I was hoodwinked by the marketing of Winter World. It says “International Bestseller” on the cover, and without thinking about it too hard, I assumed that meant this book was a bestseller. Only later did I realize it’s probably referring to the author, A. G. Riddle. This fits the glowing quote at the top, which is actually about a different book by Riddle. Needless to say, I don’t feel bad about critiquing this book.
Your Opening Shouldn’t Look Like a Dream
Chapter 1, Emma, opens with a short blurb that is clearly meant to function as a teaser. Let’s start with the first sentence.
For the past five months, I have watched the world die.
Well, that certainly introduces a conflict with stakes. Since the title and cover already communicate how the world is dying, it’s not particularly intriguing, but the hook is solid. Three out of five stars.
Glaciers have advanced across Canada, England, Russia, and Scandinavia, trampling everything in their path. They show no signs of stopping. The data says they won’t.
Within three months, ice will cover the Earth, and life as we know it will end.
My job is to find out why.
And to stop it.
So is the problem that the world is getting colder, or is the problem that the world’s glaciers have come alive and are feasting on us feeble heat bags? Perhaps in revenge for global warming?
The focus on glaciers is a little strange because a drop in temperature would be incredibly destructive before glaciers are taken into account. Plus, glaciers grow really slowly, so it feels unlikely that glaciers could form that fast even with a steep temperature drop. I suspect Riddle decided to focus on glaciers simply because they’re so big and iconic.
Sentient glaciers aside, this teaser effectively sets up the stakes of the book. My only real concern is whether this problem is too big for one person to solve like the teaser suggests.
Let’s move on to the first scene.
The alarm wakes me. I struggle out of my sleeping bag and pull open the privacy door to my sleeping station.
I haven’t slept well since coming to the International Space Station. Especially not since the Winter Experiments began. I toss and turn every night, wondering what the probes will find and if the data will reveal a way to save us.
This is a pretty good start. We have conflict in the form of an alarm, and the scene is set clearly with the sleeping bag and the follow-up specifying this is the International Space Station. We even know the protagonist is here to collect data to save the world, important information for an opening.
However, it has a couple rough points. First, readers might assume the alarm is from a normal alarm clock, making it really jarring when they learn this is a system alarm on a space station. Just calling it “the station alarm” would probably fix that.
Second, it’s awkward to transition from something immediate and urgent like a blaring alarm to something trivial and ongoing like whether the protagonist is sleeping well. It makes the latter feel like an anticlimactic intrusion. I would have taken one of these options instead:
- Starting with the sleeping problem and using it to explain why the protagonist was awake when she heard the alarm.
- Waiting until after the alarm was dealt with to describe the protagonist’s insomnia.
- Making sleep deficiency relevant to the protagonist’s alarm response. Maybe she forgets something and blames it on lack of sleep.
I drift out into the Harmony module and tap the panel on the wall, trying to identify the source of the blaring alarm. The solar array’s radiators are overheating. I watch as the temperature climbs. Why? I have to stop it—
For a moment after reading this, I thought it was a dream sequence. We’ve just heard the protagonist is having trouble sleeping because the world is freezing, and then she wakes up to a sudden temperature climbing emergency. This could easily be the stress over the fate of the world leaking into her dreams, and otherwise it feels a little too sudden to be real.
Spoiler: it’s not a dream.
Your Male Character Might Be an Asshole If…
Sergei’s voice crackles in my earpiece, his Russian accent thick. “‘Is the solar array, Commander.”
I look into the camera above me. “Explain.”
“Sergei, answer me. Is it debris? Why are we getting heat buildup?”
There are a million ways to die on the ISS. Losing the solar array is a sure one. And there are a lot of ways to lose the array. It operates similarly to photovoltaic solar cells on Earth: solar radiation is converted to direct current electricity. The process generates a lot of excess heat. That heat is dissipated via radiators that face away from the sunlight, into the dark of space. If those radiators are overheating, the heat has nowhere to go but inside the station. That’s bad for life here.
We need to figure this out, and quickly.
