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Saturday, May 22, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Piquing Reader Curiosity on the First Page

Critique by Maria D'Marco

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: Six

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

This week’s questions:

1. Does this piece provide enough information to make you care?

2. How's the voice? Do you get a sense of the character's personality?

3. Would you read on?

4. Would it throw you when later it is revealed that this character is the villain?

Market/Genre: YA Fantasy

On to the diagnosis…
 
Original Text:

The guy I've admired got me killed. No, not quite correct. The only thing he did that related to my doom was winning our duel. He wasn't the one chasing me in the mines later, and he wasn't to blame for my own misstep there either. Let me start over.

If I were to relive my life, I'd still choose to become a duelist. I'd still feel a tiny bit bad because Grandpa had tried so hard to keep me out of the dueling world, but, honestly, to survive in this place full of duel gangs, I needed something that at least gave me a fighting chance. Being a duelist meant being in control, free. Probably part of the reason why I've been attracted to that guy.

I didn't expect him to realize I faced him, and he didn't. We only met once three years ago, in that gray, run-down town. I even made up a name off the top of my head so I'd be able to introduce myself. All my seventeen-year life, Malcolm and his Red Scarves called me "Hey", "Girl", "You", sometimes a mix of those. I'd asked Grandpa to give me a name, but he'd always refused—a word's a word, as he used to say. Mother and Father had insisted on picking it themselves. Then they went and crashed their Wheel shortly after I was born, and died.

At least that's what people said. In this town such rumours were as common as sand corns in the surrounding desert. People also said Grandpa cut some kind of special deal with Malcolm so I wouldn't end up a digger, which would've explained why he'd mostly been "working in the mountains" and why I'd started wiping the ever-smudged wooden floor of Malcolm's bar as soon as I turned three. Squeezing through criminal-marked men twisted my stomach, especially in the evening when that hellhole reeked of sweat and beer. Took me a while to learn to keep my mouth shut, though. Whenever I'd complained, Grandpa would give me his troubled gaze or his somewhat frustrated sigh.

"A life fettered, a bird caged," he'd sometimes murmur, shaking his head.

I became one of the blasted Red Scarves when I was around five. Grandpa didn't come home one night—he took dinner quite seriously, so I got this unpleasant shiver creeping over me that screamed something must've gone wrong. Malcolm might or might not be behind it; I haven't tried to find out. Nothing would've changed.

The next day, I made my first step towards my doom.

[continues with Malcolm and the Red Scarves coming to "claim" her]

My Thoughts in Blue:

The guy I've admired got me killed. No, not quite correct. The only thing he did that related to my doom was winning our duel. [loser dies in a duel, right?] He wasn't the one chasing me in the mines later [so, after duel, not dead?], and he wasn't to blame for my own misstep there either. Let me start over. [confused, but happy to learn more…] *grin*

If I were to relive my life, I'd still choose to become a duelist. I'd still feel a tiny bit bad because Grandpa had tried so hard to keep me out of the dueling world, but, honestly, to survive in this place full of duel gangs, I needed something [wondering what that ‘something’ is] that at least gave me a fighting chance. Being a duelist meant being in control, free. Probably part of the reason why I've been attracted to that guy. [another duelist? the one who got you killed?]

I didn't expect him to realize I faced him, and he didn't. [was there a disguise involved?] We only met once three years ago, in that gray, run-down town. I even made up a name off the top of my head so I'd be able to introduce myself. All my seventeen-year life, Malcolm [is Malcolm that ‘guy’?] and his Red Scarves called me "Hey", "Girl", "You", sometimes a mix of those. I'd asked Grandpa to give me a name, but he'd always refused—a word's a word, as he used to say. Mother and Father had insisted on picking it themselves. Then they went and crashed their Wheel [this makes me curious about this world] shortly after I was born, and died.

At least that's what people said. In this town such rumours were as common as sand corns in the surrounding desert. People also said Grandpa cut some kind of special deal with Malcolm so I wouldn't end up a digger, which would've explained why he'd mostly been "working in the mountains" [curious, wondering what this means] and why I'd started wiping the ever-smudged wooden floor of Malcolm's bar as soon as I turned three. Squeezing through criminal-marked men twisted my stomach, [trouble getting this image to gel…] especially in the evening when that hellhole reeked of sweat and beer. Took me a while to learn to keep my mouth shut, though. Whenever I'd complained, Grandpa would give me his troubled gaze or his somewhat frustrated sigh.

"A life fettered, a bird caged," he'd sometimes murmur, shaking his head. [I like this, adds to my curiosity as to what this tale is all about]

I became one of the blasted Red Scarves [don’t know what this means] when I was around five. Grandpa didn't come home one night—he took dinner quite seriously, so I got this unpleasant shiver creeping over me that screamed something must've gone wrong. Malcolm might or might not be behind it; I haven't tried to find out. Nothing would've changed.

