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Saturday, April 22

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This an Engaging 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: Nine 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through June 24.

This week’s questions:

1. Is it compelling enough to read on?

2. Does it have a strong and engaging voice?

3. Is the setting and situation understandable (at least given that some details haven't been revealed yet)?


Market/Genre: Middle Grade Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

By Friday afternoon, after a week of careful thought, Michael Prasad had come up with just one explanation for how he might make it to Monday morning without getting grounded for the rest of his life.

Hypothesis: that parents might be so excited to find out you’ve succeeded at something that they forget they said you absolutely positively under no circumstances were allowed to try.

It was a stretch, he had to admit. And it raised the obvious question of whether he would have been better off sitting in the library studying for his Martian history exam, like he’d told his mom he was doing, instead of standing at the back of the colony hangar with his helmet under his arm like some kind of skinny, dark-haired Neil Armstrong.

Based on the puzzled looks he was getting from the high school students who had gathered in the hangar, he wasn’t the only one wondering why he was here. Four of them were carrying environment suit helmets like his, though theirs were all decorated with signatures and good-luck messages. Every now and then, one of the other kids (friends? supporters? lackeys?) would nod in Michael’s direction and whisper something. Michael kept his face expressionless. What did he care what some stupid high-schoolers thought? He wasn’t here to make new friends.

He wrapped his arms around his helmet and pushed his way toward the suit prep room, mumbling excuse me or I need to get through as he slipped between the older kids. With the only light coming from the bright pink sky outside, the hangar was dark and shadowy. Its massive doors were built right into the transparent dome that covered Heimdall. The dome itself was visible only as a faint shimmer at the spot where the smooth floor ended and the Martian surface began. A big cargo jumpship filled half of the hangar, and the whir of torsion wrenches filled the air as workers repaired one of its landing legs. Michael half-expected that at any moment someone might tell him that he was breaking some rule just by being here by himself.

My Thoughts in Purple:

By Friday afternoon, after a week of careful thought, Michael Prasad had come up with just one explanation for how he might make it to Monday morning without getting grounded for the rest of his life. You hook me right here. I want to know what he did (or will do).

Hypothesis: that parents might be so excited to find out you’ve succeeded at something that they forget they said you absolutely positively under no circumstances were allowed to try.

It was a stretch, he had to admit. And it raised the obvious question of whether he would have been better off sitting in the library studying for his Martian history exam, like he’d told his mom he was doing, instead of standing at the back of the colony hangar with his helmet under his arm like some kind of skinny, dark-haired Neil Armstrong. I love how such few words lets you get a hint of what he’s doing, but doesn’t give anything away. But “walking on Mars” is a good guess based on the clues

Based on the puzzled looks he was getting from the high school students who had gathered in the hangar, he wasn’t the only one wondering why he was here. Four of them were carrying [environment suit helmets] a hint at what he's doing like his, though theirs were all decorated with [signatures and good-luck messages] I like this detail because it suggests “going away” or a trip of some kind, which further hints at what Michael is doing. Every now and then, one of the other kids (friends? supporters? lackeys?) would nod in Michael’s direction and whisper something. Michael kept his face expressionless. What did he care what some stupid high-schoolers thought? [He wasn’t here to make new friends.] Which makes me wonder what he is there for, hooking me further

He wrapped his arms around his helmet and pushed his way toward the suit prep room, mumbling excuse me or I need to get through as he slipped between the older kids. With the only light coming from the bright pink sky outside, the hangar was dark and shadowy. Its massive doors were built right into the transparent dome that covered Heimdall. The dome itself was visible only as a faint shimmer at the spot where the smooth floor ended and the Martian surface began. A big cargo jumpship filled half of the hangar, and the whir of torsion wrenches filled the air as workers repaired one of its landing legs. Michael half-expected that at any moment someone might tell him that he was breaking some rule just by being here by himself.

The questions:

1. Is it compelling enough to read on?

I’m hooked (readers chime in). I get a strong sense of Micheal about to do something he’s going to regret, but feels it’s worth it anyway, and I’m curious to see what it is. He’s a fun kid, careful and adventurous all at the same time (a week of careful thought, heading out on Mars) and I already like him. I don’t know specifically what he’s up to, but I can get a strong enough idea based on the clues to see where this story is likely going (walking on Mars and doing “something” is my guess).

(Here’s more on hooking your reader in three easy steps)

2. Does it have a strong and engaging voice?

Yes. I like the voice, and I get a sense of a person telling this story. It also feels like it fits who Michael is as a person (careful and adventurous). I feel I’m with Michael in that hanger.

