Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Dragon’s Pearl Critique – YA Fantasy Submission

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane



My first page critique is a YA fantasy submission titled THE DRAGON’S PEARL. (Love the title!) My thoughts will be on the flipside. Enjoy!

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Misha who was neither kind nor beautiful, but very smart, and according to her mother, intelligence was all that mattered. For once, Misha had to agree because at this very moment, her immediate survival depended on her being very, very smart.

The gun dug against the small of her back. “Move faster,” the man holding the gun said. He wore a creepy-looking white mask—all three of her kidnappers did—and he had a real-looking black gun. He was smaller than the big man and stouter than the skinny one, with hairless arms smoother than her own. But since he held the one flashlight, Misha decided he must be the leader.

“Faster,” he said again.

She scooted down the tunnel, first in line. In case she sprung a trap, presumably. Designating a fourteen-year-old girl as a meatshield to catch all the arrows, it was the kind of thing she would consider.

“We’re almost there.” The kidnapper pushed past her, giddy like a sugar-overdosed child, darting his flashlight from wall to ceiling. “I can feel it.”

Where is there? Misha slowed her pace. She lifted both hands—handcuffed—to scratch her freckled nose. She had no idea where they were, what their purpose was. After removing her blindfold, they’d marched her down this abandoned subway tunnel for the past hour, twisting, turning, pausing, then picking a path less traveled.

The steel tracks were hard to see and easy to trip over. Her aunt had already tripped twice, with the big man there to catch her every time.

Her aunt Saria was the unfortunate tagalong to this kidnapping. She hummed tunelessly to herself, but Misha knew this was her aunt’s way of coping. Saria was afraid of everything, from plastic bags on the street that looked like dead cats to melodramatic fistfights on the movie screen. Violence terrified her.

“I’m sorry,” Misha said quietly. “If you hadn’t come to my tournament, you wouldn’t even be here.”

Saria sighed. “I wouldn’t have had to close my pawnshop for the day and lose all that profit.”

“Yes, that too.”

Saria barely winced when she smiled, her wrists raw from the nervous twisting of the plastic zip-ties. “There’s nowhere else I want to be, but by your side.”

My thoughts:
The “once upon a time” opener sounds cliché, but when it’s coupled with the twist of lulling the reader into the story as if it were a fable, only to spring into a kidnapping, the story keeps my interest. But the softer beginning diminishes the threat of the kidnappers. I’m not sure of the author’s intent. I don’t feel like Misha is in danger, especially once the aunt and the dialogue begin.

In the second paragraph, I got a little bogged down with the vague descriptions of the three men. There are not many lines there, but I don’t feel that it is important to detail the heights and weights of nameless men—especially since they are behind her. It’s like she has eyes behind her head and can see everything (while she is blindfolded, we later learn). When describing adversaries like these, it might be best to lump them together as threatening masked men and have their distinctive voices be the way she tells them apart, if that even matters so early in the story. If she’s blindfolded, she can only sense their presence by sound or smell. I would imagine that the smaller guy will play a definitive part in the story after he’s unmasked, but at this point, I don’t know that for sure. Only the author will know how important any of them will be.

I would like to see a dark world building setting play a part in this set up. That’s what makes fantasy great. This reads like an internal chapter scene and not the start of a book, perhaps because it doesn’t feel like Misha is in danger and the dialogue with the aunt. If she is to be the meat shield, I would like to feel that she appreciates the danger she is in and setting might help. She needs to be more wary and worried about what will happen to her and her aunt.

When Misha scratches her “freckled nose,” that took me out of the story. In her POV, she wouldn’t think of her nose as freckled. It would simply be her nose. That action trivializes the danger too. It’s a way for the author to get a character description in, but it also has the impact of diluting any threat.
Half way through the opener, we find out she has been blindfolded. That was not reflected in the first paragraphs. This reads as out of order to me. With her being bound and blindfolded, that would make it very awkward to walk, especially with her scooting down a tunnel. If she is blindfolded, the reader needs to see and feel this early on. She wouldn’t be leading the pack either. How would she know where to go?

I also didn’t know her aunt was even with her until well into the opener. Misha seems more worried for herself and not for her aunt, who would be in danger too. Plus their conversation does not translate the threat. It’s a bit chatty. And if violence terrified Saria, her humming a tune doesn’t seem appropriate, even if it’s a nervous tune. Plus when she’s more concerned about her profits for the day, that also diminishes the scary aspects of the scene.

The last couple of lines bounce into Saria’s POV. Misha can see her aunt wince and smile (if she is not blindfolded), but she can’t know how raw her wrists are, which tells me this is Saria’s POV. A head hopping thing.

