Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What's Broken? #5

TITLE: Professor Payne's Intrepid Time Travelers
GENRE: Young Adult Science Fiction

The following is the first few sentences of my manuscript. The book is about a group of students who can time travel and their adventures in Egypt.

Fourteen years old, and he held in his hand an object that would allow him to time travel. He glanced at his dad. His father had aged drastically over the past several years, his body was frail and failing. They had just arrived at the assisted living facility, his dad’s new home.

“Dad, are you sure?”

His dad nodded. “I’m sure, Finn, it’s yours. I doubt I’ll ever be able to travel again.” His once strong voice was now a whisper.

Finn knew the value of the silver comb in his hand. The design was intricate with the etching of a young woman holding a jeweled sword. He glanced around the small bedroom and felt regret that he had to leave his wonderful father there. But they had agreed that Finn could no longer take care of him and must return to school.

“Try it, son. Just a quick trip. I always found the travels of Lewis and Clark fascinating.”

Finn looked into his dad’s eyes that mirrored his own, brought the comb up to his hair and gave a quick swipe. A bright light engulfed him. His dad, the small room and the nursing home vanished.

Two letters in one day… a little odd since the professor had just moved into the dingy one bedroom apartment the day before. He glanced at the larger envelope. The paper was thick and rich with texture. It was addressed to Dr. Payne Johnson. He looked at the return address embossed with raised letters: University of Southern California. He sliced open the envelope and was greeted with an invitation to join the excellent Trojan teaching tradition.

He paused for a moment and then picked up the other letter. The paper was thin and inexpensive. It was addressed to Professor Payne. Someone must feel familiar with me to address me in such a manner, he thought. The return address was stamped and inferior.

The faded letters announced the sender as Whispering Pines Prep School for the Fine Arts.

Whispering Pines. She had spoken those two words to him in another country, in another era.

He caught his breath and with a shaking hand opened the envelope as he remembered her screams.

Dear Professor Payne,

Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Evy

Whitehouse and I’m the Headmistress at Whispering Pines

Prep School, a fine institution that focuses on the Fine Arts.

We pride ourselves in developing young actors and actresses

for the motion picture and stage industry, along with those

who wish to advance their talents in set and costume design.

Over the years we have developed a unique approach to

teaching these young, talented students. We have assembled

a staff of teachers and professors who are considered experts

in their historical fields and are able to teach all aspects of

certain eras to our students.

Our staff has traveled the world extensively, and many

are as widely traveled as you. THEY TOO have seen the

world at its brightest and dimmest. They CAN account for

many of the greatest moments in time when man’s classic

creations were made.


  1. I like this! I am actually keen to read more! :D

    I found the transition between the nursing home and the Professor abrupt, though - this is maybe just a function of formatting? Is this the beginning of a new sequence, or is Finn watching the professor?

  2. This is a very interesting premise.

    Like Charlotte, I was thrown by the switch from Finn to Professor Payne. This needs some white space and the beginning sentence could be reworked to make it clearer that we are in a different point of view. (Try starting with "The professor...")

    The Finn section could use more concrete description. For instance, you tell us that his father's body was "frail and failing." What does that look like? Does he walk with a cane? Does he use oxygen? Does he have vision or hearing problems?

    Similarly, you say in the fourth paragraph that Finn looked around the room and felt regret. You could make his emotional state more tangible by describing the furnishings of the room in a manner that shows regret. (Also, "regret" seems like a fairly mild emotion for a boy leaving what I take to be his sole parent.)

  3. Ok, I think the problem is, especially if this is the beginning, is that you are trying to do too much in two small a space/short a word count.

    1) I do think starting the action with a young boy dropping his father at an assisted living facility is compelling, and a great way into your story. But you dash in and out of it too quickly. Show us the scene -- a boy checking his dad in, his frail condition belying his relatively young age (and tell us what it is? 40? 45? 50?). Maybe show the staff's reaction? Does someone do a double take when they see the birth date on his intake form? Ask Finn if his dad has a degenerative condition? (maybe Finn has to make something up?) What do these characters look like? What is his dad's name? Where's mom? (dead? never was in the picture?) And Finn should be an emotional wreck. If I'd had to check my single parent into a facility at that age, I would be a hot mess. And teens can't just live on their own. Does Finn have to go live with a relative? Do he and his dad talk about it? There's just SO MUCH you can do in this scene to build your characters and establish world build.

    1a) Note that 14 is a very awkward age for YA. It's the strange no-man's land between middle grade and YA. Age him up for YA or age him down for middle grade. Make him at least 15. There are exceptions to every rule, but that was my first thought.

