First-Page Critique: The Key to Writing Science Fiction

By Mark Alpert

What a fantastic fall evening! I just came back from a Friday-night college football game at Baker Field in Upper Manhattan, where the Princeton Tigers thrashed the Columbia Lions 45-10. And now, for your critiquing pleasure, here is the latest first-page submission from one of our courageous TKZ contributors:

Title:  Stars

Leon hated Vahrian airships, but since unloading them put beers on his table, he faked a smile as he picked up the last crate.

“Have a good evening, Captain,” he said.

Hope you fall in the sea and drown, Leon thought.

The Captain kept reading his book and reclined further in his chair. Scowling, Leon carried the crate out of the cabin. He stumbled along the jetty. Wooden planks groaned underfoot, and a wave crashed against the rocks, spraying him with water. He fumbled with the slippery crate, but kept hold, staggered off the jetty, and dumped the box beside the others he’d unloaded.

His back twanged and he winced. Back in his Academy days, he could’ve hauled cargo through a swamp for hours, but now he was past forty and those days were behind him.

The Captain strode along the jetty and walked past Leon, whistling. Buttons gleamed on the Vahrian’s jacket, and he swayed like a dancer as he strolled to the harbor office.

Prick, thought Leon.

He watched until the Captain disappeared amongst the harbour’s bustling sailors. It wasn’t enough that Vahria had bombed the hell out of Paya’s Discs in the War, or that the airship’s crates weighed more than an asteroid. No. The worst part was people like him. Young men in starched jackets, who refused to look Payans in the eyes.

Someone tapped Leon’s shoulder. “Leon de Velasco?”

He turned. A young woman stood behind him, wrapped in a bulky, dirt-stained cloak. A cowl cast her face into shadow. She couldn’t be over twenty, and looked odd amongst the rancid-smelling fishers and the greasy-haired merchants who sniffed unattended crates.

Best of all, the girl was a Payan like him — not a Vahrian — which meant Leon didn’t need to hide how pissed off he was.

“What?” he asked.

“My name’s Elena. I need your help.”

Leon raised an eyebrow. With disheveled, shoulder-length hair, a tangled beard, and ratty clothes that reeked of beer, he didn’t get many requests for help, especially by young women.

“Got a ship you need unloaded?” he asked.

“I–”

Two Vahrian soldiers swaggered past and bumped Elena.

“–we’ll catch them by tomorrow, chaps,” one soldier said.

Elena glared at the Vahrians as they strutted away. Leon frowned. Most Payans looked down when soldiers passed, but Elena’s eyes only grew harder.

“You were saying?” he said.

———-

What’s the key to writing science fiction? I think it’s striking the right balance between the ordinary and the extraordinary. We read sci-fi to give our minds a chance to roam free, to cruise across the Milky Way at warp speed, to delve into the microscopic innards of a DNA molecule, to shatter the invisible barrier between our universe and its neighbors. At the same time, though, we want to see recognizable characters having realistic and believable reactions to all the amazing things they’re experiencing. As sci-fi writer Margaret Atwood put it, “If I was to create an imaginary garden I wanted the toads in it to be real.”

Think of the first book in the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. The opening chapters are set on Trantor, the capital of the Galactic Empire, a planet that’s entirely covered by a single global building. When I read the book for the first time at the age of thirteen, I was totally fascinated by this idea. It sounded so insane, and yet it also made sense: if people kept constructing new houses and malls and office buildings, then eventually they’d pave over every last parcel of the planet’s surface. It was the ultimate vision of overdevelopment, the real-estate agent’s dream and the environmentalist’s nightmare. But who were the residents of Asimov’s imagined megastructure? They were mostly bureaucrat types, the plodding functionaries who kept the Galactic Empire humming. They were very pleased with themselves and very proud to be living at the center of their civilization, and they had no inkling that their empire was about to collapse. Sounds familiar, right?

Or think of the Dune books by Frank Herbert. Most of the action takes place on Arrakis, a desert planet where gigantic worms burrow underneath the sand and where water is so precious that the fluids in every human corpse are recycled. It’s also the battleground for two powerful dynastic families, House Atreides and House Harkonnen, whose members spy and betray and assassinate each other just like the Borgias and Medicis of Renaissance Italy. The weapons on Arrakis are futuristic, but the motives of the murderers are very familiar.

In today’s submission, titled Stars, I’m not getting a strong enough sense of the extraordinary. I want to be intrigued right away by the planet where the Vahrians have apparently subjugated the Payans, but in this draft I don’t see anything that’s particularly fascinating. One possible source of intrigue is the Vahrian airship, which is mentioned in the very first sentence of the piece but not described in any detail. Is it huge? Is it a space-going ship? Is it hovering beside the jetty or floating in the water? The opening sentences would be so much better if they included some flabbergasting detail such as, “It was one of the smallest Vahrian airships, only a thousand meters long.” Or maybe “Like a sea creature, the Vahrian airship took sustenance from the ocean, its gills extracting oxygen from the water and storing the fuel in the ship’s propulsion fins.” The opening scene needs to grab the readers right away and make them want to learn more about this crazy civilization.

