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Back story and alien-building

How much is too little back story in a fantasy? My main character is an alien. Do I treat her the same as world building and back story and drip-feed the information in? I'm worried about not providing enough information and creating confusion. 

Knowing that it's hard to answer a general question like this, I'm posting my opening chapter. This is not only a first draft but the only chapter I've written so far. It's homework for a 6-week course on plotting children's books. I've decided to use the class as a learning experience and have fun with something completely different from what I usually write. I'd love some help. Are you confused? Are there techniques I can use to get more information across? All feedback welcome.

THE GLIMMERMEN

        Chapter 1 

Lorna flipped her webbed toes and snuck silently through the underwater cavern, her skin lighting the darkness. Rock walls widened into the open sea. The current urged her on, pulling her long braid out in front of her and putting a smile on her face. There’d be trouble again when Mochin found out, but farming lessons were such a bore. She’d choose adventure over safety, any day. 

The sea floor swayed with spinak, and despite her people’s best efforts, its leaves were dull and dark instead of their usual shiny purple. She gently ripped a leaf off and munched, following the noise-that-never-stopped. The offshore oil rig ground through screaming rock day and night, pumping life’s precious nutrients up to where the humans could steal them. Humans were to blame for her people’s sickness, but constantly hiding in the city-caverns didn’t help either. 

Light filtered through shades of blue as she swam upwards. Only her eyes broke the surface and the gray sky helped camouflage the glimmer her skin gave off. Men in bright orange suits scurried about the oil rig far above, too busy to notice her. The boy was in his usual place, fishing from a boat beneath the pillars that supported the immense platform. She paddled closer. 

As the only child born in decades, she often spied on the boy. He too seemed to live in a world of adults. Sometimes she thought she could feel his loneliness, but it was silly to think humans had feelings. As though to prove her point, the boy carelessly threw a half-full plastic bottle of dark liquid into the waves. 

Rage bolted through her slim body. She pounced on the floating object with its red label and lobbed it back. “STUPID BOY, KEEP YOUR POLLUTION ON LAND!” She pushed her thoughts out, honing in on him like a lightning rod.

The boy’s eyes widened, and his head rocked back as her thoughts hit their mark. Rising in fear, he startled again as the bottle reached him a second later. It was enough to unbalance him, and he toppled into the sea.

Lorna had never connected so quickly to another being not of their race. It was unexpected that the boy could hear her. She frowned. Why didn’t he surface? She let herself sink underwater and swam closer. An old fishing net wrapped itself tighter around the boy’s leg with each frantic tug. 

She smirked. Served him right. Forgotten fishing nets had trapped and killed too many of her whale and dolphin friends. As she swam up next to him, the boy stopped struggling and looked her in the eyes. Fear and bewilderment filled his sea-green gaze. 

Shame kicked her into motion. She hadn’t meant to hurt the boy. Too bad she didn’t have her backpack. Her teeth would have to do. “I’ll free you.” She couldn’t stop to see if he caught her thought this time, but he held still while her molars cut through the net. The boy didn’t have much time left. He needed air. Heart beating fast, she pulled his leg out and dragged him to the surface. 

His body hung limp in her arms. Polluted! What had she done? She hauled him into the boat and pounded on his back. Relief flooded through her as he coughed and sputtered. Moving to the farthest corner of the boat, she waited. He should be okay now, but it was best to make sure. Music from the boat’s radio mixed with his coughing.  

The boy wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and glared at her. “Didn’t know there were any of you left.” He studied her, gulping in ragged breaths of air.

In the platform’s shadow, she knew her skin shone with a silver glow, and her eyes were larger than his, making it easier to see in the murky depths of the sea. Other than that, he shouldn’t find much to gawk at since her gills were hidden under her arms. Again, she connected her mind to his. “I’m Lorna,” she offered. 

“How are you doing that? Can you read my mind?” His tone was curious rather than accusing.

“Of course not. I can only reach out. The rest is up to the receiver.” She bit her lip. Although her people thought in all the major human languages, no one had ever been able to establish communication. 

“Ricki Ferrari. I…” he broke off as an excited voice on the radio interrupted. 