The next day, I made my first step towards my doom.

[continues with Malcolm and the Red Scarves coming to "claim" her]

The Questions:

1. Does this piece provide enough information to make you care?


Yes, in a kind of bizarre way, I do care about this protagonist. (readers chime in) Brushing past the overall confusion of the opening and the references to things I have no clue about, I do want to know more and care more. The reflection is from the 17-year-old POV, and though I’m unsure if she’s dead or living, I’d like to know her story to current day.

The information set out so far is sufficient, to me, to be invested in this character. Orphaned just after birth, Grandfather as parent, no name. Even the confusion in the opening isn’t off-putting but rather forced me into perceiving this character’s life from her perspective, looking back, considering what she’d done and why, and how things had happened or not happened.

I considered this as the author ‘teaching’ me the possibly disjointed way this character saw, or was forced to see, her life thus far. This did cause me to re-read, but also to slow down and consider this character as an individual. I admit that at first read, my mind fussed over the need to re-read, to re-consider, to hold onto numerous impressions at once, to gather disparate items of information – but it was all okay, and I wanted to know more, to learn more about this disjointed tale. And the girl who had lived it.

My only hesitation in this opening is being stuck in the image of a three-year-old mopping floors in a bar surrounded by criminals. The situation is so difficult to reconcile in my mind that it’s tough to just let go. More information might ground the reality of it – this doesn’t have to do with being palatable, but with making sense. If you want readers to accept a thing, a situation, you need to ensure that they have the information about the story’s reality to gain that acceptance.

(Here’s more with So What? Making Readers Care About Your Story)

2. How's the voice? Do you get a sense of the character's personality?

I like the voice. I hear several different levels of awareness and justification, which I equate with older teens and their insights, and how they often cannot be practically applied – just yet. Strong opinions, a survivor, ready to seen as an individual – gives herself a name when no one else will. It’s hard to say who she is now, at seventeen, but I’m curious. I also like her seemingly analytical nature – or her willingness to consider situations and establish reasons, or to just step away when reason doesn’t fit.

I’m also curious about the world she lives in and whether her personality is unique to her or how much has been formed due to the world and society she lives in. The duelist segment reminds me of gangs, or that type of ‘blood’ group, where ranks can be decided on the number of scars, etc. I wonder what she’s had to do as a duelist, why her grandfather didn’t want her to be one, and what the ‘something’ is that she needed to survive.

(Here’s more with 5 Ways to Develop Character Voices)

3. Would you read on?

Yes. (readers – your thoughts?) I’m curious enough that I want answers, and I feel confident that answers will be coming. Beyond her story, I want to know much more about the world the protagonist lives in. I also want to find out if my speculation about this character is anywhere close to the reality of the story – or not. This opening reminds me a bit of meeting a stranger and not being certain you want to hang around or leave, but they keep saying things that make you want to ask one more question, or learn one more thing, which just might confuse you more, but might also be entertaining and fun. So…you stay and have another drink, maybe take your jacket off…

Although, I would probably only give you another couple pages to ground me in this world and the character’s situation. *grin* Curiosity will only carry readers so far, and if you continue to be disjointed or confusing with the story, they will tire of carrying the burden of that confusion.

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

4. Would it throw you when later it is revealed that this character is the villain?

No. (readers?) I say no, because at this point, this early in, I am very open to whoever this character is. I assign them with protagonist, but that is merely an assumption because I’m meeting them first, in the presumed protagonist position. A belated reveal that she’s the villain might just be fun – would probably depend upon how you handle the reveal and how she’s presented up to that point. That could be a delicate operation. I feel most readers wouldn’t mind this twist if you don’t disrespect them and further the art of your story with that twist.

(Here’s more with The Difference Between Tricking Your Reader and Surprising Your Reader)

Overall, I see strong potential here of a complex and entertaining story. Let’s see more!

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

Maria D’Marco is an editor with 20+ years experience. She specializes in developmental editing, and loves the process of wading through the raw, passionate words of a first draft. Currently based in Kansas City, she flirts with the idea of going mobile, pursuing her own writing and love of photography, while maintaining her fulfilling work with authors.

Website | Twitter

7 comments:

  1. It would depend on how intrigued I was by the cover copy. There are a lot of fun and interesting things here, but there's nothing yet that makes me care enough to know more without knowing the larger hook.

    I like the world and sense of a darker gang society the character lives in. The Red Scarves makes me think of the Red Hats, which brings a violent and dangerous vibe to it, so I make assumptions about what they are based on that (right or wrong).

