Saturday, January 18

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Read on? A Look at a Science Fiction 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 it 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 (+ 1 Resubmit)

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through March 1. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some when my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware of the submission to posting delay.


This week’s questions:

Is it compelling? Does it create enough reader questions about the circumstances, background, character to make you want to read more? Is there too much information, too little, or just enough to get a reader going? Is the conflict (or sense of conflict) coming through? What are your thoughts on the opening sentence(s)?


Market/Genre: Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…


Original text:

Background: The main character, Mayeli, is essentially a humanoid female (her sex and species comes out more clearly in the scene following this short opening). Her goal is to heal her sickness and the "unbalance" she feels she created by actions she took in the past. Other emotional issues she struggles with are finding her life purpose, why she survived when others on her home planet died, and to understand life and conflict the way she perceives others as understanding it. The events of the novel are a series of attempts and failures (revolving around saving someone's life) to do what she feels will bring healing (similar to paying off "karmic debts"). This results in a personal loss and an epiphany where she's able to change her perspective and move forward.


The sun, the Earth’s star, was stable and safe, small and yellow, middle aged and reliable, alone and unique, and could never turn supernova, they told me. I faced the sky that morning determined not to be sick, not to remember anything, not to let its blinding, burning, terrifying, white, hot light dig its way into my skin. I stood on the grass behind my house to confront the sun and its heat. It was bright. Too bright. My face warmed. My stomach cramped and ached. I hunched over, and everything came out.

As I heaved, I thought of the universe expanding and becoming too weak to hold itself together. The more it lost the spider web of connections between planets and stars and galaxies, the more it faded and unraveled until it returned to nothing. Something created always collapses. Entovis collapsed. There’s more chaos in the universe than order, but life always seeks balance. That’s what Entovis taught. Life is a force seeking balance. Even after collapse it finds a way to start again.

Nothing can end, it can only change. There is no end, there is no start, and only a whole, complete force, which is always moving, cycling in one massive, repeated sequence. When I was very young, I understood. I thought I understood. A loop. No end, no start. All that remains is collective life. I understood everything. Simple.

Then I came to Earth.

The sickness spread. I dug my fingers into the moist dirt. The second wave of half-digested food left my body. The poor grass. All it could do was continue to exist, in that spot, while I completely ruined it. Then I would stand and walk away.

My Thoughts in Purple:

The sun, the Earth’s star, was stable and safe, small and yellow, middle aged and reliable, [alone and unique,] this feels like one too many pairs of descriptions and could never turn supernova, they told me. [I faced the sky that morning determined not to be sick] This feels retrospective, like she's telling the story after the fact not to remember anything, not to let its [blinding, burning, terrifying, white, hot light] All the adjectives are bogging this down for me dig its way into my skin. I stood on the grass behind my house to confront the sun and its heat. It was bright. Too bright. My face warmed. My stomach cramped and ached. I hunched over, and everything came out. This opening feels like a much later part of the novel to me.

As I heaved,[ I thought of the universe expanding and becoming too weak to hold itself together.] Feels a little tellish The more it lost the spider web of connections between planets and stars and galaxies, the more it faded and unraveled until it returned to nothing. Something created always collapses. [Entovis collapsed.] I don't know who or what this is and there's no context to figure it out There’s more chaos in the universe than order, but life always seeks balance. That’s what Entovis taught. Life is a force seeking balance. [Even after collapse it finds a way to start again.] She's clearly upset, but so far there's nothing that suggests a story yet.

Nothing can end, it can only change. There is no end, there is no start, and only a whole, complete force, which is always moving, cycling in one massive, repeated sequence. When I was very young, I understood. I thought I understood. A loop. No end, no start. All that remains is collective life. I understood everything. Simple. This paragraph makes me feel like she's referring to something major I haven't seen yet, which also feels retrospective and like this all refers to a later part of the story

Then I came to Earth.

The sickness spread. I dug my fingers into the moist dirt. The second wave of half-digested food left my body. The poor grass. [All it could do was continue to exist, in that spot, while I completely ruined it.] This seems like a good internalization spot for her to compare her issues to the grass. She ruined something else, and that's why she's upset. Then I would stand and walk away.

The questions:

1. Is it compelling?

Not yet because it's mostly descriptive narrative explaining a philosophy of the universe. There's no sense that something is about to happen, but that it already has and now the fallout is starting. That makes me feel that I came into this late, so instead of being drawn in, I'm wondering what I missed and if this is book two in a series.

If this story is about her trying to make amends and heal, perhaps start with her in the process of doing that and pick a moment shortly before she runs into trouble for the first time. Give her a goal, and some conflict to struggle against. Let her act and try to accomplish something external. The internal issues work for a great character arc, but it's not enough to drive the plot.

(More on knowing where to start your novel here)

2. Does it create enough reader questions about the circumstances, background, character to make you want to read more?


It creates a lot of questions, but not the ones that draw me into the story. I'm lost as to what's going on and who this person is, what the goal is, what the stakes are. It feels very retrospective and actually more like the sequel after the dark moment at the end of act two. Something terrible has happened, it's her fault, and now she's reeling from it.

(More on scenes and sequels here)

Because of that retrospective vibe, I feel like this is a flash forward and pretty soon the story is going to jump back in time to when whatever she's upset about started. So none of this matters because the story hasn't actually started yet. It's more of a "something really bad happened and it was my fault. Let me tell you all about it" sense.