“News flash! A glimmermen spaceship has been discovered off the coast of Sicily. It looks to be intact and scientists are flocking to the site to study this amazing discovery.”

Lorna tensed. An undamaged spaceship? This could be the answer to their problems. There was only one way to find out if it was an old colony ship or the long-awaited mothership. What was she doing sitting here talking to the enemy while her people suffered? Throwing a last glance at Ricki, she dove into the sea.  

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Replies (52)
    • I think you've done a great job of resisting the urge to explain. From the first line I know we're in a different world. You've dropped us straight into your characters life and have let the reader work out the details for themselves by drip feeding the backstory in around the character in action. There's loads of details about her people and the humans and what she looks like, but you've fed it in so well it never slows down or stops the narrative. And a lovely twist at the end where we learn there's more to these people than a mer-type species, because we've got a mother ship.

      There's no confusion and I think you're spot on with the amount of world building and history you drop in, especially for a children's book where you don't want to over load. Great work.

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      • Thanks, Kate. I wasn't sure this was working and horror of horrors, I have to read it out loud on Zoom in front of everyone! Of course, my classmates are wonderful, I just don't do well speaking in front of people. Go figure, I rather a thousand poeple see it on here than have to read it to eight people.🤷🏽‍♀️ This will give me some confidence.

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        • I think it's an accomplished bit of writing - the others will be jealous. But I know how you feel.

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          • Wow! Thanks! (Small happy jig!)

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          • Great work, Julie. I'd certainly read on, you've filled in snippets of backstory well. It's an interesting set up. Aliens stranded on Earth. 

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            • Thanks Rob. I had to come up with something quick so I sort of borrowed a teeny bit from ET. Shh! Don't tell anyone.😁

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            • I enjoyed this. Keep going! 

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              • Thanks, Sara. I had no intention of actually writing this novel after the course is over, but I'm having so much fun, I might have to!

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              • I think this is terrific, Julie. For me there's exactly the right mix of back story and present action and Lorna is a lovely sympathetic character. Very good scene setting too. 

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                • Wow, really Libby? I really value your opinion and this gives me courage to invest more time in a project outside my comfort zone. Thank you.

                  PS. Do you have any editing suggestions for me?

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                • I loved it. Totally gripped.

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                  • Aww, thanks, Georgina.

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                  • As Kate said, you have – for the most part – done a good job no over-explaining.

                    The are occasional exceptions. Saying that the oil rig is off-shore is land-centric, so a false perspective. Besides that, there's the mention of her gills; you've given no reason for Lorna to know that gills would be gawked at. I would ask, instead, what the shape of her nose is: does she even have nostrils, or as an aquatic species, would her sense of smell be merged with her sense of taste, so be in her mouth? As Ricki recognises what she is, and the ship is mentioned at the end, that means humans know this species, so the whole gawking thing is largely irrelevant.

                    There are other things that you've got slightly backwards. In that opening paragraph, Lorna is swimming forward while being dragged by the current. If she were staying still relative to the current, her braid wouldn't extend forward because she and the water would be moving at the same speed. Because she's swimming forward, with the current, the braid will trail behind her; her body is moving faster than the current.

                    Likewise, if she is generally humaoid in shape, as you later imply, how do only her eyes break the surface? The top of her head must, too, which is contradictorily alluded to by mentioning that the grey sky hides the glimmer of her skin, except that doesn't make sense given that you've already implied that she glows, in that her skin provides the light to see by. The grey sky would make her more visible as there wouldn't be star/moon light glistening off the waves to camouflage her presence.

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                    • PS What's a save the cat moment?

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                      • I thought of the breathing out of water thing. And Jon's webbed feet. And…

                        I didn't mention all of them because there wasn't time. Also, not all of them need immediate explanation. Per your original question, it's about answering the pertinent ones to the moment.

                        I'm not buying the gill covers though. Crabs may survive out of water, but they'll be inactive. Activity takes energy, which requires oxygen. With a humanoid, that's a lot of oxygen needed. There's not enough in the little water keeping her gills moist.

