Saturday, February 20

Real Life Diagnostics: A Second Look at a Sci Fi Historical 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 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: Four

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through March 18.

This week’s question:

Is this revised opening is gripping enough to make you want to turn the page, or if it is too obscure or confusing?

Market/Genre: Adult Historical Science Fiction with aspects of Historical Mystery (Revised from previous RLD)

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Astrid did not exist. Or rather, she did not exist in the traditional sense, the way the sailors sleeping far below her occupied space and purpose not only in the shipping liner on which she stood, but eventually the dock they were nearing and the world beyond of which she longed for. Despite her physical presence on the deck, Astrid was no more permanent than the mist that obscured the night air which, like her, would be gone by morning light without anyone the wiser that it had ever been. At least, that was the plan.

The salty spray stung her cheeks as she narrowed her focus on the dock with clenched teeth, attempting to confirm she was alone. The black water below leapt up at her menacingly, causing Astrid to grip the cold steel railing ever tighter, moister seeping through her fingerless wool gloves, threatening to enshroud her whole body in the ocean below. She tore her eyes from the abyss below and focused on her watch. Two am, it was now or never. Her heart pounded in her ears.

Although she had done it countless times before, she loathed the experience. While country boarders always proved difficult to traverse unseen, marine ports provided the most deadly obstacle between her and the boarder ahead, the ocean. The February Maine weather did little to soften the challenge. She just had to remain undetected, and keep her teeth hidden; otherwise she would have far more complicated things to explain than a lack of a last name or identification.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Astrid did not exist. Or rather, she did not exist in the traditional sense, the way the sailors sleeping far below her occupied space and purpose not only in the shipping liner on which she stood, but eventually the dock they were nearing and the world beyond of which she longed for. Despite her physical presence on the deck, Astrid was no more permanent than the mist that obscured the night air which, like her, would be gone by morning light without anyone the wiser that it had ever been. At least, that was the plan. Much stronger opening.

The salty spray stung her cheeks as she narrowed her focus [on the dock with clenched teeth] sounds like the dock is clenching its teeth, [attempting to confirm she was alone.] feels a little told. Perhaps show what she’s looking for, such as, “No one in sight” or the like [The black water below leapt up at her menacingly, [causing Astrid to grip] telling. Show the action, then her reaction the cold steel railing ever tighter, moisture seeping through her fingerless wool gloves, threatening to enshroud her whole body in the ocean below.] Feels a little overwritten She tore her eyes from the abyss below and [focused on her watch] she focuses twice this paragraph. Two am, it was now or never. Her heart pounded in her ears.

Although she had done it countless times before, she loathed the experience of what?. While country boarders always proved difficult to traverse unseen, marine ports provided the most deadly obstacle between her and the boarder ahead, the ocean. The February Maine weather did little to soften the challenge. She just had to remain undetected, and keep her teeth hidden; otherwise she would have far more complicated things to explain than a lack of a last name or identification.

The question:

1. Is this revised opening is gripping enough to make you want to turn the page, or if it is too obscure or confusing?


Notes from comments on previous submission: The story is adult science fiction with aspects of historical mystery, but it takes place in present day. The historical aspects will come into play later.

The scene is not a prologue, she is going to try and get to shore and everything is going to go very wrong. I am unsure how to edit it to avoid sounding YA, any suggestions you have would be much appreciated. The main character is 30 years old. She is definitely on the run and I was very pleased to see that was communicated.

The POV I am going for is primarily third person limited, though at parts in the book I was hoping to go third person omniscient as needed.


I’d read on. I get the sense she’s on the run, using the ship as the easiest way to get past border patrol, and she’s not happy about that. Great conflict there on top of the problem at hand. I still love the teeth detail, and it adds another touch of mystery to this. Who is this woman? Why is she on the run? How can she survive cold, Maine water? What’s the deal with her teeth (is she a vampire?) and why doesn’t she exist? All good questions that make me curious to keep reading to find out the answers.

