Sunday, October 20

Real Life Diagnostics: Do You Like This Boy? Would You Read On?

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 it 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: Nine (+ two resubmits)

This week’s questions:

Does he seem like an 11yo boy that readers would want to get to know? Is it annoying that we don’t know right away what he might be hiding from (that comes about 3 sentences later)? Does this opening effectively entice the reader to want to read on. Would putting the alien introduction on page 5, in the second scene feel like I started this too early?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade Science Fiction


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Mike thought he’d be safe on the four-tiered bleachers at the community park—not as safe as outer space, but as close as he could get without hiding in his house. He re-read the letter his Science teacher had written for his Space Camp application while ignoring shouts and the soccer ball bashing into kids on the field. Three months and he’d be on his way to becoming the first teenage astronaut.

“C’mon Mike, we need another player.” Carlos stood with his hands spread wide and his usual grin splattered across his face.

It was the last thing he wanted to do with his after-school time, but Mike was never able to turn his best friend down. Maybe he wouldn’t do any worse than the kid whose pudgy cheeks were beet-red from trying to catch up to the action. He carefully folded the letter and put it into a back pocket.

Mike pretended he couldn’t run fast enough to get to the ball. Silly, because he was quick even if he was shorter than half the fifth-grade girls. It was just the whole kicking-the-ball thing that proved his lack of eye-to-foot coordination.

Maybe soccer balls bent space and interfered with his coordination. When the ball came his way, a tiny gravity field curved his leg sideways and then, just for fun, flipped Mike on his back. This definitely earned the most laughs from the other team and groans from everyone else except Carlos.

Mike’s failures never upset Carlos. “Good job, hermano, you almost walloped the ball into next week!”

My Thoughts in Purple:


Mike thought he’d be safe on the four-tiered bleachers at the community park—[not as safe as outer space, but as close as he could get without hiding in his house.] Intriguing. Makes me wonder what he's hiding from He re-read the letter his [Science teacher] Isn't 11 still in elementary school? They don't have different teachers for different subjects do they? had written for his Space Camp application while ignoring shouts and the soccer ball bashing into kids on the field. [Three months and he’d be on his way to becoming the first teenage astronaut. ] 11 isn't a teen, so this makes him seem older

“C’mon Mike, we need another player.” Carlos stood with his hands spread wide and his usual grin splattered across his face.

[It was the last thing he wanted to do with his after-school time,] Knowing what he'd rather do here would add a goal to the scene to help drive it but Mike was never able to turn his best friend down. Maybe he wouldn’t do any worse than the kid whose pudgy cheeks were beet-red from trying to catch up to the action. He carefully folded the letter and put it into a back pocket. If he's hiding, this could be a good moment for him to feel conflicted about joining in and risk being "found."

Mike pretended he couldn’t run fast enough to get to the ball. Silly, because he was quick even if he was shorter than half the fifth-grade girls. It was just the whole kicking-the-ball thing that proved his lack of eye-to-foot coordination.

[Maybe soccer balls bent space and interfered with his coordination. When the ball came his way, a tiny gravity field curved his leg sideways and then, just for fun, flipped Mike on his back. This definitely earned the most laughs from the other team and groans from everyone else except Carlos.] I'm not sure what's going on here. Is he pretending or does he actually have powers?

Mike’s failures never upset Carlos. “Good job, hermano, you almost walloped the ball into next week!”

The questions:

1. Does he seem like an 11yo boy that readers would want to get to know?


The teenage astronaut comment made him seem older, as does some of the language. He feels a little too self-aware for 11. I like that he runs slower than he can because he knows he can't kick the ball well, but I was confused why he'd fall on purpose, knowing he'd get teased. I just wasn't in his head enough to get a solid sense of who he is, though he does seem like a nice kid.

I'd suggest a little more narrative focus in this opening to help readers understand what's important to both Mike and the scene itself. Mike doesn't have a clear goal (aside from hiding where it's safe), so I'm not sure what the point of the scene is. Because of that, it's a little harder to connect with him because I'm trying to figure out where the story is going.

(More on narrative focus here)

Since the reason he's hiding is going to come into play in a few more sentences, then maybe add a little more apprehension or fear about him leaving the safety of the bleachers and playing soccer. Or maybe connect his life/issues to wanting to go to Space Camp. I get the sense that he hasn't sent in his application yet (since he still had the letters his teachers wrote), so maybe knowing why he wants to go would help readers relate to him more.

I like Mike, but there's nothing really drawing me into the story yet because there's no goal or conflict. I suspect the conflict will come from what he's hiding from, so perhaps the goal can be avoiding that.

