Saturday, February 1

Real Life Diagnostics: A Look at a Middle Grade Opening. Does it Draw You in?

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: Seven (+ 1 Resubmit) 

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through March 22. The Sunday diagnostics will shorten that some when my schedule permits, but I wanted everyone to be aware of the submission to posting delay.

This week’s questions:

Does it make you want to read more - and if not, what can be done to make it stronger? Is there enough description to grab you?


Market/Genre: Middle Grade

On to the diagnosis…


Original text:


The loud crash reverberated off the canyon walls, waking Caleb up with a start. His skin felt like it was on fire, burning fiercely, but the sensation only lasted a moment. Still slapping at his bare arms, he hurried into Vicky’s room, hoping to see her asleep.

She wasn’t. His sister was sitting up, her arms wrapped around her skinny legs as she stared out into the starless night. Her long black hair was falling out of her tangled ponytail, hiding her face.

“There’s no lightening,” she said in way of greeting.

“Plenty of electricity in the air though,” he answered, throwing himself next to her on the bed.

“You felt it, too?” she shivered. “I thought I was going to crawl out of my skin!”

“Must have hit the house or something.”

“Or something,” Vicky watched the rain beat against the window, her brown eyes alert.

They sat there for a long minute in silence, the storm already losing force when he heard it. It was a man’s voice, a low hum. Caleb could almost make out the words and his breath caught in his throat. Beside him, he felt Vicky stiffen. She placed a cold hand on his arm, her breathing growing shallow.

There was no way it could be their Dad. He wasn’t due to be home for another week. Dad never came home early from the rigs.

The voice was deep and rumbling, with a certain rhythm to it. It sounded more like chanting than a normal conversation. Caleb’s heart pounded in his ears.

My Thoughts in Purple: 

The loud crash reverberated off the canyon walls, waking Caleb up with a start. His skin felt like it was on fire, burning fiercely, but the sensation only lasted a moment. [Still slapping] it never says he slapped at his arms, so the "still" feels off here at his bare arms, he hurried into Vicky’s [room,] this threw me, because "canyon walls" made me think this was outside [hoping to see her asleep.] This feels little off and I suspect it's not quite the right emotion. Does he really want her to be asleep, or hoping the storm didn't wake her? And why does he feel the need to go check on her? Knowing that would help draw me in more.

[She wasn’t.] How does he feel about that since he came her to make sure she was asleep? His sister was sitting up, her arms wrapped around her skinny legs as she stared out into the [starless night.] If it's storming, how does he know there are no stars? Her long black hair was falling out of her tangled ponytail, hiding her face.

“There’s no [lightening],” lightning she said in way of greeting. This is an odd thing to say, so I wondered what it meant. Good spot for a little internalization from Caleb to help show what's going on here.

[“Plenty of electricity in the air though,” he answered, throwing himself next to her on the bed.

“You felt it, too?” she shivered. “I thought I was going to crawl out of my skin!”

“Must have hit the house or something.”

“Or something,” Vicky watched the rain beat against the window, her brown eyes alert. ] I feel like all this is important, but there's not enough context to show why it matters.

They sat there for a long minute in silence, the storm already losing force [when he heard it.] telling readers he heard something before they see him hear it It was a man’s voice, a low hum. Caleb could almost make out the words and his breath caught in his throat. Beside him, he felt Vicky stiffen. She placed a cold hand on his arm, her breathing growing shallow.

There was no way it could be their Dad. He wasn’t due to be home for another week. Dad never came home early from the rigs.

The voice was deep and rumbling, with a certain rhythm to it. It sounded more like chanting than a normal conversation. Caleb’s heart pounded in his ears.

The questions:

1. Does it make you want to read more - and if not, what can be done to make it stronger?


Not yet, because I'm not getting enough clues about what's going on to draw me in. It's a storm, but there's nothing inherently bad about a storm to make readers think "oh no." Yet Caleb's first thought is of Vicky. Why does he feel compelled to check on his sister? There's also something off about the way they talk about the electricity that makes me think there's more there. But again, there's not enough there to be sure, so I feel like I'm missing something or reading more into it then there is. The chanting voice is interesting as it suggests the kids are in danger, but I'm not sure how it connects to the storm (if it does at all) or if it's in the house or just nearby.