                        There are several solutions there. The first, and the probably reason no one called it out specifically, is that many aquatic creatures can survive a few minutes out of water, just as we can hold our breathes under water. After five minutes, it becomes an issue. If you want the gills to come in earlier, though, consider the oxygenation of the local water. There are places on Earth – Gulf of Mexico, for example – where the water is so depleted of oxygen that fish can't survive. So, if this area is like that, if the pollution is depleting the oxygen, Lorna isn't just bitching about polution, she is gasping for breath.

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                        • It's the name given to a moment, usually early in the story but can be used at any time, which shows the protagonist (or any character) in a sympathetic light, in order to make the readers like them and root for them from then on. You have them 'save a cat'.

                          There's a brilliant use of it in the recent(ish) Sci-Fi movie, Alita: Battle Angel. Our titular heroine has just been brought back to life after 300 years. In the first scene in which she really starts exploring her new world she risks her life to quite literally save a dog! And, of course, immediately becomes vastly sympathetic... if she wasn't already!

                          It's usually not quite as blatant as that(!) but it's a common trope. 😁 

                          (Spoiler alert: the dog dies later anyway... but that's another story).

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                        • I read right through without stopping, immediately immersed in the story. 

                          Now I will take my own sad little sci fi tale I've been trying to make work for EVER, and slink back under a rock with it. 😒 LOL

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                          • Cathy, the beginning is always easier than the middle! I'm still stuck with my chicken story and it's soo short! 

                            I look forward to reading some chapters of yours, don't give up!

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                          • I thought this was a really strong and beautifully written beginning, Julie, full of atmosphere and mystery. It flows beautifully, and I think the level of explanation and world-building is pitched just right, with Lorna's tantalising differences from the norm mentioned in passing and not over-stated, and the dramatic setting introduced seamlessly. I love the early move into (potential) conflict and friendship that the meeting between the two children provides, and the background to their meeting - the caverns, the sea and the oil rig - is wildly strange and fascinating. It's really cinematic... in the best way.

                            Rick (as always) has pointed out some details of subtle believability that could be tweaked to make the scene even more immersive. I'd add one more that struck me early on - in the first line actually. To Lorna (whose PoV we're seeing her world from) her webbed fingers/toes wouldn't be remarkable or worthy of mention; they'd be normal. So perhaps better to bring those up in some action or activity where their webbed nature helps or hinders, so she, herself, would be aware of them. I suppose the difference is between the way her webbed toes are mentioned without wider context and the way her luminescent skin is introduced through its observable action on her surroundings as it lights her way.

                            That's a laughably minor niggle, though, compared to the whole piece. What a fab start to the story in terms of atmosphere and action. Well done! It absolutely grabs the reader. I loved it, and really, really want to read more. You should stick with it, homework or not.

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                            • Thanks, Jon! Good catch on the webbed feet too. I'll have to work on a stronger opening sentence without it though...hmmm...

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                            • I've suggested a few tweaks, Julie, for emphasis or occasional correction. Rick has made good points about physiology. The details you already have are very evocative for characterisation and background. It's an excellent opening to a story.

                              As you bring in Sicily later in the scene, when I read this a second time I felt you needed an indication nearer the start that this is a real-world setting and then say (this can be left until a bit later) roughly where in the world Lorna is. Otherwise, for me, the reality of Sicily comes as a surprise and I started wondering exactly where Lorna was.

                              THE GLIMMERMEN

                                      Chapter 1 

                              Lorna flipped her webbed toes and snuck silently through the underwater cavern, her skin lighting the darkness. Perhaps say she has arms. I know toes implies mammalian body structure but I didn't form an instant vision of her. You could mention her gills too - readers of any age like to know how someone breathes underwater - and say they're under her arms. Then later with the boy you could remind the reader that the boy couldn't see her gills as they are tucked away. Rock walls widened into the open sea. The current urged her on, pulling her long braid out in front of her as Rick says, the braid would be flowing behind her and putting a smile on her face. There’d be trouble again when Mochin found out, but farming lessons were such a bore. She’d choose adventure over safety, any day. I think a hint of what sort of adventures she has would be good here to show up her character and background. At present the last piece of information finishes rather abruptly. Are her adventures the sort of general exploring anyone with an adventurous spirit might do or has she, in the past, gone out on specific missions?  

