Saturday, March 16

Real Life Diagnostics: Finding Your Middle Grade Voice

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: Six

This week’s question:

Is the middle grade voice coming through?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Mom always told me to check before I answered the door. I really should have listened. Two boys stood on my porch, eyes wide as silver dollar coins. Enough blood rushed to my face to spell e-m-b-a-r-r-a-s-s-e-d across my cheeks and nose.

“Robbie?” Darius tucked a basketball between his arm and side, snickering.

“In a dress?” Wynton whistled. His forehead wrinkled when he lifted his eyebrows, probably more confused than curious.

I was just about to offer both of my so-called-best-friends a double-knuckle sandwich when mom called out from her studio, “Roberta Mollands! Close that door before bugs get in here.”

“Look, guys,” I balled my fingers into fists and gave them both my best evil eye…I think. “I have to get back so mom can finish the hem on this, ugh, thing, for next weekend.”

“That’s why we stopped by,” Darius said. “Wanted to get in some hoops since you can’t make it to the Community Sports Jam, you know, because of the wedding.”

I practically drooled on the spot, staring at the basketball, itching to snatch it from Darius, take off to the rec center and show both of them how much better I’ve gotten charging the paint. A picture popped in my head: a skinny girl in a strappy dress and heeled slippers dribbling and running down the sidewalk. Not cool. Not cool at all. I shook my head, disappointment draining the blush from my face. “I want to, guys. I really do, but--”

Mom called out again. “Robbie!”

“Maybe next time?” Darius tilted his head.

I nodded, sighing, shoulders slumped. As I closed the door, I wished I was on the other side.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Mom always told me to check before I answered the door. I really should have listened. Two boys stood on my porch, eyes wide as [silver dollar coins.] I'm not sure today's 12 year old use this simile. [Enough blood rushed to my face to spell e-m-b-a-r-r-a-s-s-e-d across my cheeks and nose.] This is cute, but I'm not sure about the blood rushing.

“Robbie?” Darius tucked a basketball between his arm and side, snickering.

“In a dress?” Wynton whistled. His forehead wrinkled when he lifted his eyebrows, probably more confused than curious.

I was just about to offer both of my so-called-best-friends a [double-knuckle sandwich] very cute when mom called out from her studio, “Roberta Mollands! Close that door before bugs get in here.”

“Look, guys,” I balled my fingers into fists and gave them both my best evil eye…I think. “I have to get back so mom can finish the hem on this, ugh, thing, for next weekend.”

[“That’s why we stopped by,” Darius said. “Wanted to get in some hoops since you can’t make it to the Community Sports Jam, you know, because of the wedding.”] I like that his speech pattern is different from hers. Good use of voice

[I practically drooled on the spot, staring at the basketball, itching to snatch it from Darius, take off to the rec center and show both of them how much better I’ve gotten charging the paint.] Sentence feels a little long for MG, but I like what it says. Perhaps break into two? A picture popped in my head: a skinny girl in a strappy dress and heeled slippers dribbling and running down the sidewalk. Not cool. Not cool at all. I shook my head, [disappointment draining the blush from my face.] doesn't sound like her “I want to, guys. I really do, but--”

Mom called out again. “Robbie!”

“Maybe next time?” Darius tilted his head.

I nodded, sighing, shoulders slumped. As I closed the door, I wished I was on the other side.

The question:

Is the middle grade voice coming through?

For the most part yes. I feel that these are middle schoolers and not older teens. Her friends laugh at the dress, then ignore it and deal with why they came, but she's embarrassed anyway. There's an innocence there that feels younger and it works.

I also like the phrases like "double-knuckle sandwich." Cute use of the cliché and I can see a kid using that. And how she spells out the word she fears is on her face. It's also nice that Darius' voice sounds different from hers, with a different speech pattern.

(More on voice in non-point of view characters here)

There were a few lines that didn't feel in her voice or felt like phrases a middle grade age child might not know. "Wide as silver dollar coins" for example. I couldn't tell you the last time I saw a silver dollar, and dollar coins in circulation now are Susan B. Anthony coins. It's an older phrase, and I'm not sure today's kid would know what it means. Most importantly, I also don't get the sense that Robbie would use it. She's a jock, so it seems like she'd use a sports reference. Wide as baseballs, or something basketball related.

Her blushing also felt a little off to me. I like the blushes themselves, and spelling out embarrassed, but the awareness of how blushes work (the blood rushing) felt too technical for what she'd actually think about. A touch too much author and not enough Robbie. I'd suggest tweaking those to reflect her personality like the knuckle sandwich.

(More on developing your voice here)

Overall it's a cute opening, I like the tomboy in the dress and her wanting to play basketball vs get fitted for a wedding. She feels like a girl who isn't happy about this, but it's not over the top and trying too hard to be "tomboyish." It's easy to go too far there and feel fake. This feels real to me.

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.

5 comments:

  1. I liked the voice in this as well, and thought it definitely sounded middle grade. But I also thought it sounded somewhat old-fashioned, like maybe this was in the 60's? The silver dollar and double-knuckle sandwich would fit then--as would the name Roberta (which feels dated to me, too). I really liked that Robbie turned out to be a girl!

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  2. Yeah I got the same feeling as Cathy, that it might be set in the 60s. It reminded me a lot of the movie "Now & Then", which I loved when I was a kid. It was a great opening.

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  3. Haha, that was cute! Like Janice, I enjoyed your use of e-m-b-a-r-a-s-s-e-d. And I enjoyed how you didn't bog your male characters down about the dress; the scene kept moving.

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  4. The author did a wonderful job of getting a lot of stated and implied information into a short scene without bogging down the action--dialog being a form of action. The language and the concerns felt right for the age group, and I knew I was being let in on the very leading edge of a cusp in Robbie's life, and wanted to know what was going to happen next. Skillful writing and character development in a very few words.

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  5. I was right there with the kids, living their concerns, with the mother calling in the background, more of a nuisance noise, something completely outside the main concern of the kids. I loved it.

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