Saturday, August 11

Real Life Diagnostics: Hit the Ground Running: Do You Feel Grounded in the Scene?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly 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, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Five

This week’s questions:

Are you engaged by this opening and would you want to read on? Do you feel grounded enough in the scene?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Gordon didn't have much time. Maybe thirty seconds, before Mrs. Batty, his guardian, would notice he'd left the vacuum cleaner revving toward cardiac arrest. Mrs. Batty made him vacuum the stairs and hall of Manly Majestic Hotel, everyday. Vacuuming was the lamest of the lame, but provided him perfect cover. He used those thirty seconds of vacuum noise to check his treasure trove, the Lost and Found box, for fresh booty.

Gordon dragged the vacuum cleaner along the faded hall runner as far as its cord would go. Mrs. Batty kept the main part of the house locked at all times. Except when she tromped tour groups through the kitchen, into the grand hall and up the stairs to check out the view from the first floor balcony. Or when she made Gordon vacuum.

The cord tugged taut. Careful, he mustn't yank it from the outlet or else the engine would croak, giving him away. He held his breath. Now to execute the risky part: letting the vacuum idle. He let go and it revved in protest, spewing a cloud of dust from its rear. Gordon raced to the nook under the stairs. Dropping onto all fours, he cranked open a small door and dragged a dusty cardboard box from the cupboard.

Gordon had developed a thriving business from the Lost and Found. If the Old Bat ever found out, she would kill him or worse; shut him down. The tourists visiting historic Manly Majestic Hotel and Heritage Grounds ­ lost stuff.

They lost it and Gordon found it. Perfect match.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Gordon didn't have much time. Maybe thirty seconds, before Mrs. Batty, his guardian, would notice he'd left the vacuum cleaner revving toward cardiac arrest. [Mrs. Batty made him vacuum the stairs and hall of Manly Majestic Hotel, everyday. Vacuuming was the lamest of the lame, but provided him perfect cover. He used those thirty seconds of vacuum noise to check his treasure trove, the Lost and Found box, for fresh booty.] Telling a bit. This explains the situation, so it deflates any mystery you've built up about why he's doing this.

Gordon dragged the vacuum cleaner along the faded hall runner as far as its cord would go. [Mrs. Batty kept the main part of the house locked at all times. Except when she tromped tour groups through the kitchen, into the grand hall and up the stairs to check out the view from the first floor balcony. Or when she made Gordon vacuum.] Same here. You might consider just showing what Gordon us doing without the explanation. That way, readers will wonder what he's up to and be drawn in.

The cord tugged taut. Careful, he [mustn't] This word stood out for me. Didn't seem like a word Gordon would use. Though if this takes place in the UK It's probably fine. I get a UK vibe from this snippet since "cupboard" is used at the end as well yank it from the outlet or else the engine would croak, giving him away. He held his breath. Now to execute the risky part: letting the vacuum idle. He let go and it revved in protest, spewing a cloud of dust from its rear. Gordon raced to the nook under the stairs. Dropping onto all fours, he cranked open a small door and dragged a dusty cardboard box from the cupboard.

[Gordon had developed a thriving business from the Lost and Found.] Telling a bit here. But I do like that the Lost and Found business is mentioned (puts this all in context) so perhaps phrase it in Gordon's voice. If the Old Bat ever found out, [she would kill him or worse; shut him down.] Love that "shut him, down" is the or worse part. Tells me a lot about this guy The tourists visiting historic Manly Majestic Hotel and Heritage Grounds lost stuff.

They lost it and Gordon found it. Perfect match.

The questions:
Are you engaged by this opening and would you want to read on?

I love the idea of Gordon stealing from the lost and found for a side business. I'm drawn in by his sneakiness and whole plan of how he's going to outsmart his nemesis, Mrs. Batty, and that makes me like him. I want to see where this goes.

The telling parts would keep me from reading much more though, unless something happened to really hook me. However, in a younger MG story (the 8-10 range) it's not uncommon for there to be a little more telling in the narrative. While I personally feel the story would be better without it, if this is aiming for the younger reader, it might be acceptable. I'd suggest reading books in the same target age range and see how much telling they do. Some do a lot, some not at all.

