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Saturday, June 24

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Early Reader Opening Work?

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: Five

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through July 29.

This week’s questions:

I had some feedback suggesting that I don't start with a noise and also to make Johnny stronger as he is the protagonist not Granny. Does this work?

I will be pitching this at a conference, so I would like to know if these first words hook the reader (or in this case Editor!).

Market/Genre: Early Reader

Note: This is a revised opening. The original can be found here for those curious to see how this writer reworked it.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

“Granny!” yelled Johnny as he burst through her back door leaving a trail of dewy footprints. “Something is happening next door.”

Johnny rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and hitched up his stripy pajama shorts. “Something bad,” he said as Granny Jane rushed into the kitchen fastening her dressing gown. She pulled off her night cap to release a mop of red hair like a fierce lioness’s mane and said “What’s going on, Johnny?”

Johnny ran one hand through his tousled hair, “I heard something screeching and bellowing and looked out my window and saw a massive machine in Mr Snaggle’s garden.”

“… a machine? Before the sun is up?” said Granny

“It had big spotlights,” said Johnny as he led his Grandmother onto her back deck. He was tall for his 10 years but Granny was tall too. She rested her arm around his shoulders and gently lent against him.

Granny seems tired. I hope she’s OK?
From her deck, on the peak of Mt Kaboom, they overlooked Johnny’s home next door and Mr Snaggle’s wonky cottage below that. Sure enough, the dawning sunlight outlined a huge, black shape charging into the old wooden house making it shiver and groan.

“Mr Snaggle!” Johnny’s stomach twisted. “Granny! We have to warn him!”

“Don’t worry about Old Snaggle. I spotted him being driven away in a big black 4WD late last night,” said Granny. “The strange thing is, he had that dreadful Hawaiian shirt on. The one he always wears on his holidays, and two suitcases. Not like him to keep a holiday quiet … we usually hear about it for months beforehand.”

Screeeeech! Bellow!

Johnny’s face paled and his eyes widened, “That’s it. That’s the noise.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

“Granny!” yelled Johnny as he burst through her back door leaving a trail of dewy footprints. “Something is happening next door.”

[Johnny rubbed the sleep out of his eyes] since this feels like a response to Johnny’s dialogue, it threw me for a minute, as it seemed like Johnny was the one who had just been woken up and hitched up his stripy pajama shorts. [“Something bad,”] I’d add this to the opening line he said as Granny Jane rushed into the kitchen fastening her dressing gown. She pulled off her night cap to release a mop of red hair like a fierce lioness’s mane and said “What’s going on, Johnny?”

[Johnny ran one hand through his tousled hair, ] Feels like a little too much stage direction after the previous paragraph “I heard something screeching and bellowing and looked out my window and saw a massive machine in Mr Snaggle’s garden.” Wouldn’t a ten year old know what a bulldozer or whatever it is looks like? Giant truck at least? “Massive machine” doesn’t sound like what a boy this age would use. I’m not sure screeching and bellowing are words he’d use either.

“… a machine? Before the sun is up?” [said Granny] it’s clear who’s speaking so you don’t need the tag

“It had big spotlights,” [said Johnny as] same here he led his Grandmother onto her back deck. [He was tall for his 10 years but Granny was tall too.]This feels stuck in, as it has nothing to do with the scene or what’s happening She rested her arm around his shoulders and gently [lent] leaned against him.

[Granny seems tired. I hope she’s OK?] He did just wake her up. It also seems odd to suddenly switch to this when the problem is suppose to be the noise.

From her deck, on the peak of Mt Kaboom, [they overlooked] the deck overlooks, they just look Johnny’s home next door and Mr Snaggle’s wonky cottage below that. Sure enough, the dawning sunlight outlined a huge, black shape charging into the old wooden house making it shiver and groan.

“Mr Snaggle!” Johnny’s stomach twisted. “Granny! We have to warn him!”

