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Saturday, December 19

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a Spec Fic Opening Scene

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: Three

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through January 9.

This week’s question: Is this opening working so far?

Market/Genre: Speculative Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

“Quiet down, people, we’re almost done.” Professor Carlton glanced around the auditorium. Where was his P.A.? The last day of every semester presented a challenge—the beautiful spring weather or the winter holidays—faculty and students alike had the bug to toss their books and enjoy life without deadlines. But today, he had lost control. Over the hum of endless chatter, cellphones dinged, pens and pencils drummed, and gum snapped. No doubt, the chirping birds and warm Texas sun streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows enticed the antsy get-me-out-of-here behavior.

Spring fever had infected Carlton too. He itched to fold the ragtop back on his ancient two-seater and admire Baylor University in his rearview mirror. “We’ll get through this quicker if you settle down.” He rapped his knuckles on the mic and bounced a loud reverb off the walls.

Students in the ascending rows groaned, plugged their ears, and scowled at him.

He stifled a grin.

Carlton took advantage of the small amount of control he possessed. “Your semester grades will be posted tomorrow outside my office,” if the P.A. shows up to grade the final exams, “but your master’s thesis assignments are here in my hand.” He wiggled his bushy gray eyebrows and waved a stack of papers overhead, while one hundred and thirty-seven students moaned. Their lack of enthusiasm didn’t faze him.

“We covered a lot of territory this semester. One of the most important topics, the one that archaeologists need in their tool belts, came midway through our studies. Does anyone remember the topic I hammered into your brains?”

Grumbles, mumbles, and low muttering voices added to the chaos.

“That’s right.” Professor Carlton cut to the chase. “Know your area of interest, plot your career path, and plan for success. That’s what will put you ahead of your competitors, especially those at Texas Christian University.” He worried his lower lip. From their sudden wide-eyed look, he had captured their attention. “If you’ve done your homework, you know the occupational growth rate for archaeologists is better than most. You’re in demand, folks, but only the cream of the crop land jobs.

“So,” he waved their assignments at them again, “these master’s theses have got to do more than wow. They’ve got to blow the competition away. This is your calling card, future archaeologists. Your Howard Carter, if you will.”

Chair legs scraped against the floor and more laments rolled through the auditorium.

Carlton viewed the wasteland of wilting violets. Their glazed expressions read they’d gone back to sleep. Time to reel them in or lose them forever.

My Thoughts in Blue:

“Quiet down, people, we’re almost done.” Professor Carlton glanced around the auditorium. Where was his P.A.? [is this a reference to the sound system not working?]

The last day of every semester presented a challenge—the beautiful spring weather or the winter holidays—faculty and students alike had the bug to toss their books and enjoy life without deadlines. But today, he had lost control. [what makes this a last day of the semester that cannot be controlled? – I would suggest flipping this paragraph and leading with the next two sentences, so we know what is happening that is deemed ‘out of control.] Over the hum of endless chatter, cellphones dinged, pens and pencils drummed, and gum snapped. No doubt, the chirping birds and warm Texas sun streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows enticed the antsy get-me-out-of-here behavior.

Spring fever had infected Carlton too. He itched to fold the ragtop back on his ancient two-seater and admire Baylor University in his rearview mirror.

“We’ll get through this quicker if you settle down.” He rapped his knuckles on the mic and bounced a loud reverb off the walls.

Students in the ascending rows groaned, plugged their ears, and scowled at him.

He stifled a grin.

Carlton took advantage of the small amount of control [lots of concern about controlling the room – why not just say he took advantage of the lull?] he possessed. “Your semester grades will be posted tomorrow outside my office,” if the P.A. shows up [ahhh – not a sound system reference but to a professor assistant] to grade the final exams, “but your master’s thesis assignments are here in my hand [suggestion: “but I have your master’s thesis assignments right here].” He wiggled [not sure how one wiggles eyebrows] his bushy gray eyebrows and waved a stack of papers overhead, while one hundred and thirty-seven students moaned. Their lack of enthusiasm didn’t faze him.

