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Saturday, April 14

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This an Engaging 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 we 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: Two


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through April 28.

This week’s questions:

Is this an engaging opening? I wanted to introduce life in 2090, but do I have too many specialized terms?


Market/Genre: Women's Fiction- Sci Fi

On to the diagnosis…



Original text:

Background: The excerpt I am sending you is set in the the year 2090. Life in 2090 is energetic and optimistic as the past decades have brought wealth and peace to all on Earth, thanks to countries uniting to develop, commerce, technology, science, and space exploration. But, Charli is overwhelmed by a world filled with tech and adventure. Her husband is in poor health (accident while golfing in space), her young adult children are on scientific missions to near- Mars, and her sister's Zizi's husband, Hyperion Jones, has disappeared while on an asteroid mining project. However, Charli still possesses a speck of the humor and positive attitude that inspired her great-grandmother Charli. Can Charli press on and prevail in 2090?

"Oh, geez. It's a holiday and it's raining and storming?" Zizi sloshed her coffee as she sat down by her sister Charli on the loveseat on the balcony. She eCommed wipe up spill and the mini house robot glided to clean it up. Flash! Blue-white lightening shards shot from furious black thunderhead clouds. Zizi flinched and more coffee dribbled on her robe.

Zizi eCommed the heat setting on her cushion to high and she made a point to cross and uncross her legs, cough and then pat Charli on her shoulder. Charli looked straight out the window and didn't say anything.

Zizi tried again. "Happy Thanksgiving, honey. I was hoping we could enjoy our feast today on the outside SkyFloat. But this downpour looks like it will never stop." Why was Charli tapping her forehead over and over?

"Uh, Charli sweetie, you keep tapping. Do you need a robot? Can I get you something? Oh, are you getting important news?" Zizi would have said more but Charli shut her eyes and covered her ears. Zizi had had enough.

"Not again!" Zizi jumped up and was ready to sputter more at Charli, but then she gulped and stopped. She took a calming breath. "It's not really raining today, is it Charli?" Zizi thought-pulsed the VR Menu for the window. "You set the VR on Thunderstorm didn't you?" She bit back the word, "again".

Zizi pulsed through the various window view settings. "Let's set it for reality." The floor stopped the kinetic thunder rumble vibration and the scene out the window blinked and changed to blue sky, with sun sparkling on the waves of Great Lake Iris. Sea gulls rode the wind currents and cooed.

Zizi leaned closer and hugged her sister's shoulder. "I get that you feel dark and miserable on the inside, but it might help to let in some light. Let's plan our day. I know, we need our holiday breakfast." Zizi eCommed coffee carafe and cinnamon rolls.

My Thoughts in Purple:

"Oh, [geez] slang is hard to get right, but perhaps create something that sounds more futuristic and not so modern?. It's [a holiday] later she says Thanksgiving, so why not call it that here? and it's raining and storming?" Zizi sloshed her coffee as she sat down by her sister Charli on the loveseat on the balcony. [She eCommed wipe up spill] perhaps do something to set apart “wipe up spill” so it’s clear it’s a command? I stumbled over it on the first read and the [mini] this suggests there’s a larger version house robot glided to clean it up. [Flash! Blue-white lightening shards shot from furious black thunderhead clouds.] This reads as if the robot did this to clean the spill, but I think it’s the storm Zizi flinched and [more coffee dribbled on her robe] so she spilled coffee on her robe the first time as well? The “more coffee” suggests that, but I don’t think that’s actually the case or she wouldn’t have called the robot. 

Zizi [eCommed the heat setting on her cushion to high] she uses this twice in a row, which feels a little forced and she made a point to cross and uncross her legs, cough and then [pat Charli on her shoulder.] A little internalization here would be nice to know why. It seems like she’s trying to get her attention, but later, it’s more like she’s offering comfort Charli looked straight out the window and didn't say anything.

Zizi tried again. "Happy Thanksgiving, honey. I was hoping we could enjoy our feast today on the [outside SkyFloat.] Outside suggests there’s an inside SkyFloat, but I suspect there isn’t. But I don’t know what this is either way But this downpour looks like it will never stop." [Why was Charli tapping her forehead over and over?] This seems odd since we don’t see Charli do this, even though her sister’s been staring at her

["Uh, Charli sweetie, you keep tapping.] This is a repeat of what she just thought [Do you need a robot?] I don’t understand how this helps, so the detail doesn’t add anything to the scene Can I get you something? [Oh, are you getting important news?"] This is interesting as it suggests some type of cyber implant or something, but there’s nothing to clarify what this means Zizi would have said more but Charli shut her eyes and covered her ears. [Zizi had had enough.] This is odd since this thought fits well with Charli’s action, so it’s almost seems like it’s the wrong character doing it.

"Not again!" Zizi jumped up and was ready to sputter more at Charli, but then [she gulped] gulped typically suggest fear, not holding back anger and stopped. She took a calming breath. "It's not really raining today, is it Charli?" Zizi thought-pulsed the VR Menu [for the window.] this struck me as odd since they were on the balcony, so I assumed it was outside. But this suggests they’re inside with a window "You set the [VR] perhaps say window since that’s how she thinks of it next on Thunderstorm didn't you?" She bit back the word, "again".

