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Chapter 1 of Joe with an E

Hi, I've already posted this, and an earlier version of it, in the Children's Books and YA Authors writing group. Thanks for the excellent feedback on my earlier version. I realise now that this peer-to-peer critiques forum is probably the best place to ask for feedback now because I'm not sure that my book is really YA. I just thought it was because it had teenage protagonists. Also, in my early explorations of Townhouse, I'd not really spotted this forum.

My book is set in a 'dystopian' future Britain which is genderless - everyone is a 'neut' (I won't go into why for now). Except that some babies have started to develop in the pregnancy pods with clear gender (or actually sex), which is seen as an abnormality.

Chapter 1 (attached) is about a boy (Joe) travelling to an island - a safe haven for gendered teens. Chapter 2 introduces us to the island and some of the other characters that Joe gets to know. Chapter 3 is then written in first person by one of Joe's parents, taking us back to when they first learnt that their baby was going to be a 'boy'. About 60% of my chapters are telling Joe's adventures from the point of arriving at the island onwards, which includes having to leave and travel back across neut Britain with two friends. About 35% is Joe's parent telling the story of his birth and upbringing and eventually converging with Joe's own story. The remaining few chapters are extracts from a scientist's logbook from >100 years in the past.

I'd love some feedback on the writing itself, now that I've revised it. Also, any thoughts on genre and age I should be aiming this at, based on what I've described? Thanks.

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Replies (17)
  • Hi Paul,

    This is not my genre (YA), but I still think it's a great idea. And I love a bit of dystopia!

    I have edited and critiqued the attached. Just a bit more sharpness and clarity here and there and you're away.

    Great chapter end - see my comment for another option.

    Looking forward to seeing more.

    Good luck with it.


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    • Hi Neal, thank you so much for taking the time to suggest some edits. I think you're absolutely right about the extra words I need to trim out. By the time I've finished editing, I think my novel should be half it's original length (perhaps not a bad thing!!)

      The skipper is not a 'he', which is why I've avoided using masculine pronouns for them, and have used them/their/they pronouns in a couple of places. The skipper is a neut.

      I didn't want to reveal the boy's name until my final sentence, which is perhaps why I keep starting sentences with 'He...' instead. In places, I've used 'the boy' instead. I shall have to give that some more thought.

      I'm glad you pointed out the confusion about when he's moving the lifeboat. I completely rewrote that sequence on Friday and I can see now it doesn't read very well. The boat is actually upside-down on the deck so first he's dragging it toward the edge, then he ducks under it (which is why 'blindly'). Then he lifts the bow of the lifeboat up onto the edge of the trawler and then moves to the stern of the lifeboat (still underneath it) and lifts that up so that the boat slides/topples into the water. The underside of the stern knocks the skipper on the chin as Joe hefts it up in the air and then because he's still partly underneath it, it almost knocks him off his own feet as it slides/topples off the trawler. That's what was in my mind anyway!

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      • Aha - of course - a neut!

        That boat scene is a tough one to explain. You might want to incorporate some of the description you have written above.

        Good work anyway.

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      • Hi Paul

        Before I reply to your feedback on my post I thought I had better return the favour!  As you know, I am coming at this from the perspective of an inexperienced writer.  :) I will let other more experienced writer's cover the technical aspects as I still don't have a clear enough handle to give advice but I have just put down some thoughts that struck me.

        I really like your style.  I read a lot of YA fiction and I felt at home immediately.  I don't know how dark your story will become but I would have thought from an audience perspective it seems from this chapter to sit alongside something like the Hunger Games or Divergent.  So perhaps 13+.  I wouldn't necessarily move away from YA just yet as I already can see this fitting that genre well, although it maybe will depend on how the story develops.

        Very happy to see an opening Scottish accent!  Possibly Aberdonian if I am not mistaken?? Dialect is hard to write and I know some people say not to try to write it out phonetically, however, I think you handle it really well and I could hear it clearly in my head.

        I love the sentence: As the seconds ebbed faster than the tide underneath them, Regender's meticulous plans were unravelling.  I wondered though if you could draw the pace out a little bit here before he makes the decision to run at the skipper.  Just linger a little longer on his desperation to get going before he goes careering into the skipper just so the reader really feels it and the decision to run at a grown person seems like the natural progression.  

