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Saturday, July 24, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Narrative Flow in a Sci-Fi Opening

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: Seven

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through September 11.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this opening work?

2. Does this page start the story with a strong enough premise to interest the reader?

3. There is no dialogue with another human so is the internalization effective?

Market/Genre: Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…
 
Original Text:

He’d always thought her bones would speak to him after death. Some persistent link to the afterlife. A connection so strong even those shits at Ft. Meade could never explain it.

Psi potential: undetermined.

Linny’s bones were silent. Nothing’s changed the last eleven years.

Hogan Carr shifted on the old wooden bench and watched the sparrows flit about the sparse shrubs that marred the grassy expanse of meadow. He could hear the meadowlark’s three-part whistle in the distance. Linny’s birds. Their early morning song familiar. A small comfort today.

He thought the bench’s faded green paint a blemish on his wife’s memory. On hallowed ground. She’d loved this spot. The bench, a gift soon after they retired, was built in his workshop. A surprise. They’d take long walks in the woods, come here, and she pull her binoculars and checklist. Hogan would just watch her. Maybe doze a little.

It had been years since he’d been back this way. Avoided it, really.

Too long.

He should take the piece back to his garage, sand it and repaint it.

The negligence showed.

Damned deer.

The deer he’d shot this morning had made its way here. He never missed once in his life. Today he did.

A full quarter mile before collapsing right next to the bench. As if she’d called out to him. To visit. It had been years. It had only taken an alien spaceship appearing in orbit to get him out here again. Riots, looting, a tanked economy. Living off the land again.

Sorry Babe…

He closed his eyes and rested his forehead lightly on the muzzle of his hunting rifle. Both hands encircled the barrel. He imagined his right reaching down to the trigger. A round was chambered.

Her body lay six feet beneath him, the remains sent a year after she disappeared in Colombia. Always volunteering her time. He was a killer, she, a savior.

He’d buried the bones eleven years ago. Laid a simple memorial plaque flush with the soil underneath the bench.

“Linny Bouchard Carr, Beloved Wife and Mother, 1966-2011”

Just pull the trigger. Together once more.

Only the birds would see.

My Thoughts in Blue:

He’d always thought her bones would speak to him after death. Some persistent link to the afterlife. [A connection so strong even those shits at Ft. Meade could never explain it.] The transition here feels off. This sentence refers to a past link that existed, yet the other two sentences refer to a present potential link after death. So I read it as “Some persistent link to the afterlife, a connection so strong…” and then the shift in time jarred me.

[Psi potential: undetermined.] Undetermined, suggests there isn’t much psi potential, but I think you mean this was

Linny’s bones were silent. [Nothing’s changed] had changed the last eleven years.

Hogan Carr shifted on the [old wooden bench] because you’re talking about bones, I immediately assume he’s in a cemetery at her grave, but he’s not. and watched the sparrows flit about the sparse shrubs that marred the grassy expanse of meadow. He could hear the meadowlark’s three-part whistle in the distance. [Linny’s birds.] How? [Their early morning song familiar. A small comfort today.] This is a bit choppy and I’m not sure what he means, so I’m starting to get lost

[He thought the bench’s faded green paint a blemish on his wife’s memory.] A bit awkward to read, and a bit tellish. [On hallowed ground.] Is it? This suggests a cemetery again, but I thought he was in the woods She’d loved this spot. The bench, a gift soon after they retired, was built in his workshop. A surprise. They’d take long walks in the woods, come here, and she pull her binoculars and checklist. Hogan would just watch her. Maybe doze a little. I suspect the scattered and clipped sentences and thoughts in this paragraph represent Hogan’s state of mind, but it’s a little hard to read and keep up with. I don’t quite get what they mean of how they connect. It also shifts out of his POV a little and doesn’t read as his thoughts.

It had been years since he’d been back this way. Avoided it, really.

[Too long]. At this point, the vagueness is starting to lose me as a reader, because I feel like I’m missing important details to understand the scene.

He should take [the piece] this doesn’t say “bench” to me back to his garage, sand it and repaint it.

[The negligence] Whose negligence? “The” suggests an outside narrator or a level of detachment, but Hogan would more like likely think “His negligence” You could combine the two ideas and have him think it had been years since he’d been back and his negligence showed. showed.

[Damned deer.] Since no deer has been mentioned, I don't know what he's referring to 

[The deer he’d shot this morning had made its way here.] I can't picture this. Also, if he shot it, wouldn’t it be dead? [He never missed once in his life. Today he did.] He just said he shot it, so he didn’t miss. Did you mean “shot at?”

