Saturday, August 6

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Sound Like a 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 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 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through September 3.

This week’s question:

I really wanted to focus on one thing: nailing the MG voice. Even after all the researching and studying I've done (including the help I've gotten from you), I think I'm still having difficulty.


Market/Genre: Middle Grade

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: At this point in the story, the twelve-year-old main character and her friend just stumbled on a spaceship in the woods near their houses, and secretly witnessed all the grownups in town - including their parents - fly out of it Superman-style. They've jumped to the conclusion that aliens have replaced all the grownups in town and are planning to take over the world next. The main character and her friend have agreed to meet later that evening to come up with a plan to stop the invasion. Right before this passage takes place, the main character and her friend are going to their own respective houses for dinner with their families.

Goosebumps pushed up all over my body as I walked toward my house, four houses up the street from Sam’s. The rectangular, two-story grey building surrounded by its white picket fence didn’t look the same as it always did as I approached it. No, it appeared as though its paint had grown a slightly darker hue, as if hinting that something evil lurked behind its seemingly normal facade. Had maybe even been lurking there for a while now.

I tried to calm my heart, though didn’t have any luck, as I entered the wooden front door. The thick, pungent scent of meatloaf—must’ve been leftovers—immediately hit me. Tinged by the sweet whiff of corn, of course.

Crud.

Every muscle in my body tightened so much it felt like a giant cramp. Sam and I must’ve taken longer to get home than I’d thought. Mom and Dad—or whatever they were—must’ve already gotten home from work—or building an alien base or whatever it was they were doing with their weird yellow vehicles—and were making dinner.

“Is that you, honey?” Mom’s chipper voice called from the kitchen, and a layer of ice sprung up on my spine. For the first time in my life her voice sounded false, like a key on a piano that played the totally wrong note when struck.

“Um…yep!” I said in my usual cheery voice.

She poked her top half into the hallway. It took all my strength to hold back a shudder as I took in her grey lawyer suit with the white collared shirt underneath.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Goosebumps pushed up all over my body as I walked toward my house, four houses up the street from Sam’s. [The rectangular, two-story grey building surrounded by its white picket fence didn’t look the same as it always did as I approached it. No, it appeared as though its paint had grown a slightly darker hue, as if hinting that something evil lurked behind its seemingly normal facade. Had maybe even been lurking there for a while now.] This doesn’t sound MG to me.

[I tried to calm my heart, though didn’t have any luck, as I entered the wooden front door. The thick, pungent scent of meatloaf—must’ve been leftovers—immediately hit me. Tinged by the sweet whiff of corn, of course.] Neither does this

Crud.

[Every muscle in my body tightened so much it felt like a giant cramp.] This sounds more MG Sam and I must’ve taken longer to get home than I’d thought. [Mom and Dad—or whatever they were—must’ve already gotten home from work—or building an alien base or whatever it was they were doing with their weird yellow vehicles—and were making dinner.] This sounds more MG, but the sentence itself is a little too complex with all the em dashes for MG

“Is that you, honey?” Mom’s chipper voice called from the kitchen, and a layer of ice sprung up on my spine. [For the first time in my life her voice sounded false, like a key on a piano that played the totally wrong note when struck.] Has a MG vibe

“Um…yep!” I said in my usual cheery voice.

She poked her top half into the hallway. It took all my strength to hold back a shudder [as I took in her grey lawyer suit with the white collared shirt underneath.] Doesn’t sound MG

The question:

1. I really wanted to focus on one thing: nailing the middle-grade voice. Do I?


Not yet (readers chime in here, as voice is very subjective). For me, the narrator has a more adult tone and perspective on what she’s seeing and describing. There are some MG-sounding lines in here, so I think you’re starting to find your voice, but the word choice is still off.

One of the biggest problems with voice is that it’s almost impossible to teach. There are no rules, and even general guidelines can contradict each other from book to book. For example, many third-person-omniscient narrators use adult vocabulary and phrasing, yet the overall novel sounds like a kid’s book. But the same words in a first-person narrator sound too adult. Today’s young readers are also more sophisticated, so their books can read like adult novels with younger protagonists. And with so many adults reading children’s fiction these days, many “kids’ books” are really written with adult readers in mind.

My personal rule of thumb, is the tighter the point of view, the more “kid-like” the voice has to be to sound authentic. If you’re filtering the story through a first-person child narrator, everything should feel like that child’s opinion and how they see the world. Kid voice comes from word choice and how the POV-character filters the world to the readers.

(Here's more on developing you voice)

That means using words and phrases that a child would use, and finding metaphors and similes that fit within that child’s worldview. The child narrator sees the world as a child and judges it that way, verses an adult describing what they know is there through a child narrator. It’s the difference between, “Ew, that stinks,” and “A pungent scent hit me.”