    I like the voice, and the character feels tough and practical. But there's no spark that makes me relate or care about her, and she's a bit too familiar. She's telling me about a life I've seen before in YA fantasy (the hard luck case, raised in a criminal world, had to be tough to survive), and although that can be a fun character, I don't yet see what makes *her* unique in that world. I get a sense of her past and her attitude, but not her as a person.

    Since this is all retrospective, there's also no sense of urgency. It's backstory. Well-done backstory, but there's no plot driving the story yet to draw me in. I'm told she's dead, so why invest in a dead character?

    For me, discovering this is the villain would turn me off, unless I knew she wasn't the protagonist going in. If an author gives me a first-person narrator with a hard luck story on page one, I'm going to assume it's the protagonist. But that might be the case here--she can be the protagonist and still be a villain, and if so, I'd have no issue with that if I cared about her and her goal in the novel. Or if she were a character/ally/friend of the protagonist who later betrays them. I'd probably be fine with that if it was done well.

    My big question is why do you as the author think this is the most important thing readers need to know about this novel when they start reading? Why is it critical they understand the backstory of this character before they even meet the protagonist? Especially if the fact that she's the villain is a reveal (and I assume a surprise) later? Won't this opening give away clues to that?

    Is knowing this character's past and how she became a Red Scarf so critical to the story that readers can't understand the rest of it without knowing this? That answer will probably determine if this is the right place to start or not.

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  2. I was confused by this opening - not sure who the person was who was telling the story, where she was or what was going on. It's hard to capture a reader if there are so many questions in the beginning of a novel.

    I like to be somewhat grounded when I begin a story and I want to get to know the protagonist so I can care about them. There's not enough of that here--just yet. Also, age? There is so much crammed into this beginning, that I'm lost as to what I am supposed to hook on to. There is a lot of talk about dueling but I am not grounded enough to know how that plays into this world. I don't know what crashed their Wheel means either - car crash- is there a reason it is written like that?

    Part of me would almost like to see this start at the paragraph that begins with "I became one of the blasted Red Scarves when I was around five..." with a little work we could find out what her name is and a little backstory that would make us want to follow this protagonist - and what does she want - we need to know that as well.

    Many times we want to start with action, backstory, etc., but forget that the most important part of hooking a reader is getting them to care - what can you say, what can this girl do to make us care about her? Dead parents are not enough.

    As far as her being a villain later - I guess we would have to see how that plays out - is she a good villain? A bad one? If so why would we root for her? Robin Hood is a villain but we love him. Dexter is a villain (a serial killer yet!) but we learn to root for him as well. For that matter, even Hannibal. But each has their own story and a reason why the reader/viewer cares for them.

    Lots to think about - lots to work with. I believe with allowing the backstory to flush out more gently and bringing in reasons why the reader cares for this person will help solidify a good, strong opening. Good luck!

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  3. There's a lot to like here -- "death," duels, gangs, rough upbringing and family debts, all thrown in fast to hook us with how dark and exciting this world is going to be.

    At the same time, Janice has a point: we're seeing a flurry of symptoms more than the cause of this drama. The pieces of the character's life don't quite form a sense of what she herself adds to the mix, how she's been molded into learning one lesson above all or maybe defying her upbringing in one way. It's that lasered-in sense of character from the start that would do most to hook us on the tale. And the trees we're getting instead of that forest are, like Janice said, things we've seen before.

    Related to this: is she the villain, or the villain-protagonist? All that focus you've given on making this character compelling on her own terms is essential if she's the sinister center of the story (like Lynne pictures)... but if she's the opposition to the real protagonist, it risks backfiring hard to *start* with her. First scenes are just that important for creating expectations and proving to the reader that you can manage their expectations. Starting with a hard push on Not The Central Character is something some readers will forgive (especially if you introduce the hero next and make him/her that much more compelling yet), but other readers simply will not. So if she's not the protagonist it's just risky, and it gets more risky every paragraph you go without starting to teach us that there will be an actual protagonist coming soon.

    I also agree, the details here are a bit jumbled at times, when you want to be certain readers know and care about what you want in what order. For me a lot of that is paragraph three, when you try to get back to "the guy," against the flow of this mainly digging through her past. I assume this is especially important ("the guy" may even be the actual hero you need to focus us on), but the details you give don't quite let us orient on what's happening here, or believe that she really has had no name until that moment. Does "didn't realize I faced him" mean he didn't realize it was her in the duel?

    Wiping a bar at age three is definitely too much to accept, unless you take a moment to show she's struggling with a cloth that seems bigger than she is as they try to train her into work early.

    Again, this is a powerful barrage of impressions, that could have a great character and then a great story at their heart. All that power makes it all the more important that you be sure you control where each one strikes us, and what they start shaping as a whole.

