Saturday, February 4

Real Life Diagnostics: Can You Follow Along in This Sci Fi 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: Three 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through February 25.

This week’s questions:

1. How is the characterization? I'm trying to balance it out between the narrator (who has a strong voice, but the reader already met him in the prologue), while giving Naomi's character a chance to shine through.

2. Do you get an initial sense for what is going on?

3. Would it be engaging to a middle schooler (my target age group)?


Market/Genre: YA Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: It takes place on Mars in the year 2378, centered on Naomi Chen. The villain is narrating this in retrospect from an omniscient viewpoint, which is explained in a brief prologue.

Naomi Chen stands in the corner of a large room. A pile of desks, hastily stacked, shelters her from view. She wears a dark sweater and jeans; a few strands of feathery black hair peak out from a hood puled low over her face. I’ll bet if I look, she’s wearing thick black eyeliner. Probably wishes she was a vampire, or dating one. I hear that’s what goth-emo teenage girls do. Standing among the forgotten desks, she is one with the shadows, alone, unnoticed. She seems the type that would love to watch the world burn. Since that’s exactly what she does later, it gives me slight comfort to know I wasn’t the only psychopath involved in Mars’s destruction.

Hang on, let me use my Omniscient Narrator powers to hear what she’s thinking:

I see dead people.

Yup. We’ve got ourselves a twenty-fourth-century emo teenage girl. Martian edition.

Anyway, Naomi is not alone in the room. To continue her earlier statement:

They aren't dead yet, but give them a few minutes and they will be.

In the center space, where the desks would normally be arranged in rows for classroom instruction, stands another four teenagers. No wait, there’s seven of them. Three just showed up out of thin air.

No, six; one just vanished. Wait up, now there’s eight?

Stay still, you little—choose a dimension and stay in it!

--Recording session paused—

Sorry, I had to take a moment to count exactly how many teenagers I was dealing with. You can’t leave those things unaccounted for; they have a tendency to destroy planets.

Final verdict: there are eight. Eight spoiled rich Martian kids testing out their new “up-grades.” I did not include Naomi into their number, and neither does she. Naomi doesn't need cybernetic "upgrades" to jump between dimensions.

Perks of being born a superhuman.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Naomi Chen stands in the corner of a large room. A pile of desks, hastily stacked, shelters her from view. She wears a dark sweater and jeans; a few strands of feathery black hair peak out from a hood puled low over her face. I’ll bet if I look, she’s wearing thick black eyeliner. Probably wishes she was a vampire, or dating one. I hear that’s what goth-emo teenage girls do. Standing among the forgotten desks, she is one with the shadows, alone, unnoticed. [She seems the type that would love to watch the world burn. Since that’s exactly what she does later, it gives me slight comfort to know I wasn’t the only psychopath involved in Mars’s destruction.] This makes me think she’s the bad guy

Hang on, let me use my Omniscient Narrator powers to hear what she’s thinking:

I see dead people.

Yup. We’ve got ourselves a twenty-fourth-century emo teenage girl. Martian edition.

Anyway, Naomi is not alone in the room. To continue her earlier statement:

[They aren't dead yet, but give them a few minutes and they will be.] I can’t tel how she means this. Is this a good or bad thing?

In the center space, where the desks would normally be arranged in rows for classroom instruction, stands another four teenagers. No wait, there’s seven of them. Three just showed up out of thin air.

No, six; one just vanished. Wait up, now there’s eight?

Stay still, you little—choose a dimension and stay in it!

[--Recording session paused] This threw me, because it’s a hard narrative to keep track of, and now I’m not sure what I’m reading or where/when/how it’s happening

Sorry, I had to take a moment to count exactly how many teenagers I was dealing with. [You can’t leave those things unaccounted for; they have a tendency to destroy planets.] cute

Final verdict: there are eight. Eight spoiled rich Martian kids testing out their new “up-grades.” I did not include Naomi into their number, and neither does she. [Naomi doesn't need cybernetic "upgrades" to jump between dimensions. ] very intriguing

Perks of being born a superhuman.