“We covered a lot of territory this semester. One of the most important topics, the one that archaeologists need in their tool belts, came midway through our studies. Does anyone remember the topic I hammered into your brains?”

Grumbles, mumbles, and low muttering voices added to the chaos. [chaos? Are students fighting/stomping/throwing things/walking out? Grumbling and muttering is nothing to overcome – this underlines the continued concern over controlling the room – is there history to the Carlton character and this class being overly rowdy?]

“That’s right.” Professor Carlton cut to the chase. “Know your area of interest, plot your career path, and plan for success. That’s what will put you ahead of your competitors, especially those at Texas Christian University. [I would leave this out – everybody at Baylor knows TCU]” He worried his lower lip. From their sudden wide-eyed look, he had captured their attention. “If you’ve done your homework, you know the occupational growth rate for archaeologists is better than most. You’re in demand, folks, but only the cream of the crop land jobs.

“So,” he waved their assignments at them again, “these master’s theses have got to do more than wow. They’ve got to blow the competition away. This is your calling card, future archaeologists. Your Howard Carter, if you will.”

Chair legs scraped against the floor [I envisioned the auditorium as a space with fixed seats set on elevated rows – per the reference above to ‘ascending’ rows – so chair legs scraping threw off my image] and more laments rolled through the auditorium.

Carlton viewed the wasteland of wilting violets. Their glazed expressions read they’d gone back to sleep. Time to reel them in or lose them forever. [this seems to indicate that some VI (very important) is going to be said…]

The Question:

Is this opening working so far?

Disclaimer here: My dad and brother were both professors. I lived in Waco, TX for 15 years and know Baylor quite well, including the notoriety of the students – back then…

I feel the opening isn’t working quite yet, but only because it doesn’t make clear what is happening and why. It appears to be the tail end of that day’s class, after several things have been covered and the ‘natives’ are getting restless. With this basic clarity early in the scene, readers will better understand what’s important and what isn’t. 

Could be this is simply a mundane final gathering, boring overall for everyone, and best if done as quickly as possible. If this is the case, we need to skip all but the high points, allowing readers to leap forward into the actual story. 

(Here's more on 4 Reasons Readers Stopped Caring About Your Story)

Perhaps the story begins with Carlton bombing down the highway, Baylor U in his rearview mirror?

A small confusion encountered with the reference to ‘his P.A.’, which led me in two directions. One had to do with the sound system in the auditorium, perhaps not being loud enough or switched on. The other had to do with a ‘professor’s assistant’, a familiar term on its own. However, the chance of confusion could be removed by simply using the full term or ‘assistant’. This situation could also be a good opportunity to introduce the PA by name or perhaps an inference that their absence wasn’t a surprise (or that it was).

I chose the professor’s assistant, and then had to wonder what actions the PA would take to settle or control the situation. Did they have a stick? A whistle? Did they walk up and down the rows of seats and throw around stern looks?

The second paragraph tells us the presumed professor has lost control of his audience. The ‘reasons’ for this loss are presented after the telling of it, so I suggest flipping this paragraph. By presenting the uncontrollable behavior first, as a reason, the logic path is righted.

Essentially, this scene seems to have been taken over by the weather… and everyone’s reaction to it.

Control over the scene’s situation pushes into and through the entire opening, which caused me to question the Carlton character and to view his expectations as unrealistic. Without knowing what had come before, I was forced to begin building knowledge about this character from possibly the weakest point of this gathering. 


Without some groundwork on who Carlton is and what he wants out of this situation, I’m faced with a character who seems excessively concerned about controlling his unruly student audience. The reality of the situation is clearly defined, yet Carlton seems to expect things that the odds show just won’t happen.

If you can set up this gathering a bit at the outset, I believe readers would be better grounded to the situation and you would be able to inject some anticipation into the flow.

Perhaps if you pull readers into the scene using the idea that Carlton is just as anxious to get out of there as the students, show him asserting his authority and some emotion, and I believe the story would unfold at a better, brisker pace.

