Confusing details can pile up quickly (page critique)

From Nathan Bransford:

Now then. Time for the Page Critique. First I’ll present the page without comment, then I’ll offer my thoughts and a redline.

. . . .

Title: Discover
Genre: YA Fantasy

Astral was one tail-flick past the boundary, one metre beyond safety. By now most Mers would have drifted into the rooms they were meant to be in, and only rushing servants and nobles too proud to bolt would remain in the Castle’s sprawling corridors. He listened for the sounds of guards: the scrape of weapons against fish-hide and metal, a bored laugh, the swoosh of their assured tail sweeps. It was either sound that could alert him or the invisible, silent messages Mers created when they swam and moved the water. More accurate, but it did not allow him to ‘see’ as far as sound permitted.

Haughty muttering sounded out two passageways behind him, accompanied with aggressive sweeps of a membrane-ridged tail. They must be a Royal; only they could manage to curse through their gills and still retain that precise air of superiority. What are you doing out so late? He swam to one side and pressed himself against the chilled marble surface of the Castle’s halls, shivering when the cold bit into his skin. Even with a layered jacket and floors heated by magma tunnels, the chill of winter still numbed him.

Astral placed one of his two sensors, a long and skinny strand of muscle ending in a leaf-like shape that grew from the side of his tail, on the corner so it could sense the nearly imperceptible movements of the water made by the approaching Mer.

. . . .

Here’s my redline:

Title: Discover
Genre: YA Fantasy

Astral was one tail-flick past the boundary to [whatever boundary is being referred to], one metre beyond safety from [whatever he’s safe from]. By now most Mers, [explain what a Mer is], would have drifted into the rooms they were meant to be in [be more specific. Why do they need to be in a particular room?], and only rushing servants and nobles too proud to bolt [bolt from what?] would remain in the Castle’s sprawling corridors.

He Astral listened for the sounds of guards [If he’s listening, it goes without saying that he’s listening to the sounds of whatever you say he’s listening for]: the scrape of weapons against fish-hide and metal, a bored laugh, the swoosh of their assured tail sweeps. It was either sound [I don’t understand what this is referring to] that could alert him [Alert him to what?] or the invisible, silent messages Mers created when they swam and moved the water [How does one swim without moving water?]. More accurate, but it did not allow him to ‘see’ as far as sound permitted. [I don’t understand what this is referring to]

He heard Haughty muttersing sounded out two passageways behind him [Struggling to visualize where we are. Weave in clearer physical description], accompanied with by the aggressive sweeps of a membrane-ridged tail. They must be a Royal [explain what a Royal is]; only they could manage to curse through their gills and still retain that precise air of superiority.

¶What are you doing out so late? [This question feels like a non-sequitur] He swam to one side [one side of what?] and pressed himself against the chilled marble surface [If he’s pressing himself against something it goes without saying it’s a “surface”] of the Castle’s halls, shivering when the cold bit into his skin. Even with a layered jacket and floors heated by magma tunnels, the chill of winter still numbed him.

Astral placed one of his two sensors, a took the long and skinny strand of muscle ending in a leaf-like shape that grew from the side of his tail and ended in a leaf-like shape, and placed it on the corner [on the corner of what?] so it could to sense the nearly imperceptible movements of the water made by the approaching Mer. [Extremely convoluted. Read the original version out loud]

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

14 thoughts on “Confusing details can pile up quickly (page critique)”

  1. I’m not saying that a lot of the criticism is not deserved, but one of the great pleasures that starting to read a new SF work can give (or anyway used to give, it has grown much less common as I’ve got old) is the feeling that I’ve no idea what the hell is going on, but know that it will all become clear with a little patience. If Nathan has his way any hope of such pleasurable bewilderment will vanish under the weight of his demands for immediate explanation snd gteater specificity.

      • I should perhaps note that what has “grown much less common as I’ve got old” is down to my getting old rather than writers giving up on such techniques. When I was very young I recall strong “what the hell is going on” reactions to Aldiss’s “Non-Stop” and Asimov’s “The End of Eternity”, but this was not only down to the authors’ technique but my inexperience. I’d not yet read Heinlein, and the only time travel story I’d come across was H G Wells (and The Time Machine hardly qualifies as a real time travel story).

