First Page Critique:
Floating in Space

By PJ Parrish

I love stories about outer space. Maybe it goes back to when I got to be the papier-mâché planet Venus in an third-grade play.  And in the Fifties, I remember being enthralled with a book called You Will Go to the Moon. (I still want to). My childhood went by in a Raisonette-fueled fog of matinee cheese like Earth Versus the Flying Saucers and The Day of the Triffids.  I own a complete set of original Star Trek videos, and if Contact, Interstellar or either Alien movie comes on at night, I will watch it again. So, yeah, let’s say I am predisposed to like any story that’s spacey.  That said, strap in for today’s First Page Critique.

TITAN

Fynn pressed close to the shuttlecraft’s window, ignoring the cold against his fingertips. “I always dreamed of a trip into orbit. I’m lucky Dad arranged this tour before the fall semester starts.”

They were about to dock at the Herschel. It didn’t look like a classic spaceship. From their approach vector, it looked like a fleet of gleaming white submarines bundled together and attached to the tee-shaped Collins Spaceport by a straw. Beyond the spaceport, the moon loomed huge against a galaxy of stars.

“I’ll race you to the ship when we dock.” His sister, Maliah, was older than Fynn. Pushing thirty. But she often sounded like a kid. “You’re gonna get a big surprise.”

Fynn felt like a kid himself, and excitement further agitated his queasy, zero-g stomach.

Once inside the dock, while the other passengers obediently gripped a railing to listen to their flight attendant, Maliah pushed Fynn towards the passageway to the Herschel. “I’ll explain anything you need to know. I’ve been here before.”

“You never told me that.” He scrambled to find handholds, pushed off, and followed her. He’d studied the diagrams. They’d be entering the Herschel’s central core, an open recreational space, so he slapped both hands on each railing ring, gaining speed.

Maliah snagged his arm as he emerged and spun them close to the hull. “Surprise.”

Fynn’s chest tightened. This wasn’t a recreation bay. Streamlined coffins ringed the module like spokes of a wheel, each with a panel of steady green lights and a bright yellow gear bag alongside. Another level of the shiny steel pods hung above them, and another, as far as he could see up the Herschel’s dimly lit core.

Fynn stared through the layers of pods, trying to understand what he saw, and gawked open-mouthed for a moment. “Where are we?”

“The Herschel’s a colony ship.” Maliah’s face glowed. “We’re going to Titan.”

She hugged him tight, losing her handhold, and they floated towards the core’s center.

Fynn gripped her with one arm, twisting for a better view of the endless pods. “But, the Herschel’s a research station, to study the Saturn system.”

“So the mongrels think.”

Despite the ship’s distractions, he winced at the word. “Don’t call them that.”

“You’ve spent too much time at university.”

“University…” Fynn gasped for a lungful of air. “My PhD classes start in two weeks.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

__________________

Okay, we’re back to Earth now. On first quick read (the way I always do a critique, purely as a reader not editor), I thought I was reading young adult or even more likely, a book for a younger-yet crowd. Maybe it was the simplicity of the phrasing and vocabulary. But Fynn feels, on first glance to me, very young, a wide-eyed naif. Which isn’t a bad thing. I rather liked the idea I was going to follow a boy into space, because I went there often as a kid myself.  Fynn’s voice registers as young, enforced by the first graph mention of “Dad” arranging the trip, and the fact his sister challenges him to a race down the gangway — a very childlike thing to do.

But very late in the page, we learn he’s a PhD candidate. Whoa. To my ear, even a twenty-something going into space for the first time would sound more adult, especially if his PhD study was science. (He could be a philosophy major; we don’t know yet if he’s a fish-out-of-water civilian here or an educated traveler.) First impressions of your characters count. A lot.  I am having trouble buying into Fynn as a capable, highly educated adult character.  The actions and dialogue the writer has chosen to use for him do not support the narrative reality — man vs child.