The questions:

1. How is the characterization? I'm trying to balance it out between the narrator (who has a strong voice, but the reader already met him in the prologue), while giving Naomi's character a chance to shine through.


The narrator has a strong voice and feels like a solid person, but Naomi is just someone in the room. The little I see of her, she seems more villain than hero, as she’s there thinking that in a few minutes everyone will be dead. Paired with the “psychopath” narrator, her words feel more, “this is good” instead of “this is bad that I see this.”

I don’t know how she feels about all these people dying or what role she’ll take moving on, so she seems more like part of the problem than the one who (I assume if she’s the protagonist and this is the antagonist) is going to solve the problem and save the day. But I think a few extra words that show she’s not happy about people dying would be enough to show she’s a good person, not a bad one.

(Here’s more on introducing characters in a scene)

2. Do you get an initial sense for what is going on?

Not really (readers chime in here). The voice and narrative style are interesting, but it’s a little hard to keep up with. When he stops the recording I’m lost, because I don’t know where he is or what he’s doing. Perhaps the prologue is enough to clear this up though. It’s too hard for me to tell based just on this snippet. There might be a few paragraphs right after this that clarify what’s happening here.

I can tell that something cataclysmic happens/happened/will happen and that it involves tech and dimensional jumping. Naomi is special and that sets her apart, but I don’t yet get the sense that she’s the hero. The narrator is “investigating” this for some purpose, and he actually feels like the protagonist and she the villain based on this (which actually is the sign of a good antagonist if he views himself as the “hero” as opposed to the protagonist).

It’s hard to offer suggestions to fix this, because if this gets cleared up in a few paragraphs it can all work. But if not, then more would be needed here. Adding too much can ruin the style, and the style and voice is a big part of why this works. I’d suggest beta readers who can read more of the opening in context and see what they say. If everyone is able to keep up and figure it all out without it knocking them out of the story, you’re good. If you have readers who run into trouble, clarify the areas that tripped them up.

3. Would it be engaging to a middle schooler (my target age group)?

I think so. It’s a strong voice, there’s conflict, something is going on and it’s quite bad, and there’s a big question of “how does Mars get destroyed and what role does this all play in that?”

(Here’s more in hooking readers in the opening scene)

Overall, there’s a lot of good here, but the unusual narrative style makes it hard for me to give a solid diagnostic on a small sample. It feels like one of those books that needs several pages to get into the rhythm of it before you can settle into the story (The Book Thief is also this way). But the voice is strong, the puzzles interesting, and there are enough hooks to make me overlook some of my confusion. If the cover copy intrigued me, I’d read on a few more pages to give it a chance to start to make sense.

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 (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

6 comments:

  1. This seems like one unique story and tone. I agree, this has immense potential, and all the risks it takes also call for a lot of care to be sure it comes out right.

    One particular point that came to me:

    The first paragraph (after the italics) is a fairly large one. Blocks that big or bigger are harder to read, and they're usually worth breaking up... and when it's really the start of the story, this could be vital. Because, the really juicy line in it,

    "Since that’s exactly what she does later, it gives me slight comfort to know I wasn’t the only psychopath involved in Mars’s destruction."

    is easy to miss. When a piece of a large paragraph is so different and so likely to grab the reader, it's often best to separate it from the rest to be positive that grabbing happens.

    And again, this might be your first page. Your whole book could be depending on grabs like that.

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  2. Hi. Since I almost exclusively read kidlit, I hope my impressions will be useful. The readers are going to be interested in what happens to Naomi. While the narrator's biases about her will gain their sympathy (assuming she'll often be judged and misunderstood by him) I think he's getting in the way a bit. Readers need to get to know her. They're going to want more about what's in her head in order to root for her. The narrator can't really give that, at least, he isn't yet. Also, right now she seems aloof. She's better than her peers because she has a superpower. She doesn't seem to need or want their company. If she's ostrasizing herself because she's been hurt, or for their own protection, we probably need to know that. It devote us to her cause. And on a side note, please avoid stereotyping goth teens. That will go a long way toward endearing your book to MG/YA editors. Please, neither the typical TV goth, nor the goth-on-the-outside with the heart of gold. Looking forward to where this story goes. Thanks for submitting.