I also wondered if there were any physical differences between the Vahrians and the Payans. It sounds like they’re both humanoid species or races, but are Vahrians generally taller or darker or hairier than Payans? Or maybe every Vahrian has an extra finger on his or her left hand? And what kind of weapons were the Vahrian soldiers carrying? The author should take every opportunity to start creating a whole new world, complete with marvels and mysteries.

Last, I wanted the encounter between Leon and Elena to be more dramatic. After the Vahrian soldiers bumped Elena, she should do more than simply glare at them. Maybe she should make a surreptitious obscene gesture that only Leon notices, an ancient Payan hand motion that means “Screw you” or something similar. It would be the kind of gesture that would get Elena arrested and maybe even executed if the Vahrians had seen it, and so this act of defiance impresses Leon greatly. It makes him think, “Okay, this woman is serious.”

What do you think, TKZ-ers?

———

Speaking of science fiction, check out my website to see the latest news about my next novel, THE COMING STORM.

“Mark Alpert’s latest nail-biter THE COMING STORM starts with a terrifyingly plausible look at what lies just beyond our political horizon and ends on a note even more disturbing and frightening. This novel isn’t just ripped from the headlines, it’s an alarm bell ringing from the near-future, a prescient warning of where we’re headed next. Read this now—before it’s literally too late.”
— James Rollins, author of New York Times bestseller THE DEMON CROWN

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014) and The Six (2015). Next books: The Orion Plan (coming February 2016) and The Siege (July 2016). His website: www.markalpert.com

12 thoughts on “First-Page Critique: The Key to Writing Science Fiction

  1. I liked this first page submission. I liked the way Elana doesn’t look down and how that tells us something about her character. My fingers can feel the slick surface of the crate. My nose wants to wrinkle at the smell of the fishers. And I like the author’s prose, how it doesn’t sound purple yet it’s not dry, either, and the sentence structure varies, lending interest.

    Mark’s critique is spot-on, and I think incorporating more world building on the first page would take this submission from good to great.

    Thanks for letting everyone take a look at your first page, courageous author!

  2. I disagree. I love this first page the way it is. I sense that this is not a heavily scifi world because there is little description, and that this novel will focus more on character interaction. Which is what I like best in SFF books, and I read them all the time. You can’t always come up with different elements in SFF.

    I really have no critiques to give–there is action, a distinct MC, and even distinct other characters too, and lots of sensory detail. Thumbs up for this writer, and keep going. I would definitely turn the page.

  3. I see this page as well-constructed. Several conflicts emerge in the first few sentences. The first protagonist seemed interesting as well. If I were browsing, I’d at least keep on reading.
    Jay

  4. I agree a few more unique details about the world sprinkled in would add flavour. But overall, I thought this submission was well done. The author conveyed a lot of info to set up the conflict and the characters without being clunky.

    I would remove the “he thought” and “Leon thought” as this is conveyed easily by the internal thoughts in italics and doesn’t need the attribution.

    SF is not generally my thing, but I would keep reading this. Nice job, author!

  5. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I agree with everything Mark said. Here are some additional comments:

    Title

    I love stars, but I think the title Stars might be too generic.

    Importance of a Great First Line

    First lines are so important. I always judge a writer by his first line, and I’m not alone. Literary agents feel the same way. I look for an assertive first line that exudes confidence. Sometimes a simple, declarative sentence that captures the tone of the book is best, according to John Cusick (http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/2018/09/great-first-lines-with-agent-john-m-cusick-vice-president-of-folio-literary-management/), and I strongly agree. The first line should be a clear image that has staying power. Probably my favorite opening line is by William Gibson in Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” What a great image! I immediately want to read more. I don’t know what your novel is about, brave writer, but without knowing anything else, I suggest trimming that first line to something assertive like:

    Leon hated Vahrian airships.

    Simple, assertive, confident.

    Dialogue

    Try to avoid using the word thought. For example, you could write:

    “Have a good evening, Captain,” he said. Hope you fall in the sea and drown.

    Notice how I put Leon’s thoughts in italics.

    Creating an Emotional Experience

    Karl Iglesias writes in Writing for Emotional Impact:

    “Great writers instinctively use linguistic sleight-of-hand to generate an emotional response in their audience.” This is true. It’s the writer’s job to create an emotional experience for the reader. In Karl’s book, he talks about the three V’s (types of emotions) that readers experience: voyeuristic, vicarious, and visceral. I won’t say anything more, because I want you to read the book before you revise your first page.