The last thing I want to mention is the use of adverbs. Anything with an LY on the end is usually redundant and unnecessary if the rest of the action in the scene are well described. For example, “Misha said quietly” could be changed to “Misha whispered,” which would suggest she’s afraid of being overheard, but since the dialogue is a bit chatty, there is nothing she should be afraid of. If I were being kidnapped and had my aunt with me, I would be asking questions or trying to figure out where they were or how to get away.

When I first read through this, I thought it was okay. (I didn't expect to be so picky.) I might keep reading to see where it goes, but unless you grip an editor or agent from this opener with something fresh, they will be looking for a reason to not turn the page. Focus on the danger more, make it eerie, and give a better glimpse into Misha’s personality and why she was chosen. Add elements of a mystery. That might make this opener better.

What do you think, TKZers?

37 comments:

  1. I really liked the opening two paragraphs but became confused by this paragraph:

    She scooted down the tunnel, first in line. In case she sprung a trap, presumably. Designating a fourteen-year-old girl as a meatshield to catch all the arrows, it was the kind of thing she would consider.

    Scooted is a friendly word, not really in keeping with a gun in your back. I'd suggest 'stumbled'. And Misha would consider using a teenage girl as a meatshield? Is the reader supposed to think Misha is a heartless thug on the same wavelength as her captors? Or am I reading this totally wrong?

    And I agree, if Saria was afraid of dead cats, she would have been a basket case with three men in masks and guns.

    But these are easy fixes and I would want to read more of this book. I did have an agent tell me once that, in YA, the mc should be 16 because the 14 year olds, your target audience, look up to older teenagers.

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    1. Great points of clarification, Amanda. Thank you.

      Overall I liked this author's easy style of writing. But in trying to deeply analyze this opener, we must break it down to determine if it works. Openings are very important and a real challenge for this reason.

      My editor likes 16 year old main characters too. That's why I like to mix up the ages with a cast of characters. In general people believe that young readers prefer to read about characters their age or older, but don't particularly like reading about younger kids. I remember feeling like this as a teen. I was so eager to grow up.

      Thanks for your insights.

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  2. Yes, the "Once upon a time" opening seems a little slow and "telly." I also don't like the adverb "very." Especially twice.

    I'm not a real expert in YA v. Middle Grade, but the opening paragraph seems more suited to the latter reading level.

    So I'd prefer the author just start with para. 2. And I'd switch the first two sentences. Then we're really moving. And then go ahead and re-work the rest of it according to Jordan's suggestions.

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    1. I love your suggestions, Jim, especially about where to begin. Your insight on middle grade seems appropriate for this short excerpt too. Thank you.

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  3. Jordan, you've covered just about all the pluses and minuses. I don't have much to add. But I do agree with Jim to dump the first paragraph. "The gun dug into the small of her back" would be a terrific first grab. And using "very" four times in that first paragraph also doesn't work for me. Very is a meaningless word and adds nothing to any writing. What's the difference between smart and very smart? Beats me. I don't read or write YA, but solid, tight, crisp writing is evident in any genre. This sounds like an interesting story, but it reads like a rough, first draft. Definitely workable, though. Good luck to the author and thanks for submitting to TKZ first-page critiques.

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    1. Thanks, Joe. With YA, the use of 'very' or 'totally' could simply be how the author hears the teen voice. I find that happens to me before I clean it up a bit. Thanks for your insights.

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  4. I'm not the author, but found some very helpful tidbits here. Thank you, Jordan and fellow TKZers.

    I don't keep up with YA, but need to learn more about it. It seems all the YA books I see are similar to this particular story. When my daughter (now 24) was a YA, she was reading Les Miserables. I had a terrible time keeping her in books between the ages of 11 and 14, trying to balance literary quality with age-appropriateness.

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    1. Actually, the YA books I read are quite a bit different. I like dark YA. Try books like THE BOOK THIEF, 13 REASONS WHY, WINTER GIRLS, HUNGER GAMES series, MORTAL INSTRUMENTS series and you will be amazed at the depth of the storytelling. I wish I had books like these when I was in elementary school.

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  5. I agree with your analysis. I always try to take away something for my own writing. In this case, I got two things:
    1. Don't ever give Jordan my first pages until they are perfect.
    2. The first paragraphs where we are seducing the reader into the story are important. "Very" important. I never know if I get it right.

    Now I'm going to break my first learning point. This is the first sentence to my short story "Detweiler". What do you thing?

    “Working for God is never easy,” Detweiler said as he jacked a twelve-gauge shell into the chamber of a cut-down Remington.

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    1. I'd keep reading.

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    2. I'd keep reading, too. Very, very intriguing.

