Opening to revised YA novel, 550 words

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HareBrain

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If anyone remembers the except I put up a year or two ago with a raid on a road-building compound, this is the start of a very heavily revised version of that story. This is a "quieter" opening, which might be a risk, so I'd really like some feedback on hookiness, character, stakes etc, plus any points of confusion (and anything else, of course).


*****

Jezz glanced down the ten-metre fall to the rough patch of grass and weeds that surrounded the base of Doaky’s trunk. Where she stood now, gently swaying on the kink of Woodpecker branch, was as high as she’d ever climbed. Any farther, and she would break her record. Or her neck. Because the only route higher, and the only way to reach the plastic carrier bag snagged up near the tree’s crown, was to cross the impossible-looking gap to Snake-bend.

At least if she fell, she wouldn’t have to worry about her GCSE results any more.

‘You OK?’ called Adam from wide, level bough of the Sofa, more than halfway to the ground. It had been Jezz’s idea for him to video her, but it would take a lot of work to edit out all this faffing.

‘Fine,’ she called back. ‘Just enjoying the view.’

‘Sure? We can leave it.’

‘I’m not leaving her polluted.’

She looked up at the bag that had defiled Doaky for the two months since the high winds of April, while they’d waited for the blackbird nest to empty. How to reach it? She calmed her mind, and felt – yes, she was sure she felt – the goodwill flow into her, the thing that made Doaky unique of all the trees she and Adam had climbed. But no answer came. She’d watched Adam do this crossing to Snake-bend two years back, the time he’d made her shriek by pretending to slip. But he hadn’t used any special technique, just his longer legs. He would be the one fetching the bag now, except he’d grown too heavy for this bit of Woodpecker, and the branch flexed too much for him to feel safe.

Flexed. Jezz smiled to herself. She’d got it.

She tested her trainers’ rubber grip, then used what bodyweight she had to start Woodpecker swaying, creaking, carrying her low then high, lower, higher, while she listened for any sound of real distress from the branch – and on the fourth high she pushed hard with her left foot and swung her other leg across the gap and committed herself to success or death. Her hand closed on the upright offshoot she’d aimed for, and she planted her reaching foot on Snake-bend and hauled herself across.

Her heart hammered. She whooped from breathless lungs, and for just a moment hoped Adam would hear it as a scream.

‘Good one, Jezz.’

‘Easy.’

Her leg-bones had softened to jelly, her muscles to mud. But from here it actually was easy. She clambered her way up the steeper part of Snake-bend to where she could reach the now-tattered plastic bag. She teased the intruder off the twigs it had tangled on, and stuffed it inside her waistband. Then she lowered herself, feeling each foothold firm before she put weight on it. She didn’t have to cross back to Woodpecker, because although the section of Snake-bend just below the gap lacked holds for climbing, it could be shimmied down with care.

Adam videoed her all the way back to the Sofa. With a flourish, Jezz pulled out the bag. She channelled through her expression all the generations of fierce warriors she wanted for her tribal ancestors, and addressed the lens. ‘Message from Jesamine Nazari, kids. Don’t… ****ing… litter.
 
I don’t recall your previous piece, so I have nothing else to go on, but I enjoyed it, and wanted it to continue. I can’t fault the writing. Really like the characterisation/description of the tree.

I’ve no idea where it goes obviously, but stakes and motivation for this scene are clear and easy. I got a good sense of character, certainly from Jezz. Less so from Adam, but it wasn’t his POV, so that’s fine.

My only gripe with this is the use of GCSE. Really don’t know why but I don’t like the use of ‘modern’ or easily dated terms. Like if Adam was videoing her on a brand new iPhone *insert new number*. But that is very much a personal taste thing.

Would read more anytime (y)
 
I think it works as a start, even if it is lower stakes. I do remember your other opening, and to be honest I don't think one or the other hooked me more, but I'd need to go back and read that one to really say definitively. I do like quieter openings, though, so I have no problem with this. I also think there's a strong sense of character here, at least for Jezz.

Two things in this bit:

‘You OK?’ called Adam from wide, level bough of the Sofa, more than halfway to the ground.

I think you missed a 'the' in there, and I'd also use 'okay', but that's purely personal preference.
 
I think it works well. Jezz's character comes through strong and both the problem solving and light humour of the "moral" at the end keep it going. Well done!

My only gripes: the missing "the", as noted by Culhwch, and the opening sentence--
Jezz glanced down the ten-metre fall to the rough patch of grass and weeds that surrounded the base of Doaky’s trunk.

This was too long and a little awkward for me. I think it might be enough to say "rough ground at the base..." or "to the grass and weeds that surrounded Doaky's..."

Finally, the first mention of Woodpecker branch was confusing. I quickly got the idea of the named branches but it momentarily took me out of the narrative. Tough, but is there a clearer way to set this up?
 
