Saturday, July 2

Real Life Diagnostics: Establishing Character and Grabbing the Reader

Real Life Diagnostics is a recurring column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

This week’s question:
I'd love for you to take a look at the opening 250 words of my middle-grade science fiction manuscript. I'd like to know if it's a good opener, if the main character is well-established (or perhaps introduced well is what I mean), etc.
On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
I eagerly tear away the wrapping paper, lift the lid off the large cardboard box underneath, and peer inside.

A small chip rests on the bottom of the box.

“Oh,” I say. “What’s –?”

“It’s a book,” Uncle Tony says, eyes wide in his thick-jawed, tightly muscled face. “Go on, download it.” He leans in, inhumanly broad shoulders and all, a cigar between his pointer and middle finger.

He and my parents watch as I pick up the tiny chip and insert it into my Multipurpose Bracelet. My MB registers the chip, and asks me if I would like to download the book The Top 200 Most Treacherous Creatures in the Universe.

“Yes,” I say, and it starts downloading. I turn to Uncle Tony, blurting out, “Sounds cool.”

Don’t get me wrong. It’ll be an interesting read, especially since I live on the most boring planet in the universe, but I’m a bit confused. Uncle Tony usually gets me the coolest presents. One year he got me a fluorescent slug from planet Zambor in the Orion Arm that lived for about four years, its typical lifespan. It was about the size of a golden retriever and changed colors every twenty-five minutes in its cage, but it was really slimy and a bit annoying when I tried to sleep at night.

Another year he got me a plasma rifle, which I still use for target practice in my backyard from time to time. I have fun outshooting the neighborhood kids, too. No one can hit that target like me. Shooting at stuff is my thing.

My Thoughts in Purple:
I eagerly tear away the wrapping paper, lift the lid off the large [cardboard box] would they still use cardboard in the future? underneath, and peer inside.

A small chip rests on the bottom of the box. Small thing, but perhaps move this up to the previous paragraph since it’s part of the same idea?

“Oh,” I say. “What’s –?”

“It’s a book,” Uncle Tony says, eyes wide in his thick-jawed, tightly muscled face. “Go on, download it.” He leans in, inhumanly broad shoulders and all, a cigar between his pointer and middle finger.

[He and my parents watch] Feels a bit distant from the first person POV here. Perhaps try another verb than “watch?” That makes me feels as if he’s watching them watch him as I pick up the tiny chip and insert it into my Multipurpose Bracelet. My MB registers the chip, and asks me if I would like to download the book The Top 200 Most Treacherous Creatures in the Universe.

“Yes,” I say, and it starts downloading. I turn to Uncle Tony, [blurting out,] Blurting suggests something done involuntarily, yet he turns as if he planned to speak, so it feels a little off to me. “Sounds cool.”

[Don’t get me wrong. It’ll be an interesting read, especially since I live on the most boring planet in the universe, but I’m a bit confused.] I didn’t get the impression he was unhappy with his gift, so this threw me a bit. Perhaps add a reaction (perhaps this is what the “blurt” was supposed to imply?) that he’s disappointed. Uncle Tony usually gets me the coolest presents. One year he got me a fluorescent slug from planet Zambor in the Orion Arm [that lived for about four years, its typical lifespan.] Feels like infodump. Don’t think you need It was about the size of a golden retriever and changed colors every twenty-five minutes in its cage, [but] this feels off, since the second half doesn’t really feel like a “but” to the first half of the sentence. it was really slimy and [a bit annoying when I tried to sleep at night.] Funny

Another year he got me a plasma rifle, which I still use for target practice in my backyard [from time to time.] this didn’t feel like something this kid would say I have fun outshooting the neighborhood kids, too. No one can hit that target like me. [Shooting at stuff is my thing.] Funny

The question:
I'd like to know if it's a good opener, if the main character is well-established (or perhaps introduced well is what I mean)


Aside from a few nitpicky comments (and they really are just nits), I think this is a well-written piece with a nice voice. I’d read on a bit longer to see where it goes.

