Saturday, September 13

Real Life Diagnostics: Setting up A Speculative Fiction World

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 September 18. Any 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. Despite the third person POV, do you still connect with the protagonist or does it come across as too distant?

2. Is the narrative voice engaging?

3. Is the undefined (for now) terminology too distracting or does it entice you to read more in order to find out what it means?

4. As an opening, does it effectively balance genre-setting, world-building and character introductions or should the focus be redistributed?

5. Does knowing the 'back-cover blurb' (the story's background), give me a 'get out of jail free' card to avoid direct/immediate conflict in this scene, in favor of hinting at the deeper conflict and tension of the overall book? 


Market/Genre: Speculative Fiction/Adult Dystopian

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: The story is set in the future city-state of Otpor - a dystopian world where the population is divided by the classical element that defines them (earth, water, air or fire). All Elementals are conditioned from early childhood to fully develop their latent attitudes and skills, which are particular to their assigned element group. The story focuses on Anaiya, a Fire Elemental who is trained as a Peacekeeper and whose role is to police and protect the dominant ideology of Otpor (the "Orthodoxy"), but who faces realignment to another Element in order to uncover a Resistance Movement.

Anaiya’s first memory was not of fire. Nor was it of air, water or earth. It was nebulous and only touched the periphery of her mind, fleeting if she tried to grab and hold it. Even in those moments, though, as vague and ephemeral as they were, Anaiya’s heart skipped at the remembered sensation of wings beating close to her face. Butterflies no longer existed in Otpor - The skies were too dark, the landscape too lifeless. When she was younger, still in her incubation group with the rest of her Fire cohort, there had been a tree in District 3. To her eight-year old eyes, it had appeared massive. Unlike the metal structures of dilapidated sky scrapers and abandoned warehouses she was used to climbing, the tree had no internal rhythm of footholds placed at continuous and consistent intervals. It was organic and chaotic, a mass of branches stretching at different angles and heights, straight in places, tangled in others.

Niamh had been the first of the cohort to start scaling it, spurred on by his innate Fire thirst for adrenalin. Although the exact same age as Anaiya, as were all the other premies in the cohort, Niamh was faster and stronger. She had watched him, standing at the base of the tree while her fingers picked at the curls of bark peeling from the trunk. The agitation had sent a subtle aroma through the air, sweet and old. While her fingers wandered aimlessly over the tree, her eyes had been fixed on him, drinking in the sight of his arms and legs propelling him higher and higher. She had wanted to be him. To be the first. The first to reach the young limbs and feel them flex and rebound beneath her frame. The first to look down and see the other premies shrink to fire ants. The first to see the silhouette of the Trocadero, backlit in the muted light of the afternoon as the city’s haze strengthened and weakened in the persistent South Easterly.

But Niamh was first. Niamh was always first.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Anaiya’s first memory was not of fire. Nor was it of air, water or earth. It was nebulous and only touched the periphery of her mind, fleeting if she tried to grab and hold it. Even in those moments, though, as vague and ephemeral as they were, [Anaiya’s heart skipped at the remembered sensation of wings beating close to her face.] What's triggering this memory? I'm trying to ground myself in the story and I'm not sure where or when I am Butterflies no longer existed in Otpor - The skies were too dark, the landscape too lifeless. When she was younger, still in her incubation group with the rest of her Fire cohort, there had been a tree in [District 3] You might consider a new term here. Hunger Games has made it impossible to use "district #" these days without inviting comparison. To her eight-year old eyes, it had appeared massive. Unlike the metal structures of dilapidated sky scrapers and abandoned warehouses she was used to climbing, the tree had no internal rhythm of footholds placed at continuous and consistent intervals. It was organic and chaotic, a mass of branches stretching at different angles and heights, straight in places, tangled in others. Perhaps something personal and internal from her here to show how she feels about it? And how does this connect to her first memory and the butterflies? She's remembering aimlessly and I don't know what this has to do with anything

Niamh had been the first of the cohort to start scaling it, spurred on by his innate Fire thirst for adrenalin. Although the exact same age as Anaiya, as were all the other premies in the cohort, Niamh was faster and stronger. She had watched him, standing at the base of the tree while her fingers picked at the curls of bark peeling from the trunk. The agitation had sent a subtle aroma through the air, sweet and old. Perhaps something internal here? I'm curious what she feels and how this affects her, as I assume this interest in nature is meaningful? While her fingers wandered aimlessly over the tree, her eyes had been fixed on him, drinking in the sight of his arms and legs propelling him higher and higher. [She had wanted to be him. To be the first. The first to reach the young limbs and feel them flex and rebound beneath her frame. The first to look down and see the other premies shrink to fire ants. The first to see the silhouette of the Trocadero, backlit in the muted light of the afternoon as the city’s haze strengthened and weakened in the persistent South Easterly.] I like how this sets up the competitive relationship between them and that she is competitive, but I don't know why she wants to be first. What does it gain her?

[But Niamh was first. Niamh was always first. ] I like the inherent conflict in this line, as I can see this is a problem for her

The questions:

1. Despite the third person POV, do you still connect with the protagonist or does it come across as too distant?


At the moment it's feeling a little distant because it's reminiscing, not dealing with a problem in the here and now. I'm being told backstory about her competitive relationship with Niamh, but so far nothing is actually happening. Is she currently in a situation where she needs to beat Niamh? Is that what's triggering this memory?

