Thursday, February 7, 2008

Another Opening, Another Show

Just to remind everyone, if you send the first three sentences of your manuscript to edittorrent at gmail dot com, we'll give them a once-over here as part of our current focus on openings. Though I'm not sure we can call anything we do on this blog truly focused. :)

Today we'll look at this scifi opener. I think we may have agreed to do these anonymously, so I won't out the writer. (Ian outed himself, you know, when he posted his opening in the comments and started this snowball rolling. That's why we think he's brave.)

Let's read today's opening through once before we pick at the seams.

Two egg-shaped black warships accelerated inward from their pop-in points, twelve light-seconds from the convoy of civilian transports and its lone protector.

On the auxiliary bridge of the heavy cruiser Ranger, Lieutenant junior grade Sally Hendrix nervously scanned the sensor readings that her implant fed into her right optic nerve.

_Crap_, she thought. _No one in the briefing said anything about facing multiple capital ships. This is going to be tough._

First Impressions

We can probably all agree that we're looking at a military scifi piece here. Warships, light-seconds, optic implants, and military rankings all feed this impression. Now, I confess, my experience in this genre is thin. I've read a few random titles over the years that would fit this genre, and I edit someone who writes stories with a strong military scifi infusion. But I'm far from an expert on the conventions of this genre.

So, with that caveat issued, I will say that I think the first sentence is more or less what it should be. We're starting with warships popping into space -- a situation. We move quickly to a pov character in the second sentence, followed by a bit of her interior monologue. My first instinct is to reverse the order of presentation so that we're already in Sally's viewpoint when the warships appear, but on second thought, I think the writer is correct to start with the warships. I suspect this is more in keeping with the genre's conventions. Situation first, character second.

But more than that, we have this nice little progression set up in these sentences. Look at how the pov moves from objective to subjective through the first three paragraphs. The first is omniscient. Second could still be functionally omniscient, but we're pulling focus to a single character so it takes on a more subjective feeling. And then the third is interior monologue -- highly subjective by definition.

As long as the book stays tight in Sally's pov after this intro, I think the order of presentation is very effective.

The Picky Part

Two egg-shaped black warships
Strong visuals -- precise and evocative, just the way we like them

A good, dynamic verb with just a hint of that clinical flavor we expect from military-influenced fiction. We'd lose that flavor if the writer had picked alternate verbs like "sped" or "raced." A good word choice.

Eh. Again with the in and the out. Inward toward what? Without clearer orientations of objects, this word usage is unclear.

from their pop-in points,
Here's what I like about this. It feels like slang jargon, and it's close enough to "accelerated" to give me that contrast of clinical usage and slang jargon that seems to me to be a hallmark of military lingo. There's an almost constant blend of formal and slang usages when military people speak to each other. "Pop-in points" sounds very casual, doesn't it? The word choices are starting to give me the impression of an author in control of the text -- except for that inward business, this sentence feels very carefully controlled so far.

twelve light-seconds
I don't know how to measure this distance. It sounds close. But in the context of this world and these weapons, it might be a big gap. Let's face it, if we were talking about twelve yards, even that known quantity would have different meanings if the assailaint held a gun compared to a knife. I'd like some cue to direct me so I know how to react to this distance: "a mere twelve light-seconds" or something of that nature.

from the convoy of civilian transports and its lone protector.
I understand that we're trying to set a scene, but I'm going to suggest rethinking the compound object of the preposition. I suspect the more important object is the convoy of civilian transports. This is the target of the warships, yes? The threat has more impact if it's not split between the compound. That said, I have to say that again, we're getting strong visuals. I especially like the use of the words "convoy" and "lone." Together, they make me think of a mass of huddled, fearful ships with a token authority figure supervising them. There's an emotional undercurrent -- the protector is outmatched by both the convoy and the warships, and "lone" really underscores that. Good word choices.

On the auxiliary bridge
Auxiliary is another one of those words that should feel clinical but actually has an emotional component. Auxiliary is, by definition, lesser, secondary, in a role of helper rather than leader. The "lone protector" of the previous sentence is itself a bit auxiliary, wouldn't you say?

of the heavy cruiser Ranger,
OK. Now we're going to see why that compound object above nagged me. I assume the Ranger is the lone protector. But I don't know that. At this point, we have three separate groups of ships -- the warships, the civilian ships, and the lone protector. They're all sort of floating against a panorama of space. This sentence is starting to pull focus for us to one ship, but which one? The "heavy cruiser Ranger" might make it clear to another reader, but it's not quite working for me. If the writer used "lone protector" here, instead of as the object of the prepostion in the previous sentence, we'd end up with something more precise: from the convoy of civilian transports. On the auxiliary bridge of the convoy's lone protector, the heavy cruiser Ranger,...." Also, by doing that, we separate the convoy from the protector a little. The warships' threat may encompass both the convoy and the protector, but the reactions of the convoy ships and the protector ship will be different.

Lieutenant junior grade Sally Hendrix
I like it that she's junior grade. This feeds in nicely with the "auxiliary" and "lone" undertones from above. We're getting a sense of an underdog without this ever being directly stated. Excellent word choices, really.

