Saturday, February 16

Real Life Diagnostics: How Do I Make People Aware That the Story is Worth Waiting For?

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:

I have a story I have written in adult Fantasy, however, I found out many people have no idea about esoteric terms, so I have had to write a back story to familiarize the reader with the terms and concepts. I am afraid the opening does not grab and inspire to make the reader understand there is a emotionally entertaining journey along the way. How do I make people aware that the story is worth waiting for?

Market/Genre: Fantasy


ED Note: This submission came with a little background (which I usually post first), but as part of the question includes getting readers hooked on a story with a complex world and history, I thought it better to leave that off so readers can offer impressions of the world. The background will come later in the diagnostic.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

“Please Sir, out of the way,” I shouted as nicely as I could as I exploded down the passageway toward the lecture room.

I had Bayard’s lecture notes and copies of the priceless manuscripts in my bag, slung across my back. Various creatures milled around in the marble lined passage. My shouting cleared a path for me to clatter down. Bayard, my boss a large bay horse gifted with speech, was always early for lectures. He tended to get impatient if I cut my arrival too fine, which was about to happen again.

Breathless, and trying to regain my poise, as I literally slid through the doorway, I made my way to the lectern where Bayard waited, swishing his tail with impatience.

Relieved, I had just made it on time and had not damaged anything, I watched him, as he shook his neck so his black mane flopped on either side of his neck, “Morning Tysoe, just in time as usual,” he smiled at me.

I took a deep breath to regain my composure, my flanks heaving from the exertion; I wasted no time unpacking the notes and manuscript copies, and began distributing them to the class, so Bayard could begin his lecture.

People shuffled around and spoke while they waited for Bayard to begin, he *hrrumphed* and clopped to the front of the class. Instant silence settled on the room and all eyes focused on Bayard. He settled his back leg as horses often do, and lifted and turned his head for a better view of the class. His silky black tail touched the marble floor.

Bayard looked over the crowded lecture room. His ears pricked forward and he began, “The History of the human race is complicated.” Pausing for effect he settled into his teaching mode. “Human events are usually considered as single unrelated episodes in time.” It amazed me how he articulated words and added richness and texture in his lectures, “In reality,” he continued, “The actions of the human race simultaneously span the globe, and are not random stand alone developments of one particular civilisation. Experts find it implausible today to consider that the human race could have existed as a single cohesive force, thousands of years ago.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

“Please Sir, out of the way,” I shouted as nicely as I could as I exploded down the passageway toward the lecture room.

I had Bayard’s lecture notes and copies of the priceless manuscripts in my bag, slung across my back. Various [creatures] This tells me non-humans exist in this world milled around in the marble lined passage. My shouting cleared a path for me to clatter down. Bayard, my boss [a large bay horse gifted with speech,] now I know horses are sentient and speak, and are part of the regular population was always early for lectures. He tended to get impatient if I cut my arrival too fine, which was about to happen again.

Breathless, and trying to regain my poise, as I literally slid through the doorway, I made my way to the lectern where Bayard waited, swishing his tail with impatience.

Relieved, I had just made it on time and had not damaged anything, I watched him, as he shook his neck so his black mane flopped on either side of his neck, “Morning Tysoe, just in time as usual,” he [smiled at me.] This feels a little off to me, because horses can't really smile. That's a human gesture. You might consider finding ways for horses to express emotions that are horse-like to deepen this race.

I took a deep breath to regain my composure, my [flanks] this caught my attention and made me think the narrator is also a horse or some type of animal. heaving from the exertion; I wasted no time unpacking the notes and manuscript copies, and began distributing them to the class, so Bayard could begin his lecture.

People shuffled around and spoke while they waited for Bayard to begin, he *hrrumphed* and clopped to the front of the class. Instant silence settled on the room and all eyes focused on Bayard. He settled his back leg as horses often do, and lifted and turned his head for a better view of the class. His silky black tail touched the marble floor.