“Don’t worry about Old Snaggle. I spotted him being driven away in a big black 4WD late last night,” [said Granny.] don’t need “The strange thing is, he had that dreadful Hawaiian shirt on. The one he always wears on his holidays, and two suitcases. Not like him to keep a holiday quiet … we usually hear about it for months beforehand.” If she thought he was headed out on vacation, and now his house is getting torn down, wouldn’t she have some thoughts about that? The weird part is his house being torn down isn’t it? Wouldn’t she find it more strange that he never mentioned his house being demolished?

Screeeeech! Bellow!

Johnny’s face [paled and his eyes widened] he can see what makes it now and why, so why does he act scared?, “That’s it. That’s the noise.”

The questions:

1. I had some feedback suggesting that I don't start with a noise and also to make Johnny stronger as he is the protagonist not Granny. Does this work?


I like Johnny as the protagonist, and him waking up Granny because of the demolition. It’s starting with something happening and feels more like a younger reader voice than the original.

2. I will be pitching this at a conference, so I would like to know if these first words hook the reader (or in this case Editor!).

I’m not an editor so I can’t speak for them, but I don’t think this opening is working just yet. There’s are a few too many things distracting me from the text, and not enough to draw me in.

It starts with Johnny running into Granny’s house, so I expect the second paragraph to be Granny’s response—that’s the way paragraphs and dialogue work. So it threw me when Johnny rubbed sleep from his eyes and acted like someone who had just been woken up by someone bursting through their door. Then there’s a lot of stage direction and moving around before Granny shows up, but by them I’m having a hard time figuring out where everyone is and what’s happening. It’s just confusing enough to force me to stop reading, go back, a read again. But a little streamlining would fix this, such as:
“Granny!” yelled Johnny as he burst through her back door leaving a trail of dewy footprints. “Something is happening next door. Something bad.”

Granny Jane rushed into the kitchen fastening her dressing gown. She pulled off her night cap to release a mop of red hair like a fierce lioness’s mane and said “What’s going on?”

“I heard something screeching and bellowing and looked out my window and saw a massive machine in Mr Snaggle’s garden.”
This gets to the problem right away without a lot of extra details. Though it still feels a bit rushed since readers don’t know what’s going on yet (same as Granny), so you might add a small paragraph between Johnny running in and Granny running out to set the scene a little and show the delay in Granny getting there. Perhaps something that shows Johnny being worried, pacing the kitchen, poking his head back outside, maybe hearing the noise again and worrying. This is a good opportunity to get the actual problem slipped in there.

(Here's more on finding a balance with stage direction)

I also had some issues with the vocabulary. Johnny uses a lot of words I don’t think a ten year old boy would use. Massive machine, screeching and bellowing, dressing gown and nightcap (though if this is set in a different time period, maybe). I’d also expect a kid his age to know what demolition equipment looks like to a certain degree. He’d likely call it a bulldozer or a crane.

The way he describes the problem is also a little off. It’s not the machine that’s the issue, it’s the house being torn down, right? So it seems as if this is trying to keep what’s making the noise a secret, when Johnny rushing in and saying, “They’re tearing down Mr. Snaggle’s house!” feels like a more interesting conflict to have. It gets to the point right away and readers will be able to understand what that is and why that might be bad.

However, as soon as this problem is revealed, Granny disregards it by saying Mr. Snaggle left the night before. She never acts worried or says anything to suggest tearing down the house is important or even strange. She finds it stranger that he went on vacation without telling the neighbors than the fact he didn’t mention his house was being torn down. The house feels like the stranger detail in this situation.

(Here’s more on adding urgency to a scene with a ticking clock)

This clearly matters to Johnny, but from a reader’s perspective, so what if the house is torn down? This doesn’t appear to affect Johnny or Granny in any way aside from being a surprise. There’s no sense of where the story is going next, or why a reader should keep reading.

If I remember the original right, there was a koala in a tree in the yard he wanted to save. I don’t know if that’s still the case, but if it is, that’s good reason for Johnny to be concerned. Perhaps mix your two versions a little more and show his concern for the koala, and that’s why he’s running to Granny. The koala is threatened and they need to act fast. Not only does that give readers something to care about (who wouldn’t want a cute animal saved?), it shows why this is a bad thing and gives Johnny something to do right away.

