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Saturday, March 16

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Opening Scene Work for a MG Science Fiction Novel?

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: One

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through March 23.

This week’s question:

Does my opening scene work for my MG sci-fi novel?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Intrec was determined to disappear.

He had several days to sneak the antidote, otherwise Granddad would die just like Dad.

As he trudged home, a pair of footsteps thudded behind, their thumps growing louder with each step. A gust of wind drifted over him, and palm fronds swayed in the opposite direction. He fought the urge to turn his head back and paced straight ahead, passing houses in his neighborhood. At this point, the less attention he drew to himself, the better.

An additional set of footfalls joined the first. And another. And another. Intrec blew a long sigh. Now four people were following him. Why couldn’t it be dark outside? Intrec swallowed the lump in his throat and took bigger strides. Don’t look at them.

“Thank you for being so intelligent,” one man chanted. Intrec balled his hands into fists. Would all the unwanted attention ever stop? Besides, it wasn’t his fault that he was much smarter than his peers—and perhaps even most scientists. Almost every time he tried visiting with a friend, they told him they were too busy studying. Probably just an excuse.

The other men yelled, “Thank you for finding the cure.”

“You’re my favorite icon.”

“You’re the best youngster genius that ever existed.”

Intrec’s chest tightened. People his age ignored him; older people stalked him. Zap off, he wanted to yell back, but he remained silent.

“Follow back, we just want to oralize,” one of the followers pleaded.

Intrec spotted the sign etched on the side of the path, Rozwok. One more block until I get to my house. He focused straight ahead.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Intrec was determined to disappear. [my first thought here was the literal meaning, as in ‘poof!’, but then it seems he just wishes to be ‘invisible’ to those bothering him]

He had several days to sneak the antidote, [confused here, no clue what this means – is he taking an antidote? Is he sneaking it into Gramps coffee? What does it protect against? I’m also still processing the idea that Intrec wants to literally disappear.] otherwise Granddad would die just like Dad. [holy cow! Mystery death of dad! I immediately want more info on this and the other 2 mysteries]

As he trudged home, a pair of footsteps thudded behind, [perhaps this could be the break here? Ex: Footsteps thudded behind him, interrupting his thoughts as he trudged home. They grew louder with each step.] their thumps growing louder with each step. A gust of wind drifted over him, and palm fronds swayed in the opposite direction. [Unsure what this means/forebodes? It seems the wind is blowing in two directions? Important? Weird?]

He fought the urge to turn his head [we assume he would turn his head back, maybe fight the urge to look over his shoulder?] back and paced [a stronger word might do well here, such as ‘marched’] straight ahead, passing houses in his neighborhood. At this point, the less attention he drew to himself, the better.

An additional set of footfalls joined the first. And another. And another. Intrec blew a long sigh. Now four people were following him. Why couldn’t it be dark outside? [I would prefer this as internal thought. Is this why he wants to be invisible? He’s ‘wanted’?] Intrec swallowed the lump in his throat and took bigger longer strides.

Don’t look at them. [does something special happen if he looks at them?]

“Thank you for being so intelligent,” one man chanted.

Intrec balled his hands into fists. Would all the unwanted attention ever stop? Besides, I

It wasn’t his fault that he was much smarter than his peers—and perhaps even most scientists. [this reveal grounds the scene a bit – good!] Almost every time he tried visiting with a friend, they told him they were too busy studying. [this threw me off – the idea needs an intro. Also, ‘almost every’ is conflicting – every or most is better.]

Probably just an excuse.

The other men yelled, “Thank you for finding the cure.”

“You’re my favorite icon.” [bizarro slang? Hints at another time or living space/planet]

“You’re the best youngster genius that ever existed.” [this infers there have been other youngster geniuses]

Intrec’s chest tightened. [nice showing of stress] People his age ignored him; older people stalked him. [so we assume those following are adult stalkers – that’s creepy]

Zap off, [more slang from bizarro? I’m using it from now on] he wanted to yell back, but he remained silent. [maybe shorten this to keep the kinetic energy? EX: …yell back, but didn’t.]

Follow back, we just want to oralize,” [I cracked up over oralize – obviously this story has an unusual aspect, future story or off-planet or ???] one of the followers pleaded.

Intrec spotted the sign etched on the side of the path, [a path makes me shift gears to a possibly rural setting, so wondering more where this scene is happening] Rozwok.

One more block until I get to my house.

He focused straight ahead.

The Question:

1. Does my opening scene work for my MG sci-fi novel?


Well, in some ways… (readers chime in with your thoughts, please!)

We with three odd mysterious things being lobbed at us. They smack of fantasy, maybe sci-fi, maybe thriller. I’m only viewing this material as Middle Grade because you indicated that was the genre, but nothing in this scene really pins it to that age group. The ‘youngest genius’ gives the idea that he’s young, but not how young.

I believe the opening could benefit from going heavy on internal thought – this can present the character as deep in thought, worrying, considering difficulties – and then being distracted by the one, apparent, thing that really bugs him: adults stalking him. This approach would allow you to separate the internal and external worlds of this character, and to set up the following footsteps as being threatening and hated, but not (seemingly) a deadly threat. This situation also contributes to his desire to be invisible – though that mystery is yet to be revealed.

(Here's more on writing internal thoughts)

We also have the mystery of the antidote, the loss of his dad, and the possibility of his granddad also dying for the same reason. It appears that this character has been stealing an antidote, and it also seems the antidote is for his granddad.