                              The sea floor swayed with spinak, and despite her people’s best efforts, its leaves were dull and dark instead of their usual shiny purple. She gently ripped a leaf off and munched, following the noise-that-never-stopped. The offshore oil rig ground meaning of ground ambiguous? Not obvious enough from syntax here that it's a sound. ?The oil rig bore down through screaming rock day and night, pumping life’s precious nutrients up to where the humans could steal them. You could make more of screaming by putting it in its own sentence. I'm guessing you can't hear submarine drilling from the surface. If that's true, maybe something like you couldn't hear it on the water's surface (implying the human world) but Lorna hears the screams when she dives. That could also make the submarine atmosphere more vivid and delicate. Humans were to blame for her people’s sickness, but constantly hiding in the city-caverns city was a bit of a jolt as I'd previously imagined the cavern to belong to a rural coast didn’t help either. I don't write for children but is the wording 'constantly hiding ... help either' too adult somehow?

                              Light filtered through shades of blue as she swam upwards. Only her eyes broke the surface Rick's right about her head physiology not being clear. ?Only the top of her head and eyes broke the surface? and the gray would the sea have shades of blue if the sky is gray? sky helped camouflage the glimmer her skin gave off. Men in bright orange suits scurried about the oil rig far above, too busy to notice her. The boy was in his usual place, fishing from a boat beneath the pillars that supported the immense show rather than tell  here, e.g. use the size of the boy to compare with the tall legs of the platform with its cranes and tower balanced on top, or whatever your oil rig looks like, . She paddled closer. 

                              As the only child born in decades, she often spied on the boy. He too seemed to live in a world of adults. Sometimes she thought she could feel his loneliness, but it was silly to think humans had feelings. As though to prove her point, the boy carelessly threw a half-full plastic bottle of dark liquid into the waves. 

                              Rage bolted through her slim body. She pounced on the floating object with its red label and lobbed it back. “STUPID BOY, KEEP YOUR POLLUTION ON LAND!” She pushed her thoughts out, honing in on him like a lightning rod.

                              The boy’s eyes widened, and his head rocked back as her thoughts hit their mark. Rising in fear, he startled again as the bottle reached him a second later would it take as long as a second?. It was enough to unbalance him, and he toppled into the sea. show a bit more here. A splash and the calm water swallowed him?

                              Lorna had never connected so quickly to another being not of their her race. It was unexpected that the boy could hear her. She frowned. Why didn’t he surface? She let herself sink underwater and swam closer. An old fishing net wrapped itself around the boy's leg and with each frantic tug he made to pull himself free, the net held him tighter tighter around the boy’s leg with each frantic tug.

                              She smirked. Served him right. Forgotten fishing nets had trapped and killed too many of her whale and dolphin friends. As she swam up next to him, the boy stopped struggling and looked her in the eyes. Fear and bewilderment filled his sea-green gaze. Would it be green? Stick to grey? (an aside but is sea water around oil rigs green? In my ignorance I associate green sea water with a chalk seabed rather than rock.)

                              Shame kicked her into motion. She hadn’t meant to hurt the boy. Too bad she didn’t have her backpack. Her teeth would have to do. “I’ll free you.” She couldn’t stop to see if he caught her thought this time, but he held still while her molars cut through the net. The boy didn’t have much time left. He needed air. Her own Heart beating fast, she pulled his leg out and dragged him to the surface. 

                              His body hung limp in her arms. Polluted! What had she done? She hauled him into the boat and pounded on his back. Relief flooded through her as he coughed and sputtered. Moving to the farthest corner boats don't really have corners. She could move to the bow or the stern of the boat, she waited. He should be okay now, but it was best to make sure. Music from the boat’s radio mixed with his coughing. You could make more of the music as a pollutant if you wanted to. The mention of music here feels incidental - sorry for the pun - yet you need the radio for later on.

                              The boy wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and glared at her. “Didn’t know there were any of you left.” He studied her, gulping in ragged breaths of air.

