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Saturday, June 15

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

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: None

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are open.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this version set up the tension, conflict, and hook better than the previous version?

2. Would you keep reading? 

Market/Genre: Space Opera

Note: This is a resubmit. Here's the original RLD if you're curious to see how the author revised.

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

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

Thorn Blackvane, across the 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 swore. “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, dark woman in a tidy ship-suit, and brought her handpad over to his side of the table. He held very still. She invariably edged away if he got too close, so he strained to see at the awkward angle. As she pointed out the vocabulary he’d used, he was grateful that he sensed none of the animosity she must feel toward him--wrapping his brain around the subtleties of an alien language was hard enough. But behind every word echoed his unspoken threat and their unspoken bargain: Tynan wouldn’t drag Merika back home to Demar, and, in return, Thorn schooled him and his crews in how to blend in with the humans who lived on this side of the portal.

It sat like acid in his stomach, but with thirty-four million lives at stake, he’d do worse. He didn’t have to like it, he just had to succeed at it.

“There’s a reason, Lord Demarion,” Thorn said, pulling him back to the moment, “that most people in the Empire use Common. We could concentrate on that.”

“But that doesn’t teach me how dracs think,” he growled. “I can’t be blindsided again by misunderstanding some obscure alien motivation. Last time, Kor almost glassed the planet.”

Tynan’s gaze strayed to the only personal item he’d allowed himself in this makeshift office: a small, framed portrait of a thin young man, with dark red hair and 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, lingered 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, huge, and hard and scarred [I’m a sucker for this triplet – it’s great], [I’m missing some stage direction/body language here – like ‘leaned forward’?] said and in the ir’drakhon Middle Tongue, said, “Your humble ships are pregnant.”

Thorn Blackvane, across the conference table, [can we show where she is in relation to Tynan instead?] 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 swore. “I was trying to say, ‘your vessels are armed,’ with a neutral on ‘vessels.’ Does everything have to have a status attached to it?” [I don’t care about this, as a reader, unless you show me that him not knowing the ‘status’ of a thing might get him killed/ruin the mission/destroy the planet/etc.]

She rose, a tall, dark [what makes her ‘dark’? A physical element? Her evil look?] woman in a tidy ship-suit, [I strain to concoct an image here – well-pressed? Skin tight?] and brought her handpad [again, can we push the envelope here? Perhaps she has something that projects an image from an implant in her palm?] over to his side of the table. She invariably edged away if he got too close, so he held sat very still. he straininged to see at the awkward angle the pad. As she pointed out the vocabulary he’d used, he was grateful that he sensed none of the animosity she must feel toward him--wrapping his brain around the subtleties of an alien language was hard enough. But behind every word echoed his unspoken threat and their unspoken bargain: Tynan wouldn’t drag Merika back home to Demar, and, in return, Thorn schooled him and his crews in how to blend in with the humans who lived on this side of the portal. [I want to know what the portal is and assume that Tynan looks somewhat human to be able to ‘blend in’ – but am speculating here]

It [what is ‘it’?] sat like acid in his stomach, but with thirty-four million lives at stake, he’d do worse. [this seems like it should be a statement that supports him learning a new language – or am I misunderstanding here?] He didn’t have to like it, he just had to succeed at it.

“There’s a reason, Lord Demarion,” Thorn said, pulling him back to the moment, “that most people in the Empire use Common. We could concentrate on that.” [this confused me, as it seems she saying to concentrate on Common, not the alien language]

“But that doesn’t teach me how dracs think,” he growled. “I can’t be blindsided again by misunderstanding some obscure alien motivation. Last time, Kor almost glassed [don’t know the consequence of a planet being glassed, so the horror is washed out] the planet.”

Tynan’s gaze strayed to the only personal item he’d allowed himself in this makeshift office: [is this scene in an office, on planet somewhere? Or is it a cabin on a ship? So far, the scene is operating in white space] a small, framed portrait of a thin young man, with dark red hair and 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, lingered in Tynan’s head: I’m relying on you, brother. [for some reason, I always think this is going to be a picture of his son…] You’re the only one who can do this…

The Questions:

Your notes with the first RLD advised that readers would be familiar with these two characters, and those mentioned in the scene. Thus, the relationship between Tynan and Thorn is an unknown, with some speculations drawn from this scene. Without the knowledge/background of their relationship, I can only comment on presentation.

With this in mind, I will speculate that these two characters have a relationship that allows Thorn to come closer without express permission, or that permission is presumed. And whatever animosity she holds against Tynan is an official stance, that may be stricter, but not reflect her personal feelings or views. This is how I explain her smile, and that Tynan notices it but doesn’t seem offended by it (no disrespect seems to be intended, just a natural reaction to his silly error).

1. Does this version set up the tension, conflict, and hook better than the previous version?

Yes, somewhat…but without knowing these two characters, there is little to ground us to the situation in the opening lines. We have a conversation, but no gestures, body language or positioning/placement that allow readers to begin to visualize the scene.

If Tynan hates being held to this ‘instruction’, then you can show his irritation through gestures, facial expressions as much as what he says. We’re shown that Thorn rarely smiles, but we don’t know what that means to him, in their relationship. He seems to take note of it, so perhaps take that a bit further.