(Here’s more on creating a character’s voice)

3. Is the setting and situation understandable (at least given that some details haven't been revealed yet)?

I think so. I get a Mars base or starport of some type, probably a high school program or field trip that lets them either walk on the surface or fly somewhere on Mars. If he’s studying the history and high school kids are going outside, I’d imagine this is a colony.

(Here’s more on showing your world without explaining it)

Easy diagnostic today. I really enjoyed this and would certainly read on. I like Michael and want to see what he’s doing, and if he succeeds. I also want to know what happens when his parents find out.

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 (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

9 comments:

  1. Although certainly well written, it's not a traditional MG voice. The sombre tone reminds me more of Ender's Game or The Sweetness of...
    Books that have MG-age MC's but were written for older readers.

    Minimally I'd say upper MG.

    (Oh, and I'd get rid of the 'that' after 'Hypothesis:')

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  2. I find the hypothesis insert to be very distracting especially right up at the start before we actually get accustomed to Michael's voice. I wonder if it would be better incorporated more smoothly into his inner thoughts and not italicized. I agree it sounds like a much older voice than MG.

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  3. I enjoyed reading this excerpt, although I agree that the hypothesis pulled me out of the story. I think the somber tone works considering the circumstances. If the tone changes quickly, and doesn't remain somber for a long time, I think this could work fo MG.

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  4. I thought the hypothesis insert was fine. However, to me it didn't jive with the word explanation. To my understanding, a hypothesis is the basis for his reasoning but not the actual excuse/explanation he was going to give to his parents. That was what I was expecting to read.
    Other than that, terrific job!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I had to stop and re-read hypothesis. Could be better as...
    Maybe, his parents would be so excited he succeeded....
    Otherwise, easy to read and good hooks.

    ReplyDelete
  6. The hypothesis insert, and the following words in brackets, were utterly distracting to me. Mentally, I rejected them as author intrusions to be ignored. If they are meant to be the MC's internal thoughts, I would prefer them presented more traditionally. This would allow the reader to view them as the MC's own, quirky way of looking at things and assigning attributes -- as perhaps how a genius-level middle-school kid might look at the world. Maybe a system of categorizing the world and people around him that helped him in social situations that, as a genius, had always been troublesome.

    I was hooked at the first paragraph, which could be used as a primer example of hooking the reader. This is partly why the hypothesis was so jarring -- like the author walked into the room, waving a flag.

    As Janice mentioned, the small bits sprinkled through the first 3 paragraphs (including the hypothesis) were excellent. Like hungry birds, readers will happily follow these crumbs.

    The final paragraph is a little dense, and I didn't have the feeling of being 'with' the MC. If the dome could have been described through his eyes, I believe that would have been more powerful. It feels like we're with the MC, and then a narrative about the space is inserted, and then we're back with the MC. I would also like to see the last sentence standalone.

    The voice, as other posters have mentioned, feels older than MG. My mind kept wanting to assign the MC as an early teen (maybe a tween in a stretch) and the other 'kids' as very late teens to early NA (18-20). However -- if the MC is extraordinary (genius), then the somber tone is a reveal as to how he filters the world -- abstract, defensive, independent. Maybe we see the contradictions in his emotions and level of intelligence later, when 'other things' happen.

    For a MG book, this would be a read that engaged older readers (YA/NA), but appears it would also be one of those books with the potential to inspire MG readers. Nothing wrong with acknowledging early maturity through a story of independence.

    Also, the somber tone underscores the seriousness of whatever is to come. This is anticipated to be a 'heavy' experience -- and I felt the MC was prepared to defiantly face it. The space explorer who would grow to be a legend...

    Can't wait to see this one finished and available to read.

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  7. I especially liked hypothesis; a good addition to an excellent voice. I'd like to see more of it, as Michael's comment on important things/doings, and even as a part of his tactics/strategy in plot.
    Great job.

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  8. I really want to know what happens next. The hypothesis did sound kind of weird. I don't think that it's a bad idea, it's (maybe?) establishing Michael as a geeky kid, which then gets added to the loner bit we get at the end. I'd suggest looking up how to write a hypothesis and using that to rewrite Michael's hypothesis in a way that sounds like it's actually him thinking, not someone else talking to him (unless he thinks to himself like he's two separate people, which works for a real person but is a bit confusing here).

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  9. I would read on. There is enough detail about setting and plot to hook me. I agree with previous posters that the voice sounds older than MG but I get the sense that Michael is precocious. I liked the hypothesis; it gave me insight into how Michael viewed the world.

    I agree the last paragraph would better serve the story if it was filtered more through Michael's voice.

    ReplyDelete