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Saturday, September 21

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Scene Work?

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: Two

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through October 5.

This week’s question:

Is this working?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

If Intrec couldn’t snatch an extra serpent from Earth, Granddad would die.

Tears blurred his vision as he trudged on pavement past houses in his neighborhood. He needed to sneak into the experimental lab and collect the antidote—Granddad’s life depended on it. Dad had already died. I can’t lose my grandfather, too.

Daylight’s warmth heated his skin. At least he’d worn sleeves that didn’t reach past his elbows, otherwise he might’ve broken a sweat. He caught a glimpse at the mountains while a gust of dry wind rustled the palm fronds.

A rodent with gray fur, a pink tail, and beady eyes blinked at him. His jaw clenched. The creature carried Tapergnaw’s disease, the deadly plague that had suddenly spread on planet Harte over ten years ago. It scampered into a dirt hole under greenery. If the rodents would’ve stayed underground and had never struck Dad and millions of other Hartians, they’d still be alive.

Someone tapped his shoulder, and the individual shook his hand. “Thank you for finding the cure to Tapergnaw’s disease.” Tears brimmed in the gentleman’s eyes. “Now my daughter will live a full life.”

“You’re welcome.” Intrec curled a side grin. But if he’d just found the cure sooner rather than a few months before Dad died, he would’ve been saved.

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

Intrec nodded and exchanged glances between them. His palms moistened. If anyone figured out his mission, they might try to stop him. I won’t get caught.

My Thoughts in Blue:

If Intrec couldn’t snatch an extra serpent from Earth, Granddad would die.

Tears blurred his vision as he trudged on pavement [this isn’t necessary, unless the fact is unusual] past houses in his neighborhood. He needed to sneak into the experimental lab and collect the antidote—Granddad’s life depended on it. Dad had already died. I can’t lose my grandfather, too. [much better opening! You’ve got me in the character’s head – good pace]

Daylight’s warmth heated his skin. [Why is this important? I questioned the use of ‘tickled’ before – now, the sentence’s purpose is lost & I’m searching for a reason to tell the reader the obvious, unless the radiation is perilous?]At least he’d worn sleeves [didn’t comment on this stumble last time as sleeves and shoulder blades threw me off more. So, is he only wearing sleeves? Or is there a shirt involved as well? :o) ] that didn’t reach past his elbows, otherwise he might’ve broken a sweat.[wondering why sweating is an issue here] He caught a glimpse at the mountains while a gust of dry wind rustled the palm fronds. [The abundance of questions and loose information in this paragraph simply create an interruption to the nice grabbing-us-by-the-lapels opening. We have warmed skin (but don’t know which skin/where), sleeves, sweat, and a glimpse of environment The last is the only item that is useful and could be set up as part of his frustration – looking about for answers or in frustration or fear, and seeing the mountains. Do the mountains figure into his quest?]

A rodent with gray fur, a pink tail, and beady eyes blinked at him. [I wonder where the rodent is – can he slink into view, and then blinked?] His jaw clenched. The creature carried Tapergnaw’s disease, the deadly plague that had suddenly [this adds mystery – I like it] spread on planet Harte over ten years ago. It [chance to deepen the disgust here – perhaps “The creature” ?] scampered into a dirt hole under greenery [the prior reference to ‘palm fronds’ and ‘dry wind’ created a desert image – ‘greenery’ has me casting about for plants in the desert that would qualify]. If the rodents would’ve stayed underground, and had never struck Dad and millions of other Hartians, they’d would still be alive. [this could be internal thought, which would allow Intrec to be distracted when the stranger approaches him]

Someone tapped his shoulder, and then individual shook his hand. “Thank you for finding the cure to Tapergnaw’s disease.” Tears brimmed in the gentleman’s eyes. “Now my daughter will live a full life.”

“You’re welcome.” Intrec curled a side grin. [stopped reading to figure this out] But if he’d just found the cure sooner rather than a few months before Dad died, he would’ve been saved. [I’d like to see this as internal thought that directly references what the man just said, about his daughter living a full life…]

“Your discovery spared my life, too,” said another lady, who had halted beside the gentlemen spoke. “I’ll always be grateful to you.” [by now I’m figuring Intrec must be very well known to be recognized on the street like this—true?]