I eventually (after re-reading and allowing the material to percolate a bit) put together the dad’s death, the threat to the granddad, the antidote, the calls of the stalkers about the ‘cure’ as a related string pointing to some disease that had taken the dad and would take the granddad. These connections might occur much more quickly to a 10-year-old than me – a supposition I could test if I had a convenient 10-year-old.

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

I’ll go back to internal thought here because I think we are very internal when we’re this age. We think things – a lot. Especially a kid with an exceptional mind. He states his situation clearly: adults stalk (and probably torment) and kids his age ignore him. Converting several lines throughout this opening to internal thought would pull readers further and further inside this character’s head, which could also contribute to defining his world – internal, alone, but practices restraint (‘don’t look back’) and is ready to take actions (sneak antidote) to protect his family (perhaps granddad is the last?).

The oddball slang is a kick. It also gives a hint that this is not just another world. I’m unsure when or where this scene is happening, but I have placed it either in the future by quite a bit or on another planet or on a terra-form spaceship or…?? Some elements are ‘common’, the family structure (dad, granddad), exceptional children are not in special schools, freedoms are in place, adults are a pain, his ‘cure’ may have been ‘taken’ by authorities – forcing the ‘sneaking’ of the antidote, walking home from (?) school.

(Here's more on background you world through point of view)

The cure and antidote references give me a feeling of something scientific happening. The reveal that our protagonist is really, really, really smart pushed me into (current reference) Young Sheldon-land.

However, I have nothing that makes me think immediately of Sci-fi.

I am also concerned because the opening scene stirs us up with mysteries at the outset, but then hot-potatoes them and we’re left with blunt hooks that get swallowed up in the ‘followers’ – creepy, yes – sci-fi? no…

I would like the footsteps to be a distraction/interruption to Intrec’s worrying thoughts, but not take over the scene. I would like them to be an irritant only. And then, have a few tantalizing tidbits about Granddad, Dad, the antidote and the cure be sprinkled into the scene. This could be accomplished in just a few lines, interspersed with the weird dialogue from the stalkers. (Why do I keep making them zombies?)

All-in-all, I think you have an excellent start – the scene is essentially balanced, offers some great hooks, if you just sharpen them up, and gives solid information. I also believe in your writing chops – so take a leap, eh?

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

3 comments:

  1. Great comments Maria. They hit on all the confusion and thoughts that I came up with when reading the author's opening snippet.

    [Also, thank you for using blue as the font color for the comments. Much easier to discern comments from original text.]

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is a scene that starts with *two* great lines and goes on to bring in a whole other dimension on top of that. It's on an excellent course, if it keeps more of its details in line with it.

    Writers will kill for a doozie of a first line, and you have two, "disappear" followed by "the antidote." Still, wanting to disappear seems like a goal of its own, maybe about living off the grid, so it doesn't fit when the next line slams into us about the antidote and his family. You want to wrack your brains and dig through stories with strong openings, to find a cleaner way to phrase your first lines. It might do better arranged in an order like "He had to steal the antidote, or Granddad would die just like Dad. But he couldn't even walk home alone."

    Like Maria said, getting deeper into Intrec's head can do a lot. But this is a tricky balance; it's too easy to go too deep and lose your immediacy, and with this specific kind of mockery scene going on (and a dying grandfather!) you've got real needs you want to stay close to. Also, Middle Grade doesn't have the same balance as teenage YA-- the only answer here may be to keep comparing yours to other middle grade books to be sure you strike the same tone in your own way.

    And you want that right mix of thoughts and outside action, because you've got a unique, very daring scene going on here. He's being followed home be... adults, not kids? and they're praising his genius, as a way of mocking him? I'm not sure I've ever read a scene like that, so if you can make us feel like we understand that it really *would* be that way in this world (and that we're about to find out why), you've completely pulled us in. If you can do it smoothly enough.

    (Honestly, right now the adults seem too much like bullying kids to me. If your world has real reasons why it's them instead of the kids who pick on him, be sure they sound like jealous adults instead. And saying his less brilliant friends were too busy studying rang false, because we expect an intelligent person to be the one most eager and driven to study. If this is a world where adults are threatened by a young genius and kids take their reading so seriously they claim they don't have time for a friend who finished early, it's a fascinating place... but you have to start convincing us it would be that way.)

    And, for all of this about the details and tone, don't lose track of that antidote. You've given us a great driving motivation for your character, plus him having to steal it and all the questions about his father dying too. The challenges Intrec is facing this moment should add to his frustration and flesh out our sense of what he's dealing with, but never let him get too far from that rescue and mystery that the readers are desperate to see.

    Because the promise of all of this is *that* good.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I like the premise of this opening. We have a character in the midst of conflict with an immediate need (to get away from his stalkers) and a fair amount of characterization sprinkled in. I agree that the lines about the antidote and dad/grandad feel disconnected from the rest of the scene though.

    The thing that confused me was the tone and word choice. The first few lines establish a sense of urgency with Intrec being *determined* to disappear and mention of an antidote, which connotes a time-sensitive mission. But then we've got words like "trudged" and "thudded." These words made me envision him trudging through snow or mud. Plus, if he's trying to get away from people, he wouldn't be "trudging." He'd be "scurrying," or "walking briskly," right? Similarly, I'm not sure a man would be "chanting" at Intrec. Maybe you could change that to "shouted," "called," or "exclaimed."

    I like that Intrec is being followed by an adoring mob, because it again adds a sense of urgency to the scene and makes the reader wonder why he's being followed in the first place. So, to answer the original question, yes, this opening does make me curious about Intrec and what he'll do next. However, the writing style and word choice gives me pause.

    ReplyDelete