Saturday, July 8

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Keep Reading This Science Fiction 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: Five 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through August 12.

This week’s question:

Is this an effective beginning to my novel? I began with a scene in which she loses her parents in a war and then skip to this scene after a "12 years later" thing but I'm just not sure how to successfully set up the beginning here.


Market/Genre: Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

The sound of the alarm wakes me. Soft, bluish light has just begun to flood the room from the tiny, rectangular window on the concrete wall of my tiny cell. Seven hours of sleep exactly, no more, no less. I groggily scramble out from beneath my paper-thin blanket and trudge to the cell door for morning counts. I’m here, I think in quiet rage as the guard passes my cell, counting my presence with a mere click of a button on his belt. The chances of escape here are so ridiculously small that the counts are, in my theory, nothing more than a reminder of the hopelessness of all of our lives, us prisoners of the Republic of Algia. We are held in not only the biggest, but also the most impossible prison to escape on the planet, that of the Republic’s stronghold city, Lock Haven. Only one prisoner ever escaped from the thousands of acres of pure fortress, and the Republic loves to retell the story of how he was shot down as soon as he made it outside the prison walls. The authorities have taken measures to maintain autonomy for the escapee, perhaps to further ensure that his legacy is lost, but I’ve heard it whispered that his name was Caslan Ignato. The announcers talk about it as a great victory for the Republic, but the way I see it, Caslan Ignato may have lived the majority of his life as a prisoner and then lost it to the Republic, but he died a free man. I often contemplate attempting such a failed escape myself – imagine the sun on my skin as I emerge from the twenty story-high walls, free at last, if even for just a second.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[Note: This was submitted as one large chunk of text. That was hard to read, so I broke it into paragraphs I felt improved the readability of the snippet]

The sound of [the alarm] you might consider adding a word here that shows this is more than a typical alarm wakes me. Soft, bluish light has just begun to flood the room from the tiny, rectangular window on the concrete wall of my tiny cell. Seven hours of sleep exactly, no more, no less. I groggily scramble out from beneath my paper-thin blanket and trudge to the cell door for morning counts.

[I’m here, I think in quiet rage as the guard passes my cell, counting my presence with a mere click of a button on his belt. ] I like that she follows orders, yet s raging about it. Shows she still has fight left in her

The chances of escape here are so ridiculously small that the counts are, in my theory, nothing more than a reminder of the hopelessness of all of our lives, us prisoners of the Republic of Algia. We are held in not only the biggest, but also the most impossible prison to escape on the planet, that of the Republic’s stronghold city, Lock Haven. Only one prisoner ever escaped from the thousands of acres of pure fortress, and the Republic loves to retell the story of how he was shot down as soon as he made it outside the prison walls. There’s a lot of attitude in this paragraph, so it feels like her opinion and not an infodump

The authorities have taken measures to maintain autonomy for the escapee, perhaps to further ensure that his [legacy is lost,] nice phrase, as it suggest he’s a hero to many but I’ve heard it whispered that his name was Caslan Ignato. The announcers talk about it as a great victory for the Republic, but the way I see it, Caslan Ignato may have lived the majority of his life as a prisoner and then lost it to the Republic, [but he died a free man.] a lot of meaning in this

I often contemplate attempting such a failed escape myself – imagine the sun on my skin as I emerge from the twenty story-high walls, free at last, if even for just a second.

The question:

1. Is this an effective beginning to my novel? I began with a scene in which she loses her parents in a war and then skip to this scene after a "12 years later" thing but I'm just not sure how to successfully set up the beginning here.

Yes, I’d read on (readers chime in here). It’s a quiet opening, and filled with a lot of information, but due to the character’s voice, it doesn’t feel infodumpy to me. It packs a lot of information and world building without being too heavy handed. The protagonist is in prison and dreams of escape, even if it means her death. I’m curious why she’s there, and oddly enough, I don’t feel that she’s a hardened criminal or a bad person even though she’s a prisoner. I get a “political prisoner” vibe from this.

I don’t know what will happen next, but I imagine escape will play a role at some point. There’s enough here to pique my interest and see what her life in prison is like and what might happen to give her that chance to be free.

(Here’s more on writing a strong opening)

You mentioned the scene where she loses her parents. I don’t know if you still have that scene as the opening or not, but my instinct says you probably don’t need it. Seeing her lose her parents doesn’t feel like it would add anything to this (especially if it was 12 years ago), and potentially rob the story of a question for readers to wonder about. It’s hard to do, “here’s a terrible moment from the protagonist’s past that sets up the story” type prologue, and more often than not, it fails to grab readers. It frequently only feels meaningful after you know the story.

There are always exceptions of course, so you’d have to decide if it helped or hurt the story. I’d be happy if I started this book here. I might not be if I had to get through a clear and obvious scene of backstory with no goal or forward momentum, and a 12-year-old trauma doesn’t feel like it has the necessary drive to pull readers in.

Overall, I thought this did a good job at drawing me in and making me want to read more.

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.

5 comments:

  1. I agree, this is excellent use of attitude to lead us through scene-setting facts without bogging down.

    This really doesn't need the prologue, not as a prologue. Starting with a scene that ends in "but that was twelve years ago" is just hard to recover from (I've done it myself and regretted it), and here you instead have a solid place for where the story actually does start. If her parents' death has especially vivid moments or key facts, you could include it after this, as thoughts or dialog. (Or a flashback, but think hard whether you want it broken into several two-paragraph flashes that show how she's always haunted by it, or if there's a moment she really would stop and relive a full page or more of it).

    Janice said the "alarm" at the beginning could show it's more than a typical wake-up alert. This scene looked so much like an ordinary, frustrating day in prison to her I forgot you'd opened with such an "alarming" word. So I think you should choose between it being a routine sound (and if anything is different today, building that up after this) versus rewriting parts of this so it's more about her eagerness to know what's changed.

    If you don't keep the prologue, we don't know the protagonist's name, age, or gender. The back cover would hint at them, but it's always best to weave them into the story itself, early. (Especially age; if this is in any way YA and not a heroine in the standard twenties-or-thirties range, there's a huge difference between how we'd see 15 and 17.)

    I'm sure the single-paragraph format was just a submission accident, but it's worth taking a moment to think about how it looks. How many lines do authors in your genre let a paragraph run before splitting it up? (I've practiced typing a few out to see how many word-processor lines those "book lines" are.) Splitting a large paragraph does a huge favor to readers to make it easier reading and to play up the subparts it's really made of. Some paragraphs benefit from being a longer block of mood or description, but only some.

    Finally: I don't know if you're going this way, but this is a perfect setup for Caslan Ignato to have survived his escape; you even hinted the guards had a reason to lie about it! If that's the momentum you're going for, you've set it up well. If not, there's plenty else you can do with this.

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  2. I would definitely keep reading. I agree this feels more like her attitude and less like an info dump, but it does explain the rules of the world well. Clever.

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  3. I'd read on too. I liked her attitude and the sìtuation is set for an 'impossible' escape plan. And like Ken Hughes I also got the vibe that the previous escapee made it. Wonder if he formed a resistence group :) Ģood luck with this.

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  4. It reminds me of the programs my daughters watch, The 100, for instance. I have to admit I kind of like the idea of including the 12 years prior bit; but I'd be curious to learn more, either way.

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  5. I agree that this should be the beginning. It drops us right into the action.

    There are a couple of discordant note though. Number one, "autonomy" doesn't make sense in context, should be "anonymity". Number two, why would she contemplate a failed escape? Especially, if there is some implication that the other prisoner actually did escape. That would kill the story dead in it's tracks.

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