                              In the platform’s shadow, she knew her skin shone with a silver glow, and her eyes were larger than his, making it easier to see in the murky depths of the sea. Other than that, he shouldn’t find much to gawk at since her gills were hidden under her arms. Again, she connected her mind to his. “I’m Lorna,” she offered. 

                              “How are you doing that? Can you read my mind?” His tone was curious rather than accusing.

                              “Of course not. I can only reach out. The rest is up to the receiver.” She bit her lip. Although her people thought in all the major human languages, no one had ever been able to establish communication. 

                              “Ricki Ferrari. I…” he broke off as an excited voice on the radio interrupted. 

                              “News flash! A glimmermen spaceship has been discovered off the coast of Sicily. It looks to be intact and scientists are flocking to the site to study this amazing discovery.”

                              Lorna tensed. An undamaged spaceship? This could be the answer to their problems. There was only one way to find out if it was an old colony ship or the long-awaited mothership. What was she doing sitting here talking to the enemy while her people suffered? Throwing a last glance at Ricki, she dove into the sea.  

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                              • This is amazing, Libby. Thank you so much for taking time to help me. I love all your suggestions and I can see how it will make the opening stronger.

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                              • Hi Julie! Lovely writing! You've had some quite detailed comments already but I just wanted to say I enjoyed reading it and in terms of your original question, yes definitely the balance of back story and feeding us into Lorna's world seems really well done. Good luck with your zoom reading - I empathise, having just started a writing short-course myself. It is nerve-wracking but it sounds like your group are supportive, and it's such a learning experience to do these things and get everyone's feedback! Have fun! 

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                                • Hi Sarah! I'd love to know more about the writing course you're taking. Is it online? Would you recommend it? I'm finding that having to be accountable is good for me, so when this one is over, I might be interested in starting another. You can pm the info if you prefer.

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                                  • Hi Julie! This particular course is run by Bristol Folk House (they do all sorts of in-person courses as well) and yes, this one is online. So you don't technically need to be in Bristol! The title is 'Voice & Viewpoint in Creative Writing' (running for 12 weeks) but they run various things, as well as one-day and weekend workshops, although I think most of these have gone back to being in person. I've certainly found the exercises in class and for 'homework' inspiring and the tutor has made me think about things from a different perspective. But mainly it's just great to connect with people and learn from other people's perspective of your work and looking at theirs... I think there are lots of online courses now, post-Covid, from places that only did them in person before, and it's just a case of trying them out! I did one with Bristol Uni in the summer term and I enjoyed that one too, although I think the tutor for this one is better! Good luck with it all! 😊

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                                    • Thanks for the info. I'll check it out.

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                                    • Hi Julie, I've only just caught on to your story, but already I'm drawn in! I can't wait to read the whole thing. Good luck! 

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                                      • Thanks, Kathy!

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                                      • I think this is fab Julie. As others have said it strikes a good balance showing the world and the character whilst moving the story along. I wouldn’t get too stressed about the finer details of how she breathes in and out of the water. It is a fantasy for children and she is an alien so normal earth bound physiology need not apply. Children are good at suspending disbelief for the sake of a good story. Nobody has any problem with mermaids being amphibious. Keep going. It’s lovely.

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                                        • Thanks, Kate. And I'm so glad to hear you think my breathing scenario is okay. I keep second-guessing myself!  

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                                        • "Only her short eyestalks breaking the surface" or if you want to keep her as humanoid as possible, "She raised her head out of the water just to the point where her eyes broke the surface."  Sorry everyone I disagree; "The current urged her on" - I see far too many bad drawings where sailing ships are surging across the sea, sails billowed out and - the mast top flags streaming toward stern!  If the current is strong I can see the current pulling her hair to the front; all she has to be doing is not swimming as fast as the current is moving.  Bioluminescent skin.  Wow an interesting touch here.  She would have been a fantastic companion the last time I went into an Arizona cave!  [Remembering the spare batteries would have been great too.]  If you work this into a full story that glow could be worked into several things both helpful, as in my cave trip, and detrimental, "You are a little glowworm lady, do you think you are able to hide in here?  Sam douse the lights, she'll stand out like a campfire!"

