What I gleaned about the story: Emily is a (probably-badass) martial artist who is being conscripted into her first real martial arts tournament. Her sensei, deeming the women’s bracket insufficiently challenging, is demanding that Emily be thrown into The Brawl of Manliness.
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Analysis: The opening of a story is your first chance to hook—or lose—your reader. It’s the moment where you have to chip away all the things that aren’t your story, revealing the shape beneath. What is the story about? Who is the story about?
If the story is about a particular person, or if a scene is being told from a particular point of view, it helps the reader if you establish that immediately. But Girl Fights Back opens with Emily and her sensei driving somewhere, and the narrative takes a while to pick between their POVs.
Seiji Oda winced to hear the question, having hoped she wouldn’t notice, though it could hardly be concealed much longer. He pretended to concentrate on driving through downtown Roanoke.
We’re starting inside Oda’s head, but two sentences later:
He grunted, face like stone, stoic, impervious.
Which sounds more like what an outside observer (like Emily) would see than how he’d perceive himself. My brain has started warning me that I’ve misread the POV.
Next we sink more firmly into Emily’s thoughts:
“Fine,” she harrumphed, the reminder of her uncle-father adding to her irritation.
It’s possible that Oda knows his student well enough to understand what she’s thinking, but it feels more like we’re privy to Emily’s thoughts directly.
Analysis: When describing action, even of the mundane sort, you have to keep track of where you’ve put everything. Which way are characters facing? What are they holding? What objects do they have on them, next to them, impaled in their rib cage, etc.?
With the hatch open, he pulled out the equipment bag for her, and slung a camera bag over his shoulder. “I hope you don’t mean that for me,” she said, tapping the camera bag with the ball of her left foot.
By my reading, she just gave the camera bag a forward kick, waist or shoulder height depending on the exact position of the bag. I know this book will be heavy on the martial arts, so this isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. But it reads more like the author initially wrote the scene with the bag on the ground, later chose to have Oda sling it over his shoulder, then forgot to update Emily’s body language.
It’s enough to pull me out of the story and send me back to figure out what I missed on the first reading.
Analysis: My sense of uneasiness builds as Emily’s sensei starts to badger the tournament officials into letting his teenage student compete in the adult men’s division, alongside the highest-level black-belts. Oda says flat out that Emily won’t find any challenge over in the women’s division.
There’s enough sexism in that assumption that it’s a little surprising that it goes unchallenged by anyone participating in the conversation, and it runs counter to the book’s promise of “female protagonist kicking all the asses.” But for whatever reason, the narration works hard to establish that the men’s division is where Emily will face her real test. The story is broadcasting its punches here, setting Emily up for an impressive showing against the boys. Maybe she’ll take home the Gold Ninja Star (or whatever tournaments like these hand out; I’m not really a martial arts guy).
But she’s got other things working against her. The story is trying to raise the stakes so that we’ll be duly impressed by the ultimate outcome, which is a laudable goal. But some of the information that’s intended to do that goes overboard. We know Emily’s never been in a tournament and doesn’t want to enter this one. She’s got no experience sparring with other black belts. None of her training has been focused on the tournament environment.
It’s not really clear how a training regimen that fulfills these criteria could have prepared her for tournament greatness. We get vague reassurances from Oda that her training has properly equipped her, but that’s the only evidence in play: Oda’s confidence is supposed to convince the readers.
I’m not convinced.
But the reader isn’t the only one who needs convincing. The tournament officials need good reasons to believe that Emily deserves a shot, so the reader will believe it when they give her that shot. Unfortunately, Sensei Oda is not giving them those reasons. As they square off across the registration table, the officials ask him some standard registration questions, and the only one he’s not evasive about is her age.
It’s clear what the story is trying to do here: make Emily mysterious, keep us curious about who she is and how she got that good. But the punches aren’t quite landing for me.
To see part of the problem, let’s step to the other side of the registration table. Let’s get you into character with a quote from Pratchett/Gaiman’s Good Omens: “It is a high and lonely destiny to be Chairman of the Lower Tadfield Residents’ Association.”
You are the benevolent tyrant of your fiefdom of martial arts paperwork, and your domain is at peace. Then this (seemingly unknown) guy comes up to you with a smallish teenager with no uniform, insisting she’s as good as your top fighters and deserves to compete among them. When asked about her fighting style, he says it’s not really applicable. When asked about her dan (basically her level above black-belt), he says, “We do not use levels. She is equivalent to highest dan, any style.” As a reader, this is intriguing. But as a tournament registrar, it sounds a lot like “feel lucky that my prize student deigns to participate in your podunk little tourney.” When the student is invited into the conversation, she doesn’t strike you as someone who wants to be there.
The biggest red flag: this guy seems indifferent to his student’s safety. You warn him that she is more likely to get hurt in the men’s division. He counters that, if she does get hurt, it’s because her opponents aren’t talented enough to control their punches. Which, even if true, will be a small consolation to her shattered femur. As the Benevolent Tyrant, you have a responsibility to keep your tourney-goers safe. Even if this supplicant had done something to ingratiate himself to you (he’s actually been quite insulting) what he’s asking for has left you concerned.
So when the officials offer a compromise (let’s see how she does in the adult women’s division first, even though she isn’t even old enough), I’m genuinely surprised. I know they’ll ultimately let her into the men’s division: the narrative has put enough emphasis on the point that another outcome would feel like a big letdown. But it would be more believable—and maybe a little more satisfying—for them to tell him to hit the road and take his reluctant punching prodigy with him.
Crud. I’ve begun rooting against the main characters. It’s time to unplug.
What might have made the scene more believable for me? Oda is presented with a social engineering challenge, makes an inept attempt to solve it, and (unbelievably) it leads (in a preliminary fashion) to the outcome he desires. A few fixes I can think of offhand:
1) His reputation precedes him. Sure, Oda’s being a jerk. But people ’round these parts know the Legend of Sensei Oda. When he says she’ll be a top performer, his declaration carries weight.
2) Oda displays better social engineering skills. He eventually recognizes that his abrasive style is rubbing the officials the wrong way. He apologizes, blames his behavior on his strong faith in his student, then asks them to judge her by her performance in the women’s division. He’ll abide by their decision, of course. And—out of respect for their honored tournament—he’ll try to rustle up a proper uniform for her.
3) Simplify the social engineering challenge. If the tournament rules were such that top performers in the women’s division automatically got a shot at the men’s title, Emily just needs a seat at the adult table. She’s seventeen; the rules only have to bend a little (though again, the officials have to want to bend them).
4) Redefine ‘impressive victory.’ The narrative establishes the stakes in such a way that Emily’s victory in the women’s division is a foregone conclusion. She can’t impress the reader that way. Instead, the tournament officials could have talked up the female talent she’ll be squaring off against. Maybe throw an olympic silver medalist at Emily, see if she flinches.
5) Gun it. Make Oda even more of an ass, then make the officials asses. Turn up the anger until they promise Emily a shot at the men’s title, just so they can enjoy the look on her face when she gets knocked out in the first round.
6) Go pro. If the women’s division is going to be an absolute cakewalk, maybe the tournament circuit isn’t the right place to test Emily’s mettle. Illegal cage-fighting circuit, anyone?
Some of these may be terrible fixes, ones that contradict narrative needs that I didn’t pick up on. It’s more a “here’s some ideas for other authors who find themselves in vaguely similar situations.”
But the broader point is, even minor characters are the heroes of their own story. They have to act the part.