I’m getting a good sense of the narrator and his (I assume his) personality. I know he lives on a boring planet, likes his uncle’s usually cool gifts, and is a good shot. He’s into weird creatures, and also likes showing off a bit. He’s funny and seems like an interesting kid, which makes me like him.

There's one thing I’d like to mention because it’s a good example of a well-written piece that could get a “good writing, but it didn’t grab me” comment. (tastes vary of course, readers, chime in here). I didn’t get a strong sense of something about to happen from this opening to draw me in. It didn’t stop me from reading on, but there was nothing in this to make me read on. If something didn’t "happen" (plot or voice) in the next page to hook me, I’d probably set this back on the shelf despite the quality of the writing. This feeling I have fits very well in the oh-so-frustrating “why can’t I get past the partial request stage?” writers often struggle with when they submit. (Which is why I’m bringing it up, apologies to the author who wrote some good stuff here) It's really close, but. (and we all know how hard it is to get feedback on that but)

You might consider adding a small goal or desire from the POV to hint at what’s to come. Or maybe (this is probably easier) get in a few more funny lines early on so the voice itself pulls us in (like the hard to sleep and shooting stuff is my thing). That’s working and those two bits are what kept me reading. I think if that cute voice and humor is tweaked a little more, I’d be drawn right in. A really fun opening line would also work well here to grab me. I don’t think it needs much, just a line or two to carry me through to the first plot event and protag goal. But as we hear agents say all the time, that opening 250 words is sometimes all you get so you want to make the most of them.


Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they – and others – find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) so feel free to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive comments.

12 comments:

  1. I agree with everything Janice says but would add that the word 'eagerly' jumped out at me. It sounds a little too old. The writing feels calm and smooth which is an achievement but maybe middle grade needs to be a tad more buzzy?

    ReplyDelete
  2. It could start with the speaker saying about the sort of presents he'd like. That would then establish that he's disappointed. Possibly, the speaker could mention something he really wants or something similar to give a goal.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree, it didn't really grab me. I'm not a huge SF fan but I would have read on (so that's good. The world sounded interesting though not enough to quite intrigue me.

    Even a tiny bit of conflict somewhere probably would make me want to read on more.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'd have less description of Uncle Tony unless it's important that he's so muscular.

    The part I enjoyed most was about the slug - it was unique and funny and promised more of the same.

    Just as "The Top 200 Most Treacherous Creatures in the Universe" promises that such a book will come in handy in the future.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  6. The sudden shift in the uncle's gift-giving triggered a lot of curiosity for me, actually. Especially with the topic of the book. It's consistent with what I imagine the uncle is up to when away, based on the adventurous gifts from previous occasions. I'm getting ready for an intergalactic adventure that the narrator doesn't know about yet, but the uncle does--where this book is going to soon be of great use. Kind of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy-style. I agree with the rest of the comments, but this opening works well for me. Just to offer a dissenting point of view.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I really like this. The opening was appealing and made me want to keep reading.

    I agree with Janice's comments, and would just add one other point. I was thrown a bit by the Uncle's "inhuman" shoulders. I was waiting for him to turn out to be an alien of some kind.

    Great writing. I agree with Emily, too, it feels like he's about to go off on an adventure and come face to face with some of these dangerous creatures.

    ReplyDelete
  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  9. "One year he got me a fluorescent slug from planet Zambor in the Orion Arm that lived for about four years, its typical lifespan. It was about the size of a golden retriever and changed colors every twenty-five minutes in its cage, but it was really slimy and a bit annoying when I tried to sleep at night."

    Unless the slug matters down the road, I would suggest getting rid of this. I get the sense that the MC being a good shot is what matters here.

    I get the sense of world building but it can come later, after you’ve hooked me.

    But again, remember it’s just an opinion. You decide what comments help your story become stronger.
    Either way thx for submitting your work.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I really liked the opener, but I agree with Janice's points. I think if you shortened the part about what her uncle had gotten her in the past you'd have room to use her suggestions for tightening this. Good luck!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thanks for all the feedback/comments guys - I really appreciate it!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thanks to everyone for offering such great feedback!

    ReplyDelete