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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » MICE - and beginnings (the hook, darnit, it's about the hook again.)

Author Topic: MICE - and beginnings (the hook, darnit, it's about the hook again.)
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I'm noodling away on my novel - YA sci-fi, and keep coming back to the beginning (the further I get in editing, the more I keep coming back to the beginning...) to try to figure out if I'm starting the story in the right place, if the hook is there, if it's compelling enough.

I'm going to try to explain the issue I'm having in broad enough terms that it can relate to others, as I'm not really asking if the words I've selected make a compelling hook and encourage you to read more, but rather if I've got my head on straight about where to start the story, the kinds of events that are compelling as a story start, for the particular kind of story I'm telling.

So - is everyone familiar with OSC's MICE quotient? Milieu, Idea, Character, Event? It's explained well in his two books - Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and also in Characters and Viewpoints (which if you only have time for one book, I recommend the second.)

So my story is a combination Milieu/Idea story. The protagonist is a girl who arrives on a space station, a big part of the story is her "fish out of waterness" - this is the first time she's lived in space. This is where the Milieu part of the story comes into play - her getting familiar with, and in some cases fighting against, the unusual details of living on a space station.

However the plot revolves around a vague but increasingly important/urgent issue related to the space station's central computer (the MC is something of a computer whiz.) This is the idea part of the story, the caper. Something is wrong, she and her friends are the only ones who figure it out, and thus the only ones who can make it right (as is typical in a YA story, the kids have to solve the problem...adults don't swoop in to fix things or help just at the right moment.)

Because the milieu part of the story is the overarching theme, the stranger-in-a-strange land concept, I start the story literally with the first moment the MC steps onto the space station.

And therein begin my doubts. Because it's hardly a rip roaring crazy adventurous good time when she first steps onto the space station. She looks around, notices details, attends orientation with the rest of her Lander group. But, it is a good opportunity for me to set up things, like her relationship with her parents (strained, she's not pleased about being moved up to the Space Station), the way she talks to inanimate objects (she says thank you to doors that open, desk chairs that move for her, much to her brother's chagrin), and gives me a chance to have her meet her ultimate antagonist (the high school's computer science teacher) and love interest (another kid who comes moves up to the space station at the same time.)

In short, I think there are some good things accomplished in the opening chapter or two (I haven't finished dividing the completed book into chapters, I'm still doing my editing.) But I'm worried that it's just not compelling enough.

Any words of wisdom? Comfort? Slaps aside the head to just finish the darn thing (finish editing, that is. It's complete right now at 53k words), write the query letter, and send it out into the big bad world?

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When you finish your edits, set the manuscript aside for three or four weeks minimum, then go back and read it again. If it still looks good to you, then start shopping it. That's my 2 cents.
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Hi KayTi, and congrats on getting so far along in the project.

I read an interesting book earlier this year: Matter, by Iain M Banks. What was interesting about this book was that in attempting to be an epic space-opera it quite easily straddled all of the MICE categories. Particularly, I noticed that Banks used a prologue and epilogue to start and end different aspects of the story. Perhaps I'm just more in tune to it having learned more writing structure recently, but I very much enjoyed this approach.

I'll try to explain my understanding of the device he used, and hopefully it'll be helpful. As we know, the MICE quotient implies a contract: That when you start a book of one type you're promising to finish a book of that type.

In Banks' book the prologue serves to start the implied contract for a 'milieu/idea story'*. In the opening chapter he then starts a second contract - the 'character/event story'.

Both stories intertwine throughout, and then he finishes the last chapter by ending the 'milieu/event story'. Yes, it doesn't match 1:1 with either the prologue or first chapter.

This of course leaves the reader intensely dissatisfied, since the implied contract of answering the idea (cultural intervention) and closing the character arc is left dangling. This reader then frustratingly flipped through the glossary to discover the one-page epilogue he's cheekily hidden after it - which in turn neatly closed the 'character/idea story' arcs.

So it seems apparent to me that the MICE quotient isn't an absolute, so much as a way to help us self-analyse: Am I promising this kind of story? Is it being clearly closed?

My 2c

* I must admit, I'm simplifying his approach somewhat to fit with the MICE concept.

[This message has been edited by BenM (edited July 05, 2009).]

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It sounds to me like your hook is solid. A reader will give you a couple of chapters to set up your world before and if your character is compeling in those chapters then it should be fine. It doesn't sound like there will be no tension since the MC is dealing with a new surrounding and other issues. Don't stress about it and I agree with Spaceman set it aside, then read it and if it works for you then go with it.
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The question as I see it is: Does the opening have a character in a context with a problem that entices a reader to immerse in the emcee's meaning space and thus the story. No less and no more is needed. An opening doesn't have to rip out a jugular vein to seduce a reader. Though, in young adult fiction, the audience does prefer a little edginess in their focal characters and their contexts and problems. Whitebread Beaver Cleavers and Nancy Drews make young-adult readers cringe.