Intrec nodded and exchanged glances between them. His palms moistened. [I took this as a signal of fear/anxiety – but what triggered it?] If anyone figured out his mission, [does he think these people are a threat?] they might try to stop him. I won’t get caught.

The Question:

1. Is this working?

I believe this version is much stronger than the last. You are beginning to see how less is more and applying that difference in approach successfully. You’ve also allowed the ‘moments’ of this scene to stand on their own more, which allows readers to be ‘inside’ the character. His concerns are clearer now and the fear/tension/paranoia/passion is building. We understand that he made a decision and is now working out his plan and how to execute it.

There are more distinct points of interest and power now that are driving (or haunting) him. And they are better woven together – his guilt over not finding the cure before his dad died of the plague, the apparently constant reminders of lives saved (but not his dad’s) and his new fear and quest, capturing an Earth serpent to save his grandfather.

My suggestion, bluntly put, would be to excise the warmed skin/sleeves/sweat paragraph – possibly saving the last bit about the mountains and tying it to the new quest. The mountains could serve as a symbol of how far he had to go – and how exposed he might be during his trek. You could use this as a set-up for his final feelings and thoughts when the stranger approaches him.

Overall, this opening is better paced, a quicker read with more clarity, and uses language that shoves the reader into play straight away.

Since this is material from Chapter 2, without knowledge of Chapter 1, my comments are a bit blind and I may have assumptions that do not fit with what readers would know at this point in the book. My assumptions are that Intrec is headed for some place that possesses something or someone he needs for his quest. I presume that his plan will be revealed, in part at least, in a coming scene with this person or in acquiring this thing he needs. I also presume that there may be spies and betrayals coming, and he may have to learn new attitudes or behaviors to gain the things/people he needs. I will also expect to learn about particular obstacles in his way and how his plan must be amended to overcome them.

I’m interested in your story and would read on, as long as you continue to plug me into the protagonist’s head and keep the story moving along, with planned respites. As an editor, I may be a bit pickier than some readers, but I doubt it. I enjoy material that yanks me into the story, keeps me there (and that doesn’t mean non-stop action), until I happen to glance away from the screen/page, blink, and realize I’ve missed lunch.

I’d love to hear what others think about this rewrite and their thoughts about whether it’s ‘working’. Would you read on? (chime in y’all!)

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 aut

1 comment:

  1. I agree, this is more focused than it's been. You make it clear what Intrec needs, and the context of him already saving everyone except his father.

    The first line bothers me. It grabs our attention, but "snatching an extra serpent" sounds as much like a mystic quest or metaphor as medical research. A grabber of a first line that leaves us wondering can be good, but this is odd enough that we want another hint or two soon, to tide us over until you're ready for the full explanation. One thing we might want in that followup is why the cure has to be gotten in secret; can you hint at what he's endangering for it?

    The sunlight and the pavement... I guess you're trying to include a sense of the setting along the way, but you can do better than just having it there. How does it feed into or clash with his emotions now? does the sunlight feel hotter because he's already sweating out of nervousness, or the normally-small footsteps on the pavement sound too conspicuous now? You get more mileage out of the rodent, and you could go further with that ("creature" definitely, or maybe genuine horror if any glimpse of the things could still lead to another late victim like his grandfather). Tweak there: "they'd still be alive" should be something like "my people would" because it could also mean the rats themselves would've been better off.

    Maybe the biggest description you could use: how many houses and people are around? In an ordinary scene that's usually the most important element to be clear about, but here he's about to sneak somewhere, and he's famous to boot. If the key pressure from inside this scene is Intrec's drive to save his grandfather, the outside pressure against it right now is probably how public the street is and how hard it is to sneak anywhere. Is this a back road or an unpopular time he picked and it's still not private enough, or is it just him walking back from something that made up his mind and not yet actually needing to hide -- yet?

    One more thing to watch: "snide grin." Describing how someone acts or sounds is another thing that's easy to throw in because "it should be there" when you don't have a firm sense of how to use it. But a description like this is "telling rather than showing," plus it seems more openly hostile than you want. Finally, it's one of many descriptions that actually tells how someone else perceives him, not how he meant to act, so it's outside his viewpoint. You might try something like "he forced a smile."

    Intrec knows where this is going, and you make us feel it too. The trick now is to decide which steps on the way are worth noticing as part of that, and how to make us feel about those. A first scene always seems to need more work, but everything in it is a chance to get us more on-board and more excited. Keep powering it up.

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