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Saturday, August 31

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Keep Reading This Middle Grade Science Fiction Story?

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 September 7.

This week’s question:

Is this chapter working?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

If Intrec couldn’t snatch another one of Earth’s serpents, Granddad would die.

He’d already lost Dad to Tapergnaw’s disease. The deadly epidemic was carried by gnaws, rodents with gray fur, pink tails, and beady black eyes that lived underground. Tears blurred his vision as he trudged past houses in his neighborhood. I can’t lose my grandfather, too.

Daylight’s warmth tickled his skin. At least he’d worn sleeves that only reached his shoulder blades, otherwise he might’ve broken a sweat.

Everyone who passed by never failed to smile and wave, always thanking him. He grinned and nodded back. All he did was find the antidote to the deadly plague that had suddenly spread on planet Harte over ten years ago. He had just tried to save his dad.

Someone tapped his shoulder, and the individual shook his hand. “Thank you for your discovery.” Tears brimmed the gentleman’s eyes. “Now my daughter will live a full life.”

Intrec caught a glimpse at the white-dotted mountains. A gust of dry wind rustled the palm fronds as they leaned in the opposite direction, sending a ripple of coolness. “You’re welcome,” he responded, his words sounding from his brain.

“Your thinking saved my life, too,” another lady who halted beside the gentlemen spoke. “I’ll always be grateful to you.”

Intrec nodded and exchanged glances between them. His discovery had saved millions of Hartians. However, if Granddad didn’t receive the antidote within the next several days, he’d die soon, too. A heaviness settled in his chest.

My Thoughts in Blue:

If Intrec couldn’t snatch another one of Earth’s serpents, Granddad would die. [I assume the elements here are revealed in chapter 1: Intrec, Earth serpents, Granddad’s death]

He’d already lost his Dad to the deadly Tapergnaw’s disease. The deadly epidemic. was carried by gnaws, rodents with gray fur, pink tails, and beady black eyes that lived underground. [is this little infodump necessary here? It breaks the tie being built between the father’s death and granddad’s possible death.] Tears blurred his vision as he trudged past houses in his neighborhood. I can’t lose my grandfather, too.

Daylight’s warmth tickled [I have trouble imagining tickled as a sensation created by warmth] his skin. At least he’d worn sleeves that only reached his shoulder blades, [this is an odd placement, as shoulder blades are behind the shoulder joint on the upper back, but perhaps Intrec has an unusual body shape?] otherwise, he might’ve broken a sweat.

Everyone who passed by never failed [the past tense use made me think this is something he’s reflecting on as he walks] to smile and wave, always thanking him. He grinned and nodded back. [yet this appears to be something he is literally doing, as he walks along] All he did [I suggest qualifying the timing here – ten years ago] was find the [an] antidote to the deadly plague that had suddenly spread [better to show how far and quickly it spread (threat to entire planet) – this pushes the importance of his find] on planet Harte over ten years ago. He had just tried to save his dad. [I ‘heard/read’ this as an internal thought]

Someone tapped his shoulder, and the individual shook his hand. “Thank you for your discovery.” Tears brimmed in the gentleman’s eyes. “Now my daughter will live a full life.” [does this mean the plague is still a threat? The use of ‘now’ creates that impression.]

Intrec caught a glimpse at the white-dotted mountains. [unsure what this means, do you mean like ‘snow-capped’? or do they literally have white dots?] A gust of dry wind rustled the palm fronds [assume he’s walking past palm trees -- ?] as they leaned in the opposite direction, [so the wind is blowing the fronds, which are somehow moving in the opposite direction? Confusing…] sending a ripple of coolness. [more confusion – a dry wind prompts an image of desert – but perhaps the fronds are special? and create coolness when blown by the wind?] “You’re welcome,” he responded, [better continuity if this follows the stranger’s dialogue, then allow Intrec to look around] his words sounding from his brain. [unsure what this means – is he not a fully sentient being? Or does this mean, after 10 years of thanks, his responses feel automatic?]

“Your thinking [I wanted this defined/qualified] saved my life, too,” said another lady [a woman] who [had] halted beside the gentlemen spoke. “I’ll always be grateful to you.”

Intrec nodded and exchanged glances between [with] them.

¶Yeah, his discovery had saved millions of Hartians. However, if Granddad didn’t receive the antidote within the next several days, he’d die soon, too. [coupled with the gent who said his daughter would now live a full life, this statement leads me to believe they’ve run out of antidote.] A heaviness settled in his chest. [would rather be shown how he felt here…]

The Question:

1. Is this chapter working?

I believe your concern was whether this segment is ‘working’ or not. That’s difficult to answer because I’m unsure what you’re attempting to establish, beyond the concern for the grandfather’s condition and an antidote. It isn’t clear to me whether the antidote was discovered 10 years ago and used to stop a planet-wide plague, or if the antidote was discovered back then, but didn’t work for everyone and didn’t fully eradicate the disease. I’m needing to assume that the danger the granddad is in has been explained in the previous chapter. Without knowing many things, I’m forced into a lot of guessing, which keeps me from being able to make more informed suggestions.

(Here's more on The Difference Between Good Setup and Bad Setup)

I would like to have some of the facts of the story to be touched on through associative moments. For example, the carriers of the plague being rat-like creatures. Instead of making a statement, with description, about them and that they were the carriers, I would like to see him walking along, burdened with his troubles, and catch sight of one of the disgusting little gnaws. He could then have a reaction to that sighting that includes their appearance, as well as the fact that they should be hated for being carriers of the disease that killed his dad.

