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Sunday, November 11

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This MG Science Fiction Opening Pull You In?

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: One


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through November 17.

This week’s questions:

1. Given that the uni-pad is described/explained a bit in the prologue, does the way the device is mentioned in the first chapter work?

2. If you were querying a literary agent or publisher with this manuscript, would you supply the prologue first or go straight to the first chapter?

3. Even though the character's word choice and diction are a bit elevated, does it still work for this MG story/character?

4. Does introducing the chair the main character is sitting on as a "fully-reclined leather chair" but then calling it a "uni-pad chair" a bit later jolt you as the reader?

5. Lastly, does this opening pull you in? Is there enough here to keep you wanting to read more?


Market/Genre: Middle Grade Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

It was a typical Monday evening, and I was lying on my fully-reclined leather chair in the sitting room of my bedchambers. I had just finished my homework on my uni-pad and was using the device to research the off-moon museum my class was teleporting to on a field trip tomorrow.

An enormous history buff, I had been to countless museums across the Valerian Solar System over the course of my thirteen years of life. However, I had never been to this particular one before, so I wanted to see what exhibits it had other than those my class was scheduled to visit. If there happened to be any interesting ones, I might’ve been tempted to slip away and investigate them even though it would undoubtedly be against class rules.

However, be careful pf repeating words so close together no sooner did I have the museum website hovering in front of my vision—only I could see it, as the uni-pad was attached directly to my brain I see why you used vision. This is awkward, so you might find another way to say this—than then I remembered Father had asked me take out the garbage that night.

“Stupid Darlox,” I muttered. Unfortunately, our domestic bot Darlox had been malfunctioning recently, which meant I had to occasionally do some chores until she was up and running again. I imagined Father would finally dispose of the wretched thing fairly soon and get a new one.

Continuing to grumble to myself, I shut down the museum website, pulled myself off my uni-pad chair, and left my bedchambers.

It took a good half an hour to check every single room of the manor, since there was no knowing which trash cans Darlox had already taken out.

My Thoughts in Purple:

It was a typical Monday evening, and I was lying on my fully-reclined [leather chair in the sitting room of my bedchambers.] This makes it sound old fashioned to me I had just finished my homework on my uni-pad and was using the device to research the off-moon museum my class was teleporting to on a field trip tomorrow.

An enormous history buff, I had been to countless museums across the Valerian Solar System over the course of my thirteen years of life. However, I had never been to this particular one before, so I wanted to see what exhibits it had other than those my class was scheduled to visit. If there happened to be any interesting ones, I might’ve been tempted to slip away and investigate them even though it would undoubtedly be against class rules.

[However,] be careful pf repeating words so close together no sooner did I have the museum website hovering in front of my [vision] his eyes? Vision doesn’t feel right—[only I could see it, as the uni-pad was attached directly to my brain] I see why you used vision. This is awkward, so you might find another way to say this—[than] then I remembered [Father had asked me take out the garbage that night.] I like the high-tech vs low-tech chore contrast, but the story flow feels off here. There's a sudden shift in topic, but I don't why the trash matters

“Stupid Darlox,” I muttered. Unfortunately, our domestic bot Darlox had been malfunctioning recently, which meant I had to occasionally do some chores until she was up and running again. I imagined Father would finally dispose of the wretched thing fairly soon and get a new one.

Continuing to grumble to myself, I shut down the museum website, pulled myself off my [uni-pad chair,] he also calls this a leather recliner, so I’d be consistent or it seems like two different things and left my bedchambers.

It took a good half an hour to check every single room of the manor, since there was no knowing which trash cans Darlox had already taken out.

The questions:

1. Given that the uni-pad is described/explained a bit in the prologue, which is actually told from an omniscient narrator's point of view (not the main character's), does the way the device is mentioned in the first chapter work?


Based on this and this alone, I get the sense of a pad like we have now that somehow links into the brain via an implant or something. "Pad" is a common word and item in today's world, so it immediately makes me think of that. There’s nothing to show it’s attached to his forehead or that it’s small. Although you might have described it in the prologue, try simply showing it in use here—don't explain it.

Perhaps show him placing it on his forehead and linking in or whatever he does. Right now, this opening feels explained, and there’s nothing really going on. It could use a little action, and seeing him interact with the device and look up what he might find would provide some of that.

Short answer here—yes and no. I get a sense of what it is, but not what you described.

(Here’s more on the difference between confusing and compelling in an opening scene)

2. Given the fact most of the description of the uni-pad is in the prologue, if you were querying a literary agent or publisher with this manuscript, if sending pages, would you supply the prologue first instead of going straight to the first chapter like some agents claim they prefer or go straight to the first chapter instead and supply the prologue later if more material is requested? (I hear this can sometimes be a judgement call; like, if the first chapter isn't reading smoothly enough without the prologue or the prologue needs to come first to truly "get" the story, then it can be better to include the prologue upfront?)

Since a high percentage of of readers and agents skip prologues, and this has a prologue that doesn’t show the protagonist or main conflict, I’d send the opening chapter and show the uni-pad in use in a way that readers get the gist of what it is. You don’t need to explain how it works, just show it working.

If a prologue is nothing more than explaining or setting up information so readers get the story, it’s the bad kind of prologue and likely infodumping. If it creates a compelling story question or conflict that makes what comes next more interesting, then it’s the good kind.

(Here’s more on deciding if you need to keep or kill a prologue)

3. This story is middle-grade. However, the voice of the main character is clearly a bit elevated. The reason it's elevated is because this character is very intelligent, very well-read, is the daughter of a very prestigious/wealthy/educated public figure, and this story takes place in a futuristic society (not sure how much that last point truly matters, though). Therefore, even though the character's word choice and diction are a bit elevated, does it still work for this story/character?

