Saturday, June 7, 2014

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Scene Hook You?

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: Five 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through July 12. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some if my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware of the submission to posting delay.

This week’s questions:

1. Does the scene sufficiently grab the reader's attention?
2. Are you confused at any point (but especially in the first paragraph) about the POV?
3. Does the scene work?
4. Is there too much description?
5. Are there any parts that you just don't like?


Market/Genre: Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

The severed head stared out at the assembled villagers from vacant eye sockets. Even after the slight shrinkage that came of being packed in salt, it was half again as large as any human head Vesha had ever seen. She tried to look away, but she could not. The skin had turned leathery and the mouth had frozen in a grim line. It wore its silvery hair in a long braid and the high priest used this as a handle to hoist the head aloft for easy viewing.

“Here is your proof, citizens of Bricktain,” the priest was saying. “Rosh is no more. His rule has ended. Let the Era of Kho now begin!” He shouted the words, though there was no need. Every mouth in the audience hung open, but no sounds came out.

The village square, her neighbors standing all around, the mud between her toes, the chattering of the monkeys in the trees; everything felt far off and feeble, like a half lost memory. A pounding in her chest alerted Vesha that she’d been holding her breath. She inhaled a lungful of nausea and wretched up only air. Still, she could not peel her gaze from those empty eyes. No, it can’t be, she thought. Gods don’t die.

My Thoughts in Purple:

The severed head stared out at the assembled villagers from vacant eye sockets. Even after the slight shrinkage that came of being packed in salt, it was half again as large as any human head [Vesha had ever seen.] This tells me it's her POV She tried to look away, but she could not. Perhaps a hint as to why here, just to get a sense of who Vesha is? The skin had turned leathery and the mouth had frozen in a grim line. It wore its silvery hair in a long braid and the high priest used this as a handle to hoist the head aloft for easy viewing.

“Here is your proof, citizens of Bricktain,” the priest [was saying.] perhaps use said “Rosh is no more. His rule has ended. Let the Era of Kho now begin!” He shouted the words, though there was no need. Every mouth in the audience hung open, but [no sounds came out.] Reads a little awkwardly to me

[The village square, her neighbors standing all around, the mud between her toes, the chattering of the monkeys in the trees; everything felt far off and feeble] A little confusing here, so perhaps put the "everything felt" first?, like a half lost memory. [A pounding in her chest alerted Vesha that she’d been holding her breath.] Telling here, perhaps just show the pounding and then she inhales[She inhaled a lungful of nausea and wretched up only air] I like the idea here, but it feels a little overwritten. Still, she could not peel her gaze from those empty eyes. No, it can’t be, she thought. Gods don’t die.

The questions:

1. Does the scene sufficiently grab the reader's attention?


I'm intrigued. Something is happening, and a dead god certainly opens up a lot of potential conflict and questions. I'm curious who these people are, if the head belonged to a real god or beings posing as gods, how they relate to the villagers, how Vesha fits into all of this. The priest declaring a new era makes me wonder if the gods have priests "campaigning" for them to earn worshippers and how the theology here works.

This was tagged as science fiction, though at the moment it reads more like fantasy to me--the more primitive setting, gods, high priests, etc. This could be on another planet and it could have more science fiction elements after this, however. The head could be from human oppressors trying rule indigenous people on another planet and Vesha might be an alien. Just something to consider, as this isn't saying "sci fi to me.

(Here's more on writing the opening scene)

2. Are you confused at any point (but especially in the first paragraph) about the POV?

Vesha looks like the POV to me, so if that's correct, no confusion. I can't tell yet if this is third limited or third omniscient, as there's almost no internalization to indicate the narrative distance. It feels a little distant at the moment. Perhaps add a line or two to show how Vesha is felling abut all this? I don't think it needs much, but a small peek into her head would round this out nicely.

(Here's more on crafting third person internal thoughts)

3. Does the scene work?

I'd read on. (Readers chime in here) It creates an intriguing situation and presents a story question I want to see answered (was that really a god and what happens now that they've killed it?), as well as shows a world with interesting possibilities--all things a good opening does. I'd like a little more character development with Vesha, as she personally does nothing to make me want to read about her. I assume this goes more into her head after this, and we see how she feels about gods being dead, and how she's pulled into the plot.

(Here's more on five ways to hook your reader)

4. Is there too much description?

I didn't think so (readers also chime in here). I got a good sense of the head, which is the primary focus in the scene. The rest of the village was more hinted at, but it felt like a low-tech/low-industry village (I pictured the default medieval fantasy world).

(Here's more on description)

5. Are there any parts that you just don't like?

There was one telling sentence, and a few awkward lines I stumbled over that you might consider smoothing out, but overall I liked it and would keep reading to see where it went. Feels like a solid start to me.

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 agree with the awkward wording and sentence structure in a few places, but this had me intrigued right away, from first line to last line.

    I have to say, though, despite the fact that it was tagged sci-fi and yet so far we only have a severed head, a possible dead god, and a priest, I would be even MORE intrigued -- not put off that it didn't mention anything that shouts "sci-fi" in the first three short paragraphs. I'm immediately excited about the possibility of where this will be set, how it will unfold. It makes me think of some kind of Indiana Jones adventure in space, and that would really grab me.

    This is something I'm not sure I understand. If you pick a book off the shelf, you'll know it's sci-fi or fantasy or what have you by the section in the bookstore, the blurb, and possibly the cover. So do we really need to throw obvious genre flags into the first three paragraphs? I get that we want to give a sense of setting right away, but to me it doesn't seem necessary that the setting meet our expectations for genre right off the bat. That in itself would make me want to keep reading.

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    1. No, it's not necessary to have sci fi elements in the first three paragraphs if the reader knows going in what the genre is. I assume readers will have read a blurb and have some context when they read the book, but with e-readers, more and more people download a book and then it's months or longer before they read it. And then they read it without seeing the cover copy again, because few people are putting that in the front of their e-books. So if a novel feels like fantasy and then suddenly becomes sci fi, it could throw off a reader and cause problems due to setting the wrong expectations.

      It's the author's call of course, and I only mentioned it because of this new e-book reality. This is a good idea for a discussion though, so I'll have to toss the question out next week. Thanks!

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    2. Ah, understood. Thanks for that clarification :) It's something I've heard mentioned a few times recently and got me thinking about my favourite books and how they handle this. Thanks for the food for thought!

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  2. I agree with Janice and Cheyenne. Besides the few awkward sentences mentioned, I was hooked... Great job!!!

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  3. I agree with Janice. Great catches!! I learn more and more to look at my own work with.

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