The mistakes she made and what she survived all feel like her backstory to me. This is what happened to shape who she is and it's compelling her to act now, in this story. Try letting this all be information that hides in the background for a while and makes readers curious about why she feels such guilt and why she's trying so hard to do X (her goal). Until readers care about her as a character, they won't care about her past or what she did.

(More on revealing a character's past without resorting to backstory here)

3. Is there too much information, too little, or just enough to get a reader going?

Not enough of what I need to draw me in, and too much of what I don't need yet. She's upset, but I have no context for all this emotion so it means nothing to me. I'm not getting a sense of who she is either, so I can't connect with her. She refers to people/things I don't know so I feel lost.

If I knew more about her and her problem, this would probably come across much stronger, because I'd know what pushed her to such torment and why. I'd feel it with her.

You might try putting her in an situation that lets her act in a way to draw readers in, but is also affected by this past and her emotional state. Something she has to do but it's hard for her due to her past (goal + conflict). She needs it, but she'd rather avoid it.

For example, if saving someone's life is a major part of the plot, perhaps that's where the conflict comes in. She's trying to heal herself in some way, and this person comes into her life and forces her to choose between helping herself (healing) and helping them. Helping them seems like a sacrifice right now, but it puts her on the plot path to the core conflict and the resolution of the novel. Helping this person causes her all kinds of problems, but ultimately, this is what will heal her.

(More on grounding readers in your world here)

4. Is the conflict (or sense of conflict) coming through?

I see no conflict yet. Conflict is something preventing a character from achieving a goal (external) or making a choice harder to make (internal). It's having consequences to your actions or decisions--bad consequences.

She's not torn between two horrible choices, she has no goal in opposition, she's not even emotionally conflicted. There's a ton of emotion, but that's different from conflict. She's not doing anything here but feeling bad about her situation. The conflict will come when she decides what to do and faces opposition to that decision.

I suspect the real beginning starts shortly after this, after she's reacted to the horrible event in her past and then decides what to do next. Her decision is the goal that will move the plot forward and start the story. What is that goal? What's keeping her from that goal? What are the stakes if she fails to achieve that goal?

(More on creating conflict here)

The background notes suggest a much larger concept and character arc, which is great, but I'm not seeing a plot yet that will help this character undergo that arc. I'd suggest looking for the individual steps she needs to take to heal herself and pay back her karmic debt. The external actions, not the internal "make things better" type of needs.

What is the one thing she needs to do to that will allow her to "change her perspective and move forward?" And what exactly does that mean from a plot standpoint? It's a great internal arc, but it needs external things for her to physically do to accomplish that, and those will make up your goals, conflicts, and stakes (the plot).

You might trying looking at that end goal and work backward to see where the best opening might be. You know where she needs to end up internally, so look at the physical and external problems she'll face to get her there--the events that will bring about that change in perspective.

(More on the core conflict here)

5. What are your thoughts on the opening sentence(s)?

A tad too many adjectives. I do like the sense that it's "safe" yet the sun might be about to go supernova. This could be the thing that has her so upset, but there's nothing to support that in the text itself (and your background notes never suggest that's a possibility). That detail also gets a little lost a few paragraphs in. The focus is on her being upset, but never actually about why. It's all philosophical "everything dies and life goes on" with no details about what this means to this character and her problem.

I do like that she has a non-human vibe going, so I'd suggest looking for an opening line/paragraph that maintains this alien-ness. She's not from Earth, she's different, she did something bad and regrets it. These are all great elements to hook readers and draw them in.

I also like the symbolism of the sun and warmth almost being a bad thing that hurts her, as it contrasts nicely with her emotional state. It's an odd pairing that's intriguing.

(More on first lines here)

Overall, I think isn't starting in the right place. Either this is something that happened before the story opens, or it's something that happens near the end. It would depend on whether or not you wanted her past as backstory or an actual event in the novel.

You might try reading ahead in the manuscript and looking for a scene where she's doing something to make her situation better and runs into a problem. There's a good chance that's your opening scene and this is just history to be revealed once readers know her and are dying to know why she feels such emotion. 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. One line stood out to me: "The sun, the Earth’s star..." It's the weirdest qualification I've heard. Of course it's the Earth's star! But it works for me, because who needs to identify which planet the sun shines on? An alien. So that was cool.

    I agree with Janice, far too many descriptors in the first few lines. She commented on the fourth pair describing the sun; I'd actually had enough after two. And the list describing light could be cut down to "blinding, burning light". We know that looking at the sun hurts your eyes, so we'll pick up on the pain. Burning reinforces that idea alliteratively, while also conjuring the brilliant light. The terror you can work in elsewhere. Terror is an emotion I've always considered paralytic. If this is your opening, having her paralyzed with terror and nausea isn't very engaging. We want to see her DOING something, besides musing about the nature of the universe and vomiting.

    BUT don't let me discourage you! The background information you gave is very interesting. I suspect too I'd be more tolerant of her philosophizing if I read the rest of the book. It sounds like you have a fairly introspective sci-fi novel on your hands.

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  2. If you put the first line after "I faced the sky that morning..." you may see how this needs to kick off. I caught what you meant by describing the sun as earths star because the character has been around the galaxy. Follow Janice's advice carefully, you have a nice foundation for an interesting story.

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  3. In the event that we could entreat the future-gods to convey us the medical tech of tomorrow,today,it'd be a really direct ask: we'd need machines that program us into perfect health,right now.At any rate,the health care technology we take off in our most mainstream science fiction speaks the truth that convoluted: A techno-wand in a split second diagnoses your illness.A hospital bed-tube promptly assembles your body back.A super-vaccine cures what afflicts you.

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