This section, below, seems to explain why these two are together, but then again is confusing:
As she pointed out the vocabulary he’d used, he was grateful that he sensed none of the animosity she must feel toward him--wrapping his brain around the subtleties of an alien language was hard enough. But behind every word echoed his unspoken threat and their unspoken bargain: Tynan wouldn’t drag Merika back home to Demar, and, in return, Thorn schooled him and his crews in how to blend in with the humans who lived on this side of the portal.
The first underlined info creates questions: Has he felt animosity around her before? Why doesn’t he feel it now? He assumes she would feel animosity, but why?

The second underlined portion begins a comparison, then leaves it hanging.

The third underlined portion refers to every word, but I wonder is it truly ‘every’ word, or does this mean every alien word? Then, we have unspoken things happening – but if unspoken, how can they create tension or make anything difficult? I believe you mean that they have been spoken of, but are now hanging in the air as a source of tension or animosity. This isn’t clear though.

The fourth underlined sentence is a nice nugget of information, though I don’t know who Merika is – perhaps Thorn’s relative? And I presume Demar is Tynan’s home, which would be icky for Merika. The last bit reveals why these two are together right now, why Tynan is trying to speak an alien language (I think, maybe), yet am uncertain on the last there, since I don’t see how an alien language would help Tynan and his crew blend in with humans. A small hook that piques my curiosity enough to read on.

At this reading, I am seeing the information on the ‘bargain’ and the idea that Tynan was blind-sided due to a lack of knowledge about aliens are the hard facts that give the reader something to hang onto and then look forward from. You could almost strike most of the preceding, still use the humorous bit, but have Tynan be irritated that Thorn appears to think it funny, not being as serious as he thinks the ‘lesson’ warrants, since the error made during the ‘mission’ prior to this scene was such a near-miss of deadly failure (we presume). In this way, you would begin with sharp feelings, aggravation, and Tynan being relieved that he didn’t have to feel or deal with Thorn’s usual animosity. That there were enough difficulties without her seeming ready to bash heads at a moment’s notice…and it would be his head.

You can push the opening into the emotions happening here, the concerns, fears and hidden feelings. Showing what is driving Tynan, and Thorn – and make it clear that the scene is happening only for official reasons, that no love is lost between these two, who have different agendas.

You’ve got a good core going and I suggest going bold with it, take the chance and don’t dance around it. The humor can stay, just let it be owned by one character and rejected by the other. Set up what the relationship is not by telling us that promises and agreements keep it going, but by showing us what separates the two.

2. Would you keep reading?

Yes. Readers please chime in – your input is important for all RLD authors, as many ideas and viewpoints can often spark new ideas in material that might be driving the author nuts.

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

5 comments:

  1. What you've got here is the heart of a first-scene challenge: giving the reader a clear framework for understanding the story ahead --and a previous book's backstory too!-- and yet making each piece of the puzzle entertaining enough to get the reader to the next piece.

    The opening line's humor is a fun start, but it's also based on disorienting the reader, so you've created interest but also raised the bar for how fast you have to start creating clarity.

    I'd suggest thinking very carefully about what each layer of motivation here is. The main thing Tynan wants seems to be keeping the peace, but what are the reasons it has to be done this way instead of others, what's his attitude about that? Look at other stories' opening scenes in terms of how they present those, line by line.

    You probably want to present the main reason quickly and then backfill with the whys and histories that have defined it... but think about all the points you want to cover and how many different orders they could be in instead, including what might be left out for a later scene. Would some other order be clearer? would it contrast the goals and the difficulties in a way that builds more suspense and sympathy? would it be more natural to let things come up in a different order?

    That's a very abstract way to look at a scene, but I think it's worth using for this one where you have so much to get the reader up to speed on. (Besides, "what's natural" is still one side of that.) But everything in this scene depends on how the reader reacts to knowing only one thing, then adding one more piece of understanding, and so on, so I think it's worth using this approach.

    In particular, that fifth paragraph. I have a rule that a paragraph that would be eight or nine lines in book format is about as long as most readers can put up with. (I think of readers mentally holding their breath for each paragraph, until they've taken in its meaning as a whole.) The one you have would definitely be bigger, and it seems to have pulled in a lot of the layers of background into itself. With this much complex information in the scene, you may want to lean toward small paragraphs with specific purposes, so nothing slows down the reader's flow.

    And, I agree about "glassing" a planet. The context helps, but there will be enough readers that don't get it, so "melted a planet to glass" is probably worth saying just to keep the readers moving.

    First scenes are probably the hardest there are to write, and you've got so much information to work in. I hope you think about the absolute best way to make it all clear and exciting, one point at a time.

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  2. I don't have much to say except I think this is an improvement and I would probably read on.

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  3. Dead on, Janice. Failure to anchor the reader firmly in the scene through gestural and descriptive detail and -- as writer -- to *own* your setting is one of the single biggest fails I see in mss.

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    1. Sorry, I of course meant, "Dead on, Maria," not Janice. Good crit.

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  4. TomCrepeau3@aol.com3:56 PM EDT

    I read sci-fi and fantasy (and write fantasy).

    Nope. You don't (yet) make me care about those 34 million people, but mainly, you don't make me care about the people in the room. In other words, I have no stake in reading on. So, a whole lot of people are going to pick this up, based on title and cover art, and then set it right back down (and that's assuming the title and cover art got them to pick it up). It isn't bad; it is, however, something IN THE GENRES I READ, that doesn't yet move me.

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