Consider killing this adverb--unless she's on the warship, in which case, she knows what's about to unfold and battle nerves would be appropriate. Otherwise, go for a more precise adverb like "apprehensively" that signals a more appropriate response to the sudden appearance of warships. Sudden attacks don't make us nervous. Attackers make us apprehensive, defensive, worried, and the like. (Nervous = timid or anxious. Wrong connotation.)

scanned the sensor readings that her implant fed into her right optic nerve.
At first I wanted to tinker with the relative clause because my instinct is always to tinker with relative clauses. But I think this one is fine as it is. Consider adding a short sentence after this one which indicates what's on the sensor readings. This would cement us in Sally's viewpoint so that you can clean up the the following paragraph a little.

_Crap_, she thought.
You can delete "she thought" if you get us deeper into Sally's viewpoint before the interior monologue starts. Remember, tags like "she thought" or "he felt" actually create narrative distance between the reader and the viewpoint character. Also, is "crap" too mild an expletive here?

_No one in the briefing said anything about facing multiple capital ships.
I like this sentence a lot because it underscores her dilemma. She's inadequately prepared for this challenge. (Lone, auxiliary, junior grade.) I get the sense this convoy was expected to be routine and uneventful. But instead of thinking, "Whoopsie, here's a surprise," she's already running through her training -- her briefing, to be exact -- in anticipation of battle.

This is going to be tough._
I think this sentence is unnecessary and can be cut. I'd much rather see some other method used to demonstrate the toughness of the challenge ahead. We already get this david/goliath undercurrent, so we're prepped. Also, "This is going to be tough" is not the same as, "Holy shit on a shingle, we're doomed!" The former makes me think the challenge isn't insurmountable. Is that the impression we want here? Why undercut the conflict at this point?


This is a good opening. Not without a few flags, but most of those flags can be cleaned up with little effort. The writer has some skill and has painted a very strong picture with very few words. The subtext is neatly controlled, a hard thing to manage, and we're launched into conflict and character right out of the gate. I have to say I'd keep reading.


Dave Shaw said...

Teresa, I'm going to out myself in this instance. After all, you suggested that I 'have some skill', and who would pass up such a compliment? :-)

First, thanks very much for your analysis! It really helps. I'm on my third attempt to get this scene right, and it's good to see that I may be on the right track.

Your thoughts on what would work better are great! I haven't liked that word 'nervously' for a while, but couldn't put my finger on why. Same with introducing the convoy and Sally's ship. I'll definitely change that around.

I'm not sure what to do with the distance. 12 light-seconds is close, but it's about double effective weapons range. If the convoy could go to FTL, it wouldn't be a problem, but it's too close to the planet where the ships just refueled for that. It'll take the enemy about half an hour to close to weapons range. That's really what I want to convey without bogging down. Or do I need to convey it at all? Is Sally's reaction sufficient to convey the danger?

Sally's expletive is part of her character. No one else on the ship would say 'crap' - in fact, most of them don't know what it means, as it's considered an archaic word in Sally's time. You're right about 'tough', though - not strong enough.

One more thing I probably ought to mention: There's an element of bait-and-switch in this opening. In 3 more paragraphs, we find out that this isn't an actual battle, but a simulation testing Sally's competence for her new assignment. This is a life and death situation, but the potential casualty is Sally's dream of serving aboard a warship, since the Captain can reject her transfer if he's not satisfied with her performance. That was part of why that 'nervously' didn't get yanked sooner, as she is quite nervous.

Anyway, thanks for your comments, Teresa, and thanks to anyone who chimes in on what I should consider to improve it! :-)

Dave in SC

Heather Wardell said...

Good job, brave Dave! :)

Just wanted to thank our hosts - I find these posts so enlightening. And terrifying, given how much can be learned about a person's writing from three sentences.


Ian Thomas Healy said...

Nice work, Dave!


Edittorrent said...

No, Dave, you can keep the Crap. (Not too often we get to say that!) Just ditch the She Thought. So it would read:

Crap. No one in the briefing said anything about facing multiple capital ships.

As to the distance, you have the perfect vehicle for this already in place. Sally's optic nerve thingamabob feeds her information, right? So have it tell her, "Weapons will be in range in thirty minutes." Or something like that.

Instead of telling us she's nervous, show us her emotional state through her reactions. Remember, if you name an emotion on the page, you're "telling." You can say she scanned it nervously, or you can say that her eyes flicked over everything twice so she wouldn't miss a word. You see? You want the action that implies the emotion.

I like the fact that there's a bait-and-switch. That will keep reader interest high over the first few paragraphs--always crucial. But she still has a lot at stake, and even if it's a simulation, she should still be in battle mode. I want you to keep the tension high there instead of tipping your hand that this is only a drill. She's got a lot on the line. Don't undercut that tension.


Dave Shaw said...

Thanks, Theresa. I put a revised version that runs up to the bait and switch on my blog, if anyone is interested in seeing what I got out of Theresa's intervention. ;-)

Oh, and I should apologize for spelling your name wrong. There are Teresa's at work, and I'm old enough to get mixed up. Sigh.