(Here's more on Revealing a Character's Past Without Falling Into Backstory)  

If I had previous knowledge about the protagonist’s planet, I would be aware of the terrain and the plant life, or what kind of street he’s walking down (paved, dirt, cobbled?). As it is, I have the protagonist in white space basically, with sunlight, a dry wind, a palm frond, and some thankful folk walking around in the same area. I would be carrying environmental information from the first chapter, I presume, and personal info and background (to some extent) about the protagonist as well.

There are some descriptive elements that are confusing, which add to the overall sense of not being grounded in the scene. 

(Here's more on Three Ways to Ground Readers in Your World) 

Speaking of scenes, what we have so far is the protagonist walking by houses in his neighborhood, being acknowledged by thankful folks, and worrying about his granddad, who needs medicine to save his life that apparently comes from an Earth Serpent. So, what is the purpose here? Where is he going? Is he just walking and thinking and worrying? If he needs to capture a serpent, and he’s done that before, why is he unsure of what to do?

So, I assume the protagonist’s purpose is: saving Granddad’s life. He seems to need a serpent, so I expect this scene to show Intrec taking the first steps toward this purpose, like making a plan, thinking about weapons and strategy. Not knowing this character, I don’t know how he operates, so I would want to see some hints about that. The scene can immediately be active and engaging if the purpose is given, and then go into where he’s going and why, as well as what his destination will give him – what tools, power, advantage, etc. This allows any reader, even one without prior knowledge of the story and characters, to bond with the idea that there is a quest begun that will save the life of the Granddad, who is now all the protagonist has as a father-figure. The father is gone – does Intrec feel responsible for his death? Is that feeling/guilt driving his actions or pushing him into reckless actions?

(Here's more on Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

For me, and readers out there, please chime in with your impressions, I could have done without much of this material. I would have pushed the idea of Intrec walking, where he was walking, and why (granddad will die if he doesn’t act). And then, go to how his destination will help him, his concerns about the risks involved, and maybe his struggles with feeling confident he can succeed. He can be running through facts in his mind, see the gnaw and react, be repeatedly distracted by passersby, who simple want to express their thanks to him, then blend how those thanks also trigger his dismay at being a savior to so many, yet losing his dad, and now facing the possibility of losing his granddad as well.

I don’t feel any fear, anticipation, anxiety, insecurity, passion, desperation – and I want/need to feel that to care and want to read on, so I can root Intrec on.

(Here's more on 5 Ways to Convey Emotions in Your Novel)

You have all you need here, essentially, but you need to pace the material and get a push/react/push harder rhythm going. He’s already feeling some emotions, so get those established, and then use the distractions to amp up his feeling of things closing in, things becoming more desperate and impossible. This can be accomplished by imagining your protagonist playing ‘hot potato’, and his thoughts, reflections, interactions, interruptions, distractions are all hot potatoes that he must keep moving, never holding onto them for long before tossing them into another part of his mind. This pressure to not get burnt hands/fingers and not drop the potato builds a mental environment that continually increases stress and the pressure to ‘do the right thing’. Any lack of confidence or refusal to commit and take action may slow the hot potato game down and cause pain.

Consider what you want the reader to know, to be armed with, before they arrive at the point of action. Consider what you want the protagonist to decide (or has decided), what action they are initiating in this scene, and what position this will put the protagonist in – a better place? a worse place? an unforeseen place?

I’m making some guesses here – and encourage readers to climb on and make some guesses as well – sometimes knowing less gives us more ideas.

Both arms waving pom-poms here – so get after it!

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. I'm with Maria here: this scene probably has what it needs, but it hasn't focused on what it needs to yet.

    I often quote Kurt Vonnegut's "Every character should want something on the first page, even if it's only a glass of water." And that means not only using the general energy of a goal but zeroing in on *exactly* what the character wants *now*. Here it's not clear what the circumstances are: why was the plague beaten once but his grandfather is sick now?

    If "snatching an Earth serpent" is a specific key he knows will save his grandfather, he's got an immediate goal, and he should be focused on the steps for getting it done. Or if he's hit some barrier to that (eg nobody's seen an earth serpent in years) this might be him taking a reluctant break and hoping an answer will come to him later. (Or the "serpent" could be his metaphor for a research inspiration he isn't getting, and this is him feeling his frustration.) Which is it? how much does he know about what to do next, and how impossible has it started to seem?

    That's the clarity we want the scene focused around. If he's got a next step to work on, Maria's "hot potato" model is ideal: everything around him is a distraction or a momentary thing, that he always tries to let go of and get back to saving his grandfather.

    Or if he can't see a way forward now, what's the right combination of theorizing, guilt, distractions, and frustrations that he moves through? This kind of scene is much harder, because you've got a much weaker spine through it, and you have so much freedom to arrange his world to take him through any emotional path you want-- but not all of those paths would be colorful or appealing enough for your readers. Where does he need to start and end the scene: frustration changing to inspiration, determination to despair (and then something else happens), doubt to commitment, or what? What parts of his world can push him through those?

    Look at scenes in your favorite stories, and how they move the character through where he needs to go. Using the right pieces of your world and his history brings those to life, but the path the character takes *is* the story, even just in moments between the actions. Once you're sure about the steps, the rest is just timing it so we can feel each moment and how it moves him on.

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  2. Thanks for all the feedback I certainly appreciate it. But would anyone have any recommendations for books who have characters that communicate telepathically?

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    1. The few that come to mind are adult fiction, but still might help.
      Kevin Hearne's Iron Druid series (https://amzn.to/2NNQm41), Alex
      Hugh's Mindspace Investigations series (https://amzn.to/34jUm26),
      Linnea Sinclar's An Accidental Goddess (https://amzn.to/2ZHmVa5).

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  3. Thanks, Janice, I'll be sure to check those out.

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