First Impact: The Show Must Not Go On by J. Kaitlin Adams

Time for another First Impact critique. But first: July's winner, who gets to choose between $10 for Amazon/B&N OR a 20-page critique from me, iiiiiiiis . . . Stephanie Scott! Congratulations, Stephanie.

And for August, we have a special prize: a 10-page critique from my agent, Tricia Lawrence! To be eligible, all you have to do is share your thoughts in the comments of any First Impact post this month. Your critique doesn't have to be long, just useful!

If you want your material critiqued, send it to Details here.

Thank you to Kaitlin for submitting the first page of her YA fantasy. Keep in mind all this is just my opinion. If it doesn't feel right to you, ignore it.

Any in-line comments are to the right, overall thoughts at the end.

Opening Page
Right from the start, I'm interested
in this strange relationship she has
with her parents. Nice.
My talent was about the only thing that made my parents happy. And But in my sixteen years of experience, I had learned their happiness usually ended in my suffering. So when they called my name for dinner, their voices high and excited, a hard knot formed in the pit of my stomach. I walked into the kitchen where they sat at the table, holding hands and smiling. The knot in my stomach grew.

“Lori,” Mom said, “sit down.”

I stayed where I was. Our best silver platters were piled high with fish, chicken, and rice. Fruit and rolls topped our porcelain bowls. And our crystal pitchers were filled to the brim with tea. Eating well was not rare for us. Eating for a family of ten was. I had spent the past five hours outside, practicing my talent, unaware Mom was cooking such a feast.

“Your mother and I,” Dad said, “have decided-”

This felt a little strange to me, since
she had just called Lori down to talk
(presumably). Maybe if she just called
her for dinner at first, instead?
“Wait until after dinner,” Mom said.


“She’ll need a full stomach. It’ll be a lot to take in.”

Dad squeezed Mom’s hand and grinned. “Right. Sit down and eat up, Lori.”

Not sure how I feel about this simile.
I like that she's relating her value
to something in the scene, but then it
breaks when the fish's parents are
brought up.
I hadn’t seen Dad that happy in ages. Any appetite I had had left, disappeared. I sat, and after they filled their plates with food, I didn’t touch any of it. They exchanged a glance. It wasn’t like the food was poisoned. If I died, my talent would die with me, and then I’d be about as valuable as the platter of dead fish were to their parents. I just figured the longer I took to finish dinner, the longer I could prolong put off what they were about to tell me.

Minor nitpick: In the last paragraph
it sounds like she's not going to eat
at all. This almost feels like giving
in to me (even though I know it's not).

I put a couple of bites of fish and a roll on my plate. Even after my parents had eaten all their food, I still had most of the fish and half a roll left on mine. They watched me, their hands still eintertwined, hardly able to control the twitching of their lips. Mom’s free fingers drummed the table. Every few minutes or so, Dad sighed, as if that would hurry me along.

I pinched off a piece of my roll, about the size of my fingernail. I looked at it, turned it over, smelled it-

This made me laugh out loud.

“EAT!” Dad yelled.

Adam's Thoughts
There's a lot of interesting stuff here: a wry voice, a strange relationship between Lori and her parents, a mysterious talent, and an even more mysterious announcement.

The voice really drew me in. It's not just Lori's snark about her situation -- I've seen that before -- but also the almost comical actions of her parents that make me like them (even though they somehow make the protagonist suffer).

My only real complaint about this is that even after 370 words (yes, I do count -- if people start going overboard regularly, I'm going to have to cut them off ;-), I still don't know what any of the mysteries are. Not that I want everything explained up front, but I feel like we could get there sooner, or at least get some hints here and there, like a puzzle to solve.

But it's really hard to say, because this is only the first page, and for all I know everything is answered in the next line. But hey, the sooner you can hook the reader with your cool gimmick, the better, right?

Anyway, that's just my opinion. What do the rest of you think?

NOTE: Kaitlin has a revised version in the comments. You are welcome to critique either one.

Why Are Movies Based on Video Games SO BAD?

This is not a rant. This is SCIENCE.

First, all the data (culled, of course, from my beloved Wikipedia). Click to embiggen.

Some facts:
  • Movies based on video games have an average Rotten Tomatoes score of 18 out of 100. None of them got higher than 42.
  • Most (72%) had a budget of $50 million or less.
  • Most (68%) made less than $100 million at the box office.
  • It should be no surprise then that half of these movies did not make a profit.
So that's pretty bad (relatively; I mean I wouldn't mind making $100 million), but why? Is there something inherent in video games that makes them un-movieable (totally a word). Or is it the way they're handled? I have my own ideas, but let's look at the data.

Looking at the list of movies, my first thought was they were poorly chosen. There do exist games with solid, character-based stories (I helped make one of them), but Doom, for example, is not one of them. So it might be that producers are choosing games from the wrong genres:

84% of these titles are in action genres. And while RPGs (for example) are known for their stories, action and fighting games aren't so much.

