This is where I edit my own work or some other poor souls’. (Volunteers? There will be prizes!)
This is a scene from a third of the way into the book-which-has-not-been-named (Voldemort?). I’ll be the first to tell you it needs work. Part of me wants to cut the whole thing.
As with last post, I’ll line edit along the way, but it might need a more structural fix. There are really two types of scenes. Action/event and sequel. Sequel is where the reader/protagonist can take a deep breath and assess what just happened in the action scene. But these sequel scenes shouldn’t be boring. It shouldn’t be ‘time travel’, i.e. chatting while getting from A to B, or passing time. Those you’re better off just to cut.
I’ll tell you this scene is missing something and that something is conflict. Here are two examples of writing:
“Hey, Jill, how was your day?” Jack takes a sip of tea.
Jill shrugs. “Boss was on my back about the month end reports again. I really have to get them done.”
“You should be the boss.”
“In my dreams.”
Jack eyes Jill over the rim of his Rooibos. “Hey, Jill, did you talk to the CEO yet?”
Jill straightens, crossing her arms. “I’ll just get the reports done.”
“You should be the boss.”
“Quit riding me, all right? Maybe I don’t want to be the boss!”
Not perfect, but you get the idea. One has conflict, the other doesn’t. Both communicate the same discussion point, but one informs the reader about relationship conflict and builds character, too.
Chapters require arcs just like the whole book needs an arc. As an example, if you have a character starting off happy at the beginning of the chapter, you want to have the rug pulled out from them by the end. This is true of both action or sequel scenes. So my question to myself here is, does this scene have enough conflict? What/who changes in it?
Here’s my work of dubious quality. It’s a hundred pages in. Janus, Borga, and Devo have found/stolen an exoskeleton (think cyborg-making contraption) that they’re sharing to train in order to qualify for a competition for augmented humans. The chapters alternate points of view; this one is from Janus’s.
Jan descended the stairs, cup of coffee in hand. An olive branch for punching Devo. She shouldn’t have hit him. At least not the second time. He had deserved one shot, but she’d been so angry that she’d let him stew overnight. [The second part of this sentence doesn’t follow well from the first. Confusing.] On the way down from the kitchen she’d begun to reconsider the gift, coffee was a close second to pizza on her list of favorite things. But as she descended into the cool basement, a stringent smell curdled her thirst. [Used ‘descended’ twice in same paragraph.]
“Devo?” she asked shadows. He’d made a nest out of an old mattress she’d snuck down. At the bottom of the stairs the stench overpowered and she lifted her arm and buried her nose in the sleeve of her sweatshirt.
The Savannah slunk from the darkness[comma] twisted its head at her [comma] and wandered back, smacking lips. Janus was about to call Devo lazy when she caught sight of the scattered epoxy cans. That accounted for the smell, but what had he been doing? If he’d touched her makespace she’d punch him so hard …
She moved deeper into the basement, her eyes adjusting to the gloom until she could see the wall. Along it, at seemingly random intervals, were electronic components.
“A climbing course,” she whispered and rushed closer.
Tiny transistors, wire, old cell phones, everything made a potential hand or foothold.
“Different colors for different levels of difficulty,” he said and she jumped, sloshing coffee over the floor.
“Peace offering. Half a one now.” She offered.
He took it, his fingers flecked with bits of glue and grime that clung to skin. With her hands free she tested a hold, a piece of printer cable. It held firm but her fingers couldn’t take her weight for long and she stumbled back to the floor.
“Why’d you do this?” she asked.
“Have to pay the rent somehow,” he replied. “Twelve hours until show time.”
“Truce?” [See, I think this comes too easily. In the scene prior, Devo betrayed her by going to his mother and essentially telling on Jan. She needs to be mad still.]
He took a sip of the coffee. “For sure.”
“Good. I’ll be back in twenty minutes with the neural net.”
For the past year, life had settled into a routine. Get up, help her mom, open the store, sort the prior day’s material, skid and stage the shipment out—truth was they didn’t actually recycle much, they were more of an intake facility. With a shipment ready, she did homework at the cash between customers. Sometimes, she’d bring up a pair of pliers, some wire and transistors to make earrings or a bracelet to sell on Etsy. But the days passed in the store.
Peter often dropped by to make dinner, but when she didn’t, she’d order a pizza and start her night courses. That was it. Decent, really, she had Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as a social life and sometimes a friend came by for a sleepover, but those had dwindled. Everyone else had sports, or music, or arts of some sort. Activities.
So, as she relocked the storefront door and hopped into her mother’s van, the relief of having time flooded through her. Free time. To do what she wanted. It seemed to twist her stomach. A gift. A gift she refused to squander. [Is this adequate motivation? Each of these kids has reasons for doing things, but this is a small point and I wonder if I’m spending too much time over it.]
In a middleclass neighborhood of mixed singles and duplexes, where only shutters looked different, Borga opened the door to his townhouse. His eyes were hollowed by lack of sleep and his skin pale, but he held out the backpack. Janus was annoyed by the way she fidgeted in front of him but he didn’t appear to notice.
