In genres where there’s intense competition, your submission must really sparkle to stand out. Since the huge success of the Maze Runner and Hunger Games series, lots of people have wanted to write dystopian YA, where a group of teens is plunged into an alternate reality and must survive using their wits. Does this submission cut it?
Title: Degeneration (War of the Sexes)
Language: British English
Synopsis: Tired of being ignored and their future ruined by the childish conflicts of the older generations, teenagers of the world revolt and a select few are given their own island to prove that they can build a better society. But can they leave behind the influences they grew up around?
He’d been terrified when he accepted the offer.
He’d been terrified because they’d already taken his sister.
And he’d been terrified because there were a thousand subreddits about the island and ninety percent of them were steeped in chilling conspiracy theories.
It sounded too good to be true. There was no way a place as perfect as the island was real. No way, not in twenty-nineteen. And Derrick had been sure all the TV ads of it were a lie; a ruse designed to lure desperate teens like him and his sister into some new hell.
Now… now, standing amidst the very real plush furnishings of the island airport’s lounge, Derrick wasn’t so sure what to think anymore.
“Sir, is something the matter?” His Personal-Assistant drew him from his awe-struck stares at the white private-jet framed in the lounge’s windows.
Derrick almost burst out laughing. Only what seemed like hours ago he’d been cleaning toilets for laughable pay to feed his sister. Now he was riding in private jets and had his own personal assistant?
It was ridiculous. It was just the tip of the iceberg of the life he’d been told to expect if he agreed to move to the island—and it was all goddam insane.
How? Where? Why? What’s the catch? And the absurdity of it sent Derrick’s mind spiralling into his well of suspicions again.
The island was real, he couldn’t deny that now, but accepting that fact only opened the floodgates to all the other uncertainties that had made him, initially, refuse the move.
No one gave away the kind of things he’d been promised without wanting something in return. And the mysteries shrouding the island—like not being told where it was or how It’d seemingly appeared out of nowhere— left him dreading what it was going to cost him and his sister for agreeing to the move.
What the hell did we get ourselves into? Derrick turned to his PA, his mind crowded with even more questions, all fighting to get out at once and none managing to.
The PA wasn’t human yet looked so human and… looked oddly like Derrick himself. They had the same tanned complexion, had similar green eyes and the same defined cheekbones— although Derrick’s were that of a gaunt, poverty-stricken teenager while the man looked like a healthy middle-age model in an expensive tuxedo.
“An introductory video has been prepared with some things you may wish to know about the city. Would you take a moment to watch it first, Sir?” He offered.
“Ye…” Derrick was about to welcome any answer he could get when the most important of his questions fought its way to the fore. “No. My sister. Take me to my sister.”
Editorial critique: I don’t hold people to account for what they write in the synopsis to submit to this site. It’s not a true synopsis, and its sole purpose is really to let me understand roughly what the book is about so that I have some context for the critique. It’s not what you’d submit to an agent, which would be a proper one-page synopsis of the entire book. However, I was struck by the fact that this synopsis seems to contain a significant problem. The key phrase that threw me is, “teenagers of the world revolt and a select few are given their own island”. Exactly who did the teenagers revolt against, who gave them the island, and who administered the selection process? This doesn’t sound like a particularly successful revolution, one in which the rebels are then sorted by a higher authority and some sent to live on some island about which they know nothing (but are promised a lot). No change there then, most rebellious and cynical teenagers would say. If that is your pitch for this story, it needs rationalising.
On my point in the introduction, many writers have tried to emulate the success of the dystopian YA series, inspired by The Maze Runner and The Hunger Games. With each film of each trilogy, another slew of writers are inspired to write their own versions of the classic “throw teenagers on their own resources and see how they get on” trope. There’s nothing wrong with that. Dystopian YA is very popular and will remain so, especially (educational psychologists would say) while the real world these teenagers are maturing into seems so fragmented, unstable and out of control. It’s not a coincidence that the other period of history that generated classic dystopian YA (I’m thinking of Lord of the Flies and 1984) was the beginning of the Cold War in the early 1950’s. In many respects, the dystopia is already here.
However, that means it’s an incredibly tough market to break into. Your concept has to be watertight (hence my mention of the synopsis, which isn’t clear), and the presentation of your opening must be squeaky-clean. This one isn’t.
You’ve made things difficult for yourself by starting with one person’s inner thoughts. It’s very hard to avoid exposition and info-dumping with one character alone in a room. Most people do not talk to themselves. Most people do not have lengthy coherent thought processes. But without talking to themselves, or long internal thought monologues, or sequential filtered observations (“he saw this, he heard that, he recognised the other”), how are you going to divulge any information?
I’ve mentioned the pluperfect tense before (see this submission: link). “I had been” and “he had been” are warning signs that your writing is not as active as it should be, particularly at the beginning of a book where you want it to be the most active and engaging. Starting with three pluperfect sentences then, is not ideal. Essentially, the first 120 words of this opening are passive exposition. “He had thought this, that, and the other about this situation, and now he was here he wasn’t so sure that he had been right.” Writers sometimes hide behind the pluperfect tense when they’re trying to avoid using the word “was”, under the illusion that the word “was” is somehow evil and to be avoided. “Was” is a much more honest and open statement of past tense than the obsequious pluperfect, which flatters to dissemble. “He was terrified when he accepted the offer. He was terrified because they’d already taken his sister. He was terrified because …” … of all the stuff he’d read about the place.
I’d strongly suggest cutting all this needless theorising and go straight to dialogue with seemingly the only critter in the place, the non-human but strangely human personal assistant. “Sir, is something the matter?” ought to be the opening line of this story. It’s perfect for a number of reasons. For a start it’s a question. We immediately want to know the answer – is something the matter? Secondly, something so obviously is the matter. No-one, as Derrick laboriously points out over and over again, gives anyone anything for free (except on this website!). So what’s the catch? Why are these teenagers being treated like B-list celebrity royalty? Thirdly, just that phrase is suspicious. You immediately sense that the questioner is not asking whether anything is the matter. They’re trying to find out if you’ve noticed what is wrong.
The second problem with this opening is a lack of attention to detail, which I’ve also noted before in other submissions. “Personal Assistant” isn’t normally capitalised, unless referring to a job title, and it’s never hyphenated. Private jet is not hyphenated either, and you’re not consistent in your use of hyphenation. You capitalise “It’d” halfway through a sentence, and there are numerous punctuation errors. Given the attention which people devote to the openings of their novels in submission packages, agents will assume that this is your most highly polished prose, that you’ve spent the most time over. Even if they liked the concept, your synopsis, and the opening few pages, they’d likely be concerned about the execution. Are you a writer that they can depend upon to turn out a highly crafted and original manuscript that will blow a publisher away? I’m afraid that here, the answer is no, based on what we see. I can’t stress how high the bar is to get industry attention. Revise, polish, perfect.
Thanks for posting.
Thank you very much for that very honest feedback. I really needed a fresh pair of eyes on it and I cant tell you how grateful I am that you took time out of your busy schedule to give it a look. I will definitely tell everyone I can about your amazing website. Thanks again.