Sergei sounds distracted, maybe annoyed. “‘Is not debris, Commander. I explain when I know. Please get sleep.”
After my last critique, I just want to say how nice it is when a writer gives me the information I need to understand the current situation and also doesn’t dump random exposition. The exposition in this excerpt not only explains what the solar array is but also lets us know why it matters that the array is overheating.
But what the hell is up with Sergei? First, why didn’t he wake his commander up to inform her about this issue before a blaring alarm went off? He doesn’t respond when she asks what’s going on, and then he dismissively tells her to forget about it and go to sleep.
I would say this is a realistic depiction of sexism in the workplace, but I doubt that’s what Riddle intended. Instead I’m betting part of the issue is that Riddle wants this solar array problem to be both an emergency and not an emergency. To maximize tension, he emphasizes the direness of the situation using the blaring alarm, the commander’s reaction, and the exposition about the solar array. But Sergei’s reaction makes more sense if the situation isn’t an emergency, and Riddle doesn’t seem ready to commit all his characters to an emergency response. You can’t have it both ways, Riddle.
Regardless of why Sergei’s acting this way, astronauts are some of the most rigorously vetted, ridiculously qualified people in the world. It seems unlikely that someone like this would make it into space. Given that, I also wonder how realistic his English as a second language (ESL) dialogue is. However, even if it is realistic, I don’t recommend sabotaging the grammar of your dialogue to mimic ESL speech. Even if you manage to make it sound authentic, it’s been used for racist depictions too often.
The door to the sleep station next to me slides open. Dr. Andrew Bergin stares out with puffy, sleepy eyes.
“Hey, Emma. What’s up?”
“Not sure yet.”
“Sergei, what do you think it is?”
“I think it is solar output. Too high,” Sergei says over the comm.
“A solar flare?”
“Yes. Has to be. Is not isolated radiator malfunction—they all overheated.”
“Shut down the array. Go to battery power.”
“Do it, Sergei. Right now.”
This is a three-way conversation with few dialogue tags, and it almost works. The biggest problem is that “Shut down the array” could be Emma speaking or it could be Andrew.
If it’s Emma, Sergei is once again dragging his feet with his commander. Even if that were Andrew telling him to shut down the array, we now know that Sergei is happy to respond when a dude asks him questions. I still doubt the sexism is intentional, since otherwise Riddle does not seem like a subtle storyteller. Maybe he just wanted to give the protagonist some social conflicts. I’ve seen many writers mess up their characters in pursuit of that.
ANTS: Gotta Catch ‘Em All
Next, we hear that the solar array temperature is dropping back down, and Emma checks if they’ve received data from the probes yet. They haven’t. Riddle explains that while they know the Earth is cooling because solar output is falling, they don’t know why solar output is falling.
And I can’t wait to see the first data from the probes. I have family back on Earth. I want to know what’s going to happen to them. And there’s an unspoken question among the six astronauts and cosmonauts on the ISS: what becomes of us? […]
Around the world, governments are struggling to evacuate billions of their citizens to the world’s last habitable zones. And facing a hard decision: what to do with those they can’t evacuate. How much will they invest to bring six people home from space?
If the problem of the astronauts getting home was presented in the opening as the primary hook, it would be a great hook. But since the entire Earth and all of humanity is already at stake, who cares? Riddle also seems to think Emma has to mention her family to justify why she cares about vengeful glaciers destroying humanity. Telling readers why the outcomes matter is a good habit to have, but sometimes it’s already obvious.
This may be the only time I ever say this in a critique post: congratulations, Riddle, you have enough tension. Stop trying to add more, and start working on ways to engage readers besides tension. You’ve got all the ANTS to choose from. The “T” has been checked off, so here are the other options:
- Start investing in attachment by telling us things about Emma that will make us like her. Once we care about her, this issue of getting home might even matter a bit.
- Add novelty by sharing some interesting things about space or how global cooling is changing the world. It’s small and fresh details that matter the most here. What is Emma’s morning routine in space? What don’t we know about living in zero g?