      And Brian, we are all blind to our own writing, I think. I know I am. Ha! Beginnings are hard for me too. It takes guts for authors to submit their work for critique like this, right? I have such respect for any of our submitters.So I want to give them what I would do to "bloody" my own pages....as something to think about.

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  6. The story here is interesting to me. We're in the action, we wonder what's going to happen, we wonder why it is happening and if Misha is really as bad as she says she is.

    I'm as much an economy guy as the next - "eschew surplusage" - but I think adverbs can sometimes work if they're used to set the tone. The first Harry Potter book opens with two adverbs in the first sentence. Alice in Wonderland has a "very" in the first sentence. Those are both a certain type of book. I think this first paragraph might work for this kind of book. While I respect the heck out of JSB and Joe, I think that dumping the first paragraph and starting with the second would give this book more of a noire-thriller tone. And maybe it's not supposed to have one. Hard to say without seeing the rest of the book.

    The head-hopping at the end takes me out. I'm also bothered by the other points people have mentioned: Saria's character inconsistencies, confusion as to whether Misha is scared or not, what are the bad guys doing letting them have a chat, etc.

    But it's definitely workable. I also like the title.

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    1. This story is definitely workable. I'd keep reading, for sure. Good point that we here at TKZ love our crime fiction stylings, but without knowing more about this story. Jim's point about this having a middle grade feel to it has merit, from the YAs I've read.

      It's always tough to get a short excerpt & make assumptions about author intent, but you've made some excellent points, Vincent. Thank you.

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  7. I took advantage of this opportunity to let my Creative Writing-I students read this post, make their own comments in class, and then read Jordan's (and the comment section) to see how on point they were. Considering I teach a high school course of 9th-12th graders, I thought their opinions would be valid since they were at least a portion of the target YA audience.

    For the most part they made the same points the rest of the TKZers made, like:

    1) First line and first paragraph create a bland, cliche character that many of my kids admitted they really didn't care if something bad happened to her, because Misha didn't seem troubled, so why should they be? Hence, their suggestion was to kill it.

    2) The "Nowhere else but by your side" line rang hollow with my students. They either wanted to keep the "I knew I should've gone to work today" gallows humor and change the description of Saria, or cut the chatter entirely to create more tension.

    3) It really is choppy/out-of-order. Stopping to figure when she was blindfolded and what she'd been able to see after it was removed pulled us out of the story.

    4) Also the lack of description. If the only thing you're going to describe well is the archetypal tunnel to blackness, why not start with a bag being ripped off her head and that's the first thing the reader sees?

    5) Because of the above, my kids almost universally felt that the intensity and suspense the writer seemed to be going for was either diminished or nonexistent.

    On the good side, they did feel that the mystery of what was going on was intriguing enough that many would keep reading for a bit to see if things picked up, and that the slow pacing allows room to get more description and create a connection with the character(s), if it's taken advantage of. Most just didn't feel that had happened at this point. Also, quite a few said that the story itself seemed really intriguing, and that the actual craft just needed to be cleaned up. I did a rough survey, and out of 25 who participated, 13 said they would probably keep reading, and 1 said he would do so with enthusiasm. So there's definitely something to work with.

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    1. Wow. Great that you made this an exercise, Jake. You got good comments too. Thanks to you and your class for the feedback to this author.

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    2. That's fantastic that you got feedback from your students, who are the actual target audience, Jake! Thanks so much for sharing their input with us.

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  8. I've been thinking about the nose comment.

    One of the challenges, I think, to the writing in a limited POV is that you run the risk of your audience not being able to connect with the person "on screen". For me the fact that she scratches a "freckled nose" doesn't break the moment mostly as it helps me, the reader, continue to visualize the scene unfolding.

    Take Game of Thrones as produced on HBO. I usually feel that we are "In" someone's point of view, even though we actually "See" them on screen. As such we can see that Tywin has scars, that Sonsa is a red head, etc. So for me, at any rate, even though we are in the POV of Misha it's okay to get the visual reminder of what she might look like.

    I'm also a fairly visual person too, so I find that I like to create what my characters look like so that might be my own bias creeping out.

    As for head hopping, on the other hand, that's something that I try to avoid myself. It does get frustrating because you want to convey other thoughts but it breaks the flow of the scene.

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    1. Staying true to POV is tricky. I'm writing a crime fiction story about a blind violinist. I have to be extremely diligent to stay a blind man in his POV & have caught silly mistakes. To get his looks, I had to be patient & rely on other characters to share what he looks like. It can be done & I think it's worth the extra work to take on the challenges of POV. Thanks so much for your comment, Rob. Always appreciated.

      I love Game of Thrones.

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  9. Good comments all.