Getting beyond that, the writing here is good but a tad workmanlike for me. There is some good description — I liked the image of  the ship they are docking with as “a fleet of gleaming white submarines bundled together and attached to the tee-shaped Collins Spaceport by a straw.”  But I wish there had been a little more of it.  When you take a reader to foreign locales — and can outer space be any more foreign? — then you must spent good time and effort world-building, so we can enter your conjured realm and easily suspend disbelief or move beyond our limited knowledge. To paraphrase the famous poem about flight, you have to slip the surly bonds of earth, dance the skies on silver wings, join the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds –and, most important as a writer, do a hundred things the reader has not dreamed of.

Here’s the opening graphs of Andy Weir’s (The Martian), latest novel Artemis:

I bounded over the gray dusty terrain toward the huge dome of Conrad Bubble. Its airlock, rigged with red lights,stood distressingly far away.

It’s hard to run with a hundred kilograms of gear on — even in lunar gravity. But you’d be amazed how fast you can hustle when your life is on the line.

Notice how Weir sketches in two short graphs his landscape PLUS tells us something bad it happening.  Another terrific opening to learn from is Tess Gerritsen’s Gravity. The first line:

He was gliding on the edge of the abyss.

We are in a tightly confined ship moving through “the vastness of space.” But — surprise! — we are in the deepest parts of the ocean. Which makes her second chapter all the most powerful when she switches to actual deep space, where the plot really takes off. I love how Gerritsen compared and contrasted both hostile frontiers, where there is no air and only darkness.

I also like the second chapter of The Martian Chronicles, which gives us the vivid image of everyday life of a couple, Mr. and Mrs. K.,  whose ancestors have lived by the dead sea on Mars for generations but now, something bad is about to upset their domestic bliss. When I first read this in high school, I totally bought into the idea of was reading about a married Martian couple and not my next door neighbors the Vanderloops.

The best example I could find of a compelling world-building purely descriptive opening is The Dispossessed by the incomparable Ursula K. Le Guin. I can’t run the whole opening here because it’s too long, but I beg the writer of our critique today to go read it.  It’s all description, but man, it sets you down into an alien world with the precise beauty of an Elon Musk SpaceX rocket return.

Those are my major points about this submission. Let’s do a little line editing now.

Fynn pressed close to the shuttlecraft’s window, ignoring the cold against his fingertips. “I always dreamed of a trip into orbit. But he’s not merely in orbit of Earth; he is somewhere out in deep space. I’m lucky Dad arranged this tour before the fall semester starts.” Who is he talking to? Himself? You need a quick answer from his sister here I think. BUT…before the dialogue, I suggest you show us what he is seeing outside the window here, filtered through his consciousness. Then go with the dialogue and response.

Also, note that the line about Dad arranging this trip before school starts juvenilizes your hero. This is where I began to picture a boy instead of a man. Yes, any sane human would be entranced by his first sight of this space station out there in the void, but Fynn sounds way too young. 

They were about to dock at the Herschel. It didn’t look like a classic spaceship. Little confused here. From your description that follows, the Herschel sounds to me more like a space station which accommodates many space craft? Plus you later call it a “spaceport.”  From their approach vector, it looked like a fleet of gleaming white submarines bundled together and attached to the tee-shaped Collins Spaceport more confusion. I thought the space station ship was call the Herschel by a straw. Beyond the spaceport, the moon loomed huge against a galaxy of stars. You can do better than this. What does it look like to Fynn? BE ORIGINAL

“I’ll race you to the ship when we dock.Again, I pictured a 12-year-old girl here and she’s 29. Any sane adult on a space mission would not even think this. His sister, Maliah, was older than Fynn. Pushing thirty. But she often sounded like a kid. “You’re gonna get a big surprise.”  She seems to have prior knowledge of this place or what is happening yet she sounds like a kid. What does she do for a living? Why not make the dialogue appropriate to her age, station, profession and the action at hand. 

Fynn felt like a kid himself, I understand what you are trying to do here — capture the childlike wonder any adult might feel in this situation but this is TELLING US what he is feeling. Find a way to get in his thoughts, maybe a childhood memory or compare and contrast: It was nothing like he had seen in his textbooks, nothing like he seen through his telescope back on the farm in Iowa. Start layering in some background and context for your characters. and excitement further agitated his queasy, zero-g stomach. I’m a little confused here. Zero-g is weightlessness. Are they strapped in some kind of unit for landing or just floating around like Jody Foster did in the space ball in “Contact”? You can’t get away with such non-specific descriptions in sci-fi.  Readers are too smart.