I'd suggest a little more internalization from Caleb to help ground readers in the scene. He could show readers why these details matter and what he's concerned about. For example, the first thing he does upon waking is check on his sister, which suggests there's a reason for it. Either he's a sweet brother who knows his sister is scared of storms (which would help make readers like him) or he's afraid there's more to the storm that just a storm. Right now, there's no sense of concern from him, he's just going to see if she's still sleeping, which feels odd, like he doesn't want her to wake up. Knowing how he feels and why here would help draw me in, because I'd have something to worry about with him.

(More on internalization here)

One reason "waking up" openings are clich├ęs and recommended against, is that they throw both reader and protagonist into something with no setup or preparation. It feels like it should work since you're "starting with the action," but it often has the opposite effect and comes across as confusing more than intriguing.

That's happening here, because I don't know if the storm is here just to wake the kids up (and if so it serves no real point but to feel dramatic) or if the storm is part of the problem. Same with the voice. Is it the point of the opening scene or part of the storm issue?

These things are happening, but there's no conflict in the scene yet to draw readers in. Are the kids in any danger? Is there a parent or relative they could go to for help? Dad isn't there, but I doubt he left two younger children at home alone while he was on a rig. A spooky voice in the night is spooky, but without anything to show why it's just a random detail. Think about why readers care should about these two kids in the middle of the night. What's the reason for them to keep reading?

(More on making readers care here)

Conflicts often involve choices, so is there a choice Caleb is going to have to make in this scene? Risk leaving his sister to check on the voice? Put both of them at risk to stay together? Call for help and risk the man overhearing them? What does he want that this storm and man are preventing him from doing or getting? Is it to protect his sister? If so, then why? That was his first thought upon waking, so I wonder if there's a reason for him to worry. Knowing that reason (or making that worry stronger) would help draw me in.

(More on adding conflict to your scenes here)

2. Is there enough description to grab you?

Description is very subjective, but I'd rather know how Caleb is feeling than what his sister looks like. Those details do nothing to move the plot (I don't mind them being there, but they're not helping the story). I was also thrown a bit with the canyon detail, as that made me think they were outside, so the switch to being inside was jarring.

You might consider what details readers need to know to understand what's going on in this scene, and what they need to know about these characters to want to know their story. Since what's happening is ambiguous, knowing Caleb's emotions and why he's checking on Vicky would let readers know he fears something and then they can wonder what that is.

For example (making up a random detail since I don't know the story), if before he left, Caleb's father told him to watch out for strange men coming around the house and hide if he saw any, then this would have more meaning. Caleb could think about that as soon as he hears the voice, and readers would know there's a problem Dad didn't fully reveal and it's putting the kids in danger. Caleb might even ignore Dad's order because he wants to know what this voice is and why he needs to hide.

A situation like this would add both conflict, and allow you to describe the scene in a way that shows Caleb's fear and state of mind. He'd see the room differently, hear sounds and judge them based on what he fears. The descriptive details would add to the tension and help draw readers in.

(More on how your description can help your scenes here)

Overall, I think this could be a gripping opening if readers understood what was going on better and felt Caleb's fear (or whatever he's feeling). Vague danger isn't as scary as a specific danger. Perhaps rework it so Caleb is already awake when things start happening and let him set the scene a bit. That way, readers know who he is and what he's worried about when things start to get strange. (I assume there's something he's worried about since he looks like the protagonist)

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.

2 comments:

  1. The first line is so critical in grounding a story so I agree completely with the canyon line making me think someone is outside.

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  2. Ditto everyone, I immediately pictured camping at the Grand Canyon or a similar scenario for the setting at the first line. Even the line about the sister staring out into the starless sky made it feel like they were camping and not at home. So I kept having to shake my initial view of the scene to set them back in a house. Also, it took me a beat to realize that he was actually describing a real voice in the house. I was still thinking about the storm and thought he was comparing the sounds of the storm to a deep male voice but that might be more due to reading too fast and not processing the words that were there.

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