Saturday, July 16

Real Life Diagnostics: Opening a Middle Grade Novel

Hope I got the setting right
NOTE: Before we dive into this week's RLD, last week's submitter sent in a revision, and asks for our help in helping her pick which version works better. (The feedback last week was split) If you have some time, please pop over and help out.

Real Life Diagnostics is a recurring column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

This week’s question:
1. Does this opening work?
2. Does the main character interest you?
3. Does it sound middle-grade?
4. Is there a good balance between providing backstory and moving the story forward?

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
Mika set the miniature stone building in an empty space on the floor.

Fake snow scattered over cobbled courtyards. Check. All electrical wires in place. Check. Door hinges oiled and window panes shined. Check and check.

She stepped back then flipped a switch. One by one, the windows of the tiny houses lit up from inside and threw squares of light on the sidewalks. Another switch and the streetlamps flickered to life. Mika turned slowly to look at the scene at her feet. The elfin village of Sparkle sprawled, in perfect miniature form, among the hills she had built from sturdy foam.

She compared the model to the blueprint tacked on the wall, and grinned. Perfect. Right down to the last little chimney stack. She even had sledges running on rails, just like the real ones. Though Engineers weren’t supposed to praise their own work, she knew the tiny village was the best thing she’d made in all her twelve winters. No matter that the only elf who would ever see it was her best friend Fredrik. Sure as silver, she wouldn’t have it any other way. She had picked this hay loft as her secret workshop for that reason.

She moved to turn off the main switch by the window. A blur on the snow outside made her pause. Under a lamp, a four-legged shadow seemed to crouch over the sledge rails which were visible in the narrow space between two houses. Mika’s skin prickled. The silhouette was wrong for a reindeer. The neck was too short and the tail too bushy. The thing looked like a wolf, but it wasn’t possible. She’d been assured countless times that wolves never entered the village. Still, the sight made her shudder.

My Thoughts in Purple:
Mika set the miniature stone building in an empty space on the floor.

[Fake snow scattered over cobbled courtyards.] I like this para but this first sentence jarred me because I thought it was a description, not internalization. Perhaps add something at the start to transition and make it clear these are Mika’s thoughts about the model. Check. All electrical wires in place. Check. Door hinges oiled and window panes shined. Check and check.

She stepped back then flipped a switch. One by one, the windows of the tiny houses lit up [from inside] could cut to tighten and threw squares of light on the sidewalks. Another switch and the streetlamps flickered to life. [Mika turned slowly to look at the scene at her feet.] Don’t think you need. The elfin village of Sparkle sprawled, in perfect miniature form, among the hills she had built from sturdy foam.

She compared the model to the blueprint tacked on the wall, and grinned. Perfect. Right down to the last little chimney stack. She even had [sledges] Do you mean sleds or sleighs? I couldn’t picture what sledges meant running on rails, just like the real ones. Though Engineers weren’t supposed to praise their own work, [she knew] telling a bit. could cut the tiny village was the best thing she’d made in all her twelve winters. No matter that the only elf who would ever see it was her best friend Fredrik. Sure as silver, she wouldn’t have it any other way. She had picked this hay loft as her secret workshop for that reason.

[She moved to turn off the main switch by the window. A blur on the snow outside made her pause.] Feels a little told because of the “to turn” and “made her pause” Under a lamp, a four-legged shadow seemed to crouch over the sledge rails [which were] could cut to tighten visible in the narrow space between two houses. Mika’s skin prickled. The silhouette was wrong for a reindeer. The neck was too short and the tail too bushy. The thing looked like a wolf, but it wasn’t possible. She’d been assured countless times that wolves never entered the village. Still, the sight [made her] feels a little told shudder.