    I have some additional book recommendations, specifically for science fiction, but I’m going to have to get back to you later tonight. Have to break my review into two parts today. So, more later, my friend… I’ll be back with more ideas later!

    • I agree, especially about first lines. My new favorite I’ve mentioned before. It’s from Andy Weir’s The Martian.
      “I’m pretty much f–ked.” If I’d been left behind on mars, that’s what I’d think. Short, not so sweet, and sums up the whole book.

      • That’s another example of a perfect first line, Brian. Most people decide quickly about whether to read a particular book. The writer should bring everything he’s got to the table in that all-important first line. Writers have only a few seconds to convince a reader (or agent) to keep reading rather than move on to the next book.

  6. I really like this first page.
    I love the wonder of sci-fi worlds when experienced through the seemingly familiar day-to-day life of the inhabitants. Anchoring the unbelievable/alien details in relatable, human-type characters is what really makes a sci-fi story sing for me.
    Having said that, Mark’s call to add in more of that alien detail would serve to immerse the reader, even more, right from the outset.
    Either way, I would totally read on – nice work, Anon writer!

  7. Ok, brave writer. I’m back. I’ll continue with my critique.

    POV/Voice

    If you write the scene in third-person limited POV with Leon as the POV character, you would not write something like this:

    “Scowling, Leon carried the crate out of the cabin.”

    Leon would not see himself scowl. Stay in his perspective. Also, do not write things like this:

    “Leon raised an eyebrow.”

    Again, stay in his perspective. In third-person limited, a character would not describe himself. Tell only about what he sees, smells, tastes, touches, and hears. Work on developing your voice. JSB has a book to help with this. Also, see Finding Your Voice: how to put personality into your writing by Les Edgerton.

    Introducing Your Protagonist

    Read “Making an Entrance” by Barbara Kyle (available online in a PDF file). I didn’t bond with your protagonist after reading this snippet. I didn’t find myself particularly itching to find out what happens to him. What is it that makes this guy who unloads airships interesting and unique? Don’t wait too long to let the reader know.

    Pacing

    This section seemed a little slow to me (for a first page):

    The Captain kept reading his book and reclined further in his chair. Scowling, Leon carried the crate out of the cabin. He stumbled along the jetty. Wooden planks groaned underfoot, and a wave crashed against the rocks, spraying him with water. He fumbled with the slippery crate, but kept hold, staggered off the jetty, and dumped the box beside the others he’d unloaded.

    His back twanged and he winced. Back in his Academy days, he could’ve hauled cargo through a swamp for hours, but now he was past forty and those days were behind him.

    The Captain strode along the jetty and walked past Leon, whistling. Buttons gleamed on the Vahrian’s jacket, and he swayed like a dancer as he strolled to the harbor office.

    ***

    The first page isn’t the place to wax poetic about details that aren’t significant to the story. Please see Orson Scott Card’s book entitled How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.

    Final Thoughts

    Brave writer, the writing isn’t bad, but it won’t stand out in a sea of manuscripts. Get to the good stuff quicker. Don’t write the first page to indulge the writer in you. Remember that the purpose of writing is to create an emotional experience for the reader. Avoid on-the-nose dialogue. Be careful about over-described action and minutiae. The stuff you describe on the first page should be the most thrilling stuff about your story world and not endless sentences about hauling cargo. Don’t tell about every hand gesture and raised eyebrow. Mark gave you some very good advice. I hope you’ll take it to heart. The book by Orson Scott Card may give you some ideas about how to build your story world, and the book by Iglesias may give you some ideas on how to connect with the reader more. Best of luck, and carry on!

    • I would say Joanne, that I disagree. I’m sure you know exactly when you’re scowling or raising an eyebrow without looking at yourself. And, working at an agency and reading slush for over a year, that this would definitely stand out. You have no idea how horrible most of the stuff is.

      • What agency was this, btw? I am sure you’ve seen some awful stuff, but this submission still requires editing, imho. However, I’m sure our brave writer will be happy that you are such a big fan!

        For the record, I don’t want to discourage our brave writer. The writing isn’t bad at all, but it could be even better, just like most submissions. I didn’t mention everything that I spotted earlier due to time constraints. For example, I encourage our brave writer to research em dashes (http://www.getitwriteonline.com/archive/091502EnEm.htm). Note the spaces before and and after the em dashes (incorrect) in the line below:
        “Best of all, the girl was a Payan like him — not a Vahrian — which meant Leon didn’t need to hide how pissed off he was.”

        I also noticed a lot of word repetition. I only have time to throw out one example, but the word “past” appears multiple times:

        he was past forty
        walked past Leon
        swaggered past and bumped Elena

        There is software to check for this and the other kinds of writing issues. Well-edited writing makes a great first impression, and all comments should be viewed as a positive thing. Writing detailed feedback is a labor of love!

  8. Talcott notch literary last summer, a couple of small publishing presses during the year, and Foundry Media this semester.

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