[A full quarter mile before collapsing right next to the bench.] I need more here—it walked? What does this refer to? [As if she’d called out to him.] The deer? I know you mean Linny, but it’s not clear [To visit. It had been years.] It gets very choppy through here [It had only taken an alien spaceship appearing in orbit to get him out here again. Riots, looting, a tanked economy. Living off the land again.] This comes out of the blue and doesn’t connect back to anything else so far, so it throws me

[Sorry Babe… ]
 I read this as him apologizing for not coming out for so long, so his actions next paragraph are a bit jarring

[He closed his eyes and rested his forehead lightly on the muzzle of his hunting rifle. Both hands encircled the barrel. He imagined his right reaching down to the trigger. A round was chambered.] The choppiness is really hurting the narrative flow. It reads more like statements than thoughts.

[Her body lay six feet beneath him, the remains sent a year after she disappeared in Colombia. Always volunteering her time. He was a killer, she, a savior.] There’s so much to unpack here I don’t know where to begin

[He’d buried the bones eleven years ago. Laid a simple memorial plaque flush with the soil underneath the bench.] Perhaps this can be merged with the early reference to it

“Linny Bouchard Carr, Beloved Wife and Mother, 1966-2011”

Just pull the trigger. Together once more.

Only the birds would see.

The Questions:

1. Does this opening work?


Yes and no (readers chime in). The bones are good (no pun intended), but there’s a lot that’s not making it to the page yet, so I feel lost and confused, not intrigued. But I do worry that Hogan is about to kill himself, and there are enough bits with aliens to make me want to know more.

As is, it’s too choppy with sentence fragments that suggest deeper meaning without sharing any of it to give readers context. I’m not grounded in the setting or in what’s going on, so I’m struggling to make sense of what I read. I can see there's more here, but I'm working to hard to find it.

(Here’s more with Get What's in Your Head Onto the Page)

It also buries the lead—aliens have appeared and the world is in chaos. This is likely something the cover copy would share, but there’s no hint of that in the text until the end of the first page.

Although, “It had only taken an alien spaceship appearing in orbit to get him out here again” would make a fabulous opening line (or close to opening line). That’s why he’s out in the woods, and this has led him to his wife’s grave and sparked his feelings of loss and regret and have him considering suicide. That situation is the trigger for the action in this scene, so I really wanted to know about it right away. It might even be the inciting event—he's out there because of the aliens, which led to...something.

(Here’s more with Story Structure: How the Inciting Event Works in a Novel)

I think there’s a lot to work with here, but perhaps ground readers more so they can keep up with what’s going on and why. I’d suggest clarifying what Hogan’s doing and where he is, and how that fits in the larger issue of the alien ship.

As is, this reads like a grieving husband who is struggling to go on, and has a chance encounter that pushes his over the edge. But then…aliens…and the whole context changes. It’s too fast a change right now and can easily lose readers. But if you establish the bigger picture first, flesh out and smooth over some of those choppy sentence fragments, and give readers the necessary information to stay with you, I think this will work much better and hook the way you want it to.

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

2. Does this page start the story with a strong enough premise to interest the reader?

Not yet, because I don’t quite know what the premise is. There’s so much going on and none of it is clearly stated—except the ship in orbit. But that’s the end of page one, and comes across almost as an afterthought, so I’m not sure if that’s the most important piece or not. Is this a story about the alien ship, or is “post-alien contact” just the setting in which Hogan deals with the death of his wife and thoughts of suicide? I can’t tell yet, and those are two different stories in tone and story.

Perhaps give a few more hints about the state of the world and what Hogan’s doing out in the woods. If he’s hunting for food because he can’t buy it anymore, that would help provide context for readers and set the scene. Maybe we see him miss or graze the deer and watch him follow it to the bench and Linny’s grave, where he has his emotional struggle. That way, we’d know why he was out in the woods, and why he’s feeling as he is, and you could provide a hint of the larger goal that shows the premise.

(Here’s more with Understand Your Premise to Understand Your Novel)

3. There is no dialogue with another human so is the internalization effective?

Yes and no. What you’re doing is more or less working, with him thinking and talking to his wife, but there’s not enough of it to feel in Hogan’s head and understand him. For example, this paragraph reads like someone besides Hogan explaining the importance of the bench to readers:
He thought the bench’s faded green paint a blemish on his wife’s memory. On hallowed ground. She’d loved this spot. The bench, a gift soon after they retired, was built in his workshop. A surprise. They’d take long walks in the woods, come here, and she pull her binoculars and checklist. Hogan would just watch her. Maybe doze a little.
Let’s break it down a bit:

He thought the bench’s faded green paint a blemish on his wife’s memory.

On hallowed ground.

She’d loved this spot.

The bench, a gift soon after they retired, was built in his workshop.

A surprise.

They’d take long walks in the woods, come here, and she pull her binoculars and checklist.

Hogan would just watch her.

Maybe doze a little.

