Saturday, February 2

Real Life Diagnostics: Finding the Right World Building Balance in Your Opening

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Six

This week’s questions:

Is the balance between action and world building right? Is there enough information to ground the reader in the scene and in the world? Is there too much? Is the scene understandable? And, of course, does the beginning hook the reader?


Market/Genre: YA space opera

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

That stupid android wasn’t listening to me again. I covered my ears against the wailing emergency siren and bent over the hatch. Below, the ladder disappeared into the darkness of the engine bay, punctuated by flashing red emergency lights. I squinted and called down, “Hapi? Just want to let you know I picked our mark. When we get to Stymphalian Beta, we’re stealing the statue.”

The ship shuddered violently, sending me flying across the tiny bridge and into a rusty metal wall. My breath escaped in a puff. I rubbed my elbow where it’d cracked against the steel. Underneath my tangled legs, the Disharmony’s engines sputtered. My teeth buzzed from the vibrations.

“I’m a little busy now, Jez. Perhaps we can discuss this later.” Hapi’s voice drifted up from the bottom level of the ship. I crawled back to the hatch. I considered the ladder for a second, then winced and looked down. The android’s subtle blue glow stood out against the dark and the dancing red lights. With inhuman speed, he rushed between engine panels, fiddling around where steam hissed up into the bay.

“It’s not a discussion.” I gripped the edge of the ladder as another jolt rocked the Disharmony. “The statue’s our target.”

Hapi appeared suddenly under the hatch. His body was perfectly still, and he stared at me with bright, pupiless blue eyes that never failed to creep me out. “Right now, I’m not sure we’ll even get to Stymphalian Station Beta. The temperature regulation module blew several fuses, and now there’s a potential hull breach where it froze.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

[That stupid android wasn’t listening to me again.] Made me chuckle. From this, I can tell this is a world where androids exist I covered my ears against the [wailing emergency siren] tells me there's a problem and bent over the [hatch.] This tells me they're on a ship or space station Below, the ladder disappeared into the darkness of the [engine bay] confirms it's a ship, punctuated by flashing red emergency lights. I squinted and called down, [“Hapi? Just want to let you know I picked our mark. When we get to [Stymphalian Beta] this tells me they can travel between systems, we’re stealing the statue.”] Mark and target tells me she's a con artist/thief. Overall, I had a disconnect here. Hapi is the android? Her dialog didn't sound like someone who's not being listened to. Also, what does the emergency siren and him not listening have to do with picking a target?

The ship shuddered violently, sending me flying across the [tiny bridge ] this tells me it must be a small ship since the bridge is connected to the engine room and into a rusty metal wall. My breath escaped in a puff. I rubbed my elbow where it’d cracked against the steel. Underneath my tangled legs, the Disharmony’s engines sputtered. My teeth buzzed from the vibrations.

“I’m a little busy now, Jez. Perhaps we can discuss this later.” Hapi’s voice drifted up from the bottom level of the ship. I crawled back to the hatch. I considered the ladder for a second, then winced and looked down. The android’s subtle blue glow stood out against the dark and the dancing red lights. With inhuman speed, he rushed between engine panels, fiddling around where [steam hissed] This tells me the technology is more rustic/mechanical than sleek space tech up into the bay.

“It’s not a discussion.” I gripped the edge of the ladder as another jolt rocked the Disharmony. [“The statue’s our target.”] Why does she need to tell the android this? And why now?

Hapi appeared suddenly under the hatch. His body was perfectly still, and he stared at me with bright, pupiless blue eyes that never failed to creep me out. “Right now, I’m not sure we’ll even get to Stymphalian Station Beta. The temperature regulation module blew several fuses, and now there’s a potential hull breach where it froze.”

The questions:

Is the balance between action and world building right?

Yes. There was enough information to let me know these characters are on a ship that's in need of repair, (fitting of its name, too), on their way to steal a statue and possibly pull a con. Seems like a small ship, with just a girl and her android. She doesn't really consider the android a person or friend because she refers to him as "the android" and his eye creep her out. She also gives orders, and doesn't expect discussion, yet she feels compelled to tell him the plan, as if she actually wants his input. They might have a complicated relationship.

(More on writing action scenes here)

Is there enough information to ground the reader in the scene and in the world? Is there too much?
I feel grounded in the world. There are things I don't know yet, but I don't feel lost world-wise. This feels like a girl and her android traveling through the stars pulling heists or cons, and either they have faster than light travel or there are jump gates or some technology to travel between systems. I get the sense that space travel is no different from car travel, which fits the space opera genre. I get a very Han Solo and Chewie on the Millennium Falcon vibe.

(More on backgrounding world building here)

Is the scene understandable?
What confused me was Jez's goal and motivation. It opens with emergency sirens blaring and something obviously wrong with the ship, yet Jez doesn't care about that at all. She's more interested in talking about stealing the statue. This seemed odd to me and made me feel like I'd missed something. Why wasn't she concerned about the siren? What about the statue was more important than the ship?

A little more internalization there to show why she doesn't care would clarify this. Maybe this is perfectly normal for her ship and she knows Hapi will fix it. Maybe she's freaked out and focusing on other things to keep her mind off near-certain death. It just feels like there's a problem on the ship and she's ignoring it to talk about something that doesn't matter as the scene opens. I don't understand her motivations so I feel lost.

(More on showing motivation here)

Does the beginning hook the reader?
I'd read on a little more, even with the confusion. I like the voice and the writing is good, and I'm curious about the statue and why she wants it (possibly to fix her failing ship). If the confusion continued though, I'd likely set it aside. It's grounded me in the world, but it hasn't yet grounded me in the story, and it has to do that soon or it'll lose me as a reader. A few tweaks to clarify goals and motivations though, and you would easily ground me in both world and story on this first page and start strong.

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.

5 comments:

  1. I enjoyed the voice. I don't feel like I've got a lot to say, but I did want to pop in and let you know that. :)

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  2. Reminds me of Firefly, which is a good thing. I love Firefly...There's a lot of potential here and great voice to your first person narrator. I agree, a bit of internal insight about her motivation would be helpful, but even without it, I still like the character. The android's eyes would creep me out too=)

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  3. The opening line made me grin; I'd certainly keep reading. I thought at first she was on a passenger ship or something, possibly with her mark, and that was why she was ignoring the siren: she expected the crew to deal with it. But since it's her ship, and the android working on it, I found a bit of disconnect in her priorities.

    Will you send in the rewrite??

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  4. I instantly thought Firefly as well. Love me some Firefly! I'm just gonna ditto everything jennifermzeiger said, we're in agreement. :)

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  5. I really like your opening. I laughed. I was confused who Hapi was as well. Is Jez not concerned because the bucket of bolts is always about to fall apart. If so, a little internalization like - not the blasted alarm again - would let me know why she isn't worried.

    I think tweaks would fix this and I love the voice.

    ReplyDelete