The questions:
1. Does this opening work?
Yes. I thought it was well written, I liked the voice, and the spooky wolf at the end. Mika is doing something in secret, which hints that there could be repercussions from this so I can see the story moving. It left me with good story questions: Why is she working in secret? What is the wolf doing there? Why don’t they enter the village? The spooky nature in what I assume is Santa’s Workshop was great, since you typically don’t think of the North Pole as being “dangerous.” I love that idea.

2. Does the main character interest you?
She does. Right now I’m more interested in what’s going on than who she is, so you might consider adding a little more internalization so we can see her personality even more. What I see so far I like, but the focus is more on what’s happening than who she is. I’d suggest tweaking the few spots that felt a little told to me and rephrasing those in her voice.

3. Does it sound middle-grade?
Yes. I can see this on a middle grade shelf. Mika’s the right age, the setting is a good location for that age group. Doing something you’re “not supposed to do” is something the middle grade reader can relate to.

4. Is there a good balance between providing backstory and moving the story forward?
Yes. This feels like (guessing) Santa’s Workshop, they’ve had wolf troubles in the past, Mika is an elf and an Engineer, and she likes making things. She’s good at it, a little rebellious and proud of her skills. There’s trouble brewing with the wolf, and I feel like Mika is about to step into that trouble in some way. Her skills might even be what allow her to be successful.

Overall, a successful opening. I’d read on. I made a few tweak suggestions, but they’re pretty nitpicky. You’d probably be fine with it as is.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they – and others – find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) so feel free to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive comments.

6 comments:

  1. I really like this! I love that you built the landscape into the story, the mention of her best friend, whom you know is going to be important, and the suspense of seeing a wolf. I think the strength of this piece is the way you integrate the details so the scenery is an active part of the story.

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  2. I enjoyed it a lot, but I was a little confused. I had to read it a few times to figure out if the wolf was outside her window or inside her miniature. I think it was the snow that messed me up. Maybe if she actually moved to the window than it would be clear, or maybe I'm crazy and the only one who thought this.

    Over all though--Good job.

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  3. I'd agree with Janice, I was a bit confused on the first internalization. I really liked this though. My only other comment would be that I would probably get on to the wolf quicker (perhaps tighten up the description a bit).
    Good luck with it.
    Andrea

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  4. I agree with Angie about the wolf. There was enough tension for me with the idea of the "secret workshop." The introduction of the wolf for me was turning into information overload. And it dangled - What village was the wolf threatening -Sparkle? I haven't heard of any other, I think the author needs to take her camera lens out and describe more of Mika's actual village and setting before introducing a threat to it.

    I would have liked more exposition on why the workshop was secret - I think this would have kept this tighter and still given us a reason to read on.

    In any case, this beginning is fun! I think some of the world building here is lovely, i.e. the phrase "sure as silver" and the name "the elfin village of sparkle." Good work!

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  5. I had to reread the first sentence, so I thought I'd stop there and comment (but don't worry, I'll go back up and keep reading!) I had to reread because it was a bit wordy, and there was a lot going on.

    "Mika set the miniature stone building in an empty space on the floor."

    First off, you have three adjectives in one image. I have to process all of these at once.

    Next, it's a bit redundant to tell me she set it in an empty space on the floor, as there's no other way for her to set anything on the floor unless the space is empty.

    Finally, if a girl is setting the building down, it's going to be miniature. You don't need to tell me that. If I don't know the building is miniature immediately, my interest is sparked a bit more.

    I'd cut the adjectives completely. If you keep any, keep only one. Possibly "stone," but I don't think you need it.

    Contrary to what one may assume, too many adjectives can slow a reader's imagination instead of helping it. If you just say, "building," I can see it right away. Is it really that important that all your readers imagine the same building you do?

    And since people don't normally set buildings on the floor, I'm going to have a hint of curiosity to lead me on.

    I would simply say,
    "Mika set the building on the floor."

    I view these changes as showing a bit more trust in your reader to imagine things in their own head and pick up on what's going on.

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  6. Thanks for all the great comments all! I do appreciate you guys chiming in on these :)

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