Saturday, April 2

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Middle Grade Science Fiction Opening Hook You?

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 site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

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Submissions currently in the queue: Five 


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This week’s questions:

1. Is the voice appropriate for middle-grade (the main character is twelve years old)?

2. Is there enough showing versus telling?

3. Is the hook strong enough to grab your attention and keep you reading?


Market/Genre: Middle grade science fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

The tardy bell rang, and I shuddered as I glanced yet again at Zack Goldman’s empty desk a couple rows up.

It wasn’t a surprise he wasn’t in the last class of the day, though. He’d been coughing and sniffling ever since homeroom first thing that morning. And the cold-like symptoms kept getting worse throughout the day. At one point his face even looked like it belonged in a wax museum, his eyes all red and puffy.

Yeah, he’d definitely been coming down with something. But the symptom that sent a sharp pang through my chest was the sores—the real tiny, purple sores that formed a perfect circle on his forehead, like they always did. I’d only noticed the creepy little things because I’d been waiting in line behind him at the water fountain in the hallway right after lunch. When he’d gotten his fill, he turned around and nodded wearily—must’ve not been feeling too well—toward me, letting me know it was my turn. I’d been close enough to see the sores, especially since I was at eyelevel with him. Us girls were about as tall as the guys at twelve years old, some of us taller.

I could even see that the sores were real shiny, like they wanted to announce to everybody that they’d arrived, like they wanted to let everyone know Zack was the infamous bacterium’s latest victim and that the rest of us kids at New Pines Middle School were next.

My Thoughts in Purple:

The tardy bell rang, and I shuddered as I glanced yet again at Zack Goldman’s empty desk a couple rows up.

It wasn’t a surprise he wasn’t in the last class of the day, though. He’d been coughing and sniffling ever since homeroom first thing that morning. And the [cold-like symptoms] this doesn’t feel 12 to me kept getting worse [throughout the day] same here. At one point his face even looked like it belonged in a wax museum, his eyes all red and puffy.

Yeah, he’d definitely been coming down with something. [But the symptom that sent a sharp pang through my chest] this doesn’t sound 12 to me was the sores—the real tiny, purple sores that formed a perfect circle on his forehead, [like they always did] this sounds more like this is usual for him, not that it’s a common symptom of the virus. I’d only noticed the creepy little things because I’d been waiting in line behind him at the water fountain in the hallway right after lunch. [When he’d gotten his fill, he turned around and nodded wearily—[must’ve not been feeling too well] this has already been established so it feel odd saying it as if it were new—toward me, letting me know it was my turn] feels tellish, and also not like a 12 year old. I’d been close enough to see the sores, especially since I was at eyelevel with him. [Us girls were about as tall as the guys at twelve years old, some of us taller.] feels told

I could even see that the sores were real shiny, like they wanted to announce to everybody that [they’d arrived,] not sure a 12 year old would use this phrase like they wanted to let everyone know Zack was the infamous bacterium’s latest victim and that the rest of us kids at New Pines Middle School were next.

The questions:

1. Is the voice appropriate for middle-grade (the main character is twelve years old)?


Pretty much. There are some phrases that feel older to me (readers chime in here), but overall I can see this as a middle grade story. Some voice elements I particularly liked:
At one point his face even looked like it belonged in a wax museum, his eyes all red and puffy.

I’d only noticed the creepy little things because I’d been waiting in line behind him at the water fountain in the hallway right after lunch.

Zack was the infamous bacterium’s latest victim and that the rest of us kids at New Pines Middle School were next.

These feel 12, and I can hear a kid behind the words. There’s judgement and attitude here, yet there’s a nice sense of awareness about the world she lives in—this girl notices stuff, but she’s not prone to panic.

(Here’s more on developing voice)

2. Is there enough showing versus telling?

Hard to answer this one because the nature of the narrative. The protagonist is summarizing the past events that led her to worry about Zack, so it is told. She’s telling us why she’s worried.

Most of it feels like her voice though, and what she’d think about in this situation. The only sections that felt a little tellish to me what these lines:
When he’d gotten his fill, he turned around and nodded wearily—must’ve not been feeling too well—toward me, letting me know it was my turn.

This feels explanatory and focused more on Zack’s motives for acting and what happened than on what the narrator saw and felt. It’s also odd with the “must not have been feeling well” aside in the middle, which seems out of place in a scene that has already established Zack is sick (possible this is revision smudge, though. Maybe this paragraph was part of an original opening that showed this in real time instead of flashing back to it).
Us girls were about as tall as the guys at twelve years old, some of us taller.

This feels like info dumped in to tell readers the narrator is 12, and not something she’d naturally think at this moment.

I’d suggest a few word tweaks and editing the tellish parts to match the voice you have developing. What’s going on is working, it’s just a matter of adding the narrator’s voice in a few spots.