Unfortunately, when I grouped review scores by genre, there didn't appear to be much correlation. Every genre is spread pretty evenly between hits and misses:

Apologies for not labeling the genres. Excel was mean to me.
Maybe it has to do with where the games come from (a heck of a lot of these games come from Capcom, for example), but I found no correlation there either:

At this point, I wondered if there was any answer at all. Is it just dumb luck? Is there even a correlation between review score and profit?

Thank goodness there is. It's not a huge correlation (and my heart goes out to the Final Fantasy movie, which got the highest score yet lost the most money -- clearly there is no justice in this world), but the trendline definitely goes up.

Finally, I had the idea to look at the directors. It turns out there is one man who has directed almost a quarter of these movies -- twice as many as any other single person.

He has directed movies from four different game genres. The highest score he received was 24 out of 100, and it was an outlier. Only one of his games-based movies ever made a profit (a whole two million dollars). In short, this man has never directed a video-game-based movie worth seeing.

His name is Uwe Boll.

I'm just looking at the numbers here, but it seems to me that this man should never be allowed near a video game again.

It's science.

What Makes a Character Funny?

I'm still trying to figure out funny. It seems like just another kind of voice: once I get my head in it, everything kinda flows. When I put the right kinds of characters together, funny just sort of happens.

But not all my characters end up funny, and I can't always figure out why. This is my attempt to figure out certain types of characters that make humor easy to write.

"You know me. Just when I'm getting a grip on something Fate comes along and jumps on my fingers." -- Rincewind, Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

This is my preferred form of funny (and the reason I'm writing this post, lest all my characters end up this way). This character probably has good points, but either they can't see them or they don't think they're useful. They're cynical about themselves, even as they step forward to achieve their goals.

Examples: Rincewind (Discworld novels), Hiccup (How to Train Your Dragon), Flint Lockwood (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs)

"You know what the chain of command is? It's the chain I go get and beat you with 'til ya understand who's in ruttin' command here." -- Jayne Cobb, Firefly

There are a lot of flavors of ignorant. The thug who doesn't understand the clever wit of those around him. The genius with zero social skills. The ultra-strong gentleman who can't believe someone would actually lie about being in trouble so they could steal his money. One important thing about all of them, though, is that while they're ignorant about one thing (to the point of hilarity), they are specialists in what they do best. 100% ignorant isn't as funny as you'd think.

Examples: Jayne Cobb (Firefly), Carrot (Discworld novels), Nobby (also Discworld), Joey Tribiani (Friends)

"The bright side of it is that if we break our necks getting down the cliff, then we’re safe from being drowned in the river." -- Puddleglum, Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis

If you're ever optimistic, the cynic will be sure to correct you. They'll point out that the plan will never work because nothing ever works (this is especially good if they're genre savvy). It's easy to go too far, but if you keep the character sympathetic, they can be one of your most lovable.

Examples: Puddleglum (Silver Chair), Sam Vimes (Discworld novels), Dolorous Edd (Song of Ice and Fire saga)

"Your work is unparalleled. And I'm a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster." -- Tony Stark, The Avengers

These are the characters that seem disconnected from reality in some way. You're never sure if they really know something you don't, or if they're just crazy. But they're willing to watch spoiled rich kids put themselves in danger, to commandeer large Navy vessels by themselves, and to poke green rage monsters with a needle. The weird thing is, most of the time it works.

Examples: Tony Stark (Ironman and The Avengers), Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean), Willy Wonka (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory)

The beauty is you can combine these types (and others!) to create lots of unique characters. The trick with all of them, I think, is to keep them sympathetic so the humor doesn't go too far. Give them goals, real emotions, and moments of awesome, otherwise you'll end up with the opposite of funny.

There are lots of types of funny I haven't mentioned. What can you think of? Or how would you define characters like Wash and Chandler, or Sokka and Bolin?

First Impact: Mourn Their Courage by Victoria Dixon

Time for another First Impact critique. Remember you are eligible to win $10 for Amazon/B&N OR a 20-page critique from me if you share your thoughts in the comments. Your critique doesn't have to be long, just useful!

If you want your material critiqued, send it to Details here.

Big thanks to long-time reader Victoria Dixon for submitting the first page of her Chinese historical fantasy. Keep in mind all this is just my opinion. If it doesn't feel right to you, ignore it.

My in-line comments are to the right, overall thoughts at the end.

Opening Page
I like the gestures here, but I'm not
sure whose POV this is. Also, as an
opening, I'm hoping for some small
hint of conflict or mystery to make
it more compelling.
Once Liu Jie joined his general on the staircase, General Tong Zhang drained his tankard in a gulp and slammed the metal cup against the stair's supporting pillar. Both men stood in their heavy double-framed cuirasses, framed by the stair's red pillars. If the inn were not so crowded already, Zhang would not have needed to draw the men's attention.