It sounds formal, not intelligent, and feels archaic instead of futuristic (readers chime in here). I’m getting more of a Victorian tone off of it, actually. Smart kids are still kids and sound like it. They’re just curious and exited by things and tend to have better vocabularies. She might be formal around adults, but not when alone.

I’m also not getting any real sense of personality yet, because it feels a bit told. The narrator is explaining everything, but not actually saying anything. For example:
  • I’m told she’s a history buff, but she never mentions anything she wants to see or what she likes.
  • I know nothing about what her room looks like.
  • I don’t know what homework in the future looks like or what she’s studying.
  • I don’t know what planet this is set on, and though it feels Earth-like, I know it’s not, but it also doesn’t feel “alien” enough to be unique. Everything here feels like Earth.
I’d suggest fleshing out these details to both build the word and the character. Right now, she feel stuffy and a bit boring, and she’s not doing anything exciting, so I’m not connecting to her.

I actually thought this was a boy, not a girl (readers chime in here). I can’t say why, since there’s no clear gender tags anywhere in this. Maybe because it reminded me a bit of Feed (with the moon trip) and Percy Jackson (with history and museums) so my mind clicked over to boy.

(Here’s more on writing with a teen voice)

4. Does introducing the chair the main character is sitting on as a "fully-reclined leather chair" but then calling it a "uni-pad chair" a bit later jolt you as the reader?

Yes. It sounds like two separate things. I am curious why something that’s small and fits on your forehead needs a chair to use it? Isn’t this supposed to be something akin to a cell phone that you can use on the go?

5. Lastly, does this opening pull you in? Is there enough here to keep you wanting to read more (even though, admittedly, the prologue comes first and is not a part of this passage)?

Not yet (readers chime in). There’s nothing going on and no conflict or goal driving the scene. She’s checking out stuff for her fieldtrip, but since we never get any details, there’s nothing to make readers curious about that trip. Taking out the trash also isn’t drawing me in. Although the world is futuristic, there’s nothing really here that makes me feel that. Yes, there are tech details such as uni-pads, teleporting, and bots, but it still reads like a historical because of the formal tone, and there’s no sense of what that future society looks and feels like.

(Here’s more on the difference between good setup and bad setup)

What’s the conflict? What problem is the narrator facing in this opening scene? Perhaps have her planning how to sneak away from her class to go see the XX exhibit, or marking off one more museum on her list of museums to see across the galaxy and she’s almost done, or something that shows she has a goal and is working toward that, but there’s either something in the way, or a strong hint of something about to get in her way.

(Here’s more on five common problems with beginnings)

Overall, I feel like this is focusing more on setting up the story than getting to the story. I suspect the stronger opening is probably a few pages in when something is about to happen and the narrator is faced with a problem. I’d suggest finding that problem and drawing readers into the world as you go, instead of explaining it before they get there.

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 ShifterBlue 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 Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. 
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2 comments:

  1. I would definitely agree, "where's the conflict?" Is this the right moment to begin your story at?

    You give a lot of attention to the details of the house, both in this page and in your questions. That can be key to doing science fiction justice, but it works best when it's positioned around the human, conflict questions that are the story's center.

    Many critics say "start where the story begins" as if there was a hard line for when the chain of events suddenly enters territory that matters. I think you get to choose where it becomes important, but that means picking a scene you can bring to life as the kind of starting point you want.

    For instance, if most of the story is set on or around the museum, some writers would automatically begin the story at the museum's door, and immerse us in the sense of place and all the goals and problems our character has to deal with there. Another might start back here, but focus this scene on how much s/he wants to do there and how it seems like the center of he/her life just now. Is he (I'm just going to go with "he" the way Janice did) that passionate about traveling and learning, or is the field trip just a distraction from the pain of her parents divorcing? I always go back to Kurt Vonnegut's advice that even if you're only hinting at what the real conflicts are yet, "Make your characters want something on the first page, even if it's only a glass of water." What does your hero WANT that gets our attention this instant, and how smoothly can you bring us from that to the bulk of the story?

    Many writers say that they end up finding their Chapter One was only them teaching themselves about the characters and world, and they begin the story with what had been Chapter Two. I'm not sure if you're in that position; it's possible to begin the story this way and give us the same sense of your character's life, but make all that information play off a strong thread of drama about what he wants and where it's going. Or you might want a busier starting point, and explain your world as you go.

    It's your choice. If you can learn to show your details on the move, you can develop the story faster. Or if you like immersing us in his ordinary day, that's a fine choice too if you maximize the drama it's hinting at.

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  2. My initial feeling is I'm not being pulled in to this character and to the author's question, I don't really understand what the uni-pad is. Also, to agree with the other post, there is no conflict yet, not even an hint of conflict.

    Knowing how critical agents are of first pages and how quickly readers can put down a book, I do think nailing some sort of conflict in the first pages is important. One of the best lessons I took in class about setting up immediate conflict was reading the first page of The Hunger Games - the reader immediately knows something is amiss. While conflict doesn't have to hit the reader over the head, it needs to be there to entice them to read on.

    Here's a link to the opening of The Hunger Games:
    http://www.drbookworm.org/home/2017/11/6/first-pages-the-hunger-games

    Remember first drafts get the "ideas" down and rewrites allow us to zoom in on craft (like conflict, setting, characters). Do not get discouraged with feedback but instead use it to weave these crafts into your already good start to a story. Best of luck!

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