My big problem with this chapter (especially having read on a little) is that the YA audience will struggle with the do-good element of rescuing the tree from a single plastic bag that’s been there for months.

Things have moved on from this. The teens of today are aware they’re to be left with the mess of climate change (well, my two are practically horizontal about it - but at least they know it’s happening...) and they’re militant and dangerous.

Personally I’d ditch the climbing bit and start with her in front of the camera - and make it more passionate. Much more in your face. When you dump plastic this is what happens!!! Tree killers!

So, yeah - love the writing, as ever. But the young are militant about the climate crisis and I’m not sure this reflects it

(FWIW, chapter 2 rocks!)
 
I think we're missing a sense of emotional engagement here, with too much objective description especially, at the beginning.

She "glances" to note the danger, and she notes that she could break her neck or miss her GCSEs - but I don't get any sense of her fear or exhilaration early on. Similar with the whole point of removing the plastic bag - I don't get any sense of passion about why this is important to her, or what Doaky means to her as she tends to think more about Adam.

I'd also like to see little details of the tree and to help share the experience of climbing it - the texture of the bark on her hands, the difficulty of twisting herself around thick limbs or of balancing on flexible branches, so that Doaky is less abstract.

So, overall, it's not a bad piece of writing - but for me there's a depth of experience missing that reduces reader engagement. Could just be stylistic difference, though. :)

2c.
 
Thanks for the responses so far.

My only gripe with this is the use of GCSE. Really don’t know why but I don’t like the use of ‘modern’ or easily dated terms.

I largely agree. What with everything today seeming so ephemeral, in the rest of the story I've avoided names of social media sites and most brand names. I thought I was safe with GCSEs because they've been around for 30+ years and it's a good shorthand for her age (for UK readers anyway). But I gather even they might be on their way out, so I'll probably change to "exams" and get the age in elsewhere.

Finally, the first mention of Woodpecker branch was confusing. I quickly got the idea of the named branches but it momentarily took me out of the narrative. Tough, but is there a clearer way to set this up?

Not that I've found. Suggestions welcome!

My big problem with this chapter (especially having read on a little) is that the YA audience will struggle with the do-good element of rescuing the tree from a single plastic bag that’s been there for months.

Maybe. I'm hoping to research this question via a couple of teachers I know.

Things have moved on from this. The teens of today are aware they’re to be left with the mess of climate change (well, my two are practically horizontal about it - but at least they know it’s happening...) and they’re militant and dangerous.

This is an interesting point, and one I'd be happy to talk about more widely. The first draft of this was written before teenage alarm about the climate crisis took off, and part of my pipe-dream for it was that it might bring some readers round to that subject by a smaller-scale route. I think I'd find it difficult to write the kind of story this is (and which I'm reasonably good at) about climate change. It's just so big, and there's a limited amount that small groups can achieve that would make a good story. I do plan further episodes that are more to do with it, e.g. foiling the assassination of a pro-renewables lobbyist, but for now I'm going to stick with this. I also think an effective interest in climate change can't (or shouldn't) really be divorced from a more general interest in the well-being of nature (which this is about).
 
Reading this, I wish it had more of an exciting arc, where the climax is reaching her goal and safety. As it reads, the challenge is to find a solution to the climbing route problem, rather than execute it. So everything is a bit anticlimactic since that is an intellectual challenge and the dangerous part reads as more pro forma. There is a part near the end of the God Emperor of Dune where Duncan climbs a cliff - that would be a good model for what I'm talking about.

The first sentence is long and clunky: Jezz eyed the ten-metre fall to the knarled base of Doaky’s trunk. Or something.

Otherwise, an interesting passage. I think there are plenty of places where someone could dote on some litter without being out of sync with ecological reality. It isn't just eco - Jezz is defending spirit of the tree itself.

I like the named branches. You might consider stringing more of them together to make it more obvious - She could jump from Snake to Pig's Tail, then round the trunk to Shrimp Fork and then use Dinky just above it as a step to reach Compass.
 
I agree about the eco vs climate emergency feel and thoughts, that they are different things and are reflected differently. But this is an opening and it needs to hook young adults, not reflective adults, and I’m not sure how to marry the two.

It’s a bit like the advice not to open with a bored YA hating their life, because most teens don’t want to see themselves that way. I wonder how many teens want to see themselves as saving a tree from a plastic bag.

I say this especially having read on, as I don’t think that opening actually reflects where things go. What I actually kind of wonder about, with my mad Celt head on, is if there couldn’t be more sense of the magical in this. That the tree has some legends attached to it (literally? Shoe trees or trees as a memorial to the dead (and, yes, the fae appear of course) on a broader sense. A hint at the wider world?

