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Saturday, February 22

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at an SF Prologue

Critique By Maria D'Marco

WIP 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 WIP Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines. 

Submissions currently in the queue: Two

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through March 14.

This week’s questions:

1. Does the prologue draw you in?

2. Does the flashback work?

3. Do you understand what his problem is?

4. Do you get a sense of his character/is the character voice working?

5. Are there places I'm telling when I'd be better off showing?

Market/Genre: Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

The sun was about to rise on the most frustrating day of his life. Again.

He dropped to his knees at the water’s edge. The guitar on his back twanged a soft reminder. It didn’t like being jolted. If anything happened to that guitar he’d suffer a lot more than he was now. Why couldn’t he leave?

He grabbed the same stone and threw it into the same dark as far as he could. It splashed in the same place. He hadn’t been aiming for the ducks. Stupid ducks. Always so hopeful, as if he had anything to give them. They took off all indignant flapping and honking… not ducks, he remembered. What were the big ones called? Goose… no, geese. Yes, that was right. Not that it mattered.

His stomach contracted. He kneaded it with his fist. Lunch had been the day before yesterday and breakfast wouldn’t arrive for another hour. At least there was something he could do about that. Turning his back on the lake, he walked past the little round hill to the place where the apple trees grew. By the time he got there, his shoes were soaked through yet again. Apparently, grass in the morning was nearly as wet as the lake. Nature was so inconvenient.

Why did I ever agree to this impractical assignment?

*

“I promise you’ll get a chance to experience the culture.”

“And the food?”

“Food? Certainly.”

He would never admit it, but that was what he wanted most of all. Not just any food, though. Fruit. The idea that food grew on trees and you could just pick it and eat it—so appealing. Would it taste at all like those candies they’d shared when they were six? Popped in and out of mouths, watermelon, cherry, grape, lemon, orange, apple, passed from boy to boy so they could all try each wonderful new flavor.

*

Real apples had been such a disappointment, so hard and sour. They weren’t even red, but they were food, and they went down surprisingly easily. Came up easily too if he forgot to take it slow. He filled his satchel with the runty green things and trudged back to the water, chewing as he went. At least the crunch was satisfying.

He leaned against the crooked tree and dug in the bag for his day planner. Quaint. Obsolete. But it at least it was paper. The pencil was dull. He sharpened it with the knife. The knife was dull. He sharpened it with the stone. It was nearly light enough to read now. He opened the book to the place marked by the ribbon, crossed out the date at the top, and wrote:

Attempt 13.

What went wrong this time?

My Thoughts in Blue:

The sun was about to rise on the most frustrating day of his life. Again. [this piques my curiosity – perhaps a Groundhog Day scenario or a prediction or just a fact? Good speculation trigger]

He dropped to his knees at the water’s edge. The guitar on his back twanged a soft reminder. It didn’t like being jolted. [if this is a repeat day, wouldn’t he take care not to jostle the guitar?] If anything happened to that guitar he’d suffer a lot more than he was now. [So, is the guitar a key (survival?) item or a necessary burden and I wonder what he’s already suffered] Why couldn’t he leave? [I would put this on a separate line, as I’m still trying to figure out what the guitar means and again reminds of a ‘caught in a loop’ concept]

He grabbed the same stone and threw it into the same dark [missing a word here?] as far as he could. It splashed in the same place. [this progression reinforces the feeling of being trapped in repeated actions] He hadn’t been aiming for the ducks. Stupid ducks. Always so hopeful, as if he had anything to give them. They took off all indignant flapping and honking… not ducks, he remembered. What were the big ones called? Goose… no, geese. Yes, that was right. Not that it mattered. [All of this duck/geese talk reveals his mounting frustration and possibly that he’s unfamiliar with both ducks and geese and interacting with them]

His stomach contracted. He kneaded it with his fist. Lunch had been the day before yesterday and breakfast wouldn’t arrive for another hour. [speculating here to try to understand this. If this is a trapped in time/space situation (purely guessing here) then wouldn’t lunch and breakfast be experienced each frustrating day?] At least there was something he could do about that. Turning his back on the lake, [could this have been noted earlier?] he walked past the little round hill to the place where the apple trees grew. By the time he got there, his shoes were soaked through yet again. [were they soaked before on this day? Or is this reference to a recurring element of the recurring day?] Apparently, grass in the morning was nearly as wet as the lake. Nature was so inconvenient. [this was confusing until I read it several times and decided not to assume the character’s level of knowledge…that maybe he was somewhere that he knew little about, that wasn’t ‘natural’ to him. This was more interesting.]

Why did I ever agree to this impractical assignment? [this one question grounded me in the story]

*

“I promise you’ll get a chance to experience the culture.”

“And the food?”

“Food? Certainly.”

He would never admit it, but that was what he wanted most of all. Not just any food, though. Fruit. The idea that food grew on trees and you could just pick it and eat it—so appealing. Would it taste at all like those candies they’d shared when they were six? Popped in and out of mouths, watermelon, cherry, grape, lemon, orange, apple, passed from boy to boy so they could all try each wonderful new flavor. [this paragraph for me is very evocative and adds to my curiosity about this character and his situation]

*

Real apples had been such a disappointment, so hard and sour. They weren’t even red, but they were food, and they went down surprisingly easily. Came up easily too if he forgot to take it slow.

[new ¶ > reflection to current action] He filled his satchel with the runty green things and trudged back to the water, [the use of ‘water’ instead of ‘lake’ contributes to my feeling that he doesn’t think ‘lake’, he thinks/knows ‘water’] chewing as he went. At least the crunch was satisfying.