- Deliver a little satisfaction by adding a turning point to that conflict with the solar array. Make Emma solve a puzzle, or describe what she’s giving up by switching to battery power.
Riddle goes on for two more paragraphs about the issue of the astronauts getting back to Earth. He discusses the intense recovery time they’ll need once they land. The space station apparently has a couple capsules they can use to evacuate, but only with coordination from the ground.
The truth is this: our use to the people on the surface lies in the Winter Experiments. If we don’t figure out what’s causing the Long Winter—and how to stop it—we’ll never leave this station. We are trapped between the cold dark of space and a freezing planet below. For now, this is home. Probably will be for a while.
It’s a good home. The best I’ve ever had.
We have a fifth paragraph about this getting home issue, but then it transitions into something potentially interesting. This is the best home Emma has ever had. Maybe she just loves space, but maybe the homes she’s had haven’t been that great. Is there a sympathetic backstory here?
Alright, Riddle, I’m interested. Tell me more; you don’t even have to exposit about Emma’s past. Instead you can describe why the space station is better than her previous homes. Maybe it’s because she thinks the people here respect her (though obviously Sergei doesn’t), or she feels that she has a purpose here, or that she actually likes having every aspect of her life planned out so she doesn’t have to make her own choices.
Or you could just move on to other stuff and leave your protagonist undeveloped. That is technically an option you can choose.
I bounce through the collection of modules that make up the ISS, using my hands and feet to propel me. The station is like a series of oversized pipes screwed together, branching at right angles, most holding labs, some simply connectors. […]
I pass into the Tranquility node, which houses life-support equipment, the water recycler, oxygen generators, and a toilet that’s about as hard to use as one might expect for a space commode (also, the ISS was designed by and for male astronauts, so there’s that).[Emma reaches a large window showing Earth and space.]
The ISS orbits roughly two hundred and fifty miles above the Earth, flying through space at over seventeen thousand miles per hour. The station circles the planet 15.54 times each day, which means we see either the sunrise or sunset every forty-five minutes.
This is the part that should have novelty. Maybe for some people it does, but in general, it’s not as effective as it should be. Riddle is stating facts and figures instead of putting things in human terms, and he’s not going into enough detail. Let’s look at some comparisons… or die.
Instead of: I bounce through the collection of modules that make up the ISS, using my hands and feet to propel me.
Try: I grab the rim of the module exit, pulling to send myself sailing toward the tube that leads to the Tranquility node. Once I’m in the node, I kick down, making a sharp turn that sends me drifting upwards into the observation module.
Instead of: a toilet that’s about as hard to use as one might expect for a space commode (also, the ISS was designed by and for male astronauts, so there’s that).
Try: a toilet that expects me to aim at a tiny opening so it can vacuum every drop of liquid waste and send it to the water recycler. It’s my daily reminder that the ISS was designed by and for people with different parts than mine.
Instead of: The station circles the planet 15.54 times each day, which means we see either the sunrise or sunset every forty-five minutes.
Try: The observation module glows with orange light. Out the window, the sun is setting. In another minute it’ll be gone, and then the station will race through the night to meet the dawn in only 45 minutes. Time blurs together up here. We need our rigorous schedules to keep us anchored.
Next, Emma looks out the windows and sees glaciers extending into the Great Lakes, which isn’t that remarkable considering what was stated in the teaser. Several northern states around the Great Lakes have apparently already been evacuated.
The US has done the math. They know what the last habitable zones on Earth will be. Hint: they’re below sea level. A massive camp has been set up in Death Valley, California. Trade agreements have been established in Libya and Tunisia. But everyone knows the agreements won’t hold. Not when survival is the order of the day.
The world will try to stuff eight billion people through a funnel in which only a small portion can survive.
It will be war.
Sure, war. Why not? Let’s also add a plague to the mix. The stakes are already complete societal collapse, if not the extinction of humanity, so we might as well make people die in a dozen different ways.
