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Saturday, September 29

Real Life Diagnostics: How Do You Feel About This Character?

Critique By Maria D'Marco

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: Three


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through October 20.

This week’s questions:

How does Synthea comes across? What will readers think of her, and her relationship with/feelings for Zafira?


Market/Genre: Science Fction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Synthea read the report and smiled. Good news at last. She finally had the leverage she needed to get her first choice for Zafira’s teacher, to replace the disastrous second.

Mistress, as her second choice had elected to be called, had offered but one advantage: availability. The first choice had been raising her own children, and wouldn’t have left them. That was, in part, why she was first.

Synthea scowled. When Mistress had started, no one could have predicted how badly her tenure would end. She couldn’t be dismissed, so after the initial urge to kill her subsided, Synthea had placed her in biostasis. And there she’d stay, until it was safe to release her or the system failed and she died. Unlikely as that was, it would serve her right.

Synthea rose and went to her daughter’s room. Zafira slept there, waiting. She lay on her side beneath the clear cylindrical cover of her biostasis chamber, head resting on the pillow she hugged to her breasts, dark leathern wings behind her, cat-like tail draped over her pale legs. Beautiful and serene, enjoying the pleasant dreams the chamber induced.

The kind I no longer have.

Unbidden, the memories returned. She fell forward, catching herself on the chamber, as the horrors of her past assaulted her, as vivid and real as when they’d happened, centuries ago— preserved by the enhancements she’d given herself, the double-edged gifts her work required.

Eyes closed, bent over that work’s end, she wept, the tears tapping on the cover and running down its sides, unnoticed over the roar of her past.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Synthea read the report and smiled. Good news at last.
She finally had the leverage she needed to get her first choice for Zafira’s teacher, to replace the disastrous second. [this feels like a struggle has been overcome, but the relationship between these two characters isn’t obvious]

Mistress, as her second choice had elected to be called, had offered but one advantage: availability. [this sounds like teachers are at a premium or that need was urgent] The first choice had been raising her own children, [does this mean Zafira is her child?] and wouldn’t have left them. [is something missing here?] That was, in part, why she was first. [Does this mean that Mistress has/had ‘left’ Zafira?]

Synthea scowled. When Mistress had started, no one could have predicted how badly her tenure would end. She couldn’t be dismissed, so after the initial urge to kill her subsided, [this gave me a grin and tells me about this character’s personality] Synthea had placed her in biostasis. [I presume this is a suspended animation, but am still unsure if Mistress is human or ‘created’] And there she’d stay, until it was safe to release her [this sounds like she was a danger to her student, Zafira] or the system failed and she died. Unlikely as that was, it would serve her right. [this, and the previous crack above, make me feel this character can be dismissive when necessary, to the point of dehumanization.]

[I know more about Mistress than either character now, but don’t know the ‘why’ of anything. I feel most of this could come later]

Synthea rose and went to her daughter’s room. [the scene wasn’t set, so I have this character suspended in space until I can ground her] Zafira slept there, waiting. [this appears to be more a statement about the room, not Zafira] She lay on her side beneath the clear cylindrical cover of her biostasis chamber, [is she ‘sleeping’ or in suspension? Big difference, as one sounds like natural rest while the other is a controlled unconscious state] head resting on the pillow she hugged to her breasts, [this infers Zafira is not a child, but is a developed female – of course, this is based on character-typing expectations] dark leathern [I ‘hear’ the author choice with this word use, which simply means ‘made of leather’ – I might have chosen ‘leathery’ to indicate texture] wings behind her, cat-like tail draped over her pale legs. Beautiful and serene, enjoying the pleasant dreams the chamber induced.

The kind I no longer have. [nice strong peek that something dark haunts Synthea]

Unbidden, the memories returned.
[I want to connect this to not having pleasant dreams, but can’t – do bad dreams and some memories have a connection?] She fell forward, catching herself on the chamber, as the horrors of her past assaulted her, as vivid and real as when they’d happened, centuries ago—preserved by the enhancements she’d given herself, [so her past cripples her and she created that situation…] the double-edged gifts her work required. [unsure what the other ‘edge’ is, the advantageous one I presume, and what exactly is her work?]

