Apr 18 2009

How would you fix this book?

Today, I came across a self-published book called Superhumans.

Here’s what it says on the back-cover:

Seth, a college student, is accidentally exposed to an experiment that gives him incredible powers. When he and his friend, Chip, try to unravel its secrets, they discover a threat to the world unlike any other. And soon, Seth will find himself faced with one obstacle after another as he tries to live a normal life with the woman he lives and their daughter.

I’ve posted the first page below the jump.  If you’d like a writing exercise today, please rewrite the first two paragraphs of the chapter so that they’re interesting.

Okay, what do you think?  How would you have improved this book?

I have a few concerns about this book.  First, the description on the backcover is so bland that it could apply to pretty much any superhero story.  The first page isn’t bad, but it gets bogged down in demographic details almost immediately.  Additionally, the author tells us details that need to be shown (“Cross was expected by many to be a shining star in the field”).

But the main problem is that the first page is boring. How would you solve that?  My challenge for you is to rewrite the first two paragraphs so that they’re gripping.  Good luck!

20 responses so far

20 Responses to “How would you fix this book?”

  1. B. Macon 18 Apr 2009 at 1:57 pm

    “Chip,” Set whispered, tapping lightly on the door of his best friend’s dorm room. He waited and then began tapping a little longer. “Chip, you coming or what?”
    –This isn’t too exciting, but it’s alright.

    Seth and Chip were seniors at Bridge City University. They were both decent students, not quite nerds, but not party animals either—just quiet guys who followed the rules and did little to distinguish themselves, until the last semester when they—or rather Seth—came up with a plan to sneak into the lab and look at what a graduate student named Cross was working on.
    –This strikes me as a bad example of joy-riding. The characters have to have a good reason to go breaking rules, especially if they typically follow the rules. Why are they different this time?
    –Also, it’s usually a bad idea to establish a character with actions that are out of his element. If they’re quiet guys, show them doing quiet things and then build us up to the breaking point.
    –As a rule of thumb, I recommend against naming a fictional university after a city. Not too many universities are named after cities.

    Chip was majoring in genetics, which was also Cross’ field, and he needed an idea for his final paper. Cross was expected by many to be the next shining star in the field.
    –This paragraph is very poor. I would have rejected the manuscript at this point.
    –Instead of “Chip was majoring in genetics, which was also Cross’ field…” try something like “Like Cross, Chip was a genetics major.” That’s smoother.
    –“Cross was expected by many to be the next shining star in the field.” Show us this detail. How freakishly smart is he?
    –It sounds like Chip is holding the idiot ball. He needs a better reason to sneak into the lab. If Cross is a scientific prodigy, how much inspiration could his work provide to someone that is decidedly normal? Also, if Cross is the top student here, wouldn’t the genetics department notice if his work got ripped off by someone else in the genetics department? Moreover, if Chip really needs help on his paper, why not ask Cross for help?

    “I’m having second thoughts about this,” Chip whispered. “It’s really risky.”
    –“about this” is unnecessary.

    “Come on, you need this for your final paper,” Seth prodded. “If we get caught we can’t get into that much trouble.”
    –There should be a comma after caught.
    –“We can’t get into that much trouble.” Are we supposed to take that at face value? Umm, it sounds like they’re planning to break & enter in order to commit plagiarism. Either one of those would be a big deal. If we’re not supposed to take this at face value, then the writing should make that clearer.
    Chip let Seth in and quietly closed the door. “Listen,” he said. “We’re so close to graduation, why should we take the chance and blow our future on a stupid mistake?”
    –Awkward. I’d recommend changing this to “We’re so close to graduation. Why risk our future on a stupid mistake?”

    “Because we’ve gone over this and the benefits outweigh the risks,” Seth said, but he could tell Chip was very worried. “Hey, if you don’t want to go, then I’ll go myself and tell you if I see anything.”
    –“the benefits outweigh the risks” sounds out of character for Seth.
    –“but he could tell Chip was very worried.” I think this is problematic. The narrator gets into Seth’s POV here. We haven’t seen any of that yet, so it’s kind of disorienting here.
    –“I’ll go myself and tell you if I see anything.” There is absolutely no chance that this could even remotely lead to something that helps Chip on his paper. This rationale is looking increasingly flimsy.

    “No you won’t.” Chip whispered. He knew he couldn’t stop Seth from going and he wasn’t about to let him go alone.
    –Two typos here. First, there should be a comma after no. Second, the period after won’t should be a comma.
    –The narrator gives us a thought from Chip’s POV here. I think that’s not particularly effective. I’d pick one character and stick with him.

    “Chip, if we get caught I’ll take the blame, so don’t worry.”
    –I would have changed this sentence to “If we get caught, I’ll take the blame. Relax.” Alternately, I might replace relax with “chill” because I think that fits his character better than “don’t worry.”
    –There should be a comma after caught.