The milieu of a space station is fairly dynamic, at least in how its context and initial problem are relevant to a milieu story feature. A character new to a space station is a perhaps unwelcome and timid and leery ugly duckling out of her natural pond. In other words, one of milieu storys' conventions is the hero is forced to leave home (sanctuary), journey through hardships, and seek a return to sanctuary. As befits a coming of age story, the journey toward sanctuary is attaining the relative comfort of an incremental increase in maturity through the trials of growing up. The ugly duckling emerges a mature swan.

Why the emcee is forced to go to the space station and what and/or who she left behind are important. They ought to inform what she encounters on the space station.

One critical feature of a coming of age ending is that the coming of age must not only be realized, it must be validated. She will naturally realize internally that she's adjusted to space station life, fit in with the crowd, matured, but unless there's an external realization, there's not as much validation and an ending falls flat from potential ambiguity.

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Good to see you back...
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I'm not here or there or all the way gone, if ever, just sporadic and piecemeal participation and currently taking a distraction break from accommodating to and applying what I've learned in order to share part of it.
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Hi Kayti, a few thoughts occurred to me in reading your description here. You are working with a pretty classic theme, and one that's particularly powerful for young adults--alienation, feeling like you don't belong or that no one understands you, etc.

Because it is such a classic theme, I think it's not going to take much to get your readers to feel sympathy for your character. However, I do think you need to introduce the story question sooner than later. For instance, the innate tension is that she doesn't fit in to her new world, maybe she hates it. So then the question I think that needs to be established is how does she intend to fix it. I.e., don't let her be passive about it. These little attempts, failures, of course, could build up to the larger caper which will drive the plots. That way, the reader understands that only by solving the caper can she find succor for her alienation.

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I'd say if your MC is having a problem finding action, you could always get her in trouble. A common theme in YA fiction besides that the kids have to solve the problems and the adults either play a minor or nonexistent role, is that often the adults are directly interfering with their efforts and causing problems.

Maybe she's so unfamiliar with the station's layout that she goes somewhere that's off limits. She gets caught in there and the officer/security guard/whatever makes a bigger deal out of it than the situation warrants, suspects her of being a spy, whatever.

Another common theme in YA is alienation from one's own peer group. Maybe she gets off the zero gee shuttle and back to where there's some semblance of gravity and her stomach can't take the shock (a common enough thing), so she ends up throwing up in front of a bunch of kids her own age.

Or you could pander to the awe everyone feels at new things to describe some extraordinary feature of the station.

Just some ideas. Hope you can get it sorted out ^^.

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I like the sound of your story, it's the sort of material I like to read. It seems to me there is already tension there when she arrives on the station because later in your description you explain a conflict between the protagonist and her parents about going to the station.

One thing that other writers of stories with a strong milieu component have done is to start at the moment of change for the character, or shortly before. (Frodo in the Shire, Harry Potter before he learns he is a wizard, etc.). Does the story begin for your character when she arrives on the station, or does it start when she learns that she is going, or at some other time?

Maybe it's because I recently read Peter S. Beagle's book _Tamsin_ (about a girl uprooted when her mother remarries) that I feel certain that there's enough tension latent in the scenario you describe to hook the reader if you work it right.

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Hi Kayti,

I've been doing the 'slush defiers' threads. Can I look at your first couple of pages?

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Your hook sounds good, I think it could work. One thought inspired by that last Harry Potter reference:

One of the major epic archetypes (if you're a Joseph Campbell disciple...) is that stories start when something changes from the norm. If you are worried about starting in the right spot, I ask if you have tried other spots? I've had to rewrite my beginning about 7 times, each time moving around in chronology, until I finally found one I like (for now...)

If your character arrives on a space station, would a good intro be before that? Perhaps when she finds out she is going to leave her home? Remember in Harry Potter, we see a kid in horrible circumstances, until he is told he is going to a special school. I think sometimes that show-what-is-normal then remove-from-normal is a good hook in and of itself. JK Rowling would have had a harder time writing Harry just stepping right into Hogwarts without revealing his situation beforehand. For your character, is there anything you could show about why she has to go to a space station in the first place?

Just a thought, though I still think your starting point works well. I'd like to see the intro to see how you are doing it...

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extrinsic: I kept reading your "emcee" and picturing guy scratching records with one headphone off his ear.

Yes, I just realized: MC. But what you say often goes whoooop over my head so it's really not unusual.

KayTi: I've said this before (some time ago now) but I think we should trade manuscripts. I read lots o' middle grade / ya and these days I'm a seasoned veteran (ha!) of boot camp. I might have some insight for you.

Also, my ms isn't so different... I went with an event wrapper on a character story with a strong millieu component. Well that's a mouthful! Anyway, email me if you'd like me to look at it. I'd be happy to.


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