What I gleaned about the story: Rebecca is excited. Today is the day of the Acceptance test—a simple, public ceremony in which she’ll prove her fitness to enter society. Then it’ll be off to the big celebration ball. But I suspect those dreams of dancing with the future Mr. Right are going to be dashed when something goes wrong at test time and Rebecca finds herself branded a criminal and bound for the PIT; a territory filled with lawless criminals just like her. If my instincts are right, this going to be like The Hunger Games, but this time with an actual girl, rather than a tomboy, taking the lead.
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Details: Conveying the personality of your characters can be troublesome. Many indie authors resort to a few lines of direct exposition, or maybe having an exasperated mother declare, “Oh, Jexifrax, you are such an impatient bull-head!” Much rarer are the stories in which character traits are sketched for us implicitly, by allowing us to infer them from behavior exhibited within the story. But this author has made a deft job of doing exactly that.
As the story opens, we are witnesses to an important shopping trip for two young women. They’re bound for a major social event tomorrow, and today they are out with their mothers, looking for just the right clothes and accessories. Something as commonplace and familiar as a shopping trip proves to be a very practical choice here, as it allows us to see how the mothers behave, as well as the girls. From this, we see the privilege of their stations, and the petty sniping between one mother and the other, further establishing social dominance and telling us all we need to know about the stuffy, ceremonial sort of world these people live in.
In addition to showing us the mothers, we also see some clever characterization of the girls themselves, evidenced by their attitudes towards the various merchandise on display. The sidekick (Cheryl) goes for the trendy, popular stuff while our protagonist (Rebecca) steers toward more traditional, classically elegant options. It might make her look a bit less well off, but she actually prefers it to all the flashy gaudiness of Cheryl’s preferences. It’s too early to say whether this is indeed indicative of their overall traits, but the device has very effectively given me a sketch of who they are and where they’re from, without spending a single word of direct exposition on the subject.
Details: I am increasingly impressed by the choice of this opening scene. By showing us the shopping trip before the big day, the author has given herself a chance to do more than simply paint the characters. It also puts us into the heart of one this society’s most important events, but does so in a way that leaves the characters free from a myopic fixation on the proceedings themselves. Instead, they’re at their leisure and able to indulge their inner critics, kibitz with each other, and even let their imaginations run a bit—all with a seemingly natural motivation. As a result, we get to learn a bit about the events that are coming up and see just how important they are in these girls’ lives. They’re excited. It’s their equivalent of the debutante ball and they’re both filled with anticipation and hope. All of which is setting us up perfectly for what I suspect is the colossal reversal to come.
Note: A little bit further on, I noticed something else of interest. The society in question is a sort of controlled state that emerged following the collapse of western society. At age of majority, teens are subjected to a test and those found genetically disposed to violence or destruction are weeded out. Instead of joining their genteel parents, they are relegated to the Permanent Isolation Territory. I immediately noticed the acronym and suspect that this area will be called The Pit by its inhabitants, but the author wisely chose not to explain that tidbit yet. For those who notice on their own, this sets up a nice little prediction carrot, and for those who don’t, the revelation later will still feel entirely natural.
Details: Chapter one spends most of its time doing two things: planting the seed of how important the upcoming event is, and demonstrating that Cheryl’s mother is an entitled and condescending bitch, who never misses a chance to launch barbs at Rebecca and her mother for being slightly less wealthy. At the end of that chapter, all the earlier buildup pays off. After having been primed with Rebecca’s preference for old-fashioned ways of doing things, I found myself swept up in the thrill when an eminently respectable young man approaches Rebecca and asks to sign her dance card, then produces a fountain pen to sign with. This single moment immediately vindicates Rebecca’s preference for old things, and at the same time, deflates Cheryl’s mother, since Mr. Hunk-a-lot came to ask Rebecca, rather than Cheryl.
I really like the compact efficiency with which everything was done here. Every step of the story so far seems logical and natural. Nothing overtly “action-y” ever happens, but I was swept up strongly enough in the stakes of the story that I had a visceral emotional reaction to something that happens before we’re even out of chapter one. This is doubly impressive when you consider the fact that I don’t normally like the typical YA “girls in high society” stories. Fortunately, this one manages to avoid the clichés that most annoy me while seeming (to my eyes) to stay perfectly within the trope-space expected by fans of the genre.
Note: Back in chapter one, I mentioned the prediction carrot of the Permanent Isolation Territory. Well, sure enough, in chapter two, we learn that this grim district is usually called The PIT. But it’s worth noting that here again, the acronym is not spelled out for us. The reader is expected to have made the connection for themselves. For those who did make the prediction earlier, this rewards them for their evident high intelligence, and thereby increases their liking for the story. (We tend to like anybody who makes us feel more intelligent or better looking.) And for those who did not, it’s a simple enough matter to connect the dots once you have them, so nobody should feel alienated or confused.
Curiously, it is possible there are some times when even a long and conspicuous acronym goes entirely unnoticed by readers. In my own Strange Places, beta readers were consistently asking why the children referred to their orphanage as the Old Shoe. Some wondered if it was a reference to the Old Mother Hubbard nursery rhyme. But they were dumbfounded when I pointed out that it was an acronym for the name of the orphanage, which they’d been given before the nickname was ever used: Our Lady of Divine Suffering’s Home for Orpans and Evictees. In this specific case, I think the fact that the acronym had a plausible explanation short-circuited their instinct to dig deeper. Anyway, Old Shoes aside, remember that trusting to a reader’s intelligence is a form of paying them a compliment, and it is almost always rewarded by greater engagement with your story.
It’s not a WTF, but since I’ve been talking about the benefits of making readers feel smart, here’s an interesting counter-example. With their Acceptance ceremony looming, Rebecca actually says these words: It doesn’t matter how horrible the PIT is. I won’t be going there.
This raises a very minor quibble for me, not about the writing, but about the impact on my sense of readerly intelligence. See, calling such explicit attention to Rebecca’s certainty that she won’t be going to the PIT sort of deflates my sense of enjoyment. I think most readers like to think of themselves as specially intelligent and sensitive to the currents of the stories they read. So when they make a prediction, they want the satisfaction of being proven right. Yay, I figured something out that other people probably won’t notice.
But when the author paints a giant warning sign on it like the one here, it ruins my sense of personal superiority, because now everybody will have made that prediction. It’s like when newbies join a fandom that you’ve been a part of since the beginning. Sure, you only came in now because they made a movie out of it, but I’ve been a fan since the author was selling copies for a dollar on the subway!
Of course, I don’t yet know that Rebecca is going to be sent to the PIT, but
if when she is, I’m going to feel cheated by what feels like a stolen opportunity to prove my special insight. I realize this sounds hopelessly self-involved, but I’m trying to unpack a subtle cognitive experience, a personal moment of ego that I wouldn’t normally share aloud, because I believe such psycho-mutterings run through the head-speak of most readers. Don’t they? Because if they do, then this is another one of those things that writers should at least be aware of. The more clues you drop about what’s going to happen, and the more obvious you make them, the more you risk alienating the people who figured it out earlier.
Final Note: So here I am at 40 minutes and not a single flag on the play. Moreover, I’ve racked up an unusual number of kudos. Obviously, I enjoyed this one, and I’ll be putting it on my “full read” pile for later. Anybody want to join me?
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