I don’t get the YA vibe here that I did before, so removing references to her aunt fixed that. The prologue feel is also gone, and this reads like the start of the story with Astrid trying to get to shore to cross a border into Canada (I’m guessing since it’s Maine).

Still a few told spots, and I think adding a little more internalization there will fix them. Let’s look closer at that second paragraph:
The salty spray stung her cheeks as she narrowed her focus on the dock with clenched teeth, attempting to confirm she was alone.
The bolded parts tell readers what Astrid is trying to do, not what she actually does. Think about her actions—she studies the dock, (looking for anyone who might see her). She sees no one and proceeds. What thought might you use to show she looked, but saw no one. Also, beware of misplaced modifiers. Astrid clenches he teeth, not the dock.

(Here’s more on dangling and misplaced modifiers) 
The black water below leapt up at her menacingly, causing Astrid to grip the cold steel railing ever tighter, moister seeping through her fingerless wool gloves, threatening to enshroud her whole body in the ocean below.
This sentence is a little overwritten, so it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on. Also, the bold area is telling motive again. Picture the sequences of events. Waves splash Astrid. It startles her and she grips the rail. The cold water seeps into her gloves and chills her. She’s apprehensive about jumping into the water. That’s a lot of information to convey in one, long sentence. Try breaking it up into more of a stimulus/response format, and show her reactions in what she thinks. Not only will it clear up any confusing in this paragraph, it’ll transition nicely to the next, where she elaborates on the dangers.

(Here’s more on stimulus/response) 

Overall, it’s a great revision. I feel more in Astrid’s head as she deals with her problem, and that problem is intriguing enough to keep me reading. Just keep an eye out for those telling red flag words and stimulus/response issues going forward so you can fix them as you finish (or revise the first draft of) this novel.

(Here’s more on telling red flag words) 

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.

6 comments:

  1. Is it 'boarder' or 'border'? At first I thought Astrid was a boarder from the country with an obstacle between her and another person/boarder, but the paragraph seems to be talking about borders of countries. Very confusing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think the sentences in the first paragraph are too long. Also, they repeat information. I probably wouldn't read on. The genre is confusing to me. Unless this goes back in time, I'm not sure how it would be historical at all.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I was confused by the boarder reference, too, and thought it meant border. Further on, "moister seeping through her gloves" bothered me also.
    Still, I'd probably read on to see what happens with the same questions Janice pointed out.
    Thanks for sharing

    ReplyDelete

  4. Still would have liked to see present tense action:

    The salty spray stings her cheeks and with clenched teeth she focuses on the dock, attempting to confirm she was alone. The black water below leaps up with menace, and Astrid grips the cold steel railing ever tighter. The moisture seeps through her fingerless wool gloves, threatening to enshroud her whole body in the ocean below. She tears her eyes from the abyss below and focuses on her watch. Two am. It's now or never. Her heart pounds in her ears.

    Just my unprofessional opinion, but I like action!

    ReplyDelete
  5. “The scene is not a prologue, she is going to try and get to shore and everything is going to go very wrong.”

    The structure of this scene is strong, and it’s a good place to start the story. But even in this short snippet, you have dramatized it enough.

    You begin the scene too early. Go study Janice’s deconstruction of her opening in The Shifter and see how it makes the scene stronger when you start as close to the major conflict of the scene as possible.

    In terms of prose, start with a tight third person limited and stick with it.

    This is opening paragraph is way too abstract.

    “Astrid did not exist. Or rather, she did not exist in the traditional sense, the way the sailors sleeping far below her occupied space and purpose not only in the shipping liner on which she stood, but eventually the dock they were nearing and the world beyond of which she longed for. Despite her physical presence on the deck, Astrid was no more permanent than the mist that obscured the night air which, like her, would be gone by morning light without anyone the wiser that it had ever been. At least, that was the plan.”

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I meant to write, "you haven't dramatized it enough."

      Delete