Saturday, November 14

Real Life Diagnostics: Making Book Two Stand Alone

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 site. 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 December 12.

This week’s questions:

Can this book stand alone if the reader hasn't read the first book? Is there enough information here to keep the reader interested? Or is there too much?


Market/Genre: Science fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

The stone mansion cast a finger of light into the dark wilderness, a siren’s call to any who stumbled into its path. Great glided in the light, but did not need its guidance, for she sensed his presence inside the towering walls. She settled to the ground and returned to solid form in front of the massive wood doors. Looking up was still an uncomfortable sensation, even after all this time.

The door opened easily enough. Either he knew there was no one about, or he waited for her in the shadows. She stepped into the lavish entrance. Polished marble floors echoed her footsteps as towering windows from either side stared down at her, as if assessing her right to witness their splendor.

She had no wish to be here. Earth was not her home. But the Creator had ordained it and she could not refuse Him. Not that she hadn’t tried. Even now she turned toward the door, ready to leave at the slightest provocation.

“Well, well. If it isn’t Great.”

She looked back. Warrior leered at her from the second floor landing.

“You’re lucky to catch me,” he said as he casually descended the stairs. “I was about to resume my eradication of the humans.”

Great kept her pale eyes on his exceptionally dark ones.

“You are the lucky one, Warrior. I said I would reveal my secrets, but do not test me.”

His dark eyes deepened into black holes. “Test you? You promised to tell me what I want to know, yet you were leaving this wretched planet without as much as a goodbye.” He stood in front of her. “I have kept my end of the bargain, Great. Now you keep yours.”

Great showed no emotion, air-travelers rarely did, but inside she winced. It was true. Any thought of her promise had flown out the window along with Wily, the human Warrior had so brazenly killed while she watched.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Background: This is the opening of the second book of a trilogy. 

The stone mansion cast a finger of light into the dark wilderness, a siren’s call to any who stumbled into its path. [Great] This is a name? [glided] perhaps another verb since she’s incorporeal? Drift, or float? in the light, but did not need its guidance, for she sensed his presence inside the towering walls. She settled to the ground and returned to solid form in front of the massive wood doors. [Looking up was still an uncomfortable sensation, even after all this time.] Interesting detail.

The door opened easily enough. Either he knew there was no one about, or he waited for her in the [shadows]. I wanted a thought from her here to get a sense of how she feels about this, maybe a hint of why she's there She stepped into the lavish entrance. Polished marble floors echoed her footsteps as towering windows from either side stared down at her, as if [assessing her right to witness their splendor.] Nice. Is this her opinion or the narrator? I’m not yet sure if the POV is third omniscient or a more distant limited third
She had no wish to be here. Earth was not her home. But the Creator had ordained it and she could not refuse Him. Not that she hadn’t tried. Even now she turned toward the door, ready to leave at the slightest provocation.

“Well, well. If it isn’t Great.”

She looked back. Warrior leered at her from the second floor landing.

“You’re lucky to catch me,” he said as he casually descended the stairs. [“I was about to resume my eradication of the humans.”] This feels a little “as you know Bob” dialogue-y

Great kept her pale eyes on his exceptionally dark ones. How does she feel about his comment?

“You are the lucky one, Warrior. [I said I would reveal my secrets, but do not test me.”] Also feels like infodump through dialogue

His dark eyes deepened into black holes. “Test you? You promised to tell me what I want to know, yet you were leaving this wretched planet without as much as a goodbye.” He stood in front of her. “I have kept my end of the bargain, Great. Now you keep yours.” Same in this paragraph. I feel like I’m expected to know what this all means (which I probably do since this is book two of a trilogy, but new readers won’t have that information)

Great showed no emotion, air-travelers rarely did, but inside she winced. It was true. Any thought of her promise had [flown out the window] This feels too modern and human a phrase for an alien along with Wily, the human Warrior had so brazenly killed while she watched. Does this mean he was thrown out of window? That makes her use of this phrase feel kinda cold-hearted.  

