in that dialogue could come out about the finances. The mother seemed particularly mean to me, not that slamming doors on teenagers is that unusual, but I would think that the overall feeling the mother is having is guilt or regret that she can't send her daughter on this trip - how can that be shown?

    I'm not connected to the protagonist...yet. I want bigger stakes why she must go on this trip - those stakes have the ability for us to "see" her better and perhaps even root for her. I always go to the questions - what does my protagonist want - why is it important they get it - what is stopping them - what changes that puts the story in motion?

    Letting us see something Prentice does that endears us to her would help here - right now what we are seeing is too surface to really connect her to the reader. Instead of slamming her feet into walls, perhaps she is counting every cent she has, even emptying the piggy bank she swore she would never touch and still coming up short. In that scene, we can relate to her - because we have all been a dollar short for something we really want. And we can relate because she is trying to solve the problem herself, rather than being "bratty" and banging things. Also, if she is ten pounds short of the trip, we can now see her calculating how she can make up that difference. This gives the "agency of action" to the character, not her totally relying on her mother/grandparents, even though she may need to come up with some smart ideas to make up the difference between what she has and what she needs. Also, last point, in this scenario we also can see how much she wants to go.

    Just some suggestions - good luck - we all want to follow Prentice on this great adventure!

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  3. Hi everyone! Thanks so much for your comments and especially to Janice for the really great critique! All your comments are extremely helpful. Thank you for spending time on this. I can completely see how Prentice might come across as bratty. I'm going to work hard to fix that, and add some touches of personality to make her more relatable, with a few more details on the setting to ground readers. (On the next page, she helps her mum unload shopping and you see her Mum's sad they can't afford the ticket. But like you say, I need readers to actually turn the page to get there, and a bratty MC and a book which isn't living up to its magical premise isn't going to help.)

    Where am I going with this book's conflict? As Ken guessed, the trip is a magical rite of passage which Prentice "can't miss", but her non-magical family think is just a school trip. So she *has* to get money from somewhere... Cue questionable decisions! Basically, Prentice gets herself entangled in a magical money-making scheme. That leads to a rapid escalation of stakes. (And magical mayhem, of course.)

    As for market: I was wanting this to be fairly light/humorous, kind of like “Geek Girl goes to Hogwarts”. Also, I was aiming for the gap between MG and YA, where readers are wanting stories with older characters and fewer hamsters but aren't ready for Sarah J Maas just yet. (And I'm hazarding a guess not everyone feels like really high stakes stories right now. But that could just be me.) This might be a poor assessment of the market. Let me know what you think if you have experience!

    Once again, thanks everyone so much for the comments! This community is really great.

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    Replies
    1. You're most welcome, and I'm glad you found it helpful. That gap is called "Upper Middle Grade" in the 10-14 age range. My trilogy is upper MG, with a 15 year old protagonist, for reference. If you wanted a younger YA, then a 14 or 15 year old protagonist usually signals that. Anything 16+ tends to lean older (for first books--some series have kids age up in the series and still be MG, such as Harry Potter).

      It might also help position this to know the age of the protagonist right away. I assumed an older teen, since it was boarding school, and I don't know what grades "secondary school" is. Had I known Prentice was, say, 14 this would have read differently.

      Sounds like you do have a fantasy-related conflict with escalating stakes, so yes, this problem for the opening scene is high enough stakes, as it leads to bigger ones.

      Some readers want high stakes, some want low. Horror sales have actually been way up since the pandemic. Studies have shown that reading scary books eases stress for a lot of kids, since they have a place to focus those fears and deal with them in a safe space. It helps them process. Not that you need to go dark, as light books as still being read.

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    2. Thanks Janice, that's really helpful to finally know what to call that age range! Prentice is 15 (I know kids like to read about characters slightly older than them; I was hoping 15 wasn't too old and it's great to have that confirmed). I'm really glad the stakes are high enough. I'm enjoying writing this and it's a big encouragement to see it has enough going for it to continue with the process.

      Yeah, horror... would give me nightmares writing! (I've tried. It wasn't pretty.) But that's some fascinating research. I'm glad it helps those kids.

      Thanks again for all your help, it's been so useful to get a knowledgeable critique. Plus, an awesome bonus to have my questions answered, particularly as you are so familiar with the market for that age range. Thank you!

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    3. You're most welcome. Just a nice bit of luck I happened to write in that market :)

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