Saturday, September 17

Real Life Diagnostics: Am I Grabbing the Middle Grade Reader?

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 questions:
1. Does this writing style appeal to MG/upper MG?
2. Are there areas where I can improve POV?
3. Would you turn the page?
On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
Grandad always said, "Life don't begin without a lil' danger," but that didn't make crossing a forty-foot ravine by way of a narrow log any easier for Will to swallow. As he stuck his head out over the edge, surveying the debris in the water far below, he thought that maybe Grandad's idea of danger was eating Mexican food after five in the afternoon.

"I think I'll just stay here," he said, stepping back and eyeballing his best friend, Marcus, who was already at the half-way point. "It's getting late and you know how my grandad and your mama will be if they find out we were on Gareghty's land. Maybe we should just go back."

"You're not scared, are you?" said Marcus. "Besides, how are they gonna find out? By reading our minds?" He turned back to Will before bouncing up and down on the log. "See? It's safe. Barely gives."

It looked safe. But it was tough to spot the rotten parts. The former pine tree had been laying across this offshoot of the Roanoke for a long time. It was probably a hurricane victim, but the last big one hadn't blasted through the area in over a decade. And ten years was plenty of time for weak spots to develop.

Taking a bite of the apple he'd brought along, Marcus glanced at Shelby, Will's dog, who had crossed the tree with ease just moments before, possibly giving him the idea in the first place. She lay on the other side of the ravine, her front legs crossed and her head perched atop them, flicking a pointy black ear in the boys' direction.

My Thoughts in Purple:
[Grandad always said, "Life don't begin without a lil' danger," but that didn't make crossing a forty-foot ravine by way of a narrow log any easier for Will to swallow.] I really like this opening, but I was a bit thrown to get to Will because I felt like it was going to be first person. This could just be me though, so readers chime in here. You could shift Will’s name up a little sooner to fix that if it bothers anyone else. As he stuck his head out over the edge, surveying the debris in the water far below, he thought that maybe Grandad's idea of danger was eating Mexican food after five in the afternoon. You’ve hooked me with this opening. I like the voice and what’s going on and I’d read on.

["I think I'll just stay here," ] he said, stepping back and eyeballing his best friend, Marcus, who was already at the half-way point. "It's getting late and you know how my grandad and your mama will be if they find out we were on Gareghty's land. [Maybe we should just go back."] The two bolded sections say basically the same thing. I’d suggest cutting the first and moving the second to its place to tighten. He’s trying to back out here, right? So his reasons fit going back more than staying there

["You're not scared, are you?" said Marcus. "Besides, how are they gonna find out? By reading our minds?" He turned back to Will before bouncing up and down on the log. "See? It's safe. Barely gives."
] Nice para. Feels like a kid.

It looked safe. But it was tough to spot the rotten parts. The former pine tree had been laying across this offshoot of the Roanoke for a long time. It was probably a hurricane victim, but the last big one hadn't blasted through the area in over a decade. And ten years was plenty of time for weak spots to develop.

[Taking a bite of the apple he'd brought along, Marcus glanced at Shelby, Will's dog, who had crossed the tree with ease just moments before, possibly giving him the idea in the first place. She lay on the other side of the ravine, her front legs crossed and her head perched atop them, flicking a pointy black ear in the boys' direction.] The POV shift here threw me. We’ve been in Will’s head so far, not we’re suddenly in Marcus’s and an omni narrator. I don’t know what comes next, but I suspect you don’t need this para. The dog doesn’t seem to play any role here, and it interrupts the great tension you have building on whether or not Will steps out on that log.

The questions:
1. Does this writing style appeal to MG/upper MG?
I think it would. Two boys out doing something risky, yet fun. The humor is good and the language and vocabulary fits the age group. I get the sense that these boys are about 12/13. Style-wise this falls into any number of MG authors I’ve read.

2. Are there areas where I can improve POV?
I’d suggest staying in Will’s POV and not shifting to Marcus/omni there at the end. You might be doing third omniscient, but I didn’t get that sense from the opening paragraphs. They felt solid in Will’s POV and I liked that. He’s funny and seems like a good narrator from what I read here.

3. Would you turn the page?
Yes. I like the opening para and the humor there drew me right in. I’m curious to see if Will crosses the log or not, and what might go wrong if he does.

Overall, this is a solid piece of writing and I think it’s doing its job. A few minor tweaks (or larger depending on the POV) and you’ll probably be good to go.

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 feedback.

7 comments:

  1. This flows along really well, and draws you in.

    I thought the first line was first person, too, especially because it starts with "Grandad" instead of "Will's Grandad."

    My only two quibbles (besides the pov shift) are that it'd be odd to munch on an apple while in the middle of crossing a log, and it's never said just how far down it is.

    Other than that, excellent.

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  2. I liked this, but the bit where Will thinks about the tree probably being a hurricain victim felt a little ...older maybe? The rest all sounds the right age.

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  3. Like Janice, I was expecting 1st person narrator in the first paragraph. And I agree with Chicory about the tree/hurricane victim being an older voice.

    But it does read well, and I would definitely keep reading to see what happened next.

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  4. I also thought it was going to be in first, since it wasn't "Will's grandad," but the bit about Mexican food made me laugh out loud.

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  5. Author here. Janice, appreciate you accepting this for RL diagnostics. I found it incredibly helpful and hope it benefits others as well. Totally agree with everything and, by the way, you got the ages dead on.

    Thanks to the commenters too -- especially for catching my "hurricane victim" phrasing. It's things like that that have my beta readers berating me for sounding too old for MG!

    @MKHutchins - There is no greater compliment for me than a laugh.

    Now, off to wrangle those words into submission...

    Cheers!

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  6. I thought this section drew me in, and I liked the characterization in it. Seemed interesting enough, and did sound like middle grade reading. Not sure how to help out much, though, and others have already made good points. Good luck. :-)

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  7. Yeah, I loved the way this felt reading it. I didn't have a problem with the hurricane thing. I'd imagine children of all ages in Louisiana would be having hurricane conversations. Will didn't wax poetic about it, he just noted it. LOL. Also, the part where Marcus pulls out the fruit and starts to eat it felt a lil funny. I would have expected it to tip Marcus over a bit or that maybe he'd use it to encourage Will that he could eat the apple and still cross.

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