Eyes closed, bent over that work’s end, [I’m guessing that her daughter is the ‘work’, but unsure if the daughter is a normal birth, later altered, or…?] she wept, the tears tapping on the cover and running down its sides, unnoticed [unnoticed by Synthea?] over the roar of her past.

The questions:

1. How does Synthea comes across? What will readers think of her, and her relationship with/feelings for Zafira?


My initial impression, at first read, is that Synthea is searching for someone to teach her daughter how to fly, how to use her wings, which apparently is not instinctive to the child and whatever has been ‘done’ to her. Synthea is also plagued by visions of her past, which apparently is filled with some horror. This situation is so debilitating that she must utilize a ‘mental decompression’ room and calming drugs she has upgraded to suit her personal needs.

She appears to be confused about her place in her daughter’s life, or there are barriers in place to keep her from naturally assuming the maternal role (?), as far as teaching her daughter to fly. A report (about something) appears to confirm that she was the first, and best, choice for success in this endeavor or clears her to take on that role.

After reading the sample, and the additional 189 words [not shown here], my reaction was: “Here’s the start of the book!”

(Here's more on ways an opening scene might confuse the reader)

This opening doesn’t allow me to really see what the relationship is between these two characters, as one is zonked in a capsule, er, biostasis chamber, so I have no idea how the two relate – no communication. The material on the Mistress does give some insight into Synthea’s personality, as noted above, but the rest doesn’t help me know how she and her daughter relate.

Synthea seems driven, tormented, perhaps obsessed? She is willing to use herself as a guinea pig it seems and has done something to herself that resulted in her being tormented by overwhelming visions of her past. It may be that she’s extended her life, but that’s a guess based on the reference to ‘centuries ago’. I would rather have been shown a few bits of those visions, as hints of her past.

It was also a bit confusing (in the later segment) that she referenced raising teenage children, so are these currently living children or…?

(Here's more on writing emotionally strong characters)

The last 189 words move quickly, gives some direction, reveals needed information, and provides a hook. This might be a case where the opening is taking up too much runway before lift-off.

The opening could start with looking at her daughter in the chamber, holding the report that frees Synthea to be her teacher (though we don’t know why that’s necessary), showing her feelings at her daughter being safe and at peace. Then, the memory surge is triggered (give a clear reason for that trigger), show glimpses of those memories, which then drive her to the un-freak-out room and on from there. The existence of Mistress can be a passing thing, referenced only as something already taken care of (the humorous and personality-revealing bits could still be used.

Synthea appears to be a strong character, but she’s floating in ungrounded scenes with minimal hard facts to help readers understand the circumstances and the consequences involved. I’m interested in how she and Zafira got where they are and what has happened in the past. I also need to get past the idea that Zafira’s mother has done something to her, something not normal, altering her daughter’s existence and capabilities – and to what end or for what reason? Additionally, the extra notes refer to Synthea being prepared to ‘mind-wipe’ Zafira/Lily if she doesn’t learn to fly, which infers that Synthea does not have a ‘normal’ maternal relationship with her daughter. Oops – Lily can’t fly – bzzzzzt!

(Here's more on grounding readers in the setting)

To ‘like’ Synthea, there needs to be more information on what she’s done and why – and how, for hard-core sci-fi readers. To see a mother/daughter relationship, more needs to be shown as to why Zafira was altered, what conflict or danger is driving Synthea, and why Lily flying would save the colony.

Interesting idea, and a good working start.

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

Maria D’Marco is an editor with 20+ years experience. She specializes in developmental editing, and loves the process of wading through the raw, passionate words of a first draft. Currently based in Kansas City, she flirts with the idea of going mobile, pursuing her own writing and love of photography, while maintaining her fulfilling work with authors.

Website | Twitter

4 comments:

  1. Maria says this is the start of the story, but it feels a lot like the middle as well. A lot of that impression comes from opening with so much about Mistress and replacing teachers after "the disaster" you don't describe. That works better if we've already seen that happen, or other things about these characters to feel for their lives.

    So my impression of Synthea... in one sense she's simply a mother trying to educate her daughter, in another she’s got huge pressures complicated that. That's almost straightforward. Except, what most of our attention goes to is the world-building of putting a "dangerous" teacher in biosleep, and what Zafira's wings and tail mean for her training (in flying?) and her mother's demons, and we aren’t sure how they fit together.