In another chapter or two, it might be useful to discuss evacuations and war simply to establish that Emma not only needs a way to save Earth, but she also needs it as soon as possible because every day brings more deaths. But in the first chapter, the freezing of Earth is enough.
Just Caring About Family Isn’t Likable Enough
We have a scene break, and the story picks back up a little later.
On the treadmill, I call up a station status report. Sergei still doesn’t have the solar array back online. I want to check in with him, but I’ve learned that he works best when given space. That’s one thing about six people living in very close quarters: you learn each other’s boundaries.
Uh-huh, the problem is definitely that you’re smothering Sergei. He can totally be managed as long as you let him do whatever he wants instead of managing him.
Next, Emma gets an email from her sister.
I never married or had children of my own, but my sister did. And I treasure those kids. In my eyes, they are the sweetest two humans alive.
I like the idea of the main character being an aunt who loves her sister’s kids, but unless Riddle takes the time to explain why Emma and the kids are so important to each other, it’s not going to have the same impact as a parent being apart from their own kids. This passage also isn’t landing because it’s telling instead of showing. We need to see Emma’s feelings about the kids demonstrated by how she thinks about them. Declaring that she treasures them and thinks they’re sweet sounds generic and a little cliché.
The email is a video, no subject or content, just my sister, Madison, speaking into the camera as I trot on the treadmill I’m tethered to.
“Hi, Em. I know the video needs to be short, but I have a lot to say. David has heard some rumors. They’re saying that… a lot of things are going to change. That there’s an experiment going on that will tell us why the Long Winter is occurring. People around here are selling their houses for pennies on the dollar and moving to Libya and Tunisia. It’s crazy. They’re sending troops—”
The video cuts out for a minute or so. Censored. I keep trotting on the treadmill, watching the screen.
First, Madison is only now hearing that things are going to change? You’d think that the evacuation of several US states would give her a hint. And why wouldn’t she know about the experiment her sister is in space working on? Considering this is the last hope of humanity, the government has no reason to keep that a secret. They would want people to think there’s hope.
Then we find out Emma’s messages from her family are being censored, and apparently this is normal for Emma because she just keeps trotting like it’s nothing. With all the doom and gloom in this story, I would have thought that Riddle would mention the US now has a dystopian government. It’s especially weird because NASA is incredibly transparent.
My sister’s face reappears. She’s still sitting on the couch, but her two children are crowded around her now. Owen and Adeline.
“Hi, Aunt Em!” Owen yells. “Watch this!”
He goes off screen, then the camera pans and I see him dunk a basketball in an indoor hoop that looks about five feet off the ground.
“Did you get it?” he asks his mom.
“I got it.”
“I’m going again in case you didn’t.”[Madison tells Emma she can stay with them after returning.]
“Write me back soon, okay? Love you.” Madison turns to her two children, who are now arguing in the background. “Tell your Aunt Emma bye.”
Owen pops his head over the couch and waves. “Bye.”
Adeline plops down next to her mother and leans closer to her, seeming bashful of the camera. “Bye, Aunt Emma. Love you.”
This family video feels like it was designed for a movie with adorable child actors. But narration doesn’t get actors or even visuals, and without that, the family feels pretty generic.
This sequence could be establishing where Emma will go after landing on Earth or introducing the family she needs to save, but it’s not pulling on the heartstrings or effectively developing Emma as a protagonist. For that, we need to learn things that will make the family and Emma’s relationship to them stand out. Maybe Madison doesn’t have a romantic partner, and Emma is the kids’ second parent. Maybe Emma went through a tough time recently and the kids’ enthusiastic attempts to try to cheer her up got her through it.
End Your First Chapter With a Good Hook
Next, Emma finally gets the probe data she’s been waiting for.
I immediately open it and scan the readings of the solar radiation. I’m shocked. They’re far higher than the readings on Earth, but that makes no sense—the probe is at roughly the same distance from the Sun. Unless the probe was hit with a flare? No, it’s not that: the readings are consistent over time. Maybe it’s a local phenomenon.