“It’s amazing, so amazing,” he said.
“Are you ready?” she asked, having expected him to be disappointed or angry. They had given him a grand total of zero daylight hours to train.
“I will never be ready,” he replied. “I mean, I could use it all day, every day. It’s that amazing.”
“Amazing.” Janus repeated.
“What’s so amazing?” his mother stepped beside him, sideways to avoid his chair. “The video game?”
“Mom,” he announced. “I need to go somewhere tonight?”
“Tonight? I – I can’t. I’m working tonight. You know that,” she said.
“I know. I’ll use Para-transpo.”
“You’ve never gone farther than school, not alone,” his mother replied, shaking her head.
“I’ll be okay.” He twisted in his chair to look up and over his shoulder at her. It was a hard stare, one that suggested more than his words. Janus zipped and unzipped the bag, back and forth as they spoke. Air wicked coolly across her scalp.
“What if you’re not okay? What is this for?” She looked to Janus, suddenly eying her as if she had done something wrong, done something to disrupt their routine.
“There’s a mindracing competition, the qualifiers are tonight—I want to compete,” Borga said. [This all feels unreal to me. I don’t buy it. Again, it’s supposed to be another source of conflict and that conflict is real but it doesn’t feel that way.]
Jan’s eyes widened at the pity in his mother’s eyes.
“Mindracing …? Borgy, you don’t have anything to prove.”
“Mom, this isn’t about proving anything. It’s about living. My teacher said to me that there’s no such thing as disability, just not enough technology. In that bag is proof.”
His mother’s gaze flicked from his thin legs back to his fierce expression.
“Maybe I could pick up a different shift.”
His face darkened. “Mom—you’re not invited. I don’t want you coming.”
“What do you mean, I always used to come to your competitions before …” She trailed off into silence. Before the accident. They all heard it. [This part is better. IMO. Details/Specifics go a long way to making scenes feel authentic.]
“I’ll pick him up,” Janus said.
Borga’s mother straightened and her eyes narrowed to a knife’s edge.
“I’ll go with Janus,” Borga said, with a look of unfettered triumph.
“But he needs a handicapped—”
And in the way she threw up obstacles Jan saw a version of herself, protecting her mother. [And I do like how here the two characters can identify with one another despite having never met.]
“The van is rigged for chairs,” Jan added. “My mom uses one. He can even drive.”
“What?” His mother stepped in front of him.
“Just kidding!” Janus laughed. “Unless you can drive, but I might as well.”
“I—” Borga wheeled up to the very edge of the doorframe.
“He doesn’t have a license—yet.” His mom shut her eyes and pursed her lips. “Are you sure?”
Janus shrugged. No biggie.
He nodded. “Never been more.”
“This is important to you? You could have told me.”
“I didn’t even know. Mom, in that bag is the first step for me to start giving back. To stop the tally. Awesomeness.”
“Awesomeness,” his mother repeated, but her tone was one of defeat. “How can I say no to that.”
“See you at six,” Jan said before anyone could change their minds and hurried back to the van with the bag slung over her shoulder. She wasn’t quite as optimistic as Borgy there.
Back at Assured Destruction, she flipped the sign to ‘open’. She didn’t expect customers this early, however, and took the first shift in the exoskeleton while Devo kept watch for business. The power only lasted ten minutes or so depending on how active she moved, and so she cycled between using the gear and climbing herself, quickly learning through YouTube videos that if she depended on her hands she’d quickly tire and fall. She pressed close to the wall, hands aching, while the exoskeleton recharged. As she improved her climbing ability, the charge lasted longer. [This is boring but important info. Can I show it instead if tell it?]
At lunch they switched and she grinned at Devo grunting in the basement between rumbles of the shredder. With her training done—what little she had time for—she grew giddy. She reread the Cybathlon website hoping for more details, but her sport was ‘climbing’ with nothing on just what she’d be climbing. Elsewhere on Twitter and Instagram she found teams from universities and corporate research parks all traveling to take residence at the ‘Dome’. [Like the missing book title I need some better names here. It makes me wonder if I’ve done enough world building and research.] Despite the seriousness of their mission, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she headed for summer camp. Maybe.
The door jangled. Two men struggled with a huge TV set and she giggled at them. And she needed to pee like eighteen times. She’d better calm down or she’d pass out before she even started.
Never having been in an athletic event she had to assume these were ‘nerves’. But it made her super friendly.
“Howdy!” she greeted customers and half of them probably assumed she was on drugs, but everyone left smiling. [And is this the way to end the chapter? Is this a cliffhanger? “Howdy?”!! This is a chapter I’m going to have to work seriously hard on.]
Hopefully by showing you work I’m not especially proud of you can see some of the challenges in your own work. There is a time for showing, for exposition, but it must be balanced with action and dialogue (white space). Here I have too much telling. Not enough conflict and a very unsatisfactory ending. My dog will have feast on this one. But knowing is half the battle!