The questions:

1. Can this book stand alone if the reader hasn't read the first book?


Hard to say without knowing more about the story, but it does has a final confrontation feel to it that seems out of place in the start of a novel. I get the sense Great is finishing up an old problem, not facing a new one. She’s there to keep a promise to a past foe—a situation new readers will know nothing about.

It covers a situation I haven’t yet had time to wonder about—revealing Great’s secrets. Since I don’t know who or what she is, or that she even has secrets, this doesn’t work as a hook to keep me reading. It starts with a huge reveal about a character I don’t know. I also don’t know who Warrior is (or why the names are an odd naming convention), why he’s eradicating humans, or what Great is doing to stop him (if she even is)—but I feel like I ought to know these things. It feels like what’s being discussed here is expected to be known to the reader.

Which is all making this feel like a book two rather than a stand alone.

If this situation and the problem Great is facing is a continuation from book one, odds are this will be harder for new readers to pick up and read (readers chime in here). I do feel like I should know what these two are talking about in order to understand what’s going on in this snippet. They're walking that line between reminders and infodumps as dialogue.

(Here's more on infodumps through dialogue)

But I also get the sense that something is going on. These two clearly have a history, and there’s an issue that must be dealt with. I can’t tell exactly what the conflict is yet, but there's conflict between them and there does seem to be something large at stake. I don’t see yet how Great fits into it, but she doesn’t want to be there, so there are hints of conflict there as well. I do wonder why she's there.

I think a lot will depend on how intrigued the reader is in the cover copy, and how willing they are to stick with the story until they figure things out. When I run into this (and I have unknowingly picked up a later book in a series by accident), I usually stop reading and go get book one.

(Here’s more on crafting strong opening scenes)

2. Is there enough information here to keep the reader interested? Or is there too much?

I think the amount of information is good, but it isn’t yet working because it’s relying on readers knowing what the characters are talking about. (Assuming this is a reminder about book one). If this is all new information readers don’t know, then it’s coming across too vague to make me wonder about it (readers chime in here). I can see there are things going on and issues to be dealt with, but I don’t care as a reader since I don’t know what any of it means. The emotional hooks aren’t there. A little more internalization from Great will help, but since she shows no emotion, it’ll be harder to craft that emotional connection with the reader.

(Here’s more on hooking readers hearts and brains)

Overall, it feels like readers of book one will be excited to see this confrontation between Great and Warrior, and want to see if she keeps her promise or not. New readers will likely feels a little lost. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. It is a series, and old readers might get bored if the story rehashes too much as a setup before it gets to new information. A little reminding is often good since books come out a year apart in most cases. It doesn’t have to stand alone.

If you want this to stand alone, I’d suggest treating it as if it was a brand-new book and pretend all of book one is backstory. Give this one a stand-alone, self-contained plot that doesn’t rely on book one to understand (or as much as you can). Re-introduce the characters, re-establish the arcs and whatnot. The trick here will be to do all that without making it feel like you’re starting over. So you’d have to find the right balance of new information to “introduce” to old readers, that also gets new readers up to speed on how this series and world works.

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.

2 comments:

  1. Although I'm not familiar with book one, I would keep reading at this point because the excerpt is too short for me to make a judgment. I feel as though I have a good chance of catching up, and the situation so far is intriguing. While the dialogue was a bit of an infodump, it's not outrageous and felt plausible as conversation between foes. I agree that the sentence beginning with "Great glided..." was awkward and stopped me in my tracks to go back and read it again. I also have to say, I wondered how a stone mansion cast light. I assume it was coming from a window or other orifice. Overall, though, I would be willing to read on.

    Thank you for your blog, Janice. I read it daily and really appreciate all of the valuable information that you share.

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  2. The read is interesting enough that I'd want to know about the other books too. The stone building casting a light into the darkness made no sense to me. And since I only know the characters from this book, those names took a bit to figure out at first. And Warrior could simply ask Great if she came to witness him continue his eradication... Just my thoughts.
    Gale

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