I open the video telemetry from the probe, and my heart practically stops. There’s an object. Something out there. A black speck in front of the Sun. It’s not an asteroid; asteroids are jagged and rocky. This object is smooth and oblong. Whatever I’m looking at, someone built it.
I’m all for aliens; that provides a way for a small team to save the Earth. But first, how the hell did people not see this object in front of the sun yet? Not only is it a black object in front of a light source, but the government also monitors the sun’s surface to predict solar flares. Riddle should have at least specified that this object somehow hasn’t appeared in any satellite images taken from Earth.
The second issue is that Emma is jumping to conclusions way too fast. It would probably take a bunch of scientists a while to determine the data indicates an object is out there, much less one that’s been constructed. A smooth, oblong shape might suggest an artificial origin, but it doesn’t prove it. The instant assumption of aliens doesn’t make Emma look like a good scientist.
We’re almost at the end. Let’s look at the closing of chapter one.
“Goddard, ISS. We’re getting our first data from the probes. Relay in progress. Note: one twenty-seven found something.” I grasp for the right words. “Preliminary telemetry is of an oblong object. Smooth. Does not appear to be an asteroid or comet. Repeat: appears to be a non-natural object constructed by—”
The tablet goes dark. The treadmill stops. The station shudders. Lights flicker.
I tap my internal comm.
“Power overload, Commander.”
That doesn’t add up. The solar array is offline. We’re on battery power.
The station shudders again.
My instincts kick in.
“Everybody out of your bunks, right now! Get to the Soyuz capsules! Station evac procedures!”
The station jolts, throwing me into the wall. My head spins. My body reacts instinctively, and my arms propel me up, into the cupola. Through the windows, I see the International Space Station breaking into pieces.
The station has a mysterious and critical malfunction right when Emma is trying to communicate her findings to the ground. Then it’s time to evacuate. Once Emma gets to the ground and recovers, I assume she’ll be on a mission to get her information to the authorities, save her family, or both. Altogether, this is a strong end to the chapter. It includes an important reveal and an exciting event that moves the plot forward.
If you look at this excerpt and others, you might notice that Riddle emphasizes tense moments like this by cutting down his paragraph length. Earlier when he was delivering exposition during moments that were only possibly emergencies, the paragraph size was bigger. Riddle’s prose is also tight; this keeps excess words from slowing down his tense moments.
Riddle certainly has the skills that are most essential for writing action thrillers. However, he would really benefit from developing his writing in other areas to supplement that. In this chapter, he opened with a powerful hook, buying himself time until he needed to inject more action. He should have invested that time in getting readers to care about his main character. This would not only give readers another reason to continue but also make the tension stronger going forward. The more readers care about Emma, the more they’ll be on the edge of their seats when she’s threatened. Instead, time is wasted on tension-inducing elements that feel trivial after his big hook.
It’s possible he went on so long about how Emma would get home to set up for future chapters. However, that information doesn’t need to be delivered ahead to be believable, and it will feel more relevant once Emma’s heading back to Earth.
Besides attachment, Riddle also doesn’t know how to effectively add novelty. His depiction of this apocalyptic future feels simplistic and glossed over, which keeps it from being truly interesting. His wordcraft only makes this problem more glaring. His prose is clear and effective, which I can respect. However, it also isn’t particularly creative or evocative, so it won’t add novelty on its own.
Then there’s the issue of Sergei. So far, it doesn’t look like Riddle recognizes that Sergei is an asshole, much less a sexist asshole specifically. However, it’s too early to tell whether Sergei is important and if so, what his role is.
What I hope will happen: Sergei is injured escaping and dies in the capsule. His blood and guts reveal that he was an alien spy who sabotaged the station. The government drags his body away for dissection.
Knowing my luck, what will probably happen: Sergei and Emma get close and personal in their shared, private capsule. Emma realizes he was right about everything and that she needs to follow his lead from now on.
While there are a lot of missed opportunities in the opening of Winter World, it also does many things right. It opens on a big hook, manages information well, and stays tightly focused on moving the plot forward.
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