Saturday, December 31

Real Life Diagnostics: Open Up: Are All Systems Go?

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly 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.

Submissions currently in the queue: Five

This week’s questions:
I’m wondering if the main character has been introduced efficiently, if setting has been established well, and, of course, the big question of whether or not the opening has hooked you or if it at least works. Perhaps if POV is working, too. Basically, I'm wondering if all systems are go here.
On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
Dwyth Oruf focused on the giant lizard a few feet in front of him. He extended his telepathic Influence toward it like a finger, and poked at its brain.

Come on, you big stupid lizard – let me in!

Two hundred and fifty pounds of tough yellow skin and muscle – all of which stood perfectly still inside his log hut – stared back at him. That was because Zeph, the older boy giving Dwyth the test, stood a few feet to the left of it and controlled it with his Influence. Dwyth could barely sense how strong Zeph’s Influence was. The older boy had been inside the beast’s head since the start of the test, making sure it didn’t run wild in the hut and kick straw all over the place.

But no matter how hard he tried, Dwyth couldn’t penetrate the lizard’s brain with his own Influence.

No surprise there. But there was no way he was giving up. Not this time. Of all times, not this time.

Come on, come on…He tried to tighten his mind’s extension, make it firmer so it could pierce through.

It wasn’t working. He wasn’t getting through. He grunted, facial features squished against each other, and continued to concentrate as hard as he could.

After a minute he felt Zeph’s Influence give a tug, and the beast slithered up to Zeph, who tenderly stroked its head.

“I think that’ll do, Dwyth,” Zeph said softly.

My Thoughts in Purple:
Dwyth Oruf focused on the giant lizard a few feet in front of him. He extended his telepathic Influence toward it like a finger, [and poked at its brain.] This made me giggle because it was unexpected, which drew me in.

Come on, you big stupid lizard – let me in!

Two hundred and fifty pounds of tough yellow skin and muscle – all of which stood perfectly still inside his log hut – stared back at him. [That was because Zeph, the older boy giving Dwyth the test, stood a few feet to the left of it and controlled it with his Influence. ] telling some here with the “that was because Zeph, the older boy giving Dwyth the test,” and this pulls me out of Dwyth’s head a bit. Perhaps tweak to be more in his voice, possibly say what might happen if Zeph wasn’t controlling the lizard. [Dwyth could barely sense how strong Zeph’s Influence was.] Barely sensing how strong he is seemed contradictory, which tripped me up some [ The older boy had been inside the beast’s head since the start of the test, making sure it didn’t run wild in the hut and kick straw all over the place.] Good info, but it’s explaining the situation instead of letting us see Dwyth’s fear that this could happen in his own words. Also, kicking straw around seems a small risk. There might not be a big risk here, but it does lessen the tension. A lizard that big is pretty dangerous.

[But no matter how hard he tried, Dwyth couldn’t penetrate the lizard’s brain with his own Influence.] Feels a little distant. How might Dwyth think this?

No surprise there. But there was no way he was giving up. Not this time. [Of all times, not this time.] Intriguing, as it makes me wonder why this time is different. This paragraph is also nicely in his voice and his head.

Come on, come on…[He tried to tighten his mind’s extension, make it firmer so it could pierce through.] Telling his motive a bit here, but you show it well the next paragraph. You could cut this, but I like seeing what he’s trying to do to win (makes him proactive). Perhaps tweak to eliminate the “tried to” and “so it could” and get more in his head.

It wasn’t working. He wasn’t getting through. He grunted, [facial features squished against each other,] This feels outside looking at Dwyth, not what Dwyth thinks and [continued to] a bit distant. Perhaps just use “concentrating?” concentrate as hard as he could.

After a minute he felt Zeph’s Influence give a tug, and the beast slithered up to Zeph, who tenderly stroked its head. This is a good spot for some internalization and reaction from Dwyth. How does this make him feel? What does this mean?

“I think that’ll do, Dwyth,” [Zeph said softly.] How does he feel here? Is he disappointed? Sad? Angry? Seeing his feelings could help show how others will see Dwyth and do a little world building.

The questions:
Has the main character has been introduced efficiently?

Some, though I wanted a little more internalization to get to know him better. I’m more curious about what’s going on than him personally. I think tweaking those told spots to his voice would fix that right up though. The pieces are all there, and I think the character voice that's here.

Has the setting has been established well?
It’s in a log hut with people who can telepathically influence animals, and there is a test going on. I suspect this is Dwyth’s last chance since he says he can’t fail, but I don’t know how that fits into this world or these characters yet. I also know Zeph is older, but there’s no context for how old. Dwyth could be 17 or 12. A giant lizard makes me think this is a hot climate, possibly near a forest since the hut is made of logs. Straw on the floor and being inside a hut makes me think the culture is primitive. The names feel Viking-ish, though, which suggests a cold climate.

Has the opening hooked you or if it at least works?
I’d read on a few more pages. It’s not hooking me yet, but I am curious about the test and what will happen now that Dwyth has failed it. The distant phrases are what’s making me not fully connect to Dwyth yet (but that’s a personal thing, so readers chime in here)

Is the POV working?
Depends on what you’re trying to do. The narrative distance is father away here with the explanatory phrases (the told parts), but that’s more acceptable in a distant third or omniscient third. If you’re trying for a tight or close third, it’s not quite there yet. I do feel that Dwyth is the POV though, and the character I should be following. No matter which narrative distance you choose, I think tweaking those told parts would solidify the POV nicely.

Are all systems go here?
Again, it depends. Since these are boys, I’m guessing this is a YA/MG book, but I can’t tell which from this snippet. For younger MG, it’s not uncommon to be a bit more explanatory, so some of the telling would be fine in that market. For older MG or YA, you’d probably want to be a little tighter and show more.

You also might consider raising the tension a little. You have the right elements to do that though: the risk of the lizard breaking free and Dwyth’s failure. If he worried more and we knew the stakes better, it would draw readers in faster.

Overall, I think it’s really close. There’s a lot of good stuff here that can shine with just a little polish.

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) and I encourage you 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 feedback.

4 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this and it definitely piqued my interest. As always I think Janice's critique is right on and don't really have anything to add.

    My only other thought was toward the beginning Dwyth could barely sense Zeph's influence, then he felt the tug without any problem. Other than that I think this is a great start. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    Janice, thanks for doing these. I learn so much about my own writing by reading your thoughts on all of them.

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  2. Fabulous - thanks, Janice, so much! This definitely helps and I can't wait to make this piece tighter. Thanks again!

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  3. Honestly, it throws me a bit when there's this much worldbuilding right up front. You either have to explain enough about the telepathy and the lizard and the test (which is why there were some distant phrases, imo) or you don't explain enough and the reader feels lost. For my personal tastes, it almost never pulls me into a story.

    However, I think you did a very good job of grounding this test in a way that I can immediately relate to, so I wouldn't say you have to find some other place to start. Everyone can relate to the stress of a test they can't fail. I think Janice has the right idea, and you should focus more the stakes. Why can't he fail this test? How many times has he tried before? How long has he practiced? What's his personal investment?

    Slightly OT, the image of the lizard running a muck through his village is extremely amusing to me, so I almost HOPE he fails. That would be a very interesting follow up to the opening scene. :D But then, I am evil like that to my MCs.

    Thanks for putting your opening up to the chopping block!

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  4. Charity, most welcome. That's one reason I do them. You learn just as much from doing crits and receiving them. :)

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