    The only thing I have to say is that this has given me a new favourite word...

    'Meatshield'

    I plan to use that once a day from this point forward.

    ;-)

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    1. I loved it too, Basil. Ha!

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    2. I have to be honest in this context the word seemed oddly placed. I came into the word through online gaming so that tends to skew who would use it a bit young, wouldn't it?

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    3. Actually now that uou mention it, Rob, I recall the word used in gaming too. Glad you mentioned it.

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  10. My additions: I like some of the feel of the writing, but I had to reread parts to understand what was happening. Possibly consider using action sentences to replace some of the dialogue tags to get the most mileage out of your early word count and increase the feeling of danger. I wondered, if kidnapping was something fairly common, because she doesn't seem upset about it. In fact, it almost seems routine to her.

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    1. Good points, Beth. I like your suggestion about action tags. Thanks for your contribution to our discussion.

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  11. At first, it seemed to be going the sword and sorcery route, but then morphed into a dystopian world with the abandoned subway. Consider leading with the urban grit if that is truly the storyworld.

    Otherwise, I overall liked it and found the premised intriguing.

    One teeny little nit. First you say she is handcuffed. That put a vision of metal shackles in my head (especially with the S&S vibe I was getting). Later on you say she is zip-tied. Yes, the product is sometimes referred to as "plastic handcuffs," but not often. It pulled me out. Consider just saying her hands are bound.

    And, I used "meatshield" in conversation today. I often refer to my job as being a political meatshield for my elected officials.

    Great tale and a great kick-off to the Thursday critique series!

    Terri

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    1. Thanks, Terri. Bonus points for using meatshield in conversation.

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  12. Jordan--
    All your comments make sense, and should be useful to the writer. But I like "Once upon a time." I think it's ironic and self-mocking, perhaps a little too sophisticated for Y/A readers (about which I know nothing) to appreciate. That said, for all its flaws, I also find an energy in this passage that is promising. If the writer manages to fix what needs fixing, good things should follow.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Barry. Always appreciated.

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    2. When I read that I imagined the opening more on separate page as like a mini teaser, and then on the next starts "chapter 1".

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  13. I liked the character. I felt she was coolly accessing her assets: she's not pretty or kind but she is smart. Kind of reminds me of the new Sherlock tv character. Some small fixes but I would not stop reading after this first section. If I saw it in a library, I'd read it. If I saw it in a store I might hesitate.

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    1. I love the new Sherlock. Thanks, Sherri.

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  14. Grr...trying to enter comments from an iPad is maddening! Just lost everything I wrote before. Bottom line: I would keep reading, but the bar for passing muster with an agent or editor is very high. I agree with your comments about the fixes, Jordan. One thing that would be good would be to tie the fairy tale opener more concretely with the narrator's voice. Perhaps she could visualize herself in a specific fairy tale as a way of dealing with her real-life terror, reassuring herself that fairy tales always end well. Also, the fact that she's blindfolded must inform her POV in a very visceral way-- it can't be a late mention, as it is now. Blindfolded, she can only hear and feel things. Work her senses--what is the quality of the sound around her? Perhaps she can tell one of the kidnappers by his pungent odor?

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    1. Oh, and I just reread it and realized that the blindfold was already off by the time it's mentioned. So the way it's handled is confusing. I would suggest that she still be blindfolded on the first page, which must be a truly terrifying experience. It also enables a "pop" of action when the blindfold is ripped off.

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  15. Exactly, Kathryn. I also hate losing a comment due to technical difficulties. Very frustrating. Thanks for persevering.

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  16. Author here, late to the party, and wow, look at all this incredible feedback. Thank you, Jordan. These are all excellent points. I'm glad I submitted this to a thriller/suspense audience because this scene needed a good kick in tension.

    And thank you, everyone, for your input. Love the fixes for the blindfold, the characterization, the slow pace. Best of all, your comments accumulated into a huge epiphany for me: despite all the danger, my MC isn't scared. That is, until she realizes her aunt is with her.

    Jake: Especially loved the survey of your students, that was just fantastic.

    Cheers.

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    1. Oh, and Jordan, what's your policy on revisions? I might be able to return with something in a month or so, in case readers are interested in tracking the progress, like how the suggestions were incorporated.

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    2. We have not posted revisions before, because of the number of submissions, but I've had authors follow up with me to show their revised work. I'm always amazed at the revisions. I'd be interested in seeing your progress and would love to see your revisions. To keep the anonymous thing going, you could probably send your revision to the TKZ submissions email addy, marked with my name, so it can come straight to me. I'll send a follow-up.

      I am thrilled that all these comments gave you ideas on a rewrite. Thanks for letting us know. Have fun with your rewrite.

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