Every eye? Really ;-)
Jie waited until he'd met every eye and while the room quieted in anticipation.

I'm not sure we need their full names
both here AND at the start.

I think this would be clearer if Jie
were more direct, like "Emperor
Xien has charged us to protect the
capital from rebels [etc]."
"My name is Lord Liu Jie. This is my partner, Tong Zhang.” Jie gestured to the Imperial notice by the inn's door. “For the safety of his people, Emperor Xien has warned us about rebels who have robbed from Imperial warehouses — stealing from all of us and threatening the capital. We must do more than be wary. Our Imperial Father is in danger and we must protect him." Jie paused. "My partner will see we're you are fed and I will pay those who will serve."

A murmur rose in seconds. Most men joined militias and were paid with for consistent meals they didn't receive elsewhere.

Jie raised his hand for silence and the room quieted in an instant. "Make your mark on the sign up sheet. We'll take recruits for the next three days." Jie nodded to the crowd and stepped off the landing as men rushed forward to give their names to Zhang.

I'm not sure who is marveling here.
Servants lit the paper lanterns whose construction he and his family had marveled at days before when they arrived. The fragile lights swayed as he passed.

At first, I confused the "starving
farmers" here with the men he was
enlisting. Could that be clarified?

I love this last line. It implies the
sadistic choice I'm always talking
Jie still struggled, sickened by his decision to go to war. The rebels were probably starving farmers in need of pity, not punishment, but their actions required the latter. All Jie wanted was to reach his nephew the Emperor and stop the mounting civil unrest. It was why he and his family had journeyed all the way across the country, but now he couldn't reach the Emperor without sounding the battle drums he'd fought to keep silent. To bring peace, I must attack my brothers.

Adam's Thoughts
I love Asian history and historical fantasy. I, personally, would keep reading based on genre alone. I also like the gestures and the descriptions here. I feel drawn into the scene.

One problem I had was figuring out whose point of view we're in. The opening image of them standing, framed by pillars, implies omniscient or a third character. The last sentence of the first paragraph implies Zhang's POV, but later we get deeply into Jie's thoughts.

Another way I think you can improve this is to bring up Jie's internal conflict about the civil war sooner, even in the first paragraph. I don't mean mean move the whole last paragraph to the front, but just provide some kind of hint in the first paragraph that Jie is conflicted about what he has to do (maybe something about enlisting poor farmers to fight poor farmers, for example). I think that might help engage the reader from the very start.

But that's just my opinion. What do the rest of you guys think?

Spec Fic, Sci-Fi, and Other Ambiguous Terms

"Speculative fiction" is hard to define, mostly because nobody agrees on the meaning. Broadly, there are two useful definitions, but to understand them, we have to take a brief (BRIEF!) look at the history of science fiction.

1. About 100 years ago, people called science fiction a thing.
2. About 80 years ago, sci-fi hit what's considered it's "Golden Age."
3. About 60 years ago, a LOT of people were writing sci-fi. Not all of it was good.

(Told you it was brief.)

It was around this time that Robert Heinlein coined the term speculative fiction, and gave it its first definition:

speculative fiction: (n) 1. Fiction that has science-fictional elements, but is not science fiction.

Here's what happened. When sci-fi got big, it also got stereotyped. It became seen as cheap entertainment for the masses. "Genre" fiction as opposed to "real" fiction. Critics treated it as subpar literature, even though (and I love this quote from Peter Watts) "The same critics who roll their eyes at aliens and warp drive don't seem to have any problems with a woman ascending into heaven while hanging laundry in One Hundred Years of Solitude, just so long as Gabriel Garcia Marquez doesn't get published by Tor or Del Ray."

Ever since then, a lot of sci-fi authors -- like Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut, and Margaret Atwood -- have tried to distance themselves from the sci-fi label. They often use the term speculative fiction to do this.

But it's not a very useful definition. For one thing, it defines itself by what it is NOT, which is silly.

But also, it's arrogant. It tries to define speculative fiction as "science fiction, but good." It's an offense to Herbert, LeGuin, Asimov, Card, and thousands of other genuinely good sci-fi authors who weren't afraid of the term.

I think people realized this, but the term has stayed in use. But to most people, it now mostly means this:

speculative fiction: (n) 2. An umbrella term covering everything from science fiction to fantasy to magical realism.

At first glance, it appears too broad to be useful. Almost like saying spec-fic is any fiction that could not have occurred in the world as we know it.

Two things make this definition useful: (1) fans of sci-fi and fantasy* have a large amount of overlap. (2) A lot of speculative fiction does not fall easily into one of these subcategories.