Bayard looked over the crowded lecture room. His ears pricked forward and he began, [“The History of the human race is complicated.”] This signals "infodump of backstory" to me. The reader is literally about to get a lesson on the history of this world. Pausing for effect he settled into his teaching mode. “Human events are usually considered as single unrelated episodes in time.” It amazed me how he articulated words and added richness and texture in his lectures, “In reality,” he continued, “The actions of the human race simultaneously span the globe, and are not random stand alone developments of one particular civilisation. [Experts find it implausible today to consider that the human race could have existed as a single cohesive force, thousands of years ago.”] I suspect this is relevant and includes the priceless manuscripts Tysoe is carrying. If so, perhaps have him think about what they're about to learn or reveal, or whatever it is that will drive the story forward. Use it to give him a goal and reason for readers to care about hearing this information.

The question:

How do I make people aware that the story is worth waiting for?

Don't make them wait. If you find yourself dumping a lot of backstory and history and explaining the setup of your world, you're not telling a story or doing anything to grab a reader. Readers don't care about backstory and history and sadly, they won't wait. This is a common problem with fantasy and science fiction, which requires a lot of world building at the start. Good news is, readers know this so they cut you a little slack on a slower opening. But they still want something going on to draw them in.

The goal of a first page is to make readers want to read the second page. So something needs to happen that grabs a reader's interest. A great voice or character, an intriguing problem, a puzzle. Something that makes them want to know what happens next. Backstory almost never accomplishes this. (I say almost because I'm sure somewhere out there is the exception to this. There's always an exception) What about this scene is a puzzle or problem Tysoe is facing? How might you develop that more so it's the goal of this scene?

(More on finding the right opening for your novel here)

This opening so far is setup to explain the world. Literally giving the reader a lecture (and readers don't like to be lectured). At this point in the story, they don't care about the history. They're probably much more interested in talking horses and how someone with hooves can teach. (How do they grade papers? Do they even write? How?) None of these things are going to keep your reader reading though, because there's no goal yet to draw them into the story. There's nothing to make them wonder about the history of this world either, because they haven't seen any of it. Until that history affects the protagonist's goal, readers won't be interested.

Tysoe is your protagonist, so what is his goal for this scene? What problem (even a small one) does he have to solve here or he faces a consequence? Scenes are all about conflict and stakes, and without those there's no reason for a reader to keep reading. The protagonist has to drive the scene through his actions. His choices propel the story forward (even if he doesn't realize the mess he's about the land in).

(More on making your protagonist proactive)

This is a good time to look at the background submitted on this tale:
The story is the gods have left Olympus and some equids are left behind, they know that the 2 brothers, much older gods fight every 26 000 years for supremacy in an age. Balam fought in Aries and won Pisces from his brother, and will now fight again for Aquarius. The story is about a new Adam and Eve for the race of mankind, and the terrible fate Balam has planned for them as his Titan protégé looks for the scepter of Agamemnon. With this tool she can remake creation more to her heart's desire which is of course molded by Balam.
I can't tell from this what the story is about. There's a lot of history, but what's the plot? Nothing in this paragraph connects to the narrator Tysoe, who I'd have to assume is the protagonist. Is he going to have to stop the gods? Fight the protégé for the scepter? Defeat Balam?

I suspect this is still a premise novel. An idea, but the plot thus far is designed to illustrate that idea, and doesn't have a character with a problem. (Which is why you're having trouble getting readers onboard) The focus isn't on the protagonist trying to solve a problem, but on how the world works and why.

(More on premise novels here) and (More on developing a story from a premise here)

I'd suggest pinpointing what Tysoe is trying to accomplish and why. What is the big problem that will be resolved in the climax of this book? (If it's not Tysoe's problem, that's a strong indicator that you have the wrong protagonist.) What does Tysoe have to do over the course of this novel, and what are the consequences if he fails?

