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Saturday, July 11

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Setting the Opening Scene

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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: Four

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through August 1.

This week’s questions:

This is the opening of a ‘Neo Victorian Space Opera’. Sort of Captain Kirk meets Captain Hornblower. Is this short introduction is capable of inspiring the reader to keep going? Both characters become POV characters and often observe each other’s actions in this manner. Does this introduce them and the prospect of their stories? It is a YA story for young men to grow up on, mentor and trust, blended with swashbuckling and galaxy hopping adventure. Does the atmosphere begin to grow on you or is it to vague?

Market/Genre: YA Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Pilot Officer Jones clenched his hands.

Chief noticed the tension flow in the slow deliberate grip. First one hand then the other and repeat. Clearly something troubled the lad. He liked this young man. Been ship mates, two maybe three years. Jones is a Good pilot, even better leader given the chance. Was Top of his class at the academy, as if that meant much to Chief.

They have shared the small berth in the unmarried officers quarters together these past weeks since being released from their last posting. Released, Chief snuffed and watched the young hands grip, more like that ship fell apart around them. That is when he first noticed the latent leadership forged in the lad.

The Pale green painted metal walls of the cabin spanned barely an arms width and hummed from the station workings. Top bunks on either side are folded back on heavy copper hinges. Standard station housing. A bare caged bulb strove to light the compartment. Wool blankets fit with taught academy corners. Lockers tucked under, no need for more, it was a berth.

Pilot Officer Jones looked at Chief and glared. “What?”

“Not me lad, you got the load on your back. Suspect I’m simply crossing your bow.”

“Aw Chief, naw it’s not you.” Jones looked down at the smudge on his left shoe. “I made a big mistake...”

“How can I help?” Chief suspected something was amiss when the lad came in late.

Jones looked up at the older man. “I need a second.” His eyes softened, begging.

“Excuse me?”

“I kinda got forced into a duel.”

My Thoughts in Blue:

Pilot Officer Jones clenched his hands.

Chief noticed the tension flow in the slow deliberate grip. First one hand then the other and repeat. Clearly something troubled the lad. He liked this young man. Been ship mates, two maybe three years. Jones [is] was a [Good] why is this capitalized? pilot, even better leader given the chance. [Was Top of his class at the academy, as if that meant much to Chief.] This feels out of Chief’s POV. Also why is Top capitalized?

[They have shared] They’d shared the small berth in the unmarried officers quarters together these past weeks since being released from their last posting. Released, Chief snuffed and watched the young hands grip, more like that ship fell apart around [them.] us, since this is written as an internal thought of Chief’s, That [is] was when he first noticed the latent leadership forged in the lad.

The [Pale] there are odd words capitalized in this. Typos? green painted metal walls of the cabin spanned barely an arms width and hummed from the station workings. Top bunks on either side [are] were cut folded back on heavy copper hinges. Standard station housing. A bare caged bulb strove to light the compartment. [Wool blankets fit with taught academy corners.] perhaps move this closer to the bunks line Lockers tucked under, no need for more, it was a berth. This paragraph reads like a list of details, not a character observing it. What makes this Neo Victorian? 

[Pilot Officer Jones looked at Chief and glared. “What?”] I feel like something Chief did triggered this, but there’s nothing in the text that shows that

[“Not me lad, you got the load on your back. Suspect I’m simply crossing your bow.”] I don’t understand how this is a response to “what.”

“Aw Chief, naw it’s not you.” Jones looked down at the smudge on his left shoe. “I made a big mistake...”

“How can I help?” Chief [suspected] had suspected something was amiss when the lad [came] had come in late.

Jones looked up at the older man. “I need a second.” His eyes softened, begging.

“Excuse me?”

“I kinda got forced into a duel.”

The Questions:

1. Is this short introduction is capable of inspiring the reader to keep going?


Yes. It could use some tweaking to strengthen it, but a young officer who’s gotten himself into trouble with a duel poses an interesting story question, and gives readers a problem right away to draw them in. There’s a good kid with potential who’s in trouble. I’m curious what happened and how he got forced into a duel.

There are some issues from a technical aspect that could put a reader off, however. The tense shifts from past to present, and random words are capitalized when they shouldn’t be. Probably just first draft typos, but you’ll want to make sure your tense is correct throughout.

(Here’s more on How to Ground (and Hook) Readers in Your Opening Scene)

2. Both characters become POV characters and often observe each other’s actions in this manner. Does this introduce them and the prospect of their stories? It is a YA story for young men to grow up on, mentor and trust, blended with swashbuckling and galaxy hopping adventure.

Yes. This feels like Chief’s POV, even though it floats a bit outside his POV at times. He’s the mentor to Jones, who has the problem. I suspect this duel will lead to bigger problems and send them on the swashbuckling adventure you mentioned. I don’t know what those details will be, but I can see they’ll likely be pulled into it together.

