Saturday, June 11

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Early Reader Opening Grab 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.

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

Submissions currently in the queue: Four

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This week’s questions:

1. Do I need to describe the character physically in my opening chapter?

2. Do you learn enough about him by the things he is doing?

3. Does this work?

4. I read somewhere that sentences shouldn't have more than 8 words in them for this age group. Do you agree?

Market/Genre: Early Readers

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Wee Johnny Bumpty cautiously unwound the dressing gown chord that held the two pillows over his ears. He clutched them to his chest and listened. Silence. At last the bulldozers barging and bashing down old Mr Smith’s house had stopped.

Johnny leaned against the wall of his tree house making himself comfy with the two pillows.. He put his Supadoopa binoculars up to his eyes to check on the big old gum tree. It was the only tree left standing on Mr Smith’s land. Johnny was responsible for sounding the alarm if the koalas trapped there needed to be rescued. He clutched the rubber bulb of the foghorn with his other hand. He was ready to put the Emergency Evacuation plan into action at any time.

The peace didn’t last for long. Huge trucks rumbled up the steepest street in Bendoon. Bobcat’s whizzed around filling them with the rubble. Then a steamroller thundered about flattening the land. Johnny held his breath every time it went near the old gum tree. He could see the koalas hanging on for dear life through his Soopadoopa binoculars. The baked bean tins that made up the Supadoopa binoculars were a bit sticky but that helped to hold the magnifying glasses into place.

When the steamroller finally trundled off the bare land and skidded back down the mountain, Johnny shook his head sadly. Only that morning the little wooden cottage had stood, slightly wonkily, in an overgrown garden. Now there was………..well, nothing!

The sun was dipping sadly and the birds circled cautiously before settling to roost in the big, old gum tree. The koala’s were safe…for now. Johnny put down the foghorn and backed down the ladder of his tree house. There was nothing left to see anyway….or was there?

My Thoughts in Purple:

Wee Johnny Bumpty cautiously unwound the dressing gown [chord] cord that held the two pillows over his ears. He clutched them to his chest and listened. Silence. At last the bulldozers barging and bashing down old Mr Smith’s house had stopped.

[Johnny leaned against the wall of his tree house making himself comfy with the two pillows.] This sentence feels a little cumbersome He put his Supadoopa binoculars up to his eyes to check on the big old gum tree. It was the only tree left standing on Mr Smith’s land. Johnny was responsible for sounding the alarm if the koalas trapped there needed to be rescued. He clutched the rubber bulb of the foghorn with his other hand. He was ready to put the Emergency Evacuation plan into action at any time. This could be a good spot for an internal thought from him abut how he feels about the koalas

The peace didn’t last for long. Huge trucks rumbled up the steepest street in Bendoon. Bobcat’s whizzed around filling them with the rubble. Then a steamroller thundered about flattening the land. Johnny held his breath every time it went near the old gum tree. He could see the koalas hanging on for dear life through his [Soopadoopa] spelling changed binoculars. The baked bean tins that made up the Supadoopa binoculars were a bit sticky but that helped to hold the magnifying glasses into place.

When the steamroller finally trundled off the bare land and skidded back down the mountain, Johnny shook his head sadly. Only that morning the little wooden cottage had stood, slightly wonkily, in an overgrown garden. Now there was………..well, nothing!

The sun was dipping sadly and the birds circled [cautiously] there are a lot of adverbs in this. You might consider tweaking to edit some of them out before settling to roost in the big, old gum tree. The koala’s were safe…for now. Johnny put down the foghorn and backed down the ladder of his tree house. There was nothing left to see anyway….or was there?

The questions:

1. Do I need to describe the character physically in my opening chapter?


Not if you don’t want to. Some readers will want to know those details, others won’t care. But nothing says you have to.

(Here’s more on how much you need to describe your characters)

2. Do you learn enough about him by the things he is doing?

Yes and no. I can see that he’s clever (he made the binoculars), and that he cares about the koalas, and that he’s willing to help save them. All good things to make Johnny a likable character. But I don’t yet know him as a person, because there’s very little internalization or sense of him thinking here. It’s mostly external.

This isn’t unusual for this age group (It’s in line with the voice and tone of the Magic Treehouse series), but you might consider a little more internal thought from him to get a sense of his personality across. How does he feel about what's happening? Why is he doing this?

(Here’s more in internalization)

3. Does this work?

Yes and no (readers chime in here). I like that it starts with something happening, but that conflict seems to vanish by the end of the first page. The koalas are safe. There’s a hint that something is about to happen, but it’s not hooking me yet. There’s “something to see” but without a sense of apprehension, I’m not curious to find out what.