(More on developing your core conflict here)

The other side of this question is the world building. You want it to be as seamless as possible, so readers can immerse themselves in the world and figure out how it works by observing the characters in it. For example, you don't need to say Bayard is a talking horse, just show details that he's a horse and then let him talk. Readers will see that he's a horse gifted with speech.

You might also think about ways to show the world details readers won't assume. You say lecture hall, and I immediately picture rows of seats in a half circle, a stage, a podium. Your typical human college or school. But if this world has sentient horses, then that room is going to look very different. The environment will have developed around the needs of talking horses (and whatever other creatures live here).

I doubt horses use chairs. They can't hold pens so how can they take notes? How do they study manuscripts if they can't turn the pages? Who wrote those manuscripts in the first place? (Perhaps ancient humans?) Marble is a hard and slippery surface, not good at all for hooves (If you've ever ridden a horse on a hard, smooth surface you know how easily they slide). I also wonder who quarried the marble and laid the floor? Built the hall? Established the college? These are all things that pull me out of the story because as a reader, I can't reconcile the characters and the world.

The world is more than just human trappings with sentient animals using them. This world would have evolved around what the animals needed and they would have built the world to suit their needs. I can accept a talking horse, but that horse has to have evolved to develop speech or been magically granted speech and intelligence for a reason. Just being able to talk doesn't mean you have the brain power to carry on an intelligent conversation or teach. It also doesn't mean the rest of the population would accept it and incorporate those horses into society. If you give me talking horses, also give me the unique world they live in so I understand them and can buy the whole package.

This society strikes me as one where the horses (and possible other animals) are all working together much as humans do. This has probably been going on for a long time. If so, then the world will have been created with their needs in mind and their abilities. This could be a very fascinating world and one I'd like to see more of. What would horses do to educate one another? How would they build homes and buildings? Would they? Horses have always been outdoor animals. What's their need for living indoors? Have they co-evolved with another animal and have a symbiotic relationship that benefits both? Like the larger horses protect a smaller creature that has hands and can manipulate and build. What is this society like? If it's a human society with animals, it's not going to ring true. This is an alien culture, even if it is based on human and Earth animals. The more you approach it as such, the richer and more realistic you can describe tour world.

Once that's all figured out, look for ways to show those details in the first few chapters to set the world. If they gather in lecture halls, show me the lecture halls horses would create. Don't tell me the reasons and how it was built, just show the horses using it and let me figure it out. No one explains the world they live in, they just live in it.

Look for a problem or situation that Tysoe can be involved in that also allows you to show the critical aspects of this world. The things that a reader coming fresh into the story needs to know. Not the history, that doesn't matter until that history affects Tysoe's goals. The details that affect that scene, and what will establish this world enough so a reader can wander through it and understand what they're seeing.

(More on backgrounding your world here)

If you need readers to understand an esoteric term, have the characters use it and provide enough context for the reader to figure it out. If it's a god's name, show them praying or swearing (Oh, for the love of Balam, or holy Balam! or the like). Maybe have them walk past a temple of Balam. Whatever details puts the term into context without coming right out and explaining it. If you have to explain it (and sometimes you do), find a plausible reason why the character has to do that. (lectures don't work because the characters don't need to know that info. It's almost impossible to write it where it doesn't feel like infodumping for the reader's benefit)

An example here, is perhaps Tyseo isn't going to a lecture, but he and Bayard are discussing the manuscript and trying to solve some mystery about it. Maybe prove a radical theory about humans. That would allow you to discuss the history in a way that also moved the story toward a goal. If Tysoe is trying to uncover something about the manuscript, and that's his goal, it fits the story and offers the information to the reader in a way that they'd be interested in. They're not being told the history, they're leaning it while Tysoe investigates something they want to see the outcome to. Add in some stakes and conflict (like this is forbidden information and they're risking their lives trying to get this out) and you've got a scene that can hook readers.

