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Saturday, May 18

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Keep Reading This Space Opera Opening?

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.

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This week’s questions:

1. Is there enough tension? I tried to keep it subtle, and use subtext, but maybe it’s too subtle?

2. Is there too much explanation? Not enough? These two were major characters in Book 1, but if people go a long time in between reading the books do they need more reminders?

3. Do you sense Tynan has a strong motivation, even if it isn't stated?

4. Is there a hook?

5. Would you keep reading?

Market/Genre: Space Opera/Galactic Empire

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: This is the opening scene of the second book in a five-book series. If readers have read the first book, they should know all the named characters/aliens/locations in this scene. Although the boy in the picture was only referred to in book one, he will feature largely in this one.

Roth’s World

Tynan Demarion, Lord Protector of the Outer Perimeter, known as the “Butcher of Cassos,” huge and hard and scarred, opened his mouth and said, “Your humble ships are pregnant,” in the ir’drakhon Middle Tongue.

Thorn Blackvane, across the small conference table, ducked her head, but Tynan spied a rare smile. “Perhaps…not precisely what you meant,” she said in Common.

“What did I say?”

When she told him, he sighed. “I was trying to say, ‘your vessels are armed,’ with a neutral on ‘vessels.’ Does everything have to have a status attached to it?”

She rose, a tall, angular woman in a tidy ship-suit. Nothing about her appearance, not the black hair braided and wound high on her head, nor the dark skin which masked what little expression she usually bore, gave away either her dangerous skills nor the animosity she must surely feel toward him—for which he was grateful. Wrapping his brain around the subtleties of an alien language was hard enough.

She brought her handpad over to his side of the table and pointed out the vocabulary he’d used. He held very still. She invariably edged away if he leaned in, so he strained to see at the somewhat awkward angle.

“The neutral ‘vessels’ would have conflicted with the implied higher status marker on ‘your,’” she told him, “and been taken as unsurety of your position, even had you gotten the ‘that which holds’ adjective correct.”

Tynan’s gaze strayed from the ‘pad to the only personal item he’d allowed himself in this makeshift office: a small, framed portrait on the console. A thin young man, with dark red hair and too-pale golden skin, standing stiffly in his regalia. He stared back at Tynan with green eyes far too grave for his age. His words, just before Tynan had set off to cross the portal, echoed in Tynan’s head: I’m relying on you, brother. You’re the only one who can do this…

My Thoughts in Blue:

Tynan Demarion, Lord Protector of the Outer Perimeter, known as the “Butcher of Cassos,” huge and hard and scarred, opened his mouth [this is presumed, unless his usual speaking orifice is not his mouth] and said, “Your humble ships are pregnant,” in the ir’drakhon Middle Tongue. [flip this and end on the dialogue that soon becomes the center of attention]

Thorn Blackvane, across the small conference table, ducked her head, but Tynan spied a rare smile. “Perhaps…not precisely what you meant,” she said in Common. [does this mean they have a language they both understand? Why use the other language?]

“What did I say?”

When she told him, he sighed. “I was trying to say, ‘your vessels are armed,’ with a neutral on ‘vessels.’ Does everything have to have a status attached to it?”

She rose, a tall, angular woman in a tidy ship-suit. Nothing about her appearance, not the black hair braided and wound high on her head, nor the dark skin which masked what little expression she usually bore, [how does dark skin mask expressions?] gave away either her dangerous skills nor the animosity she must surely feel toward him—for which he was grateful. [Unsure why he’s grateful here] Wrapping his brain around the subtleties of an alien language [again, if they have a ‘common’ language, why does he need to do this?] was hard enough.