        Youthful literary naivety can never be recovered but I still like the readerly experience so I’ll certainly look at your recommendation.

        • No risk: it’s perma free.
          The only risk is getting hooked. 😀
          The lady may be new but she’s prolific and very,very good.

          As for recapturing the sense of wonder, good SF brings it regardless of your age. If you haven’t yet, try Bujold’s CETAGANDA or A CIVIL CAMPAIGN. Or any other Vorkosigan novel. She routinely goes where none has gone before. It’ll be lije your first time.

          BTW, I’m a big fan of THE END OF ETERNITY. One of his best by far.

          • I really should re-read all my Bujold’s – or anyway all the Miles saga – but they’re nearly all on paper and I seem to rarely visit my fiction bookshelves these days. So many e-books on the TBR “pile”.

            Also still a fan of The End of Eternity, save for the smidgen of romance (not really within Asimov’s range in my view, but I guess the plot needed a motivator).

            • Actually, the “romance” reads better today than when he wrote it.
              Asimov presented Harlan as an emotionless/repressed monkish nerd type (a proto “incel”) who was subtly seduced by Noys. Under her prodding he chose a life instead of a cause. And in the process created Asimov’s Robots/Empire/Foundation universe. I see it as effectively Foundation Vol Zero. 🙂

              As for the Vorkosiverse, Baen has the full set in digital.
              At a minimum, I would suggest the two part KOMARR and A CIVIL CAMPAIGN, collected in a single omnibus:

              https://www.baen.com/miles-in-love.html

              Most of the earlier volumes are similarly collected.
              Bujold wrote the entire series to be read in any order so each story is self contained to a large extent.
              (And I just talked myself into rereading the series again.)

      • I only see 5 reviews, but I’m mostly interested in the character’s name, since “Ora” appears in my family. I’ve never encountered a young Ora in America, but I see the author is from Canada. Just for the name alone I was going to buy it to show the Ora I’m related to, but the description makes it sound like it may be a good story, too. Still, in the author’s place I would have switched the tagline to “deliver or die” rather than “die or deliver,” since the former sounds more threatening than the latter.

  2. I had different comments from the OP. It was easy to tell that Mer were meant to be fish-people of some sort. Where I had trouble was why fish people sounded so much like land dwellers. Castles, corridors, metal weapons…. And a general sense of the writer trying too hard with the wrong details.

    • Atlantis tradionally is a surface continent that sank and its survivor became water dwellers. In classic DC Comics (and the movies) some mutated in fish folk while others remained humanoid.
      (The two main cities are Poseidonis and Tritonis; Aquaman hails from the former and Lori Lemaris the mermaid from the latter. Both branches are telepathic so they might listen for thoughts, not just sounds.)
      And they do have cities and castles.

      The subject piece is just going with the flow instead of going their own way.
      For reasons, one might assume.
      Or not.

    • I assumed this was some sort of Atlantis-type deal, and I don’t have an objection to in media res, so it was the muddled details that got me. I don’t associate fantasy deep-sea people with astronomy, so the first flicker of doubt for me was the name “Astral.” Seems like Atlanteans would focus more on “Pellucidar” than “Barsoom.” But I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt that maybe these Atlanteans have a memory of stars, and a Fremen-like mania to see them again.

      Then came “fish hide,” which threw me because “hide” refers to animal skins. Fish scales would have worked better if they belong to biological beings. Unless the author meant “hide” to refer to the “blind hide” terrestrial hunters use to conceal themselves from prey? Perhaps the Atlanteans have a martial version of these structures in their castles? Which could be cool, but unfortunately I can’t tell which version of “hide” the author means. The reference to winter throws me, because the temperature of the deep sea is basically “winter” regardless.

      I can easily trust an author when the author is in command of their own language and world building. It’s when they’re not in command that I back away from their fictional worlds. And if a world is supposed to be fantastical, I much prefer if the author “commits to the bit” and goes all in: Nereus or Neptune over Astral, for instance. An Atlantis-type story should give me the impression the author at least visited the sea and spent some time in it.

  3. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

    It [What was?] was the best[why] of times [what times, when?], it was the worst[why] of times

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