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    Replies
    1. I'll second Joanne's comments. Right now the narrator comes off as condescending toward Naomi and the teens she's watching. And that age group is the audience for this book.


      It can and definitely has worked in the past. The example that comes straight to mind is Heidi Schultz's Hook's Revenge series. The narrator in that series is a curmudgeonly old man type who looks down on and insults pretty much everyone equally, and it's a terrifically fun read because of it. But I'd hope Naomi and the other characters begin to subvert the narrator's cliche expectations, because otherwise it smacks of the author insulting their audience, particularly teen and tween girls who have every right to like or dislike eyeliner and vampires without being judged for it. Girls are mocked for their interests enough without also getting it from the books aimed at their age group.



      Otherwise, I don't mind the structure of the narrative and followed it fine, and I *really* like a unconventional narrator when done well. The voice is fun and I smiled at the line about not leaving teens unaccounted for. It gives me reason to think the writer is on the right track with the narrator and just needs to be careful not to turn off readers before they realize the narrator can't be taken too seriously.

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  3. I want to be interested in this story -- I 'feel' like it's going to be fun...eventually.

    The narrator is so overpowering that I can only get a sketch of Naomi, who I envision as hiding behind her hastily-erected barrier. I don't get the feeling that she's waiting to strike out at anyone, but rather that she's in distress, has disturbing knowledge, and is afraid.

    I have no idea who she's hiding from. I don't know who the other teens are, but have a mild interest in what kind of devices they might have that allow dimension-hopping. I also don't get the feeling that they're after Naomi or that they're a target.

    I'm intrigued by the idea that Naomi has some kind of special powers, although the last line feels a bit heavy-handed, like a giveaway.

    The narrator is almost too cute...middle grade readers may like this smarty-pants voice, but wonder if it needs to be simpler? I 'hear' the voice, but not the words particularly, so I get lost in all the antics and can't hold onto the story line as well.

    The prep material, introducing the narrator, probably makes a big difference in following this opening, and like Janice, I bet another page or two allows the reader to engage with the pacing and concept, and happily dive in.

    I got thrown, and then stuck, when the narrator references himself and his powers to listen in...that scrambled the positioning of the narrator for me. Then, when the recording stops, I was thrown again.

    None of this is too damaging or impossible to fix. I'd suggest that you first get a firm grip on your narrator, so the reader has a fixed position from which to 'hang out' while absorbing the story. The distant POV is fine, but when you shift that solid ground, it's too distracting.

    Good idea so far -- oyes, the whole goth idea seems a little forced here...I guess I'd rather see that 'label' come a bit later and in a less telling way.

    Good luck and thanks for sharing with us!

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  4. The first thing that struck me is that Goth-emo is a current fad, but not likely to be around in another 10 years, let alone 1000+ years (by then there will be a different fad).

    You've done a good job of showing that she is a little tentative and unsure of her place and what she's doing and is content with sitting back and watching.

    I liked the little bits of humor--teenagers popping in and out, which is a very teenager type thing to do, and you've done it well in a different fashion for a different world. And then the comment about unaccounted for teenagers causing problem--ha ha!

    I'm not a big sci-fi fan, but this snippet intrigues me.

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  5. I love the narrator, though as the story stands I feel like I'm not going to get enough. If the narrator is present quite often, I love this. If he's only going to be around for a little bit, then Naomi should probably get a little more characterization. (This is how the book thief was for me; while I know the message is supposed to be powerful, I only cared about the narrator and tended to skip to his brief parts).

    While I find the goth/Emo thing highly unlikely to have persisted several hundred years in the future (I mean, looking back a few hundred years, we have very very little in common aesthetically), but I don't think the reader will care as much (I didn't start noticing this stuff until about junior year of high school).

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