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Saturday, March 06, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at an SF Short Story Opening

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: Zero

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are open.

This week’s questions:

I'm wondering about the voice of the narrator. Is it funny, hokey, overdone, stupid? In short, does it work? There's some spots where the narrator is telling rather than showing, but in 1st person, it often seems more realistic to 'just say it.' Do you agree? And the practical stuff: Do you want to read the rest of the story? Would you want to read more stories told by this narrator? Did it make you start to chuckle?

Market/Genre: Science Fiction Short Story

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

A damn UFO is hovering over the empty field just a quarter mile north. I'm walking Guinevere, who's sniffin' and snortin' like an over-worked ox.

My neighbor gapes from his porch. "Holy crap, Ralph! Ya seein' that?" I yell at him.

“Damnbetcha. What the hell? I’m calling the Air Force or somebody!” On his way inside he shouts, "Or maybe the Marines!" His T-shirt bears the threat: "Don't piss off old people. The older we get, the less 'Life in Prison' is a deterrent." I don't believe him.

We’re mostly old, retired folks at Hapless Valley Mobile Park, but I head up to the field to see what’s happening—I gotta know what it is. I may be old, but I ain’t dead, though Shelia’s accused me of it a few times over the 34 years we’ve been together—until she left me to run off with this 23-year-old weightlifter three days ago. How could she do me like that after all this time? At least she left Guinevere.

Off to the gym, she said, and headed to her car, swinging that butt like she’s always done. Two hours later, she called me to say she was leaving with this guy. I mean, we’d have kids older than him if the good Lord had blessed us with any. Shit! She called me. On my cell!

The south Texas sun’s reflection off that shiny silver space thing makes me squint, but I can see there’s a ramp or something coming down. A hatch slides open. Out waddles ET. And it heads straight towards me. ET’s shaped like a human, but its legs are stiff, like it’s been working too hard in its little garden there on the spaceship. No ears. How can it hear?

"Take this," it says to me in a voice like James Earl Jones with a Bernie Sanders accent, and hands me a small metal can with strange symbols etched all around it. "You will soon want and need it." What should I say? What's PC for an ET?

I give it a quick "Thanks" and put the trinket in my pocket.

My Thoughts in Blue:

A damn UFO is hovering over the empty field just a quarter mile north [north of what?]. I'm walking Guinevere, who's sniffin' and snortin' like an over-worked ox. [is this a dog – or a pet pig – or?]

My neighbor gapes from his porch. [is this neighbor next door? Or down the road a ways?]

"Holy crap, Ralph! Ya seein' that?" I yell at him.

“Damnbetcha. What the hell? I’m calling the Air Force or somebody! [this isn’t adding to the scene – reads better to have him head inside and toss out the alternative to the Air Force]” On his way inside he shouts, "Or maybe the Marines!" His T-shirt bears the threat: "Don't piss off old people. The older we get, the less 'Life in Prison' is a deterrent." I don't believe him. [about what? the t-shirt saying or calling the military?]

We’re mostly old, retired folks at Hapless Valley Mobile Park, but I head up to the field [this is confusing, do you mean that old, retired folks wouldn’t confront the UFO – and is the nameless protagonist part of the ‘mostly’ residents or an outrider (younger/not retired)?] to see what’s happening—I gotta know what it is. [what’s happening and what it is don’t match up.] [need a transition here (screeching tires) as the mystery of the UFO is dropped as the primary focus and Sheila leaving this old guy takes over – is he still headed for the UFO?] I may be old, but I ain’t dead, though Shelia’s accused me of it a few times over the 34 years we’ve been together—until she left me to run off with this [suggest a tighter approach here: until she ran off three days ago with a] 23-year-old weightlifter three days ago.

How could she do me like that, after all this time? At l Least she left Guinevere.

Off to the gym, she said, and headed to her car, swinging that butt like she’s always done. Two hours later, she calls ed me to sayin’ she’s was leavin’ g with this guy. I mean, we’d have kids older than him if the good Lord had blessed us with any.

Shit! She called me. On my cell! [this doesn’t add that much, intimates that calling on his cell was extra insulting – the focus on conflict would be stronger if he notes that at least she didn’t text him.]