    Maria nailed it: this would work best as an opening if it started with Synthea looking at Zafira. How Synthea’s just disposed of Mistress is still a solid way to show her cold mix of administrative control and suppressed rage, and so much of the world she operates in. But if it opens the story separately it throws us off-track about what the story’s really about. What we want is Synthea and Zafira, their relationship and what’s driving Synthea so completely, and we want to see how everything else is just an example of how strong that center is.

    The extra plot Maria revealed has me really interested in where this is going next. If there’s a whole colony for Zafira to save, and Synthea’s looming over her training, the two characters could end up anything from hero and villain to hero and antagonist to conflicted co-protagonists. No matter which way it goes, you want to go quickly to meeting Zafira herself and make it clear how Synthea’s ruthlessness interacts with her own personality. So far Zafira’s only been asleep, and giving Synthea a harsh flashback is only going to make the mother seem more sympathetic and the center of the story. Show us both of them, soon, and let the story take flight.

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  2. Good analysis. Enjoyed reading it.

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  3. Thanks, all for the feedback. It's been a revelation, opening my mind up to issues and possibilities I hadn't imagined. I'm off to rewrite!

    I'm pleased that Synthea is being perceived in the complex manner I intended.

    I'm also pleased with some of the questions the work raised. Some resolve within the next thousand words, in which the new Teacher confronts Synthea and meets Zafira. Some big questions don't resolve until later books (this is from the first of four) as intended.

    Other questions spring from poor writing on my part. For example, it's important that the "first choice" was and still is raising her own kids, and the reader shouldn't be wondering about that. This is purely a case of me not getting what's in my head down on the page clearly enough.

    This has been very motivating for me. I'm going to get the first book into better shape, and then contact Maria about editing it. At 188K words for it, and another 130K written for the next, I think it's best I get her insights, if we're a match, before going to much farther.

    Thanks, Maria, and thank you Janice as well, for the opportunity. I had polished this prose a lot, so I didn't anticipate there was so much a great editor could do to help me improve it.

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  4. Here, not for further comment but just to demonstrate the impact of Maria's critique, is the revised first scene:

    Synthea stood before Zafira’s biostasis chamber, smiling. Beneath its transparent cover, the young woman slept, beautiful and serene, head resting on the pillow she hugged to her breasts, dark leathery wings behind her, cat-like tail draped over her pale legs.

    “Good news, dear. I can get Johs’fina now. She’ll teach you how to fly.”
    Years ago, Johs’fina had been first choice, but had been raising her own children. Nothing could make her leave them— That was part of why she’d been first choice.
    Synthea scowled. Instead she’d hired Dr. Richardson, ‘Mistress,’ who seemed qualified and was available. She’d couldn’t have known how disastrously that would end.

    Mistress couldn’t be dismissed, so after the urge to murder her subsided, Synthea packed her into biostasis until the mission was complete, or the system failed and she died. Unlikely as that was, it would serve her right.

    That had been months ago, and Zafira had slept since, time slowed to a crawl, enjoying the pleasant dreams the biostasis chamber induced.

    __The kind I no longer have. I only have nightmares.__

    Unbidden, the memories returned. She fell forward, catching herself on the chamber, as the horrors of her past assaulted her, as vivid and real as when they’d happened, centuries ago— preserved by her self-imposed enhancements, the double-edged gifts her work had required.

    Eyes closed, bent over that work’s result, she wept, the tears tapping on the cover, faint percussion to the roar of her past.

    She straightened up and ran, half blind, to the release room. As the entrance closed behind her, she screamed, cursed, pounded on the walls, threw herself against them— raging in soft-sided isolation against an enemy she could never touch, never defeat.

    Finally, spent, she collapsed to the floor, and the room filled itself with a restorative mist, her improved version of the extreme emergency drug, Final Clarity.

    Focus returned. Her daughter would neutralize her foe; that was why, after the many years and the countless tragedies, Synthea had borne her. Zafira just needed someone to teach her what Synthea couldn’t: how to use her beautiful wings to fly.

    Johs’fina was still raising her children, but was desperate now, desperate for a solution only Synthea could provide. Desperate enough to trade her life for it, and for exactly the right reasons.

    There was risk. Synthea was testing her boundaries again, the unwritten rules that circumscribed her actions. It would take money, which she had, and time, which she might not. __But I told Zafira she’d have her new teacher when she woke, and she will.__

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