Always, always, send your book out to be read by critical strangers. You can count on most of your friends to soothe your battered ego, and you can count on some friends to give you constructive advice, but you can only count on strangers to tell you exactly what they really think.
I’ve joined a couple of online writing groups. One in particular, YA Write, operated on a listserv out of Pennsylvania State University, has strict membership requirements. You have to critique at least two member submissions each month in order to stay on board. This group is pretty serious about its critiques, and is probably the best organized advice that you can get for free.
It’s important to note that, at the time, I considered Rosemary and Time to be largely complete, but I was shaken in my resolve by advice from two fronts that said that the story was difficult to market, straddling as it did two distinct genres (middle grade and young adult fiction). I wondered what this group would make of this story.
In the end, they pinpointed a number of weaknesses, not the least of which was the way the readers were introduced to Marjorie’s story, and the reasons why Rosemary was being attacked. One person suggested having a prologue, of Rosemary reading Marjorie’s book. This idea stewed in my mind for a while and, yesterday, it came out. Here’s the second draft of the prologue.
Rosemary was reading.
“What a city,” Marjorie gasped.
She stood, with her brother John and her new friend Andrew, at the base of the tallest, largest building in the middle of the strangest city they’d ever seen. They knew travelling at the speed of thought would bring them to wonderful places, but none such as this. Buildings of marble gouged the sky, rising up in a welt with this tower as its pinnacle. In the gaps between the buildings, they could barely glimpse the crater walls. A thousand zeppelins patrolled the sky.
“Where are we?” asked Marjorie. “What happened? Where is everybody?”
“Perhaps there was some disaster,” said Andrew. “Or perhaps everybody just left? It’s like the Marie Celeste!”
“That walking statue is just so creepy,” John muttered.
“Do you wish to see the people?” Sentinel 42, moving stiffly on its stone joints, stepped past them and threw open the doors.
“I don’t like this,” said Andrew. “Let’s get out of here!”
“No,” said Marjorie, pushing her horn-rimmed glasses further up on her nose. She stepped forward. “I want to see.”
Sentinel 42 ushered them forward. They entered a vast dark room.
Inside, the rhythmic heartbeat of the city echoed off the walls, catching their breaths, breaking their thoughts to well-ordered pieces. They stared across a room the size of a football field, with huge marble slabs suspended from the ceiling, row upon row, seven feet wide and tall and two feet thick. Some swung almost imperceptibly, as if something inside them stirred.
“But… where are all the people?” asked Marjorie.
The doors slammed behind them.
Andrew stared up at the slabs. His face went white. “Marjorie…”
Rosemary winced. She turned the page.
On each slab was the impression of a person, eyes blank sockets, mouths open, hands folded across chests. Each slab contained someone different; an old man, a young woman, a child. Each was as different as people are from each other.
“Once upon a time,” said the Sentinel, ushering them forward to a second set of giant doors, “there was a powerful civilization that built many wonders. But civilizations grow old, and old civilizations disappear. Knowing this, the people of this planet built a great machine. This machine was the pinnacle of our technology, capable of answering any question put to it and performing any action asked of it. We told it what was happening to our civilization, and we asked it to preserve things so that our civilization would never die.”
“But I don’t understand,” said Marjorie. “Where are all the people?”
“The Machine did as the people instructed,” said the Sentinel. “It automated all the processes, and turned all the people into stone.”
It threw open the second set of doors, and the heartbeat intensified. At the end of a long room sat the Machine, waiting.
Rosemary swallowed hard. She flipped ahead.
Metal claws reached out from nowhere and grabbed their wrists and ankles.
“Why do you resist?” asked the Sentinel. “The Machine preserves all on this planet. You are on this planet, so you must be preserved.”
“We’ve got to get out of here!” Andrew yelled.
“Concentrate!” shouted John. “Teleport now!”
“I can’t!” cried Marjorie. “The Machine! It’s breaking my thoughts!”
The claws hauled Andrew screaming into the air.
“Marjorie, do something!” John shouted. Then the claws pulled him away.
There was the sound of clanging machinery, the hiss of steam. Her brother’s yells ended abruptly.
“Andrew! John!” Marjorie screamed. The metal bonds were wrapping around her body, pulling her to the Machine. “No!”
Rosemary slammed the book closed and tossed it across her room.
This goes a long way to explaining Marjorie’s character and makes her somewhat more sympathetic. It brings elements of the end of the story back to the beginning, allowing them to appear more naturally and not out of the blue. Overall, I think the prologue strengthens the novel.
I am also considering other changes from the writing group, including restructuring the climax, to give Rosemary’s parents greater involvement, and having Rosemary solve the story problem more on her own merits.
I guess it shows that, in some ways, a story is never finished. I’ve certainly come a long way from the draft I considered finished back in December 2001.
Recent Story Lengths and Time to Completion of First Draft
Rosemary and Time: 39000 words, begun August 2001, first draft finished December 2001.
Fathom Five: 41000 words, begun December 2001, first draft finished August 2002.
The Young City: 54000 words, begun February 2002, first draft finished August 2003.
The Night Girl: ????? words, begun July 2003, first draft finished ???.