As is, this is a slow opening and forces the reader to turn the page to find out what, if anything, is going to hook them into the story line. Carlton being an archeology prof opens up many paths into all kinds of adventures or mysteries or even dangers, which readers delight in.

Not knowing what this scene predicts or hints at, I’ve nothing to speculate about – not really. This speaks only to an ending of something, not a beginning or even a continuation. Everyone is bored, antsy, ready to flee – and that essence is so spot on the scene is very nearly static.

(Here’s more on A Fun Test to Check Your Scene's Narrative Drive)

I do enjoy your style and how well you handle descriptive aspects, so I feel confident that your writing skill is sufficient to mess around with this scene and perk it up.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it (grin) is to take this relatively static opening scene and give your readers something to care about.

Perhaps Carlton’s itch to see Baylor in his rearview mirror involves a mysterious destination? Perhaps he’s done all preparations and simply has to get this last class meeting done, if these dang kids would shut up and quit messing around! Showing Carlton’s emotion, frustration, impatience, body language, etc. would help readers to catch his fever, so to speak. Perhaps mixing in another character, a student or the PA, or deeper mention of them, could offer up a hint of nefariousness or a simpler sentiment?

As mentioned, I enjoy your writing, so would look forward to the rest of this scene, but I need something to ‘hang onto’ on this first page… and something that hooks me to turn to the next page. Small hints work wonders since readers are smart, active-minded folk who don’t need a bright, flashing spinner lure to read on.

A small mention at the end here about some confusion on the master’s thesis assignment idea… 

(Here’s more on Hooking Your Reader in 3 Easy Steps)

In this scene, we have students ending an unknown semester. We don’t know what level of education they have acquired. So, the talk about master’s thesis assignments struck me as weird, unless Carlton’s audience is a group of grad students. Master’s thesis topics are most often chosen by the student but may also be suggested by the professor who is working with the student on their thesis.

I may have misunderstood what you meant, but without signifying the student’s education level, assigning master’s thesis topics seemed inappropriate. With a bit of additional clarifications, any confusion would be removed.

At this point, my interest is held primarily by the fact that Carlton is a professor of archeology. Also, I would want to find out why you gave this much page time to a seemingly boring class-ending situation. The next page might hold ‘the’ nugget!

Good luck and enjoy playing with this piece. I believe this is a new story you’ve just begun, so thank you for letting us in on it at such an early stage.

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

6 comments:

  1. Maria had great comments as always. I felt that this is just missing the hook/story problem. Why should readers care about this situation? It's possible this is one of those novels that needs the blurb, and had I read that, I'd have more context and more patience to let the story get started. As is, I want to skim to get to a point.

    I suspect the hook part is about to appear with the "before I lose them forever" line, but that might just be a teacher wanting to keep promising students in his field of study.

    I'd suggest finding that hook or story question that will make readers curious about what this book is about, and why they want to meet Carlton. What's he about to do that will make them want to go along for the ride?

    What problem is Carlton about to face? "Unruly students" just isn't enough of a problem to work as an opening scene grabber (unless they're being *really* unruly and he has to settle them down before something terrible happens).

    What is this book about? How might you give a hint of that here? Or say it outright if it fits.

    I think once you add that story question and hook, this will have the drive it needs to pull readers in. Carlton has this "bigger problem" to deal with, AND he's got a bunch of unruly students... making it harder/more compilated/delaying it etc. Whatever conflict this scene brings to whatever Carlton needs to do that will drive the plot forward.

    If it's not in this scene, maybe shift your opening to closer to when that problem appears.

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  2. Perhaps it's not important, but I didn't notice any spec fic elements in this spec fic opening. The time is near-past to near-future, apparently (cellphones), and there's nothing different from how things are now -- other than college students not using their laptops to be on Facebook during class, but maybe that's a Baylor thing.