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  4. Good premise, good voice and setting. Where I had trouble was with too much backstory. I needed a sense of where her issues headed and conflict. Too early to tell if it's surprising she's the villain. With less backstop and more at stake now, I'd think you have a good storyline. I

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  5. I found some of this intriguing - you raised some interesting questions, the world was interesting, the idea of professional duellists was cool - and I felt sympathetic towards the character.

    At the start you have a really intriguing setup: this character is dead! Or is she? Is she literally *dead*, dead? Is "dead" slang for something? Is she a ghost? How come she's talking if she's dead? How did she die, and what is she going to have to do with "that guy" (you keep mentioning him)? But instead of leading forwards into answers, you dump a truckload of backstory. Frustrating! I want to know about maybe-dead girl and the duellist she likes! (The mention of "doom" at the end was unnecessary and felt melodramatic. You already have great questions set up, including her death.)

    Backstory is irrelevant here because we have nothing plot-wise to hang it on. I don't know enough about the character or the choices she's facing to need it. Backstory should exist for a reason. This backstory accomplishes only one thing: it makes me feel sorry for the girl. But since she's the antagonist, you don't want that. If you establish sympathy for someone on the opening page, we'll assume she's the protagonist. Then when we meet the real protagonist, we'll be confused, or worse angry. (Who is this jerk being mean to maybe-dead girl?! Boo!)

    Also, it's too much information. You introduced a ton of characters: maybe-dead girl, duellist boy, grandpa, mother, father, Malcolm, Red Scarves, an assortment of nameless smelly criminals. Then, several wouldbuilding items I can't immediately assign meaning to: Wheels, "working in the mountains", "a life fettered...", Red Scarves. And a number of places/settings: mines, grey town, hometown, desert surrounding the hometown, mountains, a smelly bar. Added to that are different time frames: "now", the time the girl's parents were around, the time she heard rumours, when she was three, when she was five, and when Grandpa disappeared. It's a lot to keep straight.

    I also struggled with a three-year-old cleaning the floor. It came across as comical, when you were going for tragic. You can persuade a three-year-old to wipe up, but they'll do a terrible job and go AWOL after two minutes max. If you try to force them to carry on, they'll wail the place down. I can't imagine why a criminal gang would give themselves this much trouble when they could hire a cleaner. (If your character needs a criminal infancy a better use of a three-year-old would be as a cute diversion - "Awww, what do you want, little girl? You lost Mammy? Now let me-- Wait, where's my coin purse?!" or as a smuggling device with legs. [Although three year olds are terrible at keeping secrets so smuggling could backfire spectacularly.] I suppose a three-year-old could be a useful front if the gang wanted their den to look like a family home?) Basically, kids are trouble. If I were Malcolm I'd pay Grandpa to take kiddo to the mountains so I could live out my life of gratuitous criminality without all the potty-training-and-making-them-eat-vegetables nonsense. (I have less trouble imagining a criminal five-year-old. Five-year-olds are 90% criminal by nature anyway.)

    I wondered why the gang gave themselves the hassle of keeping this kid and why she didn't just run away since she obviously hated the whole thing. But again, this is backstory. You don't need any of this here.

    Now please tell me if the girl is dead, what her problem is, and how she will try and solve it! I really like the idea of a duellist ghost romantically attached to her killer. More of this!

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  6. Submitter here. Thank you all for taking the time to read and comment. Your insights will help me continue to improve. :)

    Maybe I wasn't clear in my e-mail, but this snippet is not the opening page (anymore). When I submitted it in 2018 (http://blog.janicehardy.com/2018/03/real-life-diagnostics-do-you-feel.html), I intended the story to be a standalone piece. While working on it I realised this was not going to work and I had to merge it with the main story, since her death and what led to her death is integral to the hero's character development.

    The main story starts with the hero ("that guy") and goes all the way to the inciting incident, after which I planned to include a part of this side story. So hopefully the reader is already grounded and cares for the hero by then.

    Sorry for the confusion and thank you again for the comments.

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    Replies
    1. Ah, gotcha. In that case, then the overall confusion/clarity issues still apply, but you wouldn't have to worry about misleading the reader.

      My only additional thought...this is first person, and I assume the novel is also first person, so will readers feel jarred to suddenly be in the head of another first-person character who isn't the protagonist?

      And is this the only scene from the villain or will there be others?

      If this is the only scene from that POV, there's a decent chance that it'll throw readers and they'll wonder why in the world this is stuck in the novel out of the blue.

      If you want to tell this character's story, you might consider making them a real POV and doing a dual-POV novel. Otherwise, hard as it might be, I'd suggest cutting it. One scene from a non-POV character like this is probably going to feel crammed in and not flow well. But if you really want to do it, and you can find a way to make it work, go for it. :)

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