[Pow! We’re back to the UFO – don’t know where he is, assume Guinevere is with him – some stage direction or external observation would be helpful here] The south Texas sun’s reflection off that shiny silver space thing makes me squint, but I can see there’s a ramp or something coming down. A hatch slides open. [thanks to 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s movies and tv shows, most readers will insert appropriate memories – for me this is the movie with Klatu] Out waddles [this is a strong verb with limited definitions and usually attributed to a creature that is off-balance or carrying enough weight, low center of gravity, etc. to have a waddling gait – I envisioned the famous, short, duck-walking ET from the movie of the same name.] ET. And it heads straight towards me. [I suggest this go at the end of the ET description] ET’s shaped like a human, but its legs are stiff, [for me, this conflicts with the ET image I’ve selected – because waddle comes before description. A stiff-legged human-style ET brings up the memory of the gold robot in Star Wars] like it’s been working too hard in its little garden there on the spaceship. No ears. How can it hear? [really like this – we all wonder about that – fun to encounter the self-questioning here]

⁋ It heads straight towards me.

"Take this," it says to me in a voice like James Earl Jones with a Bernie Sanders accent, and hands me a small metal can [like one of those small cans of baby peas? I wanted more description or a more precise/weird comparison] with strange symbols etched all around it. "You will soon want and need it." [I like the voice description very much – would like to see the ‘can’ and its description come first, then the voice description, then the dialogue – currently it feels jumbled]

What should I say? What's PC for an ET? [this earned a grin]

The Questions:

1. I'm wondering about the voice of the narrator. Is it funny, hokey, overdone, stupid?

In short, does it work? [author’s note: There are some spots where the narrator is telling rather than showing, but in 1st person, it often seems more realistic to 'just say it.' Do you agree?]


The narrator’s voice is confusing for me and difficult to brand as funny, hokey, overdone or stupid because I don’t know who this character is. Without more info about him, where he is, and more direct judgment of others (like the neighbor who is described, given dialogue, but we don’t know what the protagonist thinks of him) I cannot determine if voice was overdone or stupid, or even hokey.

I also felt that the humor was more sophisticated, pointing to an older man who is ‘woke’, sees things with curiosity, yet wonders why his partner of 34 years would leave him. This conflict is okay but does confuse putting him together in the reader’s mind.

First person POV and any narration puts the protagonist in the driver’s seat, the character is the ‘story-teller’ and readers live in their head. The switch from being the story to telling the story must be well defined, alternately being the protagonist and experiencing the story and telling the story that the protagonist is living. Janice has scads of excellent articles on working through the maze of be/narrate, and once you feel confident about what the reader needs to know and when, that maze gets shorter and you can ‘see your way through’.

(Here’s more with Can You Hear Me Now? Developing Your Narrative Voice)

2. Do you want to read the rest of the story? Would you want to read more stories told by this narrator?

Yes. (readers chime in please) I want answers to some questions, such as: What does the spaceship look like? Where is the spaceship in relation to the unnamed protagonist’s home? Where is this all taking place and is the retirement place a trailer park or a bunch of condos? What is this guy’s name? What is Guinevere’s reaction to ET? What happens next?

I don’t mind the narrator, but I’m not excited about him, in particular. Ralph is more interesting to me because who he is happens to be plastered on is shirt, and he’s really indignant, so I wonder how far that goes in his personality. The protagonist is fairly invisible to me, except that he’s a direct person, not looking for someone else to determine information or give answers that he can determine on his own – so, an independent person.

(Here’s more with What Writers Need to Know About Hooks)

I would read more stories with this character at the helm I ‘spose, but only if you give me something to care about, some more defined personality traits, etc. As is, as first person POV, I don’t think of him as the ‘narrator’. I think of him as the person experiencing the story and relating is back to me. I just don’t have the connection I need to have in order to come back for his particular storytelling approach.

If this was the adventures of Ted, the retired farmer who recently became ‘woke’ and started seeing the world differently (perhaps after Sheila took off), and decided to be more aware of things. Always curious, he decides to go out to meet the world instead of forcing it to come get him. Whatever and whoever he is, you need to get me to care, right away, even if I might not like him much. You need to make me want to know more and force me to make judgements so I can determine whether I want to confront him or comfort him, to assign emotions to him.

(Here’s more with The Triangle of Likability: How to Make Your Characters Come Alive)

3. Did it make you start to chuckle?

Not really… You earned a couple grins and one head shake.

I feel the humor is attempting to support understanding of (fill in name), but too often I don’t feel the humor is (fill in name)’s, but yours – and that creates confusion. To get readers engaged and bonding with the ‘narrator/storyteller’, you need to introduce them and their relationship to the story being told. Give the reader things that focus on what makes this storyteller unique to the story and how only they can tell it properly. I’d like to meet (fill in name) so I can add his personality to the story he wants to tell.