Once inside the dock, See comment above. You are stinting on needed description. while the other passengers obediently gripped a railing to listen to their flight attendant, Maliah pushed Fynn towards the passageway to the Herschel. “I’ll explain anything you need to know. I’ve been here before.” I don’t know why, but you have an odd habit of not using any attribution. Who said this? 

“You never told me that.” He scrambled to find handholds, pushed off, and followed her. He’d studied the diagrams. Missed opportunity here to insert a little context and backstory. Why did he study the diagrams? Why is he here? For fun? Why did Dad arrange this? I don’t mean this to sound flip, but right now, this sounds like the nice little trip to Europe between college semesters compliments of the parents. They’d be entering the Herschel’s central core, an open recreational space, so he slapped both hands on each railing ring, again, your description is really meager. Are they walking down a tunnel, a hallway? Where’s everyone else? Is it dark, lighted? This sounds as generic as a Newark Airport TSA approach gaining speed.

Maliah snagged his arm as he emerged and spun them close to the hull. “Surprise.” So they are still in a no gravity zone? Why?

Fynn’s chest tightened. This wasn’t a recreation bay. Streamlined coffins How does he know they are truly coffins? They are steel pods, the kind you see in every space movie these days, are they not? He might think they LOOK like coffins, but unless he can KNOW they are, neither can the reader at this point. ringed the module like spokes of a wheel, each with a panel of steady green lights and a bright yellow gear bag alongside. Another level of the shiny steel pods hung above them, and another, as far as he could see up the Herschel’s dimly lit core.

Where did the other shuttle passengers go, by the way? How come they are suddenly all alone? 

Fynn stared through the layers of pods, trying to understand what he saw, and gawked open-mouthed for a moment. “Where are we?”

“The Herschel’s a colony ship.Again, I am confused. They apparently took a shuttle to a ship named the Herschel. But did they first dock at a station called the Collins Spaceport and then somehow get into this ship? You must be clear. Maliah’s face glowed. “We’re going to Titan.”

She hugged him tight, losing her handhold, and they floated towards the core’s center. Still in zero gravity? And Fynn has trouble getting his breath. Are they wearing spacesuits?  

Fynn gripped her with one arm, twisting for a better view of the endless pods. “But, the Herschel’s a research station, Two paragraphs ago, she called it a ship to study the Saturn system.”

“So the mongrels think.” This is a good line of dialogue because it creates the first sense of suspense. Using such an epithet is intriguing, even though we don’t know what it refers to yet. 

Despite the ship’s distractions, he winced at the word. “Don’t call them that.”

“You’ve spent too much time at university.”

“University…” Fynn gasped for a lungful of air. A space station would have its own oxygen supply. “My PhD classes start in two weeks.”

“That doesn’t matter.” No, it really doesn’t at this early point in your story. 

Some final points.  I don’t mind that this story starts a little slow. I can buy into the idea of Fynn, as a first-time space traveler, getting his first view of his destination (or what he thinks it is) and that can be interesting in itself. But Fynn’s point of view is so sparse and underwritten that I don’t see this strange world or feel any of his excitement. If you chose a slow-burn beginning like this, the writing has to really sing. It has to pull us into a new world. The location has to become a character in itself.  But soon after that you have to get your hero into some deep space do-do. Because this opening is perfunctory and the only suspense comes from Fynn worrying he’s not going to get home in time for classes, I don’t think this opening, in the whole, works as well as it could.

So, don’t give up, dear writer. There is the germ of a good idea here — a young man, who apparently isn’t a hard scientist about to embark on a great adventure. It has the makings of a good fish-out-of-water story, which is always appealing. And thanks for submitting to TKZ.

And one last word — taken on my walk downtown — from my northern hometown as I get ready to head back down to Tallahassee on this cold rainy Michigan morning:

 

 

3+
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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

13 thoughts on “First Page Critique:
Floating in Space

  1. I think this writer has potential. I liked: Streamlined coffins ringed the module like spokes of a wheel, each with a panel of steady green lights and a bright yellow gear bag alongside. Good visual.

