Saturday, November 19

Real Life Diagnostics: Writing for Younger Readers

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.

Submissions currently in the queue: Two

This week’s questions:

This is my first real attempt to get this book finished.
1) Is this appropriate for elementary age (3rd 4th and up)?
2) Is the language too passive?


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
Its hard being an eight year old boy in general. Its even harder being an eight year old boy when you live with your grandma. And its hardest of all being an eight year old boy living with your grandma when she works at a museum. A small, hot, boring museum. At least that's what one particular eight year old boy thought. A very hot, bored, and cranky eight year old boy.

"Samuel? Samuel? Don't lay on the floor like that. Now sit up, we're almost done!"

"Okkkayyyy". Sitting up from the hardwood was a tall, skinny boy. The famous man's football jersey doing nothing to disguise the fact that he was not an athlete. Sticky blond hair that refused to be "cool" and green eyes, cat eyes his grandma said, that desperately wanted to be asleep.

Samuel wallowed to his feet and scuffed off to poke at the broken vases, pottery shards his grandma said, yet again and for the millionth time. Samuel's grandma, everybody called her Mrs. Sayers, picked up an itty bitty, tiny piece of a pot with an even tinier pair of tweezers and wiggled it into its place on the vase she was fixing. Conserving, grandma would say, since she was a conservator, not that Samuel really knew what that meant.

"Oh, there we go. " she said, sitting up straight and pulling off her owl sized glasses. "That will make an excellent example for folks to see."

My Thoughts in Purple:
[Its] It’s hard being an eight year old boy in general. [Its] It’s even harder being an eight year old boy when you live with your grandma. And [its] it’s hardest of all being an eight year old boy living with your grandma when she works at a museum. A small, hot, boring museum. At least that's what one particular eight year old boy thought. A very hot, bored, and cranky eight year old boy.

"Samuel? Samuel? Don't [lay] lie on the floor like that. Now sit up, we're almost done!"

"Okkkayyyy". Sitting up from the hardwood was a tall, skinny boy. [The famous man's football jersey doing nothing to disguise the fact that he was not an athlete.] Reads a little awkwardly, though I love the idea behind it Sticky blond hair that refused to be "cool" and green eyes, cat eyes his grandma said, that desperately wanted to be asleep.

[Samuel [wallowed] might be a little obscure for the age to his feet and scuffed off to poke at the broken vases, pottery shards his grandma said, yet again and for the millionth time.] Perhaps break this into two sentences? [Samuel's grandma, everybody called her Mrs. Sayers, picked up an itty bitty, tiny piece of a pot with an even tinier pair of tweezers and wiggled it into its place on the vase she was fixing. ] Here too. There's a lot to keep track of in both of them  Conserving, grandma would say, since she was a conservator, not that Samuel really knew what that meant.

"Oh, there we go. " she said, sitting up straight and pulling off her owl sized glasses. "That will make an excellent example for folks to see."

The questions:
1) Is this appropriate for elementary age (3rd 4th and up)?

The tone feels like a book aimed at six to eight year old readers (it’s very common to have a “telling you a story” distant omni narrator in that market), and that fits with the eight year old protag. However, kids like to read up, so if you’re aiming at third and fourth graders, you’re might think about putting your protag in the 10-12 year old range. If you’re aiming at older than fourth grade, might consider making him closer to 13 to fit the middle school crowd.

I have no sense of plot yet, so I can't say if the story problem is appropriate or not. I assume something is going to happen in the museum though, and a museum is a great location for a book.

2) Is the language too passive?
I don’t think so. There’s a detached feel, but that’s due to the narrator and POV. I’m not seeing a strong hook yet, though being stuck in a museum has a lot of potential. You might consider adding a little more info to show Samuel being cranky or unhappy about being there, and maybe doing something besides lying on the floor. Does he wish he could leave? Go explore? Play video games? He’s being passive so far, with most of the text going into setup. A hint of what Samuel wants would help hook faster and give a better idea of what the story is going to be about.

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.

6 comments:

  1. No idea on the age level, but some parts did feel too passive, as with "Sitting up from the hardwood was a tall, skinny boy."

    You showed you can use great verbs - "Samuel wallowed to his feet and scuffed off to poke at the broken vases" - so just look for those instances of "was."

    And like Janice said, having him restless and fiddling with something on display would help. Or maybe swinging a broom like a sword, which would really get one's attention in such a small museum.

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  2. I don't think the language is too passive, but at this point the main character is. I agree that having him swing a broom in his boredom would create greater sympathy and be more fun for the reader than having him lie on the floor.

    Also, watch out for sentence fragments. "The famous man's jersey DID nothing to disguise..."

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  3. While the first paragraph uses repetition to achieve an effect, the narration seems detacted. (Sitting up from the hardwood was a tall, skinny boy.)

    I don't remember what exact POV was commonly used when I was reading in that range, but I do remember lots of 1st person and limited.

    @ Mrs. Hardy: Is there a line for this column? For example, would it take months for my submittion to be presented, or is the wait short, like two or three weeks?

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  4. I'm the first to admit that it's a LONG time since I've read anything aimed at your target audience, and my children are a bit younger than that. So please take my comments with a grain of salt.

    This feels more aimed at a 6-8 year old age group. The distant narrator, the word use (especially in the first paragraph), and the age of the protag all emphasise this.


    It doesn't feel passive (for this style of writing), but it does feel a bit... boring. Nothing's really happening at this point, other than Samuel lying/sitting on the floor. While you get across the boredom factor well, you probably don't want your readers feeling it too strongly! I guess I'd be asking myself: If I was an 8 year old stuck in a museum, what would I LIKE to be doing, even if I knew I'd get in trouble for it.

    Good luck!

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  5. CO, there's only one in the queue right now, so the next thing submitted would be run on Dec 3rd. I typically have 1-4 submissions in at a time. I actually started saying how many were in recently so folks can see.

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  6. I found this interesting because I recently published two middlegrade juvenile mystery novels, and wonder if I'm writing above the 9-12 year level.

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