Typically, the first character readers meet is the main character and the one with the strongest connection to the plot. So this opening makes me think the story is about the Chief, and how he helps Jones with a problem. Is that the case? If not, then this might not be the right POV character to start the story. If Jones is the one with the main problem that drives the plot, he might be a better choice to open the novel with.

Does Chief have a conflict here or does Jones? If Chief has to make a choice about whether or not to help Jones, and that choice launches the plot, and the resolution to the story’s problem is about Chief, than this is probably the right place to start.

If Jones and his duel is the main problem and the plot is about them fixing Jones’s problem, and he’s has the main conflict to resolve, then he’d probably be the better choice to open with.

If this is just the problem that leads them both to the inciting event and real conflict of the novel, then you’d have to decide who the story focuses on after that. Any of these three options would work.

(Here's more on Lost in the Crowd: Working With Multiple Point of View Characters)

I do question YA as the market however. YA has teen protagonists and POV characters, so unless both Chief and Jones are teens, this isn’t a YA novel. A YA novel has more to do with the voice, tone, and type of problem the teen protagonist needs to solve. Is Jones under 18? If he’s bunked with Chief for several years, and this is the military, I’d guess not.

I suspect this is an adult novel that will also appeal to older teens. If you want a true YA novel, I’d suggest starting with the teen character’s POV, and making Jones no older than 17. Jones is the character teens will connect with and relate to more than the older man. It’s also rare to see an adult POV in a YA novel. It happens, but they’re unusually part of a much larger POV cast of mostly teen characters.

YA novels = teen characters and world views, and an adult perspective and world view is more suited to adults.

(Here’s more on How to Write With a Teen Voice)

3. Does the atmosphere begin to grow on you or is it too vague?

It’s too vague. There’s not enough yet for me to get a good sense of the setting or world. It’s military, and feels like a naval aircraft carrier, but since you said it was space opera I’m guessing this is a space station. Right now, there are no clues that this is set in space beyond “station,” and only because I know this is science fiction.

Where does the Neo Victorian aspect fit in? How does this era/style handle space travel? I assume this is set in a Edwardian/Victorian world that’s either developed space travel early (so this is late 19th century) or the world evolved with this aesthetic instead of our current one. Maybe steampunk, or some other Victorian tech modernized. Rachel Caine’s Great Library series comes to mind here (which also is a YA with a few adult POV, even though it’s fantasy not sci fi).

Calling it Neo Victorian means it’ll have a very specific world and aesthetic, so you’d want to show those details right away to set the scene. What do the uniforms look like? The light fixtures? The fabrics? I’d suggest looking for places to add these details in. For example, there’s an entire paragraph that describes the berth, but this could be a berth on any ship. What details might give readers a sense of the Neo Victorian space setting? What types of technology? Instead of wool, maybe the blankets are a synthetic polymer designed to regulate body heat or something. Or there’s netting or anti-grav fields to protect the occupant in case the station loses gravity. Things like that.

(Here’s more on The Literary Tour Guide: How Much Do You Need to Describe Your Setting?)

Overall, this has some good bones to work with, but I suspect a lot of what’s in the author’s head isn’t making it to the page yet. The setting has a deep well of imagery and details to work with, as does the cultural rules behind it. This touches on that with the duel, and that’s a good spot to further show the Neo Victorian nature of this world.

I’d also suggest deciding if this is adult or YA and adjust it accordingly. This feels more adult to me, so I’d recommend that unless you really wanted this for the teen audience (and that would be 14-17 year old readers).

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

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. 
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3 comments:

  1. Comment 1 of 2:

    Is this short introduction capable of inspiring the reader to keep going?
    Not right now. I had a lot of confusion as I read & didn’t feel an investment in the characters.

    Does this introduce them and the prospect of their stories?
    While you have given us a few details (pilot Jones agreed to a duel, & Chief has known him for 2-3 years), the characters seem very distant, mainly because context is missing.

    Does the atmosphere begin to grow on you or is it too vague?
    There are some clear details. The author does a great job describing the berths, which conjures images of close-quarters ship berths we’ve seen on TV, including images of the drab green coloring of the walls. (but where does the space opera part come in?) But, overall, the opening scene suffers from a vagueness in setting & atmosphere which hinders the reader from being able to immediately immerse in the scene.

    Paragraph 1: I was confused by the term ‘Pilot Officer’. I’m less familiar with Navy-type titles than other military branches, but the title seemed vague to me. Also, because above it was described as neo-Victorian, using the word “Pilot” gave me the feel that the characters were on the deck of a ship—so I was shocked a few paragraphs later to find they were in quarters.