(More on adding character goals here)

2. Is it annoying that we don’t know right away what he might be hiding from (that comes about 3 sentences later)?

Nope. I was intrigued by the line and didn't expect to find out right away. Though since it shows up soon, you might consider making his goal of hiding stronger to help drive the story forward. If the bleachers are safe, then leaving the bleachers puts him at risk. But he wants to please his best friend so he takes the risk anyway. (if that works for the story of course)

(More on revealing information here)

3. Does this opening effectively entice the reader to want to read on?

Yea and no. There's nothing in the text itself that hooks me, but Mike seems like a nice kid and if I liked the cover copy I'd keep reading. I don't get the sense that something is about to happen, so it feels more like setup so far. But since something is about to happen, then adding a stronger sense of that to this opening would up the tension and hook readers better.

(More on hooking readers here)

4. Would putting the alien introduction on page 5, in the second scene feel like I started this too early?

I can't say for sure without reading it, but if you've established Mike's world and problem by page 5, then that seems like a good spot. If readers are about to see why he's hiding, that suggests the problem is revealed right away, and readers will probably understand how the alien will fix and/or complicate that problem.

(More on opening scenes here)

Overall, this has some cute moments and likable characters, but I don't feel that the story has started yet. A little more sense of drive and goals from Mike would add that and help draw readers in, and make them worry about what he's hiding from. It wouldn't take much, just a few sentences of internalization here and there to suggest a goal and stakes for Mike. It feels like it's going in the right direction, but perhaps leave a few more clues for readers so they know that.

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.

11 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I read the teenage astronaut line differently. I read it as he plans to be a full-blown astronaut by the time he becomes teenager, so he wants to go to space camp for training to meet that goal.

    11-year-olds are typically in 6th grade (Elementary School) unless he started early or skipped a grade. With his goal, I assume he was smart and skipped. (Be aware that not all states allow grade skipping.) When I read hermano I thought possibly So. California? They allow skipping.

    I don't quite understand why he played the game if he is hiding though. If he was found that easily, the hiding spot wasn't as good as he thought either. But maybe those questions will be answered further on.

    Just my thoughts. :)

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  3. I also got caught by the astronaut-by-teenage-years/age 11 gap. I reread it the way Southpaw did, but it still took me out of the story for a moment.

    Small point, but at age 11, boys and girls are still pretty much the same height. I also would have thought that age 11 meant sixth grade, not fifth.

    I like the relationship that is emerging between Mike and Carlos, but I do wish I knew more about Mike himself.

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  4. I'd read more.Sounds like an interesting premise. The age issue did confuse me. Kids usually turn 11 in 5th and 12 in 6th in my district.

    I disagree with Amy on height difference after teaching this age group for 20 years. This also came to light yesterday while watching a youth football league game and the heights of these 11 year old's varied from 4'9" to 5'11".

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  5. I liked it. The logic problems can be quickly cleaned up. If I could see the scene more from his POV that would be better. I felt like I was being told what to think and feel. The idea of it had me wanting more.

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  6. Thanks for the comments. I definitely have some things to work on. My mc just recently turned 11 and it is late in the school year, so still appropriate or 5th grade. For the school classes, I've pulled a bit from my 5th/6th which was a separate building for those grades and we had our first taste of different teachers for subjects - a math/science and an English/literature in addition to homeroom. It was a great prep for jr high. Our local school does this too, so I figured it was not uncommon if not typical. More research needed or at least I need to check my wording to avoid confusion. And yes, the assumption that although Mike is 11, he wants (unrealistically, but he's determined) to be an astronaut when he's a teenager was my intent. I'll work on clarifying that as well. Thank you Janice and all!

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    Replies
    1. Most welcome! And you got some great feedback here.

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  7. Regarding the age/grade thing I was 11 in 6th grade but I have a June birthday. Many of my friends turned 11 during 5th. I also attended a sixth grade center, the whole school was only 6th graders. They have since added 6th with 7th and 8th in middle school. We had a math/science teacher and a language arts teacher.

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  8. I was 11 in grade 6. But kids' ages can vary by quite a bit from grade to grade, that certainly wouldn't pull me out of the story. I also just assumed that he wanted to be an astronaut as a teen, not that going to space camp would make him an astronaut at age 11.

    I am curious about the gravity well and whether it's just his perception of the way things happened, or something more involved.

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  9. Hi
    Good post, thanks.
    Janice, I really enjoy these posts. I always mean to go through a book I love and pull it apart like this, but never have time, so it's a great education getting to read your comments.
    Thanks
    Mike

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    Replies
    1. That's one reason I started doing these weekly. Examples make it so much easier, especially ones from actual WIPs.

      Even if you only analyze a chapter or two of your favorite book, it can be a great learning experience. I learned a lot back when I analyzed Dave Duncan's work.

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