    I would have appreciated some hint as to what's different in this spec fic world, somewhere in the opening. That the prof's car is "ancient" isn't enough. However, just to spin an example, that he has trouble getting fuel for his car, because real gasoline is only available on the black market and his car isn't much fun to drive on the eco synfuel he's supposed to use, would. And that he would use (or perhaps just dream of using) black-market gasoline tells you something about him.

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  3. Hi and thank you, Maria, Janice, and Anonymous, for your comments!! The hook does come after "lose them forever," but I do see where some of your suggestions will help up the volume! Thank you so much for your help!!! Merry Christmas!! :)

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  4. This is what I came up with as a definition of spec fiction:

    Speculative fiction is a broad category of fiction encompassing genres with certain elements that do not exist in terms of the recorded history and observed phenomena of the current universe, covering various themes in the context of the supernatural, futuristic, and many other imaginative topics.

    That being said, I would want to feel something of this on the first page. The hint of being a future archaeologist might be it - will they undercover something ? Also, we only have one character here to follow - Carlton, so I want to know something more about him. There is a lot of space dedicated to calming the room, but what I really want is ramping up to a hint of what is to come. If there is a secondary character that is going to be involved in this story - I would like to see he or she on that first page as well.

    I agree with Maria the writing is good, strong, and a voice I could easily follow. That's huge. I think that the beginning can be condensed just a bit to get that coming hook in earlier.

    Lot of good things going on here- with a very easy way to bring it all together. Good luck.

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  5. "Make your characters want something right away even if it's only a glass of water." --Kurt Vonnegut

    That's my favorite line for making scenes work, even (especially) if they're a slice of life. And if what seems like a slice of life scene is the opening...

    Making this the opening scene is a stretch. If you're certain that "the jumble of a disorganized classroom" really is the best impression to contrast with the rest of the book and set up the theme, then I'd suggest defining it much more carefully and looking deeper into what makes it interesting *right now.* It could be Carlton's frustration in keeping the class still because he thinks his last message is important (and it probably will be), or it could be other thoughts contrasting with it. It doesn't have to feel like life and death, but readers need an opening scene that shows you can make them root for something right away, and also points toward where the story is going.

    Also, for a spec fiction story, that promise ought to include at least a hint that there's that science fiction element ahead. Here we have the fact that the subject is archeology, but there are no hints that we can hope will be an eventual Lost Civilization or Entombed Horror, or even a joke that "You won't find the Ark of the Covenant" to signal that someone actually will dig up something similar. Spec fiction needs a clear hint (if not always a big one) from the start that the reader is in the right book.

    I'll also agree with other people here, that this shows a good grasp of detail and color here. It makes the classroom come alive with pure description, which isn't easy for a scene that isn't really *focusing* that description into a character's need or momentary need yet. Another author could have missed so much here, that this all has.

    You've got all the tools you need for this. As they say in archeology: do your best to start in the right place, and then keep digging.

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  6. I enjoyed your writing style - it was fun, descriptive, and flowed easily. What threw me out of the scene, though, was the description of the academic setting, in particular that this was a master's level class. At first thought it was a high school assembly, and then when I realized it was college level I thought undergrads, but when it became clear that it was supposed to be a master's class I thought, "not likely." Maybe things are different at Baylor, but master's classes are typically much smaller than this. The final grades being posted the next day even though there were over a hundred exams to grade is unrealistic even with the help of the teaching assistant. Also, when the exam is done, students typically leave the classroom (because they finish at different times) so there wouldn't be one final large meeting like this (or it would be the class before the final exam).

    Of course, things may be different in the future, alternate reality, or wherever this is set. Maybe due to ongoing budget cuts classes have gotten much larger, they have teaching assistants (which are unusual for a master's level course, but may be necessary if class sizes have increased), and thesis topics are assigned (possibly due to a lack of faculty available to be advisors?). That's the joy of spec fic - you can explain away a lot of things by saying "things are different in this universe/time period.' But because this feels so much like our present day, it was jarring to read things that seemed out of place.

    I'm dying of curiosity to see what comes after 'lose them forever' and hope that we will get to see that in the future.

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