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BC9: A Slow Start?

When readers voice their opinions of my work in their reviews, I have a strict no retaliation policy. If someone expresses a negative viewpoint, I don't respond. I instead choose to appreciate the time they took to read the book and leave a review.

Now that Beyond Cloud Nine has been published for almost two years, I've received enough feedback to glean a few recurring patterns in what people are saying. Therefore, this blog post takes a look at the top three constructive criticisms about the novel: the "slow start" of the beginning, the grand-sweeping conspiracy, and the likeability of the main protagonist.

The first and most common shortcoming I read in reviews is that the book starts off slow. I understand what readers mean when they say "slow," but from a pacing and action standpoint, the first few chapters are anything but slow. After a handful of introductory pages, chapter 1 portrays two space battles. Following a terrorist attack at the end of chapter 2, chapters 3 and 4 are mostly action. Chapters 5 through 12 take it down a notch with character building and interpersonal conflict but the pace of the exposition remains steady. I think readers who get used to the action in the first 4 chapters might perceive a brief lull in 5-12.

What I think readers might actually mean by a "slow start" is that the story takes up until chapters 13 and 14 (about a third of the way into the novel) for the primary conflict to get underway. A couple of reveals occur in these two chapters that set the stage for the rest of the novel. In my own analysis of the story arc, chapter 14 contains the inciting incident. The first third of the book up until the end of chapter 14 would be considered backstory while everything after that would be considered the actual story (according to the Wikipedia definition of inciting incident). Thus, I think some readers might not get pulled into the story until the inciting incident. Hence, the perception of a slow start.

Now, I think there are a lot of intriguing things that happen in the first third of the novel. To me, the opening conflict and Brooke's time on Earth hardly seem like mere backstory. That said, when I read a work of fiction, I need to empathize with the main character, and I need to know where it's going (get to the point!) as soon as possible or else my attention wavers. Brooke is a standoffish character at first, so it may take a while for readers to empathize with her. One of the main story arcs is her personal growth, and to grow, she's got to start off less likeable in the beginning. Also, if we assume the inciting incident reveals the point of the story, readers might not have a good sense of where things are headed until that point.

The funny thing is that I knew the beginning wasn't perfect when I published BC9. I worried that the reader might not get hooked right away, so rewrote the first chapter several times. An earlier draft of chapter 1 started out with Brooke in the middle of the battle with the separatist fighters, rocketing away from the exploding particle collector in her Starthroat. I added the few opening pages of her sitting around looking out at Jupiter and eating cereal in response to feedback that readers had a hard time figuring out what was going on at first. I hoped a slower start would hook people better, but the issue really stretches all the way through the first third of the book. Even now, I don't know what I would do to grip readers more quickly. Should I have started off the story with the events near and on Titan in chapters 13 and 14? That would've required a major restructuring if it would've worked at all. It's something to consider.

No matter how hard I tried to avoid it, the beginning of BC9 also fell victim to the same pitfall as the beginnings of most other works of hard science fiction. Here's the thing, people. All hard science fiction starts off slow. The books are long and intricate and take a while to build up steam. Every book I've ever read by my favorite authors (Peter Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, etc.) takes 50 pages for me to get a sense for what's going on and 100 pages to really get pulled into the story. So to a large degree, BC9's slow start is really hard sci-fi's slow start. It's par for the course. Certain stories require a certain amount of setup, and you have to give yourself time to get to know the characters and world.

The second thing I read in some reviews is that the conspiracy is cliche or wouldn't work, especially over the timespan of hundreds of years. Unlike the slow start, which maybe one-third of all readers point out, only a handful of readers have criticized the conspiracy (but enough to warrant mentioning here). On the other hand, many more readers have applauded the conspiracy, so go figure.

I'm in full agreement that the longer a conspiracy lasts, the more chances there are to expose it. Sooner or later, somebody squeals or screws up. That makes sense, so in BC9, I addressed some of these arguments. The antagonists use high-tech information-manipulation techniques. They have key individuals in positions of great importance who can take action to cover things up. And they wield technology more advanced than the most advanced tech fielded by any government, which helps them keep things under wraps.

But is that enough to keep things quiet for centuries? Maybe. Maybe not. Truth be told, the reader doesn't get to see the whole picture in book 1. Book 2, Beyond the Horizon, delves a little bit deeper into just how the antagonists kept the truth suppressed and continue to suppress it. A fairly big reveal toward the end of book 2 better explains how and why, and books 3 and 4 reinforce things even more.

One thing I wanted to do more of in BC9 was show the separatists and the conflict that was driving them to oppose the UN. I considered adding an extra chapter or two, but I decided against it because the book was long enough. It's important to keep the principle of viewpoint in mind when considering what a book may be lacking. BC9 is Brooke's story. The reader goes along with Brooke and discovers things as she experiences them. The reader knows what Brooke knows. The reader more or less is Brooke for most of the story, seeing things through her eyes. Brooke isn't an expert on the separatists or the conspiracy, so much of this happens in the background.

I'm not sure if I'll ever write it (it for sure won't happen until I'm able to quit my day job), but I have an idea for a Beyond prequel about a young person who gets involved with the separatists and conspirators. The book would show the plot aspects that could've used more elaboration in BC9.

One early reader's comment about the conspiracy being cliche still sticks with me. It's true that I use the general concept of a government conspiracy manipulating society toward a hidden agenda as a main story arc. I was influenced by the conspiracies in the X-Files, the Da Vinci Code, and Star Trek's Section 31 (from DS9 and Enterprise, not Into Darkness). But other than the high-level story arc, there's nothing cliche about my specific implementation of the conspiracy. To the best of my knowledge, no other work of fiction has ever done a conspiracy quite like mine. I'm rather proud of my idea to have the antagonists leverage the standard alien invasion we've all seen for non-standard purposes.

Now, I'm not saying that my plot is perfect. I know it's not flawless, and it would be arrogant to assume I did no wrong. But overall, I believe the plot is solid and plausible. Even if it's not airtight, it has at most a few pin-sized holes and slow leaks. At the very least, it's better than most big budget Hollywood movie plots, although lately that's not saying much.

Lastly, a few readers didn't care for Brooke, wanted more background on her character, and/or took a while to warm up to her. Again, BC9 is her story. Triumphing over the antagonists isn't any more important to the story than her triumphing over her personal demons. I intentionally portrayed Brooke as someone who's hard to get along with at first. Through reuniting with family and other events, she becomes a more well-rounded person and learns what's important to her. I had her do a couple selfless acts in the first few chapters to show she's not completely self-centered, if anyone was paying attention.

I would've liked to have gone more into Brooke's backstory, although I think the flashback with her father and ensuing encounters with her sister paint a pretty good picture. I had plans to show a flashback or two of the sisters' upbringing with foster parents after the deaths of their biological parents, but the scenes never materialized. Again, the book was long enough. Book 4, Beyond Existence, deals with both time travel and alternate universes, so it might be a good candidate to dive into the past of the characters.

So there you have it. If you've read BC9, do my thoughts jive with yours? Did you gloss over everything I discussed, or do you think things are worse than I let on? Let me know!

Happy reading!

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Beyond Saga

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Beyond Yesterday

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Beyond Existence

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