She brought her handpad [this feels generic, do all space people own tablets?] over to his side of the table and pointed out the vocabulary he’d used. He held very still. She invariably edged away if he leaned in, so he strained to see at the somewhat awkward angle. [are you trying to show that they aren’t comfortable being close? If so, why does she lessen the distance between them? Unsure what is being established here]

“The neutral ‘vessels’ would have conflicted with the implied higher status marker on ‘your,’” she told him, “and been taken as unsurety of your position, even had you gotten the ‘that which holds’ adjective correct.” [I’m officially confused by the importance of this grammar lesson, which has taken over this opening scene – if it’s meant to show that she’s being the aggressor, then I take Tynan to be the one who wants something from her]

Tynan’s [this paragraph, to me, is the start of the book – take us from here to him appraising his opponent, Thorn, and maybe an internal gripe about having to use her language] gaze strayed from the ‘pad to a small, framed portrait on the console, the only personal item he’d allowed himself in this makeshift office: a small, framed portrait on the console. A thin young man, with dark red hair and too-pale golden skin, stooding stiffly in his regalia [is this the word you want? Usually refers to insignia of royalty]. He staring ed back at Tynan with green eyes far too grave for his age. His words, just before Tynan had set off to cross the portal, echoed in Tynan’s head: I’m relying on you, brother. You’re the only one who can do this…

The Questions:

1. Is there enough tension? I tried to keep it subtle, and use subtext, but maybe it’s too subtle?

Perhaps, a bit too subtle. We have two characters sitting at a small conference table, then belatedly discover they are in one character’s makeshift office, which also holds the only personal item one character has with him. Your brief explained that the two had history, from the previous book, but I don’t know the previous book – so, I don’t know that history. The opening doesn’t reveal much, so from what is presented, I assume that the male character wants something from the female, who closes the distance between them. The idea that this move is sexual or a seduction isn’t supported, so I chose aggression. The male character references dangerous skills, freezes, and notices the female maintains the distance she has chosen. So, I figure the male is scared of her. Either she’s unpredictable or is or has been a threat, or she likes to toy with this particular male (speculation about history here) or her perceived ‘victims’ in general.

This is the extent of tension I feel, and I’m reaching to feel that. Part of the reason for this might be that the ‘conversation’ seems absurd, and without more support, I don’t know the reality of the situation. This all has to do with the history between these two, so you might have to lean less on what readers might already know about them and more on re-establishing this relationship.

For all we know, they are past or present lovers – in some way – and this was/is their ‘dance of love’.

So, it may be that this little scene is perfect, if the reader knows the characters and their relationship, but not quite if they don’t have that knowledge.

(Here's more on Get What's in Your Head Onto the Page)

2. Is there too much explanation? Not enough? These two were major characters in Book 1, but if people go a long time in between reading the books do they need more reminders?

Do you mean description? I did feel the descriptions of both characters were a bit crammed in, like a quickly sketched portrait. If these characters had things that identified them in particular, habitual gestures or ways of speaking, then those could be mentioned as reminders, or to establish those traits for new readers.

The biggest issue for me was not knowing what was going on, why they were together, at a conference table (which infers a professional or military meeting), in his make-shift office. I wanted to know why his office was make-shift. What is his mission (it doesn’t seem to be hers as well)? What does he need from her? Internal thought could supply some pinions in the cliff face for readers to hang speculations on as they read forward.

(Here's more on 4 Signs You Might Be Confusing, Not Intriguing, in Your Opening Scene)

3. Do you sense Tynan has a strong motivation, even if it isn't stated?

No, not yet. He seems a bit cagey, but without internal thought or a stronger feel for why he’s with this woman or what he might be trying to accomplish, I only feel motivation to keep the upper hand in this situation. As in, he might be waiting for her to attack him.

(Here's more on What's My Motivation? Tips on Showing Character Motivations)

4. Is there a hook?

The last line, the brother’s words, was a hook for me. The lack of grounding in the scene contributed to my desire to know more about what was going on.

For me, the last paragraph is the beginning of the book. I wanted something to be firmly established, and then unroll the scene from that point. This would also mean that you would have an emotional connection/reason happening early on, and then the ‘hook’ of what the brother said, which invites speculation. Internal thought primes us for the conversation, which can be juiced along by showing his true reactions and speculations between the lines of dialogue.