    Chip sighed and stepped out into the hallway with Seth. Neither of them dared to say a word because the slightest noise seemed to echo everywhere. They were on the second floor, but did not want to be seen leaving the building, so they didn’t use the stairs or the elevator. At the end of the hall was a window that faced the maintenance building. No one would be there at this time of night, and the tree that brushed up against it would make for an easy descent. Seth opened the window and cringed at the squeak, which seemed louder than it actually was. Then he made his way onto the branch with Chip following behind him. It was a little cloudy, and thunder could be faintly heard in the distance. Now that they were outside, they could at least whisper.
    –This is a gratuitously long paragraph. It could probably be shortened by having them leave Chip’s window rather than the hall’s window.
    –“Seth… cringed at the squeak, which seemed louder than it actually was.” First, the intrusive narrator doesn’t help here. When the narrator points out that it wasn’t really that loud, that jolted me from the scene. Second, shouldn’t it be Chip rather than Seth that cringes? Chip is more nervous about everything that can go wrong.

    When they finally reached the genetics building, they had to crawl around to find the basement window they were going to sneak into. Seth slid it open and was able to slip through. Chip stuck his head in and looked around. “Seth, this isn’t the right room,” he said.
    –Addressing the line to Seth is redundant with “he said.” If the line is addressed to Seth, “he said” can be removed.
    — “the basement window they were going to sneak into… ‘Seth, this isn’t the right room.’” This is confusing. The first clause suggests that this has been pre-planned, but the detail that this isn’t actually the right room suggests that Seth just kind of randomly picked the room. It doesn’t feel consistent.

    “It doesn’t matter. Get in here.” Seth hissed.
    –The period after “here” should be a comma.

    With a little help, Chip climbed in. He went immediately to the door and turned the knob. “It’s locked genius, now what are you going to do?” he asked.
    –Comma after locked.
    –“turned the knob” should probably be “tried the knob.”

  2. t3knomanseron 18 Apr 2009 at 2:54 pm

    I’d lead with, “I’m not coming!” Establish the conflict by having the character be decisive. That allows us to dispense with all the demographic details. Instead, we can establish that background data by explaining, “C’mon- this is your last chance to get into the lab. We need to do this!”

  3. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 18 Apr 2009 at 4:02 pm

    There’s a lot of telling. The paragraph could be spread throughout the book.

    “Chip was majoring in genetics, which was also Cross’ field, and he needed an idea for his final paper. Cross was expected by many to be the next shining star in the field”

    Also, I try to stay away from using the same word in more than one consecutive sentence. (Obviously, words like “he”, “his”, “she” and “her” are exceptions) It just annoys me, because no matter how many words are between, it feels like this:

    Field. Field. Field. Field. Field. Field. Field. Field.

  4. 1_L_Loydon 19 Apr 2009 at 5:23 am

    The first thing I would do is throw out the second and third paragraph. All of this info could be worked in later. It sort of makes it hard to rewrite the first two paragraphs. Here is my opening:

    Seth tapped on the dorm room door. “Chip.”

    No answer. He tapped harder. “Chip. You coming or what?”

    Seth raised his hand again. The door opened a crack.

    “I’m having second thoughts about this.” Chris’s voice was a whisper. “It’s really risky.”

    “Come on, you need this for your paper. If we get caught, we won’t get into that much trouble.”

  5. B. Macon 19 Apr 2009 at 5:39 am

    I like that, Loyd. By improving the pacing, you’ve made the story sharper and more intriguing.

  6. Patrickon 20 Apr 2009 at 8:59 pm

    Follow the rules. Go to class. Go to parties. Color within the lines, get a boring 9 to 5 job, marry a safe girl, have kids. And, above all, do not break into a secured research lab running off-the-books-genetic experiments.

    Seth picked a bad time to stop following the rules.

  7. Joseon 13 May 2009 at 12:41 pm

    As the author of this book let me be the first to say I couldn’t agree more. LOL! I was never entirely satisfied with the beginning. Even when I moved on to the second part I was still going all the way back making changes. That’s probably why it turned out the way it did, but then I’m just making excuses.
    I wish I had found this site a lot sooner! If any editor here is interested in looking at the first few pages of my next story please post here. Thanks!

  8. Marissaon 13 May 2009 at 12:51 pm

    Well, I’m no editor, but I’ve been told I’m pretty good at giving quality advice.

    If you want the best we’ve got, allow me to point you to B. Mac. 😀

  9. Ragged Boyon 13 May 2009 at 1:16 pm

    I would offer more advice, but I’m not as active on the site as I used to be. Never fear, once I get a new keyboard I’ll be posting much more often.

  10. B. Macon 13 May 2009 at 1:43 pm

    Feel free to post away. Would you like a review forum?

    Alternately, if you’d like to handle it through e-mail, I can be reached at superheronation-at-gmail-dot-com.

  11. Joseon 13 May 2009 at 6:28 pm

    The review forum will have to wait until I get a more reliable/stable internet connection. I’ll e-mail you the first five pages. Thanks!