I start to hear her voice toward the end though, and I'm intrigued by her interest in nature and by wanting to be first to reach the top. These are "human" emotions readers can relate to. Perhaps add a few more lines of internalization to give readers a stronger sense of who she is and what she wants. I can see she's feeling something about this memory but not what it is.

(Here's more on internalization and third person POV)

2. Is the narrative voice engaging?

It felt a little heavy at first, but the more I read the more I got into the flow (readers chime in here). I'm drawn in towards the end when I start hearing her voice. The beginning feels like throat clearing and setting up the setting, but then it slides deeper into Anaiya's POV more and I feel her, not the author. The last line does make me want to read on a little more though.

(Here's more on voice)

3. Is the undefined (for now) terminology too distracting or does it entice you to read more in order to find out what it means?

Terminology is part of speculative fiction, so it didn't bother me and most of it had enough context for me to get the general idea of what the terms mean. The only one that jumped out at me was "the Trocadero." I'm guessing a landmark of some kind, but it wasn't clear what that was. None of it made me want to read on to see what it meant however. Not knowing what the Trocadero is stopped the story for me because there was nothing to indicate what it was or why it mattered. A little context would help that, and if the goal is to make readers curious about what it is, then perhaps show Anaiya being curious, or fearful, or longing, or whatever emotion is associated with it.

4. As an opening, does it effectively balance genre-setting, world-building and character introductions or should the focus be redistributed?

There's a good mix and a lot of world building is done with just two paragraphs. It leans more to the setting and world building though, so a tad more character work would help round it out nicely. There are some good spots where Anaiya could easily think about how she feels about these elements and give readers a better sense of who she is.

(Here's more on grounding readers in your world)

5. Does knowing the 'back-cover blurb' (the story's background), give me a 'get out of jail free' card to avoid direct/immediate conflict in this scene, in favor of hinting at the deeper conflict and tension of the overall book?

Nope (grin). That gives you a little time to get into the main conflict, but you still want conflict in this scene to drive the story and draw readers in. I can see glimpses of a problem brewing with Niamh, but I really don't know what's going on and I don't feel that things have started yet. I'd suggest adding a goal for Aniya to give the scene some drive.

From reading some addition information provided (but not shared here), I'd suggest saving this memory for a little later in the story. Perhaps start when something is going on in the present and she has a reason to think about them as children. If she's competitive, and has run into him again after several years, maybe he's a threat to whatever she wants at this moment?

(Here's more on writing the opening scene) 

Overall, it looks like an interesting world and has potential once it gets into the story. I'd suggest looking through your first chapter or two and finding the moment when Anaiya is trying to achieve something. Odds are a stronger start to the story is right around there. Once you have that established, you can pull in this memory and show why these two are so competitive and help raise the stakes.

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.

7 comments:

  1. I agree with everything Janice said, but in the interest of providing more feedback, I'll chime in. First, I found this excerpt to be well written, and I enjoyed the voice. I loved the contrast between the tree and the man-made structures.

    I completely agree that you haven't found the right starting point, though, because by the end, I had no idea why any of her memories were relevant. The lack of definitions for the terminology didn't put me off, but my first thought when I read about the fire, earth, air, and water cohorts was "Divergent." Janice pointed out the problem with District #'s, and I think you've got a similar problem with the cohorts. At least in Divergent, there was a basis in personality for the selection, but these "classic elements" have more of a medieval feel than something from the future.

    I also had a little trouble with the names. Anaiya's name is growing on me, but initially I felt it had too many vowels, and the first couple of times I read the piece, I was pronouncing the city-state in my head as Optor, rather than Otpor.

    Based solely on this excerpt, I would have pegged it as YA, not adult fiction.

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    Replies
    1. And the elemental theme immediately reminded me of Avatar: The Last Airbender. So I'm a little concerned that nothing is reading as totally original here yet. Not that it can't get there, it just needs that one twist that gives it some distance from all these other (very popular) stories.

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  3. One thing that threw me was the name Niamh used for a boy. Niamh is an Irish girl's name.

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  4. I love the flashback but I agree that it needs to appear later to give the memory relevance. I like the comparison between the tree and the city. You get the whole dystopian feel across very well -that this is a dying landscape and survival is difficult. I didn't have any trouble with the names, but I'm not Irish.

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  5. My thought is, if it's important for these paragraphs to be the story opening, perhaps they should be a more active flashback scene than character memory. Example: "When Anaiya was eight, she and her cohort stumbled upon a tree in District 3. It was unlike anything she and the other children had ever seen, a mass of branches stretching at different angles and heights, organic and chaotic, straight in places, tangled in others." After finishing out the scene, you can then jump us forward. This might also help make it feel less like it's supposed to be YA.

    Also, I agree that you might want to avoid labels (district, cohort) that will remind readers of current massively popular series. Never mind that these series weren't the first to use such terms--readers will still make the associations. Better to find synonyms that will keep people from assuming your work is just a knock-off.

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