Zizi pulsed through the various window view settings. "Let's [set it for reality.] wouldn’t that be turning it off?" The floor stopped the kinetic thunder rumble vibration and the scene out the window blinked and changed to blue sky, with sun sparkling on the waves of Great Lake Iris. Sea gulls rode the wind currents and cooed.

Zizi leaned closer and [hugged her sister's shoulder.] I know what you mean here, but the wording makes it sound as though she’s hugging one shoulder, which is an odd image "I get that you feel dark and miserable on the inside, but it might help to let in some light. Let's plan our day. I know, we need our holiday breakfast." Zizi [eCommed] this is used three times, but I’m not actually sure what it does coffee carafe and cinnamon rolls.

The questions:

1. Is this an engaging opening?

Not yet (readers chime in). I feel a bit detached from it, since there’s little internal thought and a far narrative distance. The names are used too often, which also adds to the distant feeling. I’m not getting a sense of a character with a problem, even though Zizi is worried about Charli. Charli sits there and does nothing, so she’s not feeling in the scene yet, and Zizi feels a bit flat.

(Here’s more on narrative distance)

I’d suggest adding more internal thought and narrative to flesh out the scene a but more. You might also look for ways to get Charli more into it, even if all she does is shift and show through body language that she’s unhappy and doesn’t want to talk. Right now, she’s a blank slate and adds nothing to the scene. It might also help to better show the goal and conflict, as I’m not sure whats driving this scene just yet. There are hints of a problem with Charli seeming depressed, but there’s nothing that pulls me in yet to find out why and what’s wrong.

(Here’s more on internalization)

2. I wanted to introduce life in 2090, but do I have too many specialized terms?

The world doesn’t feel futuristic to me yet. It’s basically a scene we’d have today, just with “future tech” in it. Which isn’t necessarily bad to show life is “the same” but 70 years from now, but if the goal is to show what’s changed it’s not quite doing enough yet.

I don’t think you have too many specialized terms, but you’re using the same one too much, and it’s never made clear what it means. She eComms multiple things and they all have separate functions. She calls the robot to clean up the spill, she adjusts the temperature on her chair, and she orders food, but I’m not sure how those things relate, so it seems like it does whatever is needed at the time. But she also thought-pulses at the VR stuff, which feels different. Is the eComm like a phone or a remote she uses to access tech? Why can’t she adjust the window VR with it?

(Here's more on backgrounding your world through point of view)

What does eComm short for? Because I’d guess electronic communication, which isn’t that different from making a call now. “E” is also commonly used to mean “internet” or “online” in some way in our modern world, so it naturally makes me think along those lines. Terms grow from how people use them, but I don’t see how this became the verb we use versus “she called” or “she texted” or something similar.

It feels like a phone, but called something else. I can adjust my A/C and even connect to my appliances with apps on my phone, so this doesn’t feel out of line, but it doesn’t ring true to me either. If we have implants to thought-pulse, then why isn’t that how we interact with everything? Why eComm the chair when we could just connect and thought-pulse the same application that warms the cushion?

(Here’s more on grounding readers in your world)

Think about how tech is used and what it’s used for. If we do things through implants or thoughts in 2090, that’s how we’d likely interact with most things. Compare it again to the phone. Landlines disappeared when cell phone took over. Streaming has replaced a lot of televisions. I actually have a washer and dryer that has apps for a phone to let me know when cycles are done, and I can start my robot vacuum from an app. That’s not dissimilar to what you’re doing here, but I don’t summon the robot, I turn on the vacuum. It’s the same function, but how we refer to it is different. This feels too much like you’re trying to force “the future.”

But I do like that there’s a device that does things. If there’s a piece of technology that everyone has and uses, people will design things to take advantage of that. So if eComm is just a “future tech” way of saying smart phone, just stick with the phone or something that would naturally develop from what we have now (I just can’t see us using eComm in this way—readers chime in in case it’s just me). It’s been 100 years since the phone was invented and it’s nothing at all like the original, but we still use the same terminology. And if they have implant tech, we’d probably be using that as much as we use our phones today.

Your instincts of having them using the tech to convey it to readers is good though, so I’d suggest fleshing out the problem a bit more and using more futuristic elements to get the setting across better. A little telling in this situation isn’t a bad thing, as readers won’t understand what things are yet. You don’t want to flat out explain them, but a little more would help.

For example, exactly what is she doing when she eComms versus thought pulses? Does she “triggered the implant behind her ear and thought-pulsed the command…” or the like? A few extra words can make a big difference in getting the technology across.

(Here’s more on when telling is better than showing)

I’d suggest coming at this from a slightly different angle. Instead of trying to get the tech in first, focus on the problem and how Zizi is trying to solve it. You’re already heading in that direction with her offering to get a robot and food, so perhaps try fleshing those out a bit more.

For example, maybe Zizi uses her implant to scan through the various types of robots she can get to see what might work for Charli. You can show her using the tech and add some internalization as well. Instead of asking if it’s raining, maybe have her sigh in frustration and check the settings herself. Then she reacts and speaks to Charli about her sulking as she’s changing it or turning it off.

Overall, I think you’re just trying to put too much into a short space so there’s not enough room for everything a good opening needs to do. Slow down a bit, expand on what you have, and look for ways to do both world building and plot at the same time.

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.

About the Critiquer

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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