  12. Moondragon007on 01 Oct 2009 at 4:27 pm

    “–As a rule of thumb, I recommend against naming a fictional university after a city. Not too many universities are named after cities.”

    Maybe not universities, but junior colleges are often named after the city they’re in. Here in Bakersfield we have Bakersfield College. Also CSUB – California State University, Bakersfield.

    I would have started the scene just before they go in the window.


    “Tell me again why we’re risking our entire future on such a stupid plan when we’re so close to graduation?” Chip whispered to his buddy Seth as they crouched beneath the window to the Bay City University lab.

    “Because, my dear Chip, I need a challenge! And because you need an idea for your final paper. Who else to crib off of but the almighty Cross, the next shining star in the field of genetics?” Seth replied, rolling his eyes with annoyance

    “We are going to get into so much trouble! My dad will kill me!” Chip’s voice rose nearly an octave with worry.

    “Hey, if you don’t want to go, then I’ll go myself and tell you if I see anything.”

    “The hell you will! I’m not letting you go in alone!”


    I’ve never been too clear; does dialog count as showing instead of telling?

  13. ShardReaperon 01 Oct 2009 at 6:57 pm

    It sort of depends on the situation, I think. If a character was relaying an event than it would count as telling. If it were two people actually going through those events while in a flashback, then I think that would fall into the “showing” category.

  14. B. Macon 01 Oct 2009 at 7:15 pm

    Dialogue can be showing or telling. For example, if a mother says “You’re upsetting me!” to a misbehaving child, she’s telling us what she feels. In contrast, if she says “enough!” or backhands the child, then she has shown us how annoyed she is.

    I think that it’s generally a bit easier to show something through dialogue than narration– the character’s speech can show us pretty much anything about what he’s thinking or his personality, etc. I find narration a bit weaker because it adds a filter that can be problematic.

    For example, consider these two scenes with a narrator that has a grossly inflated self-image.

    Narration: I’m such a stud. I was benching 100 like it was going out of style!

    Dialogue: (I’ve just done the transcript here because it reads a bit more cleanly).
    Jack: You should have seen me at the gym today. I was benching 100 like it was going out of style.
    Wanda, confused: 100 pounds?
    Jack, gesturing at muscles: And without steroids, too! No one believes that these abs are real.
    Wanda: I think you just pointed at your deltoids.
    Jack: Feisty! I like that.

    I’m not fond of the narration just because it makes the character seem more unbelievable and not in a good way. When he mentions how much he benches to Wanda, it comes across as pathetic but remotely believable. When the first-person narrator volunteers that to the reader, there probably isn’t a good reason for him to do so. So it may compromise the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

  15. ShardReaperon 01 Oct 2009 at 7:20 pm

    I do agree with you on the narration part, unless it’s first person you can’t that kind of development come clear in another perspective without a flashback or explanation. In first-person, this is balanced out by not knowing enough about the current situation and having things constantly repeated back to you, whereas in a third-person perspective, the reader won’t feel like there’s a sense of deja vu happening.

  16. Moondragon007on 02 Oct 2009 at 2:19 am

    So, the way I did the writing challenge: good, bad, so-so?

  17. B. Macon 02 Oct 2009 at 8:29 pm

    I thought it was alright. The exposition is a bit heavy-handed. Seth’s first paragraph felt like an info-dump. Also, would they really be having this conversation right outside the window? If he had doubts, wouldn’t he have voiced them before?

    Lloyd’s version handled it a bit more smoothly, I felt. For one thing, it begins with Seth knocking at Chip’s door. I think that’s more believable because it lets us see that he has doubts from the beginning but gets dragged into it because he’s a committed friend and kind of a wuss.

    I feel like the shorter paragraphs also fit the mood and characters a bit better than lengthy exposition.

  18. Missy ADon 16 Oct 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Pat’s was definitely my favorite for the new introductions, it was definitely funny 😀

  19. Steton 03 May 2010 at 7:18 pm

    When they reached the genetics building, they had to crawl around to find the window they were going to sneak into. Seth slid it open and slipped through. Chip stuck his head in and looked around. “This isn’t the right room.”
    “Doesn’t matter,” Seth said. “Get in here.”
    Chip climbed inside, and crossed to the door. “It’s locked, genius. Now what are we going to do?”

    And the author’s really gotta get control of the POV.

  20. Sean Higginson 09 Dec 2010 at 8:36 am

    (Haven’t read all the comments yet, but going to try the writing excersise)

    Seth picked himself up from the crumpled heap the defensive line had left him in. “Jock and nerd rivalry goes away after high school,” he muttered to himself, “right.” He reached over and picked Chip’s glasses off the sidewalk. The lenses were intact but the nose bar would need a fresh coat of tape.

    “Chip,” he said looking at his friend, still laying on his back, blood formed at his lip, “we’re going to be late.”

    (I know I don’t reveal all the same information, but I think this would peak my interest a little more.)

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