Saturday, July 9

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This MG Sci Fi Opening Working?

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 August 6.

This week’s questions:

1. Is this a good opening for a MG sci-fi book?

2. Does the chapter title suggest that the setting is on another planet?

3. Do you see any potential problems as to why literary agents would reject my manuscript based on the first page?


Market/Genre: Middle Grade Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

CHAPTER ONE—TWIN PLANET

Gaben was determined to disappear.

He perched by the table, waiting for his mom to serve early meal. Focus, he thought to himself, sick of being behind everyone else his age.

Gaben shut his eyes, took a deep breath, and pictured his older sister, Meeca, holding him in the air with her telekinesis. When he thought he felt afraid and cold enough, he let his eyelids slide apart just a crack, peeking out the bottom corner.

Gaben sighed, aggravated. He could still see his legs.

Think cold. Think fear. He tried again, forcing himself to shiver. Little shiver bumps covered his gray arms, but he stayed visible.

“Relax, Gaben,” said his mother, noticing his bumpy skin. “You’ll be able to turn invisible soon.” Zuka levitated four dishes of spongecakes to the table. His stomach grumbled as he breathed in the delicious smell.

“Dad, Meeca, early meal is ready,” Zuka shouted.

Meeca and Granddad Podo came into the meal room and sat down. Gaben still felt strange seeing Granddad Podo in his father’s old seat. It had been a few months since Mokus died, but Gaben felt a sharp stab in his heart whenever he thought of his dad.

Zuka casually stretched her four-fingered hand toward the syrup, which obediently flew to the center of the table. Gaben sighed again. When would he be able to do that?

As everyone began eating, Gaben tried not to ask his mother his usual questions. He knew they set her teeth on edge, but he couldn’t help himself.

My Thoughts in Purple:

CHAPTER ONE—TWIN PLANET

[Gaben was determined to disappear.] Good opening line, as it makes me wonder why

He perched by the table, waiting for his mom to serve early meal. Focus, he thought to himself, [sick of being behind everyone else his age.] I like the idea here, but perhaps a little more context? Younger readers might have trouble following

Gaben shut his eyes, took a deep breath, and pictured his older sister, Meeca, holding him in the air with her telekinesis. When he thought he felt afraid and cold enough, he let his eyelids slide apart just a crack, peeking out the bottom corner.

Gaben sighed, aggravated. He could still see his legs.

Think cold. Think fear. He tried again, forcing himself to shiver. Little shiver bumps covered his [gray arms] let’s me know he’s not human, but he stayed visible.

“Relax, Gaben,” said his mother, noticing his bumpy skin. “You’ll be able to turn invisible soon.” [Zuka] Who is this, Mom? Perhaps keep using "his mother" to keep things clear levitated four dishes of spongecakes to the table. His stomach grumbled as he breathed in the delicious smell.

“Dad, Meeca, early meal is ready,” [Zuka shouted.] here, too

Meeca and Granddad Podo came into the meal room and sat down. Gaben still felt strange seeing Granddad Podo in his father’s old seat. It had been a few months since [Mokus] perhaps use his father instead died, but Gaben felt a sharp stab in his heart whenever he thought of his dad.

Zuka casually stretched her [four-fingered hand] another clue of their alienness toward the syrup, which obediently flew to the center of the table. Gaben sighed again. When would he be able to do that?

As everyone began eating, Gaben tried not to ask his mother his usual questions. He knew they set her teeth on edge, but he couldn’t help himself.

The questions:

1. Is this a good opening for a MG sci-fi book?


Aside from one or two clarity tweaks, yes, I’d read on (readers chime in here). Gaben has a problem right away—he can’t levitate or turn invisible and it’s bothering him a great deal. He’s sad over his father’s death. I don’t yet know what the overall conflict is, but I don’t need to at this stage (and the cover copy will have given me a clue). I also like the “determined to disappear” line, as it’s ambiguous how he means that, which has a nice potential double meaning. He means it literary, but I suspect he also means it in a “not be noticed” kind of way if he’s behind his peers and getting teased about it. I can easily see there being a subplot along those lines or an arc in his character growth.

(Here’s more on writing strong openings)

2. Does the chapter title suggest that the setting is on another planet?

Yes. It’s also quite clear this is an alien family by a few well-placed details. Gray skin, four fingered hand. I picture the classic Roswell Gray aliens with the big heads and eyes. (If that’s not what you intend, you might consider a few extra details to paint the right picture, as “four-fingered gray aliens” is most likely going to trigger that image).

(Here’s more on the differences between setting and worldbuilding)

3. Do you see any potential problems as to why literary agents would reject my manuscript based on the first page?

The number of names toward the end could be a problem, as it’s a lot to remember, especially for younger readers. Even though this is third person omniscient, you might consider referring to his parents as he would—his mother, Mom, Pappa, etc. That would help keep the number of names down and make it easier for readers to keep track of who is in the scene.

(Here’s more on seven deadly sins for first chapters)

Overall, it starts with a problem and Gaben struggling to fix it. Although I don’t know how his slow-developing abilities is going to affect or cause the core conflict, I assume it will play a central role somehow based on this opening. He’ll likely get his powers near the end when he faces the final battle (or, he’ll get the very soon and that’s the inciting event). Either way, I’d read on to see where this went.

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.

3 comments:

  1. It's fun and I would read on. The only thing that got me was trying to keep track of all the names. I agree with Janice here, stick to there role and introduce the names more slowly.

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  2. While interesting, I think there are some images that need to be fixed.
    e.g. Knowing he's not human 'perched at the table' makes me imagine more birdlike.
    and
    'eyelids slide apart just a crack' implies horizontal lids to me so 'peeking out the bottom corner' doesn't make sense.

    And where did the syrup fly from? The cupboard?

    I'd delay the dad being dead thing a bit and focus on the scene a bit more. But that's just my two cents.

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  3. I agree with other comments and Janice's thoughts, but particularly so about bringing in the death of the father. This is a complex thing that deserves more 'time', plus it also feels inserted, rather than natural -- something an adult or older person/child might reflect on -- and therefore interrupts the casual flow of the scene. I can read through, eliminating that reference entirely, and the scene retains the feel and flavour it begins with...

    I would save that reveal for later - period - or at least later in the meal, perhaps when Granddad speaks, bringing a stronger reality to the fact that father no longer holds that position at the table.

    I guess I want to stay within Gaben's perspective of wishing he could do what he can't (yet). That perspective feels MG and engaging for that level of reader.

    Take your time -- allow the reader to absorb the scene, the information, the characters -- then add new information when it is most effective and most likely to be retained.

    Good luck -- and thank you for sharing!

    ReplyDelete