Friday, June 3, 2011

First Page Critique: YA fantasy

This week's critique is the first page from a novel called Goblin Fruit. The author called it a YA and mentioned 21,500 words. I'm not sure if that's the complete manuscript or what she has written so far, but my first thought is that this is very short for a YA novel. Even middle grade novels tend to be 30,000 to 35,000 words. 40,000 to 60,000 is generally considered normal for young adult novels.

With electronic publishing, there is a greater market for novellas than ever before, but I expect it would be difficult to sell this to a traditional publisher. (Novels in poems or other unusual forms may be an exception. iDracula by Becca Black was probably only a few thousand words, since it was written primarily as text messages.)

Perhaps this is a story that really needs to be told at this length. Or perhaps that number was a typo, or I misunderstood. But to have the best chance to break into traditional publishing with a young adult novel, I would advise the author to expand the story. I did a series of posts in May of last year on how to expand a manuscript that was too short. Click this link, for the following series:  

Friday, May 14, 2010: Pack the plot full
Friday, May 21, 2010: Making Muscular Action!
Friday, May 28, 2010: Pump up the Drama

You might also want to check out Thursday, April 8, 2010: Developing Your Story: Building theMiddle

Now let's look at the submission:

Frank Harman buttoned a white lab coat over his tie-dyed T-shirt as he hurried toward the nurse’s station in the maternity ward.

Anna smiled at him as he came toward her."Thanks for coming, Frank. Sorry to take you away from your data compilation."

He smiled back as he ran his fingers through his tousled brown hair and removed his glasses, wiping them on the lab coat. "That's okay. The study can wait.” He rubbed his tired, slightly bloodshot eyes and then put the glasses back on.”So what’s happening here?”

CE: We meet a couple of characters and get a hint of personality, especially from Frank. I'm assuming both of these people are adults, since there's no evidence to the contrary. I'm not sure which, if either of them is the main character yet. The point of view is fairly distant, not really inside either of them. This also establishes the setting. I'm not fascinated, but I'm not turned off either. I am puzzled about who the main character is, especially if this is supposed to be for teenagers.

Anna frowned. She looked toward an open patient door and then back at Frank. "The patient gave birth to a baby girl this afternoon." Gesturing for him to follow, she walked to the open door, through which a sleeping young woman and a baby in a clear plastic bassinet were visible. The woman’s golden brown hair formed a halo around her head and she seemed, at least to Frank, to glow in the lighting.

CE: Another character, and possibly a hint of something mystical in the way she seems to glow. It's subtle though, not necessarily establishing a fantasy element.

Frank gasped. "Sara."

"You know her?"

"A little," he said hoarsely, before clearing his throat. "A long time ago."

CE: So the new mother is apparently also an adult. We get a hint of a past which may be affecting the present.

Anna looked at Frank, as though expecting him to elaborate. When he didn't, she went on. "Actually, I know her too. She's an artist. She used to be at some of the art parties Nick and I attend."

Frank made no response.

Looking back toward Sara, who was sleeping soundly, Anna whispered, "She was a real partier. Always the center of attention. I haven't seen her around lately, though. I didn't know she was pregnant."

Frank nodded absently, like he wasn't really listening.

Anna shook her head. "No complications with the birth. Drug screen came back clean, but I feel like something's off."

CE: Phrases such as "as though expecting" and "like he wasn't really listening" keep the point of view distant. We’re not in anyone’s head. I'm still not sure who our main character is. This feels like an adult mystery or drama. That's not a bad thing, if that's what it's supposed to be, but young adult? There seems to be a disconnect between the sample and the title/genre, so much so that I wonder if the author pasted in the wrong sample or if I made a mistake somewhere in copying it.

Maybe the baby is the main character later on, and this is a prologue? Then perhaps the story would be better off starting somewhere else.

If I were looking for an adult mystery, I'd probably read a few more pages to see where this is going. I would still want to know who the main character is pretty soon. I also personally like a closer point of view, as it seems more emotional, but that's not suitable for every story. For young adult books, however, first person POV is most common these days, with close third person coming second. The feeling is that teens really want to connect with their hero or heroine.

This sample does a lot of things well—introduces several characters who are presumably important to the story, hints at a problem, put us in a setting, and has a balance between action and dialogue. It feels more distant than I personally like, but the main problem is the confusion over the target readership age and the genre.

Your opening pages make a promise to the reader. They should set up the main character, genre, and style of the story. If this is a young adult novel that has to do with goblins, the opening needs to fit with that. That doesn't mean you need to have goblins in the opening scene, but the opening shouldn't feel like a completely different type of novel.

Check out my posts on First Chapter Challenges and StrongStarts for more help.

Thanks for sharing! Readers, don't forget that you can get a complete manuscript critique for just $1.50 per page. Get details and recommendations on my website. If you have a longer novels or a picture book manuscript, you can get a critique at a discount by pledging through my Kickstarter campaign.

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