He leaned against the crooked tree [what about the guitar on his back? Is it up against the tree?] and dug in the bag [is this the satchel with the apples or another bag?] for his day planner. Quaint. Obsolete. [speculating about time travel created here for me] But it at least it was paper. [more speculation – and interest] The pencil was dull. He sharpened it with the knife. The knife was dull. He sharpened it with the stone. [I enjoyed this progression; it seems to emphasize the repetition element vaguely established so far. The use of ‘the’ stone made me view the object as a provided one, specific to this situation]

[new ¶] It was nearly light enough to read [yet he doesn’t read, he writes] now. He opened the book to the place marked by the ribbon, crossed out the date at the top, [another hint at the repetition/trapped in time or space idea] and wrote:

Attempt 13. [confirmation of repetition/trapped idea]

What went wrong this time? [Is this narration or internal query? or is he writing this?]

The Questions:

1. Does the prologue draw you in


Yes. There is enough speculation created, some purposely and some not so much, that I want to know more about this person’s situation. It may be that I go to the first chapter and find nothing that immediately relates the prologue to the main story. This could be disruptive or not, depending on how you handle the opening.

I’m a believer of prologues only consisting of information that cannot be introduced elsewhere – information that must be established foremost because it is part of the core of the story. This prologue presents some interesting bits and pieces, but I’m unsure what the ‘message’ is that you mean for me to take away from it.

This material did allow me to be curious about the character and his situation – and I would pursue the thread to the main story. Again, where the story goes from there will eventually reveal if I needed to know this first or whether it could have been intro’d within the book. (Would love to hear what visitors/readers/writers think)

(Here's more on Prologues: Not as Evil as You Think)  

2. Does the flashback work?

Yes. It provides background that shows the character’s frustration and remorse. More importantly, to me, it reveals that the character made the decision to be involved in this situation. The use of ‘assignment’ also infers that this might be part of his job. My first speculation was: what if he’s a game tester in the future, where ‘nature’ no longer exists and is a foreign idea, and he must take certain actions to affect release from the scenario. 

(Here's more on Cover Me, I'm Going Back: Tips on Writing Flashbacks) 

3. Do you understand what his problem is?

I believe so. My conclusion from the material is that he’s trapped in a cyclic existence. He’s tried to escape it a dozen times and is on attempt number 13.

(Here's more on Building Your Core: Internal and External Core Conflicts)  

4. Do you get a sense of his character/is the character voice working?

Yes (readers chime in please). He regrets his decision to do this assignment and might even feel he’s been duped, especially regarding the food part, which is important to him. He also feels a bit gullible or na├»ve. And even without being told the day would be frustrating, we learn that he is very frustrated.

(Here's more on 5 Ways to Develop Character Voices)  

5. Are there places I'm telling when I'd be better off showing?

The movement to the apple trees, perhaps…the statement about him suffering and more so if something happens to the guitar…

(Here's more on What You Need to Know About Show, Don't Tell) 

Overall, this material works, engages interest and sparks speculation. Lots of questions bloom and enough is established about the character’s attitude to create interest. This feels like a brief glimpse of a moment in a day that will be repeated if he can’t break the cycle, find the key, strum the right chord (?). It doesn’t give me any foundational message or feeling. It’s loose enough that little can be grounded – except the recurring hints that seem to point toward him being trapped in some contrived existence – an assignment he agreed to…

The lunch/breakfast paragraph was tough, as it appears to be a paradox, but then, it only appears that way if the basis to the scene is that the character is trapped in a puzzle. If that appearance is incorrect, the conflict remains because there are no related time stamps from which to draw conclusions or parallels.

I would loosely assign the word ‘existential’ to this submission, but that is a completely personal, subjective observation.

I believe there’s something going on – and I want to know what it is.

Thanks to this author for offering up an interesting opening for everyone to consider and discuss! 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. This is evocative stuff, but it seems a bit off-center.

    The classic question in writing (especially in opening scenes) is "What's his problem?" In this, the focus is so much on his being hungry and frustrated in a strange environment, it's easy to miss the clues that he's frustrated by the specific "Attempt"s. It's good use of mood and setting, but we want more clues from the start about his specific problem, enough to hang our interest on until we catch up. For every writer who can successfully keep us only in the moment for this long, there are many more who have found it's easier to show us more sooner.

    (To me "most frustrating day, again" isn't enough to convince me it's a Groundhog Day situation of some kind. And on its own, hunger that's "frustrating" but not life-threatening is like a stronger version of being caught in the rain: deeply unpleasant but hard to focus a story on what to do about it.)

    The flashback works, because it's barely a flashback at all. You have a couple of lines and some thoughts to give the context, and that's all you need here. If anything, you could have it shorter, as you make all of this drive more efficiently toward giving us the essentials of his problem. (It's full-sized flashbacks that are *hard* to use well.)

    Character and voice are good, though I think they're also hampered by you giving us so little of his situation at first. One thing: the character would feel much more complete with a name.

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  2. Thank you, Maria, for your wonderful critique. It looks like the page is doing what I need it to do, or it will after I clarify a few small things. I probably should have mentioned this is not the whole prologue. It continues for another 4 pages. I have considered just calling it chapter 1, but some time passes between the end of it and the start of the next chapter.

    Also, thank you, Ken, for your comments. It is so hard to know which information to lead with. By the end of the scene readers know his name, what the assignment entails, and the fact that he is not only in a repeating day situation but that it has been going on for much longer than he initially believes.

    And finally, thank you, Janice, for posting these critiques! I enjoy reading them and often find them helpful for solving problems in my own manuscript.

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