So, real quick (because there's a lot of information here) here are my suggestions moving forward:
  • Pinpoint the protagonist, and what the core conflict is
  • Start with a scene that has the protagonist actively trying to solve some problem with a goal that will ultimately lead to that core conflict
  • Background the world and show only the details the reader needs to understand what's going on in that scene
Remember, readers are hooked by a character with a problem and stakes if they fail. Give them someone to care about and they'll be willing to wait a little while to fully understand the world and the history of that world. They won't wait if they have to sit though a history lesson first, no matter how good the story might be.

Readers want characters with problems, not backstory.

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.

9 comments:

  1. I also wanted to add to Janice's comments above with a short story of my own. I'm a fantasy reader — it's my first choice when I head to the book store.

    But in college I took a writing class where only 2 of the other people in the class knew anything about the genre.

    One of them attempted to write a fantasy book for our group critiques. Most of the class didn't get it at all. I understood it — I understood how other books in that genre build a world and the various terms and what not that she was using and explaining via context were things I picked up on that other students did not.

    SO if the esoteric terms are things non-fantasy readers aren't getting, don't fret so much or worry so much about explaining backstory. It is something that's very particular to the genre. Make sure at least a few of your critique readers are actually fantasy readers and enjoy the genre so they're accustomed to the way it builds.

    That said, of course you still want to build a good story and I agree with all of Janice's advice :-)

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  2. It's interesting to have an horse as a teacher, so I like to read. But, if you are worried that you readers lose interest, then you better jump quickly to the story. You might want to skip the first 9 line and star with .. "Breathless, and trying .. swishing his tail with impatience. My lecturer is a large horse gifted with speech." You can also cut other sentences in order to cut quickly to the lecture.
    If I was doing this, I will start the novel like this
    "The history of the human race is complicated .." That's how my boss, a horse gifted with speech, started his lecture.
    Best wishes with the novel.

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  3. Interesting ideas. What I really want to know is what kind of creature the narrator is! I appreciate knowing that sort of information immediately so I can hook myself into the character. You wouldn't have to say, "I'm a horse", just give obvious little details - eg, "my hooves made small explosions of sound as I raced down the hallway."

    If the narrator is a horse too, then you should cut the part about Bayard being gifted with speech. Infact, you could think about cutting that part anyway - we'll learn it by seeing it, we don't need to be told. By cutting it, you are making a talking horse ordinary for that world - if the narrator has to explain it to us then he obviously thinks it's special - and making strange things ordinary is what creates an authentic fantasy milieu. A good person to read for examples of this is China Mieville.

    The only other thing is that you might want to think about your commas, which are sometimes misplaced. This may be a sign that your scene is wanting shorter sentences, as the previous commenter suggested. For example - "Breathless, and trying to regain my poise, as I literally slid through the doorway, I made my way to the lectern where Bayard waited, swishing his tail with impatience." You could chop this sentence up into three or four, and show rather than tell us what is happening. Eg, how does Tysoe regain his poise? (This would be an opportunity to reveal more character.)

    I enjoyed reading this. I liked the sense I got of Tysoe as s/he hurried through the hallway. I'd want to read more. :-)

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  4. First of all thanks to Janice for the time and trouble and insight it is really appreciated.

    The one comment though they are in Olympus which was built for the gods not for the creatures left behind , hence the unfriendly marble etc.

    Thanks for commenting and taking time it is appreciated as well

    I feel the book must want to compell people to read regardless of genre and topic but was stumped when crits on open crit sites had no clue about The age of aquarius for instance.This is the main story is that the gods are fighting to rule aquarius as Balam won Pisces which is the age we are in.

    Thanks Giora I am going to read and re read all the advice untill it is in my pores and then start and edit. I have actually written the entire story over 2 books but have not ocncerned my self with grammatical edits untill I am convinced the story is the best that it can be

    Tysoe is a he and a centaur. My charcters are Bayrd the talking horse and mage
    Tysoe the centaur
    Haziun a flying horse travels through the akashic
    Horatio a selinius
    Horace a mythical crature
    Girtab Tetson Wan a titan snake goddess
    etc

    I have engaged some real mythological personalities who can obviously be googled etc to add more depth. bayrd too is a real mythalogical animal



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  5. Gavin, some suggestions on getting some of those details in:

    Let readers know right away Tysoe is a centaur. Use key words like hands and hooves, have him notice fellow centaurs, etc. Maybe he doesn't run down the hall, he trots. Get those horse details in.