These are all just thoughts - happy to explore further by email if you like - about the worldbuilding and the breadth of it as the story expands which doesn’t feel captured here, leading to things being less tense than they could be.
 
As it reads, the challenge is to find a solution to the climbing route problem, rather than execute it. So everything is a bit anticlimactic since that is an intellectual challenge and the dangerous part reads as more pro forma.

Good point, thanks. (Probably not helped by "But from here it actually was easy".)
 
Good point, thanks. (Probably not helped by "But from here it actually was easy".)
Turn that easy part into a description of the final sprint where every hand and foothold fell naturally in place. So quick that the actual top of the tree took her by surprise.

It doesn't have to be the thrill of danger and risk.
 
I'd read this. Difficult to comment on this passage because I'm already hooked from the previous one.
 
Def a great start. Not much happening here, so you REALLY have to nail the interactions btw the characters and flesh them out with just enough detail for us to connect with them. Since there's no real action, you've gotta make us care about these guys really fast.

You write very well. Clear and not too wordy. I likey.
 
Hi

I always read a story and draft up some comments before I look at what others have said. I see now that others have made comments about many of the same things, so hopefully, it's useful to you to know that these viewpoints are shared by various readers. I also see that this is from six months ago so maybe you have moved on from this section, but I'll post these comets anyway.

It took me until the second read to connect with the names and ideas.

I'm seeing a tree-dwelling group and Doaky is a tree and woodpecker is the name of a branch that I'm assuming is some kind of neighbourhood or at least a known area of the tree.

GCSE, some kind of test I'm guessing, but another unknown.

once I got to Sofa with a capital S I clued in a little

faffling was a new word for me but from the context, I think I understand. At the least, its something she wants edited out

I'm not clear on what the threat level of the plastic bag is in this story's world. I'm guessing its low because they have left it there for a long time. So, I get the impression that this is more about the challenge of the climb then it is about the bag. The final message in the video made me think there may be more. But still, I don't have enough context to say with certainty. I wonder are how big of a problem is littering here. While a bag is certainly an eyesore it doesn't cause direct and immediate harm.

I think this does give me a good sense of Jess as a character. She's a risk-taker, somewhat reckless and doesn't back down from a challenge. She's self-righteous and feels a need to denounce the actions of others who do not share her views. I think teen readers would easily identify with her.

Adam, I can say less about. He's obviously an ally. but seem to lack the conviction of Jezz. He wants the bag gone but doesn't see it as worth the risk to Jess's safety.

The name Doaky made me think that the tree is an oak. But Jezz refers to it as her, which made me doubt because oak trees don't have separate genders and Jezz seems the type who would know that. Still, maybe she just feels more comfortable picking a pronoun rather than "it" which feels impersonal. Why I think it matters. Clearly the tree is important, but I didn't feel Doaky as more than a generic tree. To lend greater importance, I'd like to know bark texture, leave shape and that sort of thing. Also, oaks aren't typically the tallest trees so I'm starting to doubt my guess that this is an oak.

All in all, I think it's a fine place to start a story but for a YA audience (I'm not a big YA reader but I know lots of kids) I think it may need a stronger hook. One suggestion might have Jezz falling and catching herself than covering the misstep up from Adam rather than Jezz easily making the jump and hoping he thinks she didn't make it. I didn't feel any tension there myself.

Hope my comments are still useful and thanks again for the feedback you've given me on my work.

Cheers
 
If it’s useful at all, oaks are male in Celtic mythology iirc. I know i did some research for a book coming out next year and the oak is Father Daire (I think, it’s Gaelic, so i might have it exact)
 
Thanks @ckatt. I have in the last few months made some changes since that I think address some of your points, such as tension/risk. (Whether I've done it enough, I'm not yet sure.)

I'm not clear on what the threat level of the plastic bag is in this story's world. [...] While a bag is certainly an eyesore it doesn't cause direct and immediate harm.

It is just an eyesore, but the "sacredness" of the place makes it more urgent and anger-inducing. (I've taken out the fact that it's been up there a while.) I might have to beef that up, though how many readers will relate to it I'm not sure. That might be the challenge to getting the story to work.

The name Doaky made me think that the tree is an oak. But Jezz refers to it as her, which made me doubt because oak trees don't have separate genders and Jezz seems the type who would know that. Still, maybe she just feels more comfortable picking a pronoun rather than "it" which feels impersonal. Why I think it matters. Clearly the tree is important, but I didn't feel Doaky as more than a generic tree. To lend greater importance, I'd like to know bark texture, leave shape and that sort of thing. Also, oaks aren't typically the tallest trees so I'm starting to doubt my guess that this is an oak.

English (pendiculate) oaks can be very big. You're right about the sex. They've gone for female because of its feel (related to a fertility totem buried under it), but I probably should have someone point out that oaks are both male and female. In fact I know the exact place. Thanks again.
 
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