Speculative fiction gives us a way to talk about works like Miéville's Perdido Street Station without having to decide whether the fantastical races make it fantasy or the high-tech, steampunk elements make it sci-fi. Or whether Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun is fantasy because it feels medieval or sci-fi because it's dystopian and post-apocalyptic.

It is almost too broad a term (which is why I didn't use it in my query), but it's inclusive rather than snobbish, which I much prefer. Instead of saying, "That can't be genre fiction because it's not garbage!" I'd rather say, "Yes, this is genre. Some it is actually GOOD."

* And magical realism and horror, paranormal, dystopian, post-apocalyptic fiction, superheros, alternate history, and everything else spec-fic usually covers.

Embarrassed AT-AT

Oops...hope nobody got hurt.

Cross-posted from Anthdrawlogy's Hoth week (part of a whole Star Wars month). If you want to see a much cooler AT-AT, check out fellow Anthdrawlogian Charles Eubanks' take on Eadward Muybridge.

So what's your favorite Star Wars quote? Mine is when Han Solo calls Leia, "Your highness-ness."

Okay, go.

First Impact: Through the Wormhole by Mairead Ahmad and Jennifer Van Haaften

Time for another First Impact critique. Remember you are eligible to win $10 for Amazon/B&N OR a 20-page critique from me if you share your thoughts in the comments. Your critique doesn't have to be long, just useful!

If you would like your material critiqued, send it to Details here.

A huge thanks to Mairead and Jennifer for submitting the first page* of their MG sci-fi. Keep in mind this is just my opinion. If it doesn't feel right to you, ignore it.

My in-line comments are to the right, overall thoughts at the end. Line edits are in red, and highlighted text is usually something I referred to in the in-line comments.

Opening Page

Loving the chapter title.

“Flute!” The word echoed down the bright blue hallway, followed by a resounding thud.

I feel like there's a lot to keep track
of. Are they in a school? Hospital?
Skidding to a halt several feet ahead, Zak turned, his suit sparkling in the light. His uncle Aztar lay sprawled face down on the copper tiled floor. A clipboard hovered above his head, slowly spinning.

The two untagged dialogs in a row
are making me wonder who's talking.

I do love this world bit though.
“Uncle A!” A dull groan was the only answer. Zak’s day was not going according to plan, not that they ever did. Although, when he thought about it, his days never went according to any plan of his making. He sprinted back to Aztar’s side. Medic-bots had already been activated and were rushing toward them on spidery legs.

It's not immediately clear to me
these refer to the nanocomputers.
That made this whole paragraph a
lot to take in.

“The nanocomputers?” Aztar asked, scrambling to a kneeling position, knocking the clipboard with his head. Zak grabbed the clipboard, the devices were still attached. He checked both two-inch square computers with the name Herman imprinted on each wristband.

“They’re fine!” Zak’s voice cracked. “Come on! Anyana is flipping her lid.” But even as the words left his mouth the medic-bots were swarming over Aztar, scanning him, and looking for injuries.

I love this.

"Aztar grumbled" feels like dialog
tag overkill to me.

I feel like this paragraph should be
broken in two after Aztar's last
“I’m not hurt!” Aztar said as loudly and clearly as he could, swiping at the bots as more jumped up to poke and prod him. “I hate this new medical experiment,” Aztar grumbled. “Six more months of these….medic-bots running around the Singh Complex and I’ll be ready to explode.” One of the bots jumped onto Aztar’s shoulder, making him leap up. It started scanning his face, repeating the phrase, “Nasal contusion, possible concussion…..scanning, scanning.” Aztar shoved it off his shoulder, it landed easily on its six legs. Aztar shook his pants to keep more from climbing on him.

“He’s not hurt!” Zac yelled,. “Go dormant!” He watched them slink away looking rather crest-fallen, if that was possible for a machine. He wondered if it was even possible for a computer-operated machine to care about its job.

Adam's Thoughts
I'm really enjoying the voice and snatches of world-building so far. I would keep reading, but I'd be concerned about a couple of things:
  1. Wordy jokes lost in wordiness. I notice a general tendency here to use 2-3 sentences where one will do, especially around the jokes (like the two I red-lined here). I think the whole thing would benefit from some ruthless trimming, but the jokes most of all. Brevity is the soul of wit, right?
  2. Grounding the reader in the world. I really do love the world-building bits here, but be careful you don't pound the reader with too much too soon. Guide them into the strangeness gently.
  3. Exclamation marks. I count 7 in just 300 words. I think only the first two do any work, especially with dialog tags like "Aztar said...loudly" and "Zac yelled" (and actually, even those dialog tags are probably unnecessary...).
But that's just my opinion. What do the rest of you guys think?

* On a random note, I love how the first three First Impact entries have covered the three main types I asked for: queries, back-cover copy, and first page (in that order, no less). Well done, guys! Now I don't suppose anyone has a 1-page synopsis for me to look at?