        Just something else that came to me was regarding the skips in time that you have explained above.  Have you read Asimov's The Foundation?  That book skips 100s of years in the future at each chapter.  At first it is a real jolt for the reader until you get used to the pattern.  I am only a few pages in but as a reader I am already really invested in this character and don't really want to move away from them too much and for too long which is great and means you have done your job.  To avoid that jolt coming too late down the line could you put in a really short log book entry after chapter two that doesn't give anything away, just to get the reader used to the fact that they will be skipping back in time every now and then?  You may have already thought of this but just thought I would flag as it was a thought that struck me.   

        Also I wondered if you could introduce a clearer clue/explanation that the skipper is genderless or is it not important at this stage?  It isn't very clear but maybe you don't want it to be yet.  

        Altogether, I thought this was really gripping and there is some strong writing.  Thank you for sharing.  

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        • Thanks Rebecca, your comments are really helpful and encouraging. 

          I'm glad that you think I've got the Scottish dialect/accent about right. I can't claim to have any expertise in Scottish accents (being a southern born Englishman, now living in Cumbria) and I confess I wasn't doing anything so nuanced as aiming for a particular regional dialect. In fact, the island Joe is heading to is on the west coast (based on the island of Muck). Interestingly, I think that this little bit of Scottish accent is the only bit of regional dialect I have in the whole book but I felt it needed to be there because the skipper has to be Scottish to give a sense of location right at the start.

          I think you're right about dwelling on the decision a bit more before Joe charges at the skipper. Joe is generally someone who thinks before acting. It's just how much to dwell on thoughts in the middle of a fast moving action scene.

          I've not read Asimov's The Foundation. I shall have to add that to my summer holiday reading list! My first extract of the scientist's logbook is chapter 5, so a little later than your suggestion. I think I want to leave it there because chapter 3 takes us back to introduce Joe's parents, before he was born and is the first clear mention of the fact Britain is a neut society. For the same reason, I want to keep the skipper's gender intentionally vague in this first chapter - not making it too obvious that they are neither male nor female. In earlier versions of chapter 1, I hadn't even got any they, them or their in chapter 1 and in fact, throughout the book, I have avoided using any pronoun for any of the neut characters unless it makes the writing awkward. I added in the they/their/them in this latest revision of chapter 1 because of comments I had about trying to hint a little that the skipper is different from Joe and also because I wanted to simplify some of my sentences. I might need to do a bit more of that as I work through the rest of my chapters.

          Thanks again for your feedback.

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          • Hi. Great - I thought you had probably thought of all that already but thought I'd raise it.

            Re: Joe running at the skipper. I don't think you need to have him think about what he's going to do next. I liked that he was impulsive. More I just saw an opportunity for you to build tension by giving another couple of sentences that show his desperation at the moment slipping away. This is a terrible example but something like "he looked at the skipper then looked at the jetty which now seemed further away than it ever had." That way when he lunges you really feel a sense of relief he is acting. Hope that makes sense. 

            I look forward to reading more at some point.

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          • p.s. I love the last line "Joe with an E because I'm a boy".  As a mother of a toddler it just gently pulled at the heartstrings a bit - I got a sense of that emergence of identity.  Great!

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            • Great! It's good to know I'm tugging heartstrings. I will have to share with you my chapters written by Joe's parent at some point (but not until I've done some more editing). From what you've said, I suspect you might feel more heartstring tugging. Also, as a reader of YA fiction, I'll be interested in your perspective on whether those chapters fit in a YA novel. That's assuming you're happy to read more at some point. I will be happy to read more of your novel too.

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              • Yes absolutely! If be very happy to. 😁

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              • Hi Paul,

                I really enjoyed this chapter. I thought the writing was clear and straightforward, and the events were described in a very captivating way.

                I thought the way you depicted the genderless nature of the skipper was cleverly and seamlessly done; where the avoidance of male/female pronouns could have been clumsy or contrived it never was. In fact the only time I noticed it was the first 'they'... and that's fine because if I hadn't been pre-warned by your introduction that would have det up quite a nice question in my mind which, of course, your really very good last line would have answered.

                I think the concept is excellent, with lots of potential, and it has particular force at this time, when trans and non-binary people are facing many similar issues and struggles to those that gay people faced thirty or forty years ago, having to deal with the same sorts of resistance, and beginning to have their voices finally heard. Sensitively handled, I think this could be a powerful story indeed.

                I thought there were a few moments when the action could be a bit more clearly described; I had to read the passage depicting Regender's struggle with the skipper and his final escape a couple of times to get a sense of exactly what was happening, and even then I couldn't quite visualise the sequence of events fully.