A good example here would be Roland Smith. His older books (like one of my favorites, Peak) shows more than tells. His younger books (like Cryptid Hunters) has a lot more telling. Sometimes a younger audience needs things spelled out a little more.

Or you could split the difference and just tweak those telling parts so they're in Gordon's voice and get the best of both worlds.

(More on when telling is better than showing and using voice to tell here)

As an example, if you took out the telling, you'd get this:
Gordon didn't have much time. Maybe thirty seconds, before Mrs. Batty, his guardian, would notice he'd left the vacuum cleaner revving toward cardiac arrest. He dragged the vacuum cleaner along the faded hall runner as far as its cord would go.

The cord tugged taut. Careful, he mustn't yank it from the outlet or else the engine would croak, giving him away. He held his breath. Now to execute the risky part: letting the vacuum idle. He let go and it revved in protest, spewing a cloud of dust from its rear. Gordon raced to the nook under the stairs. Dropping onto all fours, he cranked open a small door and dragged a dusty cardboard box from the cupboard.

If the Old Bat ever found out, she would kill him or worse; shut him down. The tourists visiting historic Manly Majestic Hotel and Heritage Grounds lost stuff.

They lost it and Gordon found it. Perfect match.
Readers chime in here, but this hooks me more because I want to know what he's doing and if he's going to get away with it. You could even slip in a few of the details to better set the scene, like saying he dragged the lost and found box out from under the stairs.

(Aimee Salter just did a fantastic post about telling through explaining for more information on this)

Do you feel grounded enough in the scene?
I do. There were things I didn't know, but it didn't bother me because I knew this is a boy committing a caper or sorts and trying to get something from the lost and found box. The progression works well. I know right away he's trying to sneak away from his chores and use them to distract an adult. Then I know he's looking for something in a box under the stairs. Then I know he does this all the time (the shut him down suggests this). Then I know this is in a hotel, and this is the lost and found box.

At this point I'd expect more details to unfold and for something to probably go wrong. But I don't feel lost and I have enough details to hold my attention.

The one thing I didn't feel, however, was the fantasy aspect. This felt like a modern-day setting in the real world. Though it's possible the fantastical part comes later and is something that occurs in the real world.

(Here's more on how much to describe your setting)

Overall, I liked this opening and I'd read on.

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) and I encourage you 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.

4 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this. You did a good job making me curious about why Gordon is living with Mrs. Batty and how his side business works. The word 'mustn't' did make me stutter a bit, too.
    Just one thing jumped out at me. Mrs. Batty unlocks the doors when giving tours and when Gordon's vacuuming. That just struck me as strange. Does she run around unlocking the doors so he can vacuum in those rooms? Or is he still not supposed to go in the rooms? The snippet says he vacuums the stairs and the hall only. It seems like a little thing, but it did make me pause.
    Overall I really liked it and would keep reading. Thanks!

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  2. I must have some criminal genes, because I adore capers. I enjoyed Gordon's cleverness, and I like your writing style. "revving toward cardiac arrest" made me grin, as did killing/shutting him down.

    Janice already hit everything that bothered me about your piece, so I'll just say that I would love to learn more about this story.

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  3. I liked this too. As the mother of an eight year old boy, we appreciate good hijinx in our family!

    I found it an easy read, but your comments made a lot of sense Janice and I felt did strengthen the original text.

    Maybe it's a cultural thing (I'm from New Zealand), but what are other terms for cupboard?

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  4. I liked your excerpt also. I like it even more without the telling, as Janice rewrote it. It amps up the tension and creates more curiosity. I would be ready for a near-miss for Gordon, now. For example, Mrs. Batty's thunderous footsteps coming down the hall cutting Gordon's time short; or a resident of the hotel is just outside the front door about to enter and catch Gordon in the act of snooping. This is the type of story my son loved as an 8 or 9 yr old.

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