Note the list-like, unconnected nature of the text. There's no real flow of one idea to the next. You could read this as a poem and it works, but it doesn’t read like narrative of a man remembering his wife. It’s too external, so the individual lines don’t show readers how Hogan is feeling or what’s he’s remembering. The gist is there, but it’s too fragmented to paint a strong picture. It also relies a bit too much on the readers putting the various clues together, such as: “binoculars and checklist” likely refers to birdwatching, since it mentions “Linny’s birds” earlier, but that’s something that could easily be overlooked.

I’d suggest grouping some of those thoughts so they can unfold as a clearer memory and not fragments. This feels like it’s trying too hard to be mysterious to pique interest, but it’s coming across too vague to understand, because readers don’t know what these fragments mean.

(Here’s more with Are You Showing or Telling Your Internalization?)

Overall, I think just shifting the alien sentence to the first few lines, and showing some of the things you refer to will fix it. Be clearer about what’s going on. Establish the alien ship and why Hogan is out hunting, and then let readers see his emotional struggle when the deer brings him to the bench. That way, readers will have the context they need to understand the overall premise, they'll know why Hogan is in the woods, and they'll see how the wife fits into his emotional state. Then he has a choice—kill himself or not. And what happens next helps him make that choice and advances the story.

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.
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7 comments:

  1. I really like the premise of the story but was confused in sections as well. The brief mention of aliens really piqued my interest and the fact he's considering suicide because he misses his wife and the world is crazy... but she's a wife and mother and so I'm confused about him leaving his children behind and possibly grandchildren.

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  2. Not every story goes this deep into the moment. Hogan's thoughts wander and work their way through everything... but there are too many pieces we can't follow.

    The basic flow of this is a man remembering his wife, and moving toward suicide -- that's a clear story thread. But mentioning "psi potential" in italics could be a whole other plotline, that makes the "bones could speak" sound like it might be literal, and that changes the whole impression I had of this. It had me reading all this waiting to learn what psychic force was going to appear... except there's nothing more, and it's easier to forget that and focus on Hogan's simple grief.

    And, a deer? You do explain it, but it takes a good bit of mental backing up to accept that he reached this spot because of a hunting incident, and not because of memories themselves or even the psychic question.

    And then, aliens...................

    The best scenes, and almost every great first scene ever made, depend on integrating different threads so we can appreciate a main point while learning what we need about other things. For this, I don't see how this can be the right order to reveal these things in, or the right pace.

    A story with aliens and the world ending ought to hint at that fact in the first paragraph or so, even if it's just a tease or a slow build. (I can imagine a *very* slow build where the whole scene ends before Hogan pulls his head out of the moment and reveals that there are aliens, but that would be based on completely holding our attention without it and still planting tiny legitimate hints.) The psychic question, I don't know what that's doing at all, so it ought to be clearer or not in the early paragraphs.

    This is good at wandering through Hogan's thoughts, but it's too determined to let them brush up against plot points whenever they happen. What's the real sequence we should learn this in, that draws us in instead of jolting us around?

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  3. Thanks Janice and the two kind souls that offered critique above. It's clear draft is still many long months or years away from publication. This is my first novel and the first few pages of the second draft. I've copied and pasted the feedback to the end of the first chapter for reference when I get back to it.

    Just FYI, this novel is an attempt to illustrate how I believe humanity would react to real First Contact. It makes several broad assumptions (the entire UFO mythology is real and a conspiracy, right down to secret research facilities and abduction), and that the military's endeavors to screen and recruit individuals with paranormal abilities was actually successful.

    It follows a former Navy operator with a special connection to the forest, and his deceased wife who may not be deceased, who shared this ability after both were abducted in their early childhood in the meadow illustrated in the example above. A disconnected man who soon finds he connects more with the alien visitors than his own kind. Xenophobia, connection, self worth...lots of themes to explore. Thanks again, it will be an interesting journey.

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  4. Sounds fascinating! I think your challenge is to introduce elements slowly enough so that the reader doesn't feel overwhelmed, but also quickly enough so that the reader doesn't feel like important bits of information were left out of the introduction.

    A few other thoughts - I wasn't confused by the deer, but I had forgotten about the psi potential by the time I got to the end. I had a sense that I had forgotten something important, and I could have gone back to look for it, but that takes the reader out of the story. I think if the intro was trying to do less, I might have remembered.

    I look forward to seeing what you do with this!

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  5. I got stopped at Psi:undetermined. What is psi? You're going under the assumption that your reader is a sci-fi fan(?) and will know what it stands for...but... perhaps don't assume all readers are :) I would write it out...especially in the opening of the novel. Just a suggestion.

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  6. I liked this, as a reader, while recognising, as a writer, that others do not necessarily share my tolerance of abeyance and impressionism and sentence fragments. I would read on. It also seems clear to me that the protagonist only wounded the deer.

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  7. Sasha Anderson9/01/2021 10:04 AM

    "if he shot it, wouldn’t it be dead?"

    Not necessarily, no - to me it was pretty clear that the shot only injured the deer, which then managed to get as far as the bench before collapsing.

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