                                          I'm impressed, I seldom can produce anything worth reading when I'm put on the spot the way you were for this.

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                                          • Thanks for the help and plotting ideas, Cal! I like the thought that she'll have a hard time if she's trying to hide and someone turns the lights out!

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                                          • Hi Julie,

                                            I've been following this fascinating thread and just wanted to say that I think the piece is charming and am very impressed with what you're doing, just like everyone else is.

                                            It's beautiful to see you expanding your repertoire and getting so much support.


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                                            • You are always so encouraging. Thanks for posting, Janet!

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                                            • I agree with Janet - and if it's a first draft, it's very impressive. The backstory is fed in seamlessly, with the one exception that the radio news is very conveniently timed. I would be thinking about developing her relationship with the boy first, so this key news can be heard more naturally. You could have a smaller event to build up their characters and relationship, before launching the main ET-style story. 

                                              It might be worth playing with the alien/mermaid ambiguity a little. 

                                              There wil be many small points of style and plausibility that readers like Rick and Libby are very good at picking up on. But now is not the time to worry about them, it's the time to kick on with the story, because you're on a good track. You'll doubtless see them all yourself, and more, after a couple of weeks away.

                                              The one jarring thing (for me) that might be worth considering early is why an alien would have a very English name like Lorna. It is commonly thought that the name was invented by RD Blackmore for his heroine Lorna Doone.

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                                              • Julie - I'd say, write what feels right for your story, and let others worry about labels, or deal with it later. Apart from blurred boundaries, there are overlaps of readership, and things like superhero stories which are essentially magic but written in a very sciency/techy way. To put it another way, it "invents" a new kind of science. So does His Dark Materials. I'm sure there are examples the other way round, real world science written in a fantastical way.

                                                Glad my feedback was useful!

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                                                • Thanks for the explanation, Jon. I didn't know there were so many sub-genres, mine will certainly fit in there somewhere and that last bit is exactly what I needed to hear!

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                                                  • Thanks, Glyn. I'm relieved to hear there's a lot of blurred lines.

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                                                  • Cute little story, Julie, nice one. I look forward to hearing more about the antics of the glimmermen. 😊 

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                                                    • Thanks, Neil!

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                                                    • Wow. I love all this. I think I’m going to start reading fantasy. It seems great fun. 🤪😂

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                                                      • I'm late to the party, but I haven't had too much time to browse lately - actually had to get some work done UGH! 

                                                        Anyway, in answer to your original question, I agree with everyone who said you got the balance right. I didn't immediately get ALIEN, but I did get OTHER, and by the end ALIEN was clear, and the build was nice. 

                                                        I also felt the the current urging her on indicated they were going in the same direction, so entirely plausible that her braid was beating her... as was mentioned, just needs a current faster than she is! She could even be racing - either the current or her braid, or both!

                                                        As for breathing... I was thinking more seals or whales than fish, but I was assuming she was humanish / mermaidish from the start. If they live in caverns, are the caverns deep water (hence underwater breathing), or shoreline (as this one seems to be) were you could get away with a seal-type breathing... though if you really want gills, she IS your alien! 😄

                                                        Also as others have said, I for one would read more! It's been a few day since the original post, have you done your reading yet? How did it go?

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                                                        • Yep, works for me.

                                                          We can deduce that she is non-human from the first line description of her webbed toes; it quickly becomes apparent that she is an aquatic species, too. Then we have the detail of her greyish skin.

                                                          It's not obvious that she's an alien (she could be a supernatural) until the final paragraph references a space-ship, but that's fine.

                                                          I always think you can credit the reader with a certain amount of intelligence and deductive ability.
                                                          Are you writing more?

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                                                          • Hi Todd! Thanks for your comments. Yes, this started out as an exercise but with all the encouragement from Townhouse, I've decided to go for it and I'm currently writing this middle-grade sci-fi!

                                                            I see that you are also writing sci-fi. I'll try to read it asap and give you some feedback. Welcome to Townhouse!  

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                                                            • Thanks, Julie, much appreciated.

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