    If this building is Olympus and non-centaur friendly, let him think about that. Curse the gods for building a place so unfriendly to hooves. Maybe this is proof that humans did rule the Earth at some point.

    You can't assume readers will know what you know. I'm a big fantasy reader, love mythology and horses, so I'd guess I'm in the target audience for this type of book. But all I know about the age of Aquarius is that it was a song from Hair. I never equated gods with astrological signs. I know there are some crossovers with the names, but never thought they were actual gods. And even if I did know all those things, it's not enough to make me read the book. If I wanted to study mythology I'd read a book about mythology. The goal of a novel is to entertain the reader with a great story.

    So a great story is first and foremost. That's what will compel your readers, and then they'll learn a little about mythology in the process. (but don't "teach" them. Readers don't like that in their fiction) If you pique their interest and they Google elements to learn more that's great, but you cannot expect or require them to do so to understand the book.

    If the story is about the gods battle for control, then where does Tysoe fit in? If the story is about the gods, why isn't a god the main character? Is this about the gods and that battle or about other characters whose lives are disrupted by this battle?

    What is the one-sentence pitch that describes this novel?

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  6. Thanks again for some good insight

    Tysoe is my narator who is present in the time lines to convey the action and the book is written from his perspective. His and the other creatures very existence is threatened if human creativity is destroyed through balam's plan.

    The principle is Balam and his brother Yeowah have 300 years from 5th May 2012 which is the age of Aquarius to win the rule of Aquarious which we are in now. Balam defeated his brother in a massive battle as the god aries and therefore rules pisces.

    Balam has groomed Girtab Tetson Wan to be the new ruler for Huamns and if she gets her hands on the the scepter of agememnon she can change the fabric of creation to ensure that creation recognises evil instead of good

    The group of creatures begin with trying to understand the past and the reason the gods have left, the story moves into the present where Balam does get involved and is a father figure despite being this ruthless god of destruction

    The charcters find the underground garden of eden made in precious stones and guarded by heaphasteus automatims, Bayard lifts a cloaking spell to find a battle going on for the cup of Jasmuyd. {jasmuyds cups can show where anything is in heaven or on earth]

    The story progresses through the temple of the morning where the chariots of the sun are kept. So I have woven the stories left behind that we hear and made them into a tale that literally lives inside our existing timeline which is going on basically oblivious to humans except one, dragged in because of his dna.

    The one liner - The story is a journey to save mankind as the creatures of Olympus require human creativity to keep them alive and as they try and thwart Balam the god of destruction a twist sees the birth of a new adam and eve for aquarius, but is it enough?



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  7. For another author who seamlessly world builds, Diana Wynne Jones is brilliant. An example of different culture shaping learning needs I culled from "To Kill a Mockingbird". There's a lovely scene in which the children visit a black church, where most of the congregation can't read and so don't use traditional hymnals. Instead, one man reads out the words line-by-line and everyone else sings them. Maybe an oral society would work best for a civilization in which not everyone has hands.

    It sounds like your story is largely about Balam. Tysoe could make an excellent narrator as the fairly ordinary centaur dragged into the entourage of a god. Alternately, you could cast Balam himself as the narrator, since it's his war.

    I think it would also be helpful to show how humans impact the Olympian dwellers, maybe as slaves or as creatures to be raided. You said that the Olympians need human creativity to keep them alive; I'd like to know more about how that works.

    It sounds like a really intriguing story, and something that would be right up my alley! I love mythology and fantasy!