Take a step back and think about this scene and where the story is going. Why is Johnny upset? How does this affect him and something he wants? Why is this the very first thing that readers need to see? What goal, conflict, and stakes are going to drive the scene forward?

(Here’s more on goals, conflicts, and stakes and why you need all three)

Overall, I think this is a good step closer to what you want than the original. It feels more early reader/middle grade in voice. The scene itself has good pieces to work with, and I think if you add that urgency about why this matters and get a little more in Johnny’s head to show what he’s worrying about, you’ll get there.

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.

3 comments:

  1. Agreed, there's a lot to like, but just what's at risk and who's worried about it could be more in focus.

    You might be going for the idea that Johnny hasn't seen the bulldozer tear into the house yet (and that'll be revealed soon), and so far he only has a huge noisy machine to worry about. That can work if you clarify it, but that does mesh with what Janice said about him being old enough to partly know what a bulldozer is-- so he what he says and fears are affected by how much he can guess about the machine already.

    One line that made me stop cold was Granny's lioness mane. At first it seemed like a lot of words to just paint one piece during a busy moment, but it has another problem: lionesses don't have manes. (And even if it's Johnny that mixed that up because he thinks of Granny that way, some readers will still just think the writer made a mistake-- and it will knock them right out of the story.) It's a great image and I'm sure it's the right metaphor for these characters, but I don't think you want to slow down enough to say something this long, not right now.

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  2. I agree with all of Janice's well-aimed advice, and was also stopped by the whole red mane description, for the same reasons.

    Overall, there is alot of good material here and in the original, which I actually remembered -- because of the animal involvement and the danger to the koala. The level of concern Johnny felt and why, in the original, seemed very appropriate for a 10-year-old.

    The focus on this rewrite seems to be too self-aware, meaning I'm aware that the author is being very 'careful'.

    If the story was initiated on the following premise: the bulldozer rumbled up the road they all live on, Johnny awoke to that noise (uncommon that early--assuming that this is a more rural environment), looked out his window, saw the heavy equipment in Mr. Snaggle's garden (a scary & exciting sight), then ran to Granny's house without changing out of his pj's -- it can all be expressed by Johnny when he bursts into Granny's kitchen, talking a mile a minute. Kids assume knowledge in adults and are fully prepared to take on the role of Paul Revere when danger strikes their area.
    Granny would be, maybe, accustomed to his excitement (maybe he's always really excited) and would finish setting up her tea (or whatever) as he recounts/reports what is happening.
    I kept being jerked back and forth between conflicting character actions. Granny is painted as the lioness ready to protect her 'young' from some type of attack, and yet when she goes out to see what the danger is, she reacts calmly. (Always baffling to kids when adults do this)

    Also, my response to the image of Granny as a lioness was also conflicting as I don't envision women with unruly hair releasing it before heading into some threatening situation. We (as I am a woman with unruly hair) usually find a way to stuff it under hats, tie it up, or force it into a bun--not let it go wild-er and be a distraction.

    Like Janice, I don't see the focus of what is odd or scary in the scene as being the demolition of the house, except when Johnny fears that Mr. Snaggle is in danger of being crushed.

    As an editor, the first sentence would interest me somewhat, what with the start 'in the midst of' action, but more so if the 'dewy footprints' were left out. I understand this is a reference to it being morning, but I'd rather see something that brought me closer to this character. In this sentence, I have no idea yet that Johnny is a child. I suspect so, but the dewy footprints don't do anything to confirm that suspicion.

    Maybe showing that he catches his pj's on the back door in his haste, and then reveal his concern tied to his age. For establishing the time, you can have Granny doing something that relates to breakfast, even just alluding to the smell of cooking.

    I like this little story, the original and this revision. Keep at it, like Janice advises, by blending the two pieces. You'll hit your voice soon and have a great kid's story! Good luck and thank you for sharing your hard work with us.

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  3. Thank you everyone. I had already picked up the lioness not having a mane but all of your thoughts are so helpfull. I guess I overwrote everything in this version ... probably because I'm about to sit down with a publisher at a conference. I need to go and do something silly with Kipper and find my voice again. Thanks again!

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