    1b) Nitpick: I hate stories that drop right into descriptions of "he did this, he did that" and don't tell me a character's name, or give context. This is third person, so you can start right off telling us your MC's name, so there is context for whose POV we are following.

    1c) Start before dad gives Finn the time travel device and then have him give it to him. Starting at that very moment I think is dropping the needle about 2-3 minutes too late.

    2) I had to read your 2nd section three times in order to figure out that it wasn't from Finn's POV. Tighten up this transition, and open your scene with some context. No he's -- if you are now telling a scene from Professor Payne's POV, call him by name, and tell the reader who the heck he is. (I would also hint at how he relates to Finn, if possible).

    So I think in general what you have hasn't been working because you aren't showing the reader enough, and giving the context needed for everything to make sense. I'd say drop the needle sooner, flesh out Finn as a character and give the reader a sense of who he is, and why he is where he is (with his dad), and then buff up your transition to Professor Payne and similarly give the reader some context there. If Finn is your MC, the entire first chapter should set him up for us, IMO.

    I see some cool world build elements in there, and with some polishing, I think you'll have something very interesting! Good luck.

  4. Honestly, like the others, the biggest issue I had was with the transition. I got that the comb might have been responsible but I DIDN'T get:

    -Who's POV we're in now-- still the boy's, or have we switched to a new scene with the Professor?

    -Did the boy travel to the past, or, again, a new scene altogether?

    -is the Professor the father? That was sort of the impression I got but reading on made me confused.

    I think if you can clarify this transition you'll have a smooth and compelling opening.

  5. I’m very intrigued by Finn and why his dad is suddenly so old. Since Finn is 14, his dad should not be this old (and I want to know what happened!). And it immediately makes me concerned for Finn in case time traveling is what caused his dad to age. It’s a great way to open. But I agree with everyone that you need to really set the scene by showing the reader what things look like and how Finn feels about leaving his dad. The reader should feel it right along with Finn. Give us more of his desires and needs so we want to go on this journey with him.

    I was also thrown by the transition between Finn and Professor Payne. I was expecting to see where Finn went but instead I’m with someone I don’t know getting letters that don’t really mean anything to me yet. It’s more confusing than intriguing. I think there needs to be some transition or link between him and Finn to help orient the reader. For me, I’m not even sure if I need this scene from the professor if Finn is the MC. Unless you will have multiple POV characters. Then it might help to split them up by chapter to keep everything flowing without confusion.

  6. When I don't know much about the main character, I don't feel compelled to read on. I don't think the interaction between father and son work because there isn't a sense of relationship there. Working out more of the son's feelings and attitudes can flesh him out more in the eyes of the reader.

  7. I wanted to thank you for taking the time to critique this for me! Your comments are priceless! Thank you!

  8. Wow, this is really interesting, but also really, really confusing. The transition from Finn at the nursing home to Professor and letter is so abrupt I'm still not completely sure what was happening. I thought Finn just travelled back in time? So... did he become this professor guy? Or are we following someone new?

    If following someone new, you need a clear delineation, but that said, there would probably still be SOME confusion, because we don't know what time travel in this book is supposed to look like.

    So, to make this work, make it very clear that we're following a new character.

    Good work and a really interesting idea.

  9. I seriously love the concept! My mind's already whirring with potential avenues that you could take - I'd totally look forward to reading this!

    I would make two suggestions:

    1. Don't rush it. Take time to set the scene and help us learn who Finn is, to understand a little more about his relationship with his father, to understand what period in history they're in NOW (present day? Some decade in the past?). It wouldn't take too much (for example, you could mention the color of his hair when he runs the comb through - not too intrusive, but it gives us a little more to go on).

    2. The switch to Professor Payne was abrupt. I'd suggest changing the spacing or adding something to indicate a break/shift between paragraphs. And again, don't rush it! Let us know a little about what he's like (personality, appearance, etc.) Only a couple sentences could make a big impact and help settle the reader in to follow the professor.

    P.S. Love the idea of a time-travelling comb!

  10. Two things jumped out at me that were unclear to me:

    1. I had to read a few times to understand that the silver comb was the time-traveling object. Perhaps you could add an adjective to describe an object in the first sentence? A silver object? A pointy/sharp object?

    2. I don't have much else to add other than the abrupt transition between the living facility and the professor, as well as fleshing out the MC more.

    Does he have a mother? What's the relationship with his family? We are in what time period? How does he feel about taking his father to the living facility? What's his feeling of holding the silver comb?

    Show us how he knew that the value of the silver comb is special and his thoughts about the object.

    I hope this helps!