Since you’re struggling with this, let’s go line by line and really dig into what words and phrases are contributing to the voice:
Goosebumps pushed up all over my body as I walked toward my house, four houses up the street from Sam’s.
This sounds good. Goosebumps “pushing up” feels like something a kid would say, as does how she describes where her house is. “From Sam’s” is a very kid way of establishing location, because Sam’s house is part of her world and she’d reference things known to her. This feels more natural to a kid than if she’d said “from the post office on the corner.”
The rectangular, two-story grey building surrounded by its white picket fence didn’t look the same as it always did as I approached it.
This feels more adult to me because the references are older. To a kid, it’s not a building it’s her house. How it’s described feels external and not like the narrator seeing her house and it looking wrong. “As I approached” also feels a little older.
No, it appeared as though its paint had grown a slightly darker hue, as if hinting that something evil lurked behind its seemingly normal facade.
This feels very adult to me with phrases such as, “It appeared as though” “a slightly darker hue” “the seemingly normal facade.” Kids are smart and some do use words like this, but unless it’s been established already that she’s a bit of a brain and speaks differently from her friends, it feels older. Think about how a kid would describe the house looking darker and scarier, and the things she’d compare it to.
Had maybe even been lurking there for a while now.
This could go either way. “Lurking” is a funny word, so kids use it.
I tried to calm my heart, though didn’t have any luck, as I entered the wooden front door.
“Calm my heart” doesn’t feel like a kid to me, nor does “entered.” It’s also odd to describe what the door is made out of. I assume she’s scared, but I’m not feeling her emotions—just the external description of her emotions. This adds to the more grown-up tone. There’s little internalization to show her emotions, and that’s where voice really shines through.
The thick, pungent scent of meatloaf—must’ve been leftovers—immediately hit me. Tinged by the sweet whiff of corn, of course.
“Pungent” and “tinged” aren’t typical MG words. The phrasing also feels older.
Crud.
This is a good MG swear.
Every muscle in my body tightened so much it felt like a giant cramp.
This feels MG to me. A giant cramp is a simile kids would know and relate things to.
Sam and I must’ve taken longer to get home than I’d thought. Mom and Dad—or whatever they were—must’ve already gotten home from work—or building an alien base or whatever it was they were doing with their weird yellow vehicles—and were making dinner.
This also has a MG feel, though all the em dashes could make it tougher for younger readers to understand. You don’t usually see a lot of complex sentence structure in MG. But that’s more a matter of punctuation than voice.
“Is that you, honey?” Mom’s chipper voice called from the kitchen, and a layer of ice sprung up on my spine.
This could go either way. “Chipper” isn’t a common kid word, though I like how she focuses on the voice—it’s not “Mom” calling, only her voice. A “layer of ice sprung up on my spine” has a kid vibe as well, though it could also feel older depending on what else is around it. The more adult sounding the text close to it, the more adult sounding this will likely feel.
For the first time in my life her voice sounded false, like a key on a piano that played the totally wrong note when struck.
This feels like a kid describing something off. “False” could be a little older feeling. “Fake” might sound more MG.
“Um…yep!” I said in my usual cheery voice.
This is fine, though “cheery” pushes it a little more toward adult. Again, the focus is on the external description, not how she feels or what she’s trying to do. She’s faking normal to fool the alien impostors (I’m guessing based on your background summary of the scene), but that’s not shown.
She poked her top half into the hallway.
This sounds MG. “Poking” is a good kid word, and “top half” fits how a kid would describe it.
It took all my strength to hold back a shudder as I took in her grey lawyer suit with the white collared shirt underneath.
This sounds more adult. Kids don’t really “take in” things. It’s too self-aware of what her body is doing and what’s she trying to do. She’s also a scared kid who thinks her parents were taken over by aliens, so noticing the clothes feels wrong. How would a kid see an alien wearing her mom’s face and clothes? A great example here is from the movie, Men in Black. The wife describes her husband (who was taken and duplicated by an alien) as wearing, “an Edgar suit.” That’s the kind of thing a child would totally use to describe an alien who had duplicated her mom.

I’d suggest going through this again and revising to be more in the narrator’s head. Think about how she feels, what’s going through her mind, what she’s trying to do, and then write it how a scared twelve-year-old girl would think and behave. Put the details into her worldview and use words and concepts she’d understand as a child.

Show her personality as well. Internalization is your friend when it comes to voice. How does this girl think? What does she sound like when she speaks? Find her voice, and I bet you’ll find yours.

(Here are some exercises on finding and developing your voice)

For reference and study, here are some books that do a first-person middle-grade voice particularly well: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, Wonder, Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief.  

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. Janice, I've been slack about reading your critiques to my loss. This was such a great tutorial on how word choice makes a difference. I hadn't thought of any of the points you made until after reading your critique. Thanks to the volunteer (keep plugging away!) and for getting down & dirty picky, Janice. IT teaches us all. Just shared on FB and Twitter.

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  2. I don't read MG, but I have three MG nieces/nephew and I agree with Janice about the overall voice.

    My nephew would use "crud", but my nieces wouldn't. Both would use "lawyer suit". The paragraph beginning with "Sam and I must’ve taken longer to get home" is exactly like they talk all the time. But, agree with Janice on the punctuation. It might sound right if read aloud, but a little complex reading for me, regardless of genre.

    Although not part of your question, and disregarding the voice, I liked the last sentence a lot as a scene ending. It's more subtle than if she had three eyes and I'd read on if only to find out why the suit was important.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  3. I liked your concept idea of the story. Try hanging out at a middle school basketball game in the bleachers it will be an eye-opener!

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  4. I'm not extensively read in MG, but agree with all the points Janice made. To look at it another way, I just finished reading a Sue Grafton mystery and the opening paragraphs in the excerpt felt a bit like that. Later, the voice fluctuates between adult and MG. I know, because my pulse accelerated at times and I'd think, "The writer is getting the voice!" As Janice said, it's difficult to teach it. There's a bit of method acting to voice.

    You're getting it. Hang in.

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  5. Thanks to the volunteer and to the critique! I'm working on a MG right now, and those points hit home. One advantage I do have, though, is that I teach those grade levels (art), and I completely agree - they don't notice a lot that might be obvious to us, like the door and the house, but can describe in complete detail the things about people and objects that evoke emotion. Keep plugging, as will I!

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  6. Thanks for all the feedback, guys! And Janice, too, of course!!

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