    As Kris notes, I would urge the writer to study POV and make it “hotter.”

    As to the opening lines, not only does it seem like Flynn is talking to himself, the dialogue itself is clunky exposition: “I always dreamed of a trip into orbit. I’m lucky Dad arranged this tour before the fall semester starts.”

    That’s called a “Here we are in sunny Spain” line. It’s intended to feed exposition to the reader, not to another character. It’s much better to hold back on exposition early on. Give the reader some mystery. And make sure the dialogue sounds like what one character would truly say to another (e.g., they shouldn’t say something both of them already know).

    One last thing on the dialogue. I fear the writer is falling into a fashionable trap (urged by critique group sheriffs in certain parts of the land), viz., that using said as a dialogue tag should always be avoided. Nerts to that!

    In fact, doing so will hurt the readability of your novel. While it’s fine to use an action beat for variety, make sure the action has real substance to it. Not innocuous things like Maliah’s face glowed and he winced at the word. That forces the reader to create a picture when one is not needed, and reading becomes a chore. It tires the reader out. A whole book like this will be a grind, and the reader won’t even know why.

    Using said will add momentum. It does its job and gets out of the way, letting the dialogue shine.

    Innocuous beats just get in the way and reduce tension. For instance, the line “Don’t call them that.” doesn’t have nearly the impact it would if you’d just left out the needless beat. Kris shortened it nicely, but I’d lose it entirely because the dialogue tells us all we need to know about his feelings, and that allows the reader to form their own picture:

    “So the mongrels think.”

    “Don’t call them that.”

    Compressed, adversarial dialogue is usually better when it’s left alone.

    This is all about learning the craft, why certain things work and others don’t. You have a promising story and incipient style, writer. Keep after them.

    • I like anyone who uses the word “nerts.”

      Thanks for the added input, Jim. Good advice there, submitting writer! And I especially like your point about the narrative crutch “Here we are in sunny Spain.” It’s a subtle thing, but things like this are what distinguish good writing from the mundane. And as we keep stressing here, mundane don’t cut it in today’s sated market.

  2. Thank you, brave author, for letting us take a peek at your work.

    I liked that the reader can feel as well as see what Flynn is doing. We feel the cold against Flynn’s fingers, and we feel his zero-gravity stomach. I also liked the coffins image. (Or were they coffins? as PJ rightly wondered how Flynn would know.)

    But I stumbled on the speed of the opening, and I think JSB was right and PJ noticed it, too: It was slower than it needed to be because the dialogue was too beat-filled rather than having simple attributions (he-saids, she-saids).

    My biggest stumble was finding out at the end of the opening how old Flynn and his sister are. If your natural writing voice is young adult, and your story could still work if the characters were younger, then could you turn your science fiction into YA science fiction?

    I thought PJ’s critique was excellent (as always). She brought up several logic issues that I missed but astute science fiction fans would surely notice, like the spaceport-to-ship thing and the question about whether or not the other passengers are still around.

    Speaking just for me, if I were a teen again, and these were young characters, I’d turn the page for more because you have just the kind of youthful writing voice that I searched for and rarely found when I was younger.

    Good luck with your continued writing journey, brave author!

    • I think this would be a terrific young adult or kid story as it is presented. The set-up of a young boy going into space is full of potential. I don’t know enough about YA to say, but I suspect there have been many tales like this. But if our protag is adult, then the voice has to be adjusted, as you say.

  3. Count me in with the others who thought they were reading the adventures of a ten year old. Nothing until the last two paragraphs says or sounds college or post college.

    I did not care for the ship descriptions at all. Classic spaceship? fleet of submarines? How about “the Herschel was moored to the Collins Spaceport by a single support tube. It’s five white cylinders pointed at the moon, the bells of the engine, back toward earth. The transport was lining up with the ring between the cylindrical body forward and the engineering area, aft.”