(Here’s more with How to Write Laughworthy Stories)

This is a fun story with lots of potential for silly humor and quirky people, creatures, and happenings. An anthology of short stories, as ‘told by’ this protagonist/narrator, would likely become a family favorite or a book that’s traded around by friends for a long time. Good work – keep 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

5 comments:

  1. The character and a tone jump off the page here -- I'm always intrigued when a writer makes this kind of commitment to those.

    I'm not as sure this is using them well, so far.

    This story seems to be "so an ET lands in a mobile park," and it's playing up the localisms and the rural world as if it's more the star of the story than the alien is. That could work well if it's handled just right. If it's comedy, you can show that the park hokeyness is crazier than any alien. If it's not comedy, you'd want to throttle those back a little and emphasize that they're real people first that just happen to talk this way.

    As it is, I'm getting more of a comedic balance here. Guinevere, Ralph's shirt, and all the swearing and the *sniffin' and snortin'* are getting more space than the UFO itself. If that's the goal, comedy (especially yokel comedy) is tricky stuff, and I'm not quite laughing yet.

    The main thing for me here is the two paragraphs about his ex (it doesn't help that they're next to the fun aside about Ralph's shirt). That's the kind of thing some writers let into their first pages, and they're usually a digression from what's going on right now. If his ex gets mentioned at all this early, it should be a very brief line that's somewhere it feels natural, and you can fill us in later.

    Instead, I wish that by this point we had a slightly better sense of where the story was going. The box is a "You will soon want it and need it", but that works best if we already have the first hints of what our narrator is as a person and what spin that might put on his "needs." Yes he's a proud trailer park resident and a spurned husband, but those aren't coming together for me to show what journey he's already on and what the box might do to that.

    So that's my main thought: I don't think the local color and backstory here are quite in service of what the story could do, and that means this first page is slowing itself down. Or if they *are* the point because this is about atmosphere and comedy, you could fine-tune the humor more.

    One other thing: when Ralph talks, this is an early chance to give our narrator a name. We really want to know that soon, even if won't be used much in the tale.

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  2. Voice and humor are definitely a challenge to capture and more of a challenge to keep throughout the story. For me this worked, kinda. Not sure where the story is going, but I'm willing to turn the page to find out.

    We have a protagonist (and I do like his voice) a fun mystery (the spaceship and the alien telling him he is going to need whatever he gave him) a setting (Texas). All good starts. I would imagine an inciting incident will soon follow (what's going to happen that is going to make him need that present). So, yes, I would follow this guy for a few more pages.

    Do we need paragraph 5? We already know about the wife - unless she is going to be in the pages that follow, I think we have all we need. I agree with Maria about the waddling - we see waddling and legs stiff - I would pick one of the two.

    The jumble feeling of the story reminds me of John Dies In The End. Lots of humor, the story takes us all over the place, and as a reader you either love it or hate it. I loved it.

    I agree with Ken, we need a name. But as a first go at things, the story has a voice, has bones, and has lots of places to go - great job and good luck!

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  3. I immediately questioned why he was so "nonchalant" about seeing a UFO land next to his mobile home park. Old or not, I think he'd have a bigger reaction...shocked, excited, whatever. I really didn't buy into the casualness of the situation. At least Ralph decides to call the military...but if he acknowledges he knows the UFO is there, wouldn't he have already called them and tell the Narrator (yes, definitely give him a name. Maybe Ralph can say it when he replies) he'd done so? I think this can be a fun short story, but not there yet. What is his reaction to seeing the alien...what is the alien's reaction to seeing him? That could be a great place to interject some humor. I agree about the wife part. If it is meant to be humorous, don't think it is. But if you like it, maybe you can tie it into when he sees the spaceship or the alien...he could mention he wishes his wife would get zapped up into outer space. Anyway, keep going. Have more fun with it...play it for laughs for sure. I think that would be a great twist on a Si-fi short story ;)

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  4. Thanks for the feedback, y'all. It is all helpful and instructive.

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  5. I found it amusing and I enjoyed the voice of the narrator. It seemed to me like he was a bit of a character. I would keep reading for sure.

    The only minor thing that tripped me up was the comment that the alien didn't have ears. How would one know? It's possible the ears weren't very visible. I like the mention of Sheila because that shows his character.

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