As always, my critique is only one person's opinion and Gail is free to accept or ignore my suggestions. My comments are in red and Gail decided not to send in responses. However, we'd love to hear what YOU think, so please leave a comment.
Flash update: When I checked my email this morning, Gail had sent her comments. Unfortunately, didn't have time to add them then, since my page count was calling me. Now at nearly 2 EST, my work is finished and I can add her comments. Sorry, Gail. Her notes are italicized in purple!
She had always known that this day would come. She had known since she was a young girl, and her mother had explained that hers was a life that wasn’t totally her own. Hers was a destiny determined generations ago. Other little girls might dream of lives shaped by their own decisions, choosing college, jobs, boyfriends, but Lean would never know this freedom. Her Irish ancestors had taken that possibility from her long ago through their own ignorance and greed. The women of the Ashe family were cursed by the long-ago foolishness of one man.
Granted, I don't read a lot of YA, but almost all that I've seen have been in 1st person instead of 3rd. There are a couple advantages to this. First, it enables the story to have an immediacy that third person lacks. Second, a young reader can step easily into the protagonist's shoes. Try this:
I always knew this day would come. I've known since I was a young girl and Mother explained that my life wasn't totally my own. My destiny was determined generations ago.
You’re right. A great deal of YA is done in first person, but not all of it. I agree that first person lends itself to immediacy and identification with the protagonist. I can see, also, how it would reduce the need for many explanations. Readers are clued in because the heroine herself gives us the information. This also appeals to YA readers because they are, generally speaking, an impatient group, which does not have patience for many descriptive, expository paragraphs.
Do you see how this change pulls the reader in closer? Just for grins, I suggest you rewrite the whole thing using 1st person and see how you like it. Notice that I cut a number of extraneous words and used active instead of passive voice. The sentence structure 'Hers was a destiny determined generations ago' is passive. If you decide to keep 3rd person, you should rearrange the sentence like this: Her destiny was determined . . .
Still, until today, Lean had lived like any 16-year-old girl. Her mother had been able to give her that much, at least. She went to school, loved books hated math. She was within a few weeks of getting her driver’s license. She’d even made a few friends who were pleasant, even if they were a bit superficial.
We know Lean is a girl. Cut the word here. When you write for the YA audience, try to use words a 16 year old would use. Not that you have to salt your manuscript with slang. That will only make its shelf life very short. Be careful to sound like a kid. They don't think of their friends as "pleasant, even if they were a bit superficial." They're more likely to be "ok to hang with, but not for deciding anything more important than which shoes to wear with which outfit."
Another great point! Despite the fact that I work with the kids that I hope would read this. I am writing in my voice and not theirs.
But Lean’s favorite part of the week was Saturday afternoons at the mall when she haunted the bookstores, lovingly examining the shining covers and inhaling the scent of the freshly printed pages. Ultimately, however, the books were put back on the shelf, and Lean went home to re-read her worn copy of Jane Eyre.
You've got some passive structures again. Don't say 'the books were put back.' Lead with the heroine in action. 'Lean put the books back on the shelf and went home . . .' I'm wondering about why she didn't save some money and buy a book now and then. Is her family very hard pressed?
I hoped to accomplish several things here. Yes, her family is hard pressed—part of that pesky curse! But, I also hoped to convey the idea that Jane Eyre is Lean’s favorite book and imprint that story in the reader’s mind so that I can echo the plot a bit in this book. I also hope to give her a kind of “other worldly” quality, showing that she loses herself in fantasy rather than deal with the realities of her own life.
But now, the heavy envelope that she held in her hand signaled the end of even those simple pleasures. It was fashioned of heavy parchment, outlined in black, and closed with a thick red wax seal. Lean wondered what the postman had thought when he placed it in her mother’s dented mailbox, but then she laughed a bitter little laugh as she suddenly realized that such letters did not pass through the post office.
Cut 'that' in the first sentence. It reads well without it. 'That' is a frequently over-used, often unnecessary word.
The High Council had its own ways of doing things. Its members were nothing if not thorough. A summons from the Council, for that was what Lean knew she held in her hands, was unmistakable and not to be ignored.
'Its members were nothing if not thorough' is too vague to tell us anything. There are some unnecessary words here. How about tightening the next sentence like this: 'The summons she held in her hands was umistakable and not to be ignored.' Less is almost always more.
She breathed deeply and, with trembling fingers, broke the seal.
Good! We have an emotional reaction! If you switch to 1st person, you will be able to get into her head and show us how she's feeling. Emotion is one of the most powerful hooks a writer can set. You might also consider giving Lean a friend she can talk to during this little opening so we don't have to have just internal dialogue.
I will consider the friend idea. I’m not sure if I want to go there because part of Lean’s background is isolation from peers (that curse!) and not being able to count on anyone but herself.
The next paragraph is a change of scene and POV. I would still like to see you stick with 1st person, but a change of scene is indicated the same way. Center a # on an otherwise blank line. This lets the typesetter know there should be a blank line.
Killian paced restlessly, though it wasn’t a sense of uncertainty which compelled him. He knew the girl would come. She had no choice in the matter. To ignore a summons from the High Council was a perilous proposition. Even the most reckless among their kind were not that foolish, and Lean appeared to be neither reckless nor foolish. In fact, he had a hard time believing that it was she who was destined to fulfill the prophecy. She appeared rather ordinary, little different than other silly schoolgirls her age. If anything, Lean seemed more subdued than most and, consequently, less appealing to him. Fate had deemed it necessary for him bind himself to her. It was indeed a cruel Fortune that would link him to this mousy creature forever. And so he paced with the pent up energy of a wild animal newly caged.
I'd rather see him actually say these things he's thinking to Lean. It would set up a great conflict if Killian is going to be her love interest. If you're sticking with 1st person, he could be pacing when Lean enters. (I like the 'wild animal newly caged' BTW.) She could ask if he was worried she wouldn't come and you're off to a good confrontation.
I like this idea. I agree that dialogue would help and this battle of the sexes would be off and running.
The almost imperceptible sound of light footsteps interrupted his revelry, and Killian barely had time to turn to face the door before it opened to reveal a small, solitary figure.
I think you mean reverie instead of revelry. 'Almost imperceptible' is too soft to interrupt anything. I'd cut those words.
Thanks for letting me take a look at your work. You've set up some good questions in this opening. The old Irish curse, the mysterious Council and Killian who doesn't think your heroine is up to the challenge, whatever that challenge will turn out to be.
I hope you feel, as I do, that writing is playtime and experimenting with different formats and POV's is part of the fun.
With all of the demands on my time, I do feel that writing is fun. It’s a creative outlet and lets me escape into a world of my own making from time to time.
Thank you so much for your wonderful suggestions. It’s not often that someone like me can get this kind of expert guidance. You’ve given me a lot to think about, especially in regard to my proposed audience.
(Expert guidance she says. I don't know whether to blush or laugh. Both I guess!)
Gail Eubanks is a high school librarian in Southwest Missouri where she lives with her teen-aged son and her Chihuahua Rocky. She has done some free lancing of nonfiction, but this is her first attempt at fiction. One day she'd like to be able to offer to her own young adult novel to the students she works with every day.
If you're reading this, you're a member of the Red Pencil Thursday critique group. Please share your thoughts to help Gail with her work. Be constructive. If you've seen something here that will help you with your writing, we'd love to hear about that too!