I suspect this is because I’m not connecting to Johnny yet. Knocking down the house happens so quickly that I don’t get a chance to know him, or care about what he cares about before it’s over and I’m on to something new.

You might consider slowing things down a little and show Johnny’s worry over the koalas a little more. Less focus on the demolition and a hint more on how Johnny feels about it all. I think if I connected to him more emotionally I’d be curious along with him.

(Here’s more on slowing down in your opening scene)

4. I read somewhere that sentences shouldn't have more than 8 words in them for this age group. Do you agree?

No, because it’s not the number of words that matters, but the complexity of the sentence. Kids can understand a lot more than you'd think, and if you pick up any popular chapter book for that age range (Captain Underpants, for example) you’ll see longer sentences and an older vocabulary.

What matters is having a story kids want to read, which has more to do with voice and what’s happening than anything else. If they connect to the character and want to know what happens, you’ll grab them. Voice is a big part of children’s fiction, but I’m not getting a strong voice here yet (which could also be why I'm not connecting to Johnny yet).

(Here’s more on developing your voice)

Overall, it’s a good start, and I think with a few tweaks to show Johnny’s personality and voice more, you’ll draw readers in the way you want to. The right pieces are here, just bring them out more.

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 agree with Janice, and like that I get a clear sense of setting too.
    What I'd also like a better sense of, is the Emergency Evacuation plan, and who would respond to the foghorn. I think that's a good starting point for the internalization as well.

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  2. Nice job imagining an interesting situation for your character and a compelling plot. My comments relate to question 4.
    Sentence length, gramatical construction, and vocabulary are all necessary considerations when writing for your age group.

    Based on your writing sample, I am not convinced this is an early reader. I highly recommend Cowley's "Writing From the Heart," Karl's "How to Write and Sell Children's Picture Books," the "Children's Writer's Reference" and the "Children's Writer's Word Book." These books will help you narrow down your audience. Once you have the right audience in mind, it is easier to find the voice.

    For example,
    "Johnny was responsible for sounding the alarm if the koalas trapped there needed to be rescued...He was ready to put the Emergency Evacuation plan into action at any time."
    These sentences use 11 year-old word choice and sentence construction. That's 5th or 6th grade in America. Books for younger readers generally have more straightforward sentences. I love introducing exciting vocab, but try to support new words with context. More challenging words are often introduced in simpler sentences so the reader doesn't have to struggle with both complex phrases and hard words in the same sentence.

    Off the top of my head, "It was Johnny's job to sound the alarm." Or "Johnny took his job seriously. He waited, ready to sound the alarm. Any moment the koalas might be trapped." might be examples of similar text for a child just beginning to read longer books on his own.

    Hope that helps. Thanks for submitting.

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  3. I like the concept of your story, it has some interesting moving parts. My caution (as a mother of three readers) would be your word choices. I'm assuming a young reader is about 2nd-3rd grade? When they start boxcar/treehouse books? Your first sentence might send them running with the word cautiously instead of carefully. I felt the first sentence was unnecessarily advanced which might turn off some early readers. I'll admit I haven't read this type of book for nearly 20 years, so I may be off base with the age grouping and vocabulary. I'm sure you can develop this story into an interesting read. Good luck!

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  4. I liked the opening scene and implied danger/conflict, but it did seem to be the middle or end of an extended situation, so was a bit of a let-down.

    As others have mentioned, I balked at the use of cautiously, and also Bobcat, wondering if slowly and shovel-crane (or some such descriptive term) would be more appropriate.

    To be honest, I 'hear' the author, not the character in most of this sample. I'd like to have the danger to the koalas moved forward, perhaps they are a family that the MC has been watching/has a tie to?

    I guess I want more of the world reflected in this character's perceptions. Is the tree XX metres away or a soccer field away or some other common spatial reference?

    Also, stupid me, by the second paragraph I'm unsure who or what the MC is! I never assume a character is human when they aren't fully described. The tree house came to me as a critter inside a tree, not a kid in a house built in a tree. Obviously, this is my skewed mind--I think the name threw me.

    Re-reading with a kid as MC (not a critter), I still would like more description or actions that support who the character is. As Janice said, some readers may not care and others may want more.

    I also wanted to know why he was charged with honking the horn, this would be a place where info about Johnny could be included--perhaps he and his pals knew of the old house being town down and had cobbled together a plan (secret, of course) that included his responsibility of fog horn honking?

    Best of luck in your re-writes. Many thanks for being in the hot seat -- you have a solid concept and I enjoyed the potential.

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