                I also thought that the chapter could be made stronger through some judicious pruning of redundant adjectives and adverbs, and just general tightening up where the sense is implicit without needing the extra detail. We know that sea water will be 'salty' and we probabaly assume it will be 'icy' too.. we probably don't need to be told! 

                Somewhat hypocritically, since it's advice that I always deservedly get when I post my own work for critique here(!) I think the chapter would also benefit from a bit more focus on Regender's inner world. The descriptions of his actions and responses are very well drawn, but we don't get much insight into his feelings - fear, anger, excitement, relief. When we do, it's generally through being 'told' what his thoughts are by the author - 'he thought', 'he felt' and so on. This can be a bit distancing. If you can find some points when his emotional responses are shown to us directly through his actions that would help bring us closer to him and carry us along with him even more. 

                A terrific start, though, and a wonderful final moment to springboard us into the next chapter!

                Although I'm not a YA expert by any means, I think that Rebecca's estimate of 13+ for the target audience's age seems right. Certainly the language used suggests that sort of age, and your potential audience will have an intellectual understanding of the theme and subject matter as well as an emotional reaction to it. This doesn't necessarily mean the book is a YA novel per se though. Or so I imagine. Others with more experience in the arcane art of genre definition will probably be able to advise you better than me on that!

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                • Thanks Jon for those helpful thoughts. I almost completely rewrote the 'action scenes' with the struggle and escape last Friday and so I keep seeing bits where it needs improving.

                  By the way, the boy is called Joe. Regender is the name of the underground organisation which is helping to smuggle gendered teens to the island. Perhaps I should not mention them at this point, so as to avoid the confusion that you had.

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                  • Ah!  Hahaha! Sorry about the confusion over the name! At least I'm glad to have provided an unwitting extra insight! 😁

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                  • All I can say is I like it! Not very helpful I know.

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                    • Hi Paul

                      Thanks for sharing this. I really enjoyed it. If you want to read my penny's worth, see the attached.

                      All the best


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                      • Hi Tony. I'm glad you enjoyed it and thanks for the time taken in putting down your comments. First thing to say is that I think I've already addressed some of your points in my latest edit, which I included together with my more recent post of chapter 2. If you have time to look at it at some point, I'd love to know what you think of the changes I've made. Regender is actually the underground organisation that is smuggling gendered kids to the island. I've now taken their name out of chapter 1 because someone else thought it was the boy's name as well. It's not really necessary to mention them yet and is less confusing if I don't. I've also reduced the number of sentences starting with He...

                        I'm glad you want to know more about the significance of the island. I did feel that in this first, quite short chapter I didn't want to reveal more. More about the island is revealed in chapter 2. I certainly don't feel that I want to reveal this early on what the island is all about. Is it wrong to keep your readers guessing for a bit?

                        Joe is about 13 and a half. I think that often in YA novels, the young protagonists can come across as wiser or stronger than is realistic for their years. Teenagers can also be incredibly strong minded and also over confident in their abilities. I think this is perhaps what young people want to see in a character - perhaps a character they can aspire to be like, whilst still identifying with them. Joe has also been brought up in a challenging world for him and as an only child, so I think of him as quite mature.

                        Yes, the world I describe is not too different from our own. I wanted to do that because I don't feel I'm an SF writer, I want readers to be able to feel that this is a world that they know, except that certain things are very different. I justify this lack of progress in my future world with the fact that Britain effectively 'stagnated' after the events which led to its neut future. I don't want to reveal too soon that some of the characters are genderless. I think I'm right in saying that in Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses, it is not immediately obvious that the rich and powerful crosses are black and the poor and oppressed noughts are white and that makes it even more striking when you do realise it. I want to try to aim for a similar effect where readers gradually learn about the neut world I have created.

                        It sounds like I've just rebuffed all that you've said. Sorry. It has at least helped me to think things through and I will keep your feedback and read it again in the days to come as I continue to review and revise.

                        Thanks again. Paul.

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                      • Read it, liked it, want to know more. Not much I can comment on, but this is not a genre I'm very into, and I really enjoyed it. 

                        I like your style, the first chapter hooks you and, as mentioned above, that last line is a killer.

                        If the narrator is Joe's POV and not an outside voice, or an hybrid as I'm fond of using, I would suggest removing the nautical terms (that he wouldn't know), and go for terms a child would use. That might simplify the description in the fight scene. 

                        A bit against the grain to what I've been reading around here, don't be afraid of those extra words. We're writing novels, not telegrams, and if that's your voice, use it. That said, use it wisely.



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                        • Thanks Pedro

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