(Here's more on Open Up! Writing the Opening Scene)

5. Would you keep reading?

Yes, I would (readers please chime in anytime!). I would be the fish holding the hook in my jaws, but you wouldn’t have snagged me just yet. The next page would need to set the hook so smoothly that I wouldn’t notice the pain and would enjoy being ‘caught’.

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

2 comments:

  1. I agree with Maria, this is a scene trying to build a structure around what the character wants... but it hasn't shown that need under it all that would make it so important to Tynan, and us.

    One of my favorite writing lessons is that something as bland as a typical day at work can be a strong scene if it focuses on the character's real priority right then. It could be how the girl he met last night is haunting his thoughts, or how he's always behind on work but scrambles to do his best to not let his friends down, or whatever else is driving him right then. ("Every character should want something on the first page, even if it's only a glass of water" --Kurt Vonnegut.)

    My first guess was that Tynan is getting a crash course in alien diplomacy, including language, for some vital mission his brother trusted him with. Maria mused that Tynan and Thorn could as easily be lovers or exes playing an old game of theirs. That uncertainty is because you start us with how unusual the situation is, including linguistic quirks to keep up further off balance, so it's hard to guess what's at stake. (Yes, the previous book and the back cover tell this to the reader-- but showing it *during* the scene is what gives any scene its impact.)

    What I'd like most is a firm statement early on about why he's doing this. Thorn could chide him that with a mistake like that he'll never head off the war that's building, or he could think that his banter needs to keep Thorn more at ease if he's going to spy on her, or whatever is behind all this. That goal is the spine and the engine of this whole scene and hopefully a good launching point for the rest of the plotline. The sooner we know what it is, the more weight and clarity everything else has.

    With that in mind, are you sure you want to start with this joke? Humor sets a lot of expectations about tone, at least when it isn't fitted into the context of a scene-- and as the start of the book this joke has no other context yet. Is this the first impression you want to make? Or, you could make the absurdity part of the more serious context by making the first line something like "No no, do you want to create a diplomatic incident by declaring that the Empire's vessels are pregnant?"

    One other thing about your first sentence: I think it's too crowded. I see you want to build up gravitas about Tynan to make the joke work, and include some background details as well, but an overloaded first line risks scaring off your reader and endangering the whole book. Assuming you stay with the same joke, you'd really want to simplify this to something like "Tynan Demarion, Lord Protector of the Outer Perimeter, boomed out the harsh ir’drakhon Middle Tongue words “Your humble ships are pregnant." " That would keep descriptions and details to one image's size until that first statement is made and the scene gets rolling; you could catch us up on other things afterward. (And "pregnant" would absolutely *have* to be the end of the paragraph or you're stepping on your punchline.)

    This looks like a thoughtful, multilayered scene with a lot going on. If you do more to relate all those "trees" to the "forest" of *why* it's important to Tynan and us right now, it could have all the power you want.

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  2. Thank you so much, Maria and Ken!
    This helps--the whole scene is much longer than this piece (1800 words)and I've been unsure what to start with. I don't want to beat people over the head with reminders of first-book-stuff, but do want to show what *this* book's issues are going to be, and that it focuses on Tynan and his problems (the first book didn't, although they are a catalyst for that book).

    Ken's right that the scene is a crash course on alien language and diplomacy, but Thorn's giving it under duress, and, when I rework it, I'll try to make that clearer earlier, along with why Tynan needs it, besides the hint of his brother giving him a mission. And, yes, his little brother is the king of Tynan's homeworld.

    Later parts of the scene do develop things like why Tynan's in a makeshift office and more details on his dilemma, along with why Thorn's operating under duress. I'll probably swap some of that for the specifics on the language issue. I did want some humor, if only to humanize Tynan--the first book opens with him threatening to torture someone, and he only gets a little less grim over the course of it. I'll look at how to make it fit better.

    I'll resubmit, taking your suggestions into account, and thank you both again!

    Nicole

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