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  8. Hi Rachel thanks for taking the time to comment much appreciated

    I have layered the story
    so 1 - Balam is a personification off evil and his seen and his brother has to be equal but opposite so is useen.

    Balam has a plan to use the Titan Girtab tetson Wan to use [he has trained her to be addicted to the enrgy of sceptres] amd she will under his intsruction change the world to recognize eveil therfore defetaing his brother for aquarius.

    There father Cronus has forbad them from using the same means twice. I have a desription of the last battle where Balam deploys the astra in a dance of creation and invokes the mantra of khali to enable the weapon and send it flying to gilgamesh where it explodes and reduces the city to glass. The weapon feeds on human organic matter and is enabled by Balam's will

    he has another star shaped weapon that decapitates the warriors and various deamons deployed on the battle who suck the enrgy from humans leaving then bereft of hopr

    2 - The 2nd layer is a host of deamnons good and bad who are working with Balam like Azu - pestilence, Doji thunder etc. In the final showdown Girtab remakes the deamons and creates new creatures whose very shadows are living deamons of destruction

    3 - we have the undergorund caves of the eden na where persephone was sent for her half year. the garden is made of precious stones as nothing can survive undergorund. The god ahve entombed many of the sacred items there to keep them out of humans hands. The caves are proetced by Hephastius automatums and the Vgalla deamons who are the living dead placed to protect the items

    3 - A zoratsran prioests sacrifices his life as he is turned to stone by on of the titans and he casts his last spell of a stsis field trapping the onslaught of the cup of jasmud

    4 - bayard, Haizium, horatio on the search for the cave and looking for information on the scepter stible on the svene. Bayard manages with the assitance of the human to remove the cloaaaaaaaak and to use it to unbind the spell which re-animates the whole scene from which they have to save themselves.

    5 - Balam appears and is not overtly concened craeting an impression that they are in fact working for him and it is his plan afterall

    6 - The story continues but they need to return to the garden where they ar assited by the angel who protects the garden with a flaming sword an make their way to an underground chamber where the 4 Akkadins are standing - craeted from the akashic they have the power to make human dreams come true. However they are not the only petitioners for the sceptre - they make a deal sealed by the akkadin which gives girtab her desire

    They discover a passage guarded by automatimes whiocj leads to a massive sunlig garden bathed in morning sun where the chariots of hephastius are kept with the bronxe horses. they use the chariots to exit the chamber and find girtab waiting in the dessert with the scepter

    she cannot activate its full potential and the human realises how to activate it. He complies in order to save mankind from slavery. He calls on the nymphs who assit in creating the conditions that acrivate the scepter
    The power is intocicating as it courses through her and gives her enormous power capable of unbinding creation

    she breaks her promise causing one of the akkadin to appear, she draws on the power of the scepter and chaos ensues. she creates a throne of snakes from the sand and a desset snake/human army of millions. The akkadin intervenes and in a twist of the story the new addam and eve for aquarius are born. However their rein is shortlived as balam immediately demands they begin to influenece humankind for his planned ends.

    ha

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  9. They decide to dissolve themselves and the sceptre rather than allowing balam access to its power, leaving manking alone again.

    Robbed of his plan Balam has a council with his deamons who give him the idea to create a computer game where the battle is against him in cyberspace. Balam invites bayard and his band to come and see what he has created only to find that humans hack the system and learn to be creative, and a lot of other beings find a home in cyberspace -the rest of the story is a romp chasethrough the various levels of the game

    human gamers can enter the game and play various levels on both sides Balam or the main gamer causing a difficult game of straetgy that requires co-ordination. Humans become addicted to the game and it is banned in Japan as gamers start dying they are so addicted as it spreads like wildfire

    yaweh provides a scepter of light that must be inserted into the game in order to defuse the emotional compnent that is causing addiction in order to defeqat his brother. This must be sneaked past Balam

    Humans begin to grow the cyber environment and distance themselves from the traditional become virtual gods as they begin the path of creativity.

    This is of course over 2 books I will not spoil the ending hahahah

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