    Paragraph 2: Should this paragraph start as “The” Chief or is that the name he goes by to refer to himself? The word ‘the’ is omitted in a few places & it stops me as a reader. Paragraph 2 goes on to tell of Chief & Pilot Officer’s history of knowing each other, but we haven’t yet gotten to know either of these two people so it doesn’t really make the reader care.

    Is there a way to introduce tension at the opening of the scene? We are introduced to a total stranger who is clenching his hands. At first reader thinks they’re on deck so maybe there has been a recent battle or one coming up, then reader realizes they weren’t on deck at all and they’re in officer’s quarters. There’s nothing to indicate a sense of tension other than the clenched fists of a character we don’t even know yet. Perhaps he has just returned from leave and Chief notices him acting strangely and goes to their quarters to confront him? Something to let us know the characters a bit more & be invested in them.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Comment 2 of 2:

    Paragraph 3: “That is when he first noticed the latent leadership forged in the lad.” You vaguely refer to a ship that fell apart—that’s a big deal! is there a way you can pick out a powerful specific detail from that crisis that conveys Pilot Officer Jones leadership potential so that we can begin rooting for him as a character? Also, in the intro to this submission the writer asks if this is a good set up to follow these two POV characters & their stories—are they meant to be friends who weather storms together during their service? Or just separate storylines for each character? My point is, by scene’s end, I know Pilot Jones’ problem – the duel. But I don’t know what Chief’s story is, but assume he is in support of the Jones character.

    Paragraph 4: Very visual—as I noted earlier, I could really see & visualize in my mind what the quarters looked like. One phrase I did not understand: “hummed from the station workings”.

    Paragraph 5: I was confused by this paragraph. I am assuming that Chief outranks Pilot Officer Jones so for a snarly response to go uncorrected & undisciplined seems unbelievable. I can understand the idea of wanting to be buddies, but that doesn’t forego correction, at least in the military world that I understand.

    Paragraph 11: Duel? Throughout the paragraphs the reader has been a bit confused by what time frame we are in, but now even more so by mention of a duel. Usually duels are more personal in nature so this circles back to my feedback from earlier---is this Pilot Officer returning from some type of leave that could be referenced in the beginning to personalize the character & start with tension? As it reads right now, the clenched fists don’t get explained for several paragraphs, & we don’t really get to know or root for the characters.

    General: there were some tense switches & typos throughout the piece, & I assume you meant ‘taut’ rather than ‘taught’ when referring to the wool blankets on the berth. What makes this YA? Or YA Science Fiction? I admit, I’m not that familiar with the YA market, & while I’m a die-hard TS:TOS fan, I don’t read a lot of sci fi. But I’m not seeing any obvious YA or sci-fi elements here. The feel I got was 1940’s – 1950’s era ship—so more historical, & then a bit of confusion about time-frame due to the mention of a duel, because I tend to think of duels pre-dating the 1940’s.

    I’m sure you will work out all these details as you get further into your story. You’ve got the tools here to work with, just need some clarity. Write on!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree, a Chief mentoring a young officer and the prospect of a duel make a good start. The focus of the story isn't as clear.

    The big issue to me is viewpoint. Is this the Chief's story and Jones is the (or a) way he'll be drawn into facing it, or is it Jones's and the Chief is supporting him? Or is it Jones's and the Chief is a Watson figure who tells his story without carrying too much of the weight for him? Or you could shift between these (and other) views, in different scenes. But you want to stick to one view at a time and do it justice.

    --Or it could be you're trying for an omniscient view, where it's clear you'll show one character's thoughts in one line and another in the next. I want to say Just Don't, because that's much less fashionable than it used to be, and hard to do well. If you think it's essential for the Neo-Victorian feel, be certain you know how to make it work.

    With the right viewpoint, I think this scene is about pacing. This takes about the right amount of time to get to the duel, and you're trying to use that time to hint at your world and get us worried about Jones -- good things. Still, this is a first page, so every word on it is more precious than even your grand finale. You want to think hard how much worldbuilding to put in here, and what bits of character history and hints about the duel. Like Janice said, the Neo-Victorian sense doesn't come through strongly here; I also think the "ship falling apart" reference is more something you Tell us and doesn't make the impression about Jones's leadership that you want.

    The more carefully you think about what you want to touch on before the duel, the more you can be sure you're doing each right. Some writers might put the duel in the first line to hook the reader right away; others might try to juggle suspense and character for a whole scene and end by revealing the duel. I'd suggest having it take about this long, but have a stronger clue at the start that something's seriously wrong.

    A first scene is a chance to define your hero and his main problem (or first problem), and decide how much else to mention along the way. You can use your sense of what really needs to be here to be sure it works.

    ReplyDelete