I do wonder (and it’s possible the author has as well) if starting when she sees the spots at the water fountain is a better opening. That feels like the moment when things go wrong, and the opening jumps back to that almost immediately.

However, I can also see that nothing much probably happens between that moment and the first line, and the worry is where things actually start. It’s a tough call and could go either way.

My instincts say it will depend on how much world building and set up needs to happen before the conflict kicks in. If this is a normal world and there’s little that readers won’t know, the flashback summary is probably the right approach. The narrator is worried, here’s why, now let’s move on.

If this is more science fiction-y and there’s world building to be done to understand the future the narrator lives in, then starting earlier to establish and show the world might be the right path. Having the narrator go through her normal day as she gets more and more worried (and we see how the other students and teachers react to the spots) could build some nice tension.

In either case, it’s okay to hold some details back to keep the story moving (and avoid some of those tellish spots). We don’t need to know all the details about how she spotted the spots, just that she saw them when she was behind Zack at the water fountain (Did she drink from it after him? I’m curious about that). You might consider shifting the focus to how she felt about it rather than how the mechanics of the situation worked.

(Here’s more on showing, not telling)

3. Is the hook strong enough to grab your attention and keep you reading?

I’d read on (readers chime in here). I’m a big fan of outbreak stories, so it hooks me on that alone. The voice works for me, and I’m curious what’s about to happen next.

I don’t see the conflict yet, though I assume it’ll come from the virus in some way. The sense of approaching doom is enough to draw me in for now, but if there’s isn’t a problem within a few pages, I can see the tension dying off. You might double check where the conflict enters the story and make sure it’s not too far in, just to be safe.

(Here’s more on crafting strong story hooks)

Overall, it has a few rough edges to smooth, but it’s off to a good start. The pieces are solid.

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.

6 comments:

  1. Nicely set up, all in all.

    One impression I have is that the third paragraph is a little on the long side. That's something to watch in any genre, and for middle grade it's worth taking a look at what stories use what lengths when. I wouldn't say that it's simply "too long," but that it might be longer than you really want, especially right on the first page.

    If a paragraph really seems like it's starting and ending to cover one subject, that may be a good reason to keep it as one block. But here the next paragraph is more of the same subject about observing the sores in that moment, so that leaves the door open to breaking up that main paragraph or shifting more of it into the next one. (On the other hand, you do lead up to it with two shorter paragraphs to pull us in.)

    Just something to consider as you edit.

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  2. I also wondered if she drank after Zack and of everything that was presented, it seemed odd to leave that out. I read less of the 12-year-old mind, except in the 2-3 spots where the language was less structured.

    It seemed that the author was pushing to achieve a voice, so wondered if it might help to do some character studies to get the personality firmly and naturally planted in the author's mind.

    The story premise is interesting, and I assumed that the lack of contact with Zack, the circle of sores being labeled as creepy but not treated as such, meant that this had happened before...somewhere.

    If this is a killing danger, then it's odd to me that a kid would only be wary and watching. To me, I'm being told about something without any drama -- and it's something that kills! :-)

    I like the idea of opening with the water fountain scene, spotting the circle of sores, making a kid comment about no way I'm gonna drink after him, then maybe having some conflict about telling others or wondering why no one had noticed (?), and then having the confirmation of him being in his seat and confronting fear about it. I feel no conflict -- and whether the MC is a loner or has a gang of pals, this age group lives with minds fully engaged and ready to create mountains out of molehills, just to get the world amped-up. I want to hear about a plot that was hatched earlier and would not be put into action or the need for one.

    I would only read on to see if the conflict begins on the next page.

    The bones are very good -- the idea is good -- I'd love to see a re-work back here! Good luck! :-))

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  3. Start with the purple spots, as suggested. Use dialogue on the first page, talking to Zach, then he goes home. End with your great hook about them all getting this.

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  4. It didn't hook me, sorry, for the simple fact that no adults seem to have reacted to Zach's obvious symptoms.

    I do think that words like 'tardy' and 'wearily' are too 'old' for 1st person MG. It's part of what puts the voice off a bit. Another thing is superfluous data.

    e.g. para 2 could be shortened because you don't need to explicitly state that the day starts with homeroom, or which period we're in...

    It wasn’t a surprise he'd left. He’d been coughing and sniffling ever since homeroom. And his symptoms kept getting worse. By lunch, his eyes were so red and puffy his face belonged in a wax museum.

    Anyway, it's a good start but I think we need to see/hear/feel something from another character for the MC to react as strongly as she does. Can Zach be quarantined? Or the teacher be wiping everything down with Lysol wipes?

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  5. Thanks, Janice, and everybody else for the very helpful comments! I am pumped to start revising.

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