    Running in the halls. Just no. Presumably this is a scheduled or even exclusive shuttle trip. Anybody see many children running down the ramps at airports today? And another reason why I thought Fynn was 10.

    If they are on a colony ship, he is going to miss class. Colonists tend to stay, not visit.

    Presumably there is some kind of conflict near Saturn with some other people who are offensively called mongrels. Sending colonists into a conflict zone is pretty risky. Perhaps Dad has a plan. Apparently Maliah knows the plan. Maybe it is in chapter two. One of the meanings of mongrel is mixed race. Perhaps the author should have invented his or her own offensive name?

    One last thing. Fynn or Finn seems to be popular as a fictional character name. Please don’t hit him with a frying pan.

    • More good points for our writer, Alan. Thanks for weighing in. And yeah, come to think of it, you’re right about the name Fynn. 🙂

  4. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer, and thanks to Kris for all the time she put into her critique. Very nice lady. Here are my comments:

    A quick note: not all PhD candidates sound pretentious. That’s a stereotype. I know a guy with multiple PhD’s who talks like a normal person (unless challenged about an area of expertise). Great bridge player, too, but I digress. How an intelligent person relates to a sister may be different than the way he relates to a professional colleague. That being said, it’s important to know the target age of the audience for a book, and a writer should always make that clear right away, as Kris mentioned. Many of us probably enjoy reading certain books written for young adults. I know I do.

    What I liked about this piece is that something happens immediately. A guy with PhD plans learns that his life is about to uprooted in a major way. The opening sentence takes the reader right into the action. From this snippet of writing, it’s impossible to tell if you have enough material to sustain an entire novel, though. I’d love to know more in order to give appropriate feedback.

    I concur with everything that JSB wrote; we are definitely on the same page. I loved the coffin line. I disliked the “reader feeder” line. (“I always dreamed of…”) I agree with the comments about dialogue, as well.

    Watch out for repeated words/phrases, brave writer:

    Example (and there are others which I’ll leave to you to find):
    The word “like”

    “like a classic spaceship”
    “like a fleet of gleaming white submarines”
    “sounded like a kid”
    “felt like a kid himself”
    “like spokes of a wheel”

    Brave writer, you need a good editor. Here’s another example:

    “His sister, Maliah, was older than Fynn.”

    The words “than Fynn” aren’t needed. However, let’s look at the whole paragraph:

    “I’ll race you to the ship when we dock.” His sister, Maliah, was older than Fynn. Pushing thirty. But she often sounded like a kid. “You’re gonna get a big surprise.”

    Just write:

    “I’ll race you to the ship when we dock.” His sister Maliah, pushing thirty, often sounded like a kid. “You’re gonna get a big surprise.”

    Another example:

    “Fynn gasped for a lungful of air.”

    What would Fynn gasp for other than air? Just say that he gasped. Otherwise it sounds too melodramatic.

    There are other examples of overwriting, and I encourage you to work with a competent editor. If you clean up the overwriting, your voice will come through more. The voice and POV still need work. Aim to write so that you put the reader inside of your story world.

    Because I always love to recommend books, here are a few to consider:

    World of Wonder & Fantasy by David Gerrold
    How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card
    The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells by Ben Bova

    The first book on this list is a must-read.

    That’s all the time I have now. Btw, brave writer, the folks here are always tougher on writers who have promise. Don’t let the volume of comments from various folks here overwhelm you. Have a cup tea, and then roll up your sleeves and get back to work. Good job!

    • As always, thanks, Joanne! My point about Fynn’s voice wasn’t that he needed to sound more professor-like. As you said, an overly academic voice can sound cliched. My problem is the voice sounds too young. And I agree a good combing through with unnecessary words is always needed. I am editing one of my old books right now for new publication and I can’t believe how many “garbage” words I let go by the first time.

      • It’s amazing what we can find in our work after it sits for awhile. Whenever I look over old writing, I find things I’d like to tweak. The good news, I suppose, is that readers aren’t as tough on us as we are on ourselves!

  5. Notices a few typos after I hit the enter:

    “to uprooted” should be “to be uprooted”
    “cup tea” should be “cup of tea”

    Ack! Sorry about that.

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