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Saturday, September 9

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Middle Grade 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.

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

Submissions currently in the queue: Three 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through October 7.

This week’s questions:

Does this opening hook your interest in the MC? Do you understand what is going on for her or do you need more explanation of her condition? Does this opening make you want to keep reading?


Market/Genre: (Upper) middle grade fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: The MC is an "extreme introvert": people literally drain of her energy. The more people around her, the worse it is. I am submitting the first 258 words of the novel, which introduce the MC just as she is about to risk entering a crowd. This leads to the inciting event that launches the story.

Carnival lights blurred in the blue-black night as I lurked outside the gate. Screams and shrieks rose and fell like waves. Coming here was definitely the stupidest thing I’d ever done.

But if I could stay awake, it would be totally worth it.

Lights flashed behind a ticket kiosk a few yards away There it was—the reason for my stupidity.

“Experience the thrill, the speed, the power!”

It was a Formula One race car simulator.

I checked my fuel level. Yeah, I was a 13-year old girl and not a car, but I thought in automotive terms. My favorite cars were powerful— super cars like the Bugatti Veyron and muscle cars like Uncle Sid’s Shelby Mustang GT 500. Unfortunately, I was nothing like those cars.

I was a gas-guzzler with a ridiculously tiny fuel tank.

But I had a full tank now. Blood tingling, I strode through the gate and bought my ticket. The recorded announcement blared through a speaker.

“The thrill, the speed, the power!”

I followed it right to the crowd waiting in line.

The fatigue seeped into my bones. My body slowed as though someone had turned Earth’s gravity up. This was how it always began.

Great.

I staggered to an empty bench and plopped down next to an oozing pile of soft-serve. Good. No one would try to sit with me. But a steady stream of people sauntered by.

People didn’t scare me. Much. I just usually stayed away from them because of how they made me feel.

Tired.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Carnival lights blurred in the blue-black night as I lurked outside the gate. Screams and shrieks rose and fell like waves. [Coming here was definitely the stupidest thing I’d ever done.] This makes me curious why, as carnivals are fun

[But if I could stay awake, it would be totally worth it.] Intriguing. For narrative flow, I actually like this as part of the previous sentence instead of highlighted on its own.

Lights flashed behind a ticket kiosk a few yards away [There it was—the reason for my stupidity.] Don’t need since you just said she knows she’s being stupid. Give readers a chance to wonder

[“Experience the thrill, the speed, the power!” ] Is this a sign or someone speaking?

[It was a Formula One race car simulator.] This reads clunky as is. You could rephrase as use this as an intro to how much she likes cars, then transition to the fuel levels.

[I checked my fuel level.] I wanted a tiny clue about what this means. Perhaps a suggestion of how she feels? Yeah, I was a 13-year old girl and not a car, but [I thought in automotive terms.] feels a little told. Just show her doing this My favorite cars were powerful— super cars like the Bugatti Veyron and muscle cars like Uncle Sid’s Shelby Mustang GT 500. Unfortunately, I was nothing like those cars.

I was a gas-guzzler with a ridiculously tiny fuel tank.

[But I had a full tank now.] this feels like one too many tank references Blood tingling, I strode through the gate and bought my ticket. The recorded announcement blared through a speaker.

[“The thrill, the speed, the power!”] you said this earlier, though it fits better here

I followed it right to the crowd waiting in line.

The fatigue seeped into my bones. My body slowed as though someone had turned Earth’s gravity up. This was how it always began.

[Great.] This doesn't sound all that upset about it

I staggered to an empty bench and plopped down next to an oozing pile of soft-serve. Good. No one would try to sit with me. But a steady stream of people sauntered by.

People didn’t scare me. Much. I just usually stayed away from them because of how they made me feel.

Tired.

The questions:

1. Does this opening hook your interest in the MC?


Yes. It has some bumpy spots, but I’m intrigued by her doing something she knows is stupid, but doing it anyway. Her concern over staying awake at an exciting carnival has a nice juxtaposition that makes me curious about what’s going on. Her thinking of herself as a car is fun, and her liking big powerful cars shows a side of her personality and what she wants to be (weak vs strong). I like that she wants something, it’s a risk, but she’s doing it anyway.

(Here’s more on opening hooks)

2. Do you understand what is going on for her or do you need more explanation of her condition?

I mostly get it, but I wanted a little more. I’m not sure I’d know what was going on without your background notes. It went by too fast so I didn’t have quite enough time to let the situation sink in. I’d suggest showing more of the physical reaction of what’s happening to her. Right now, she walks right up and gets tired, and then it’s over. Perhaps draw that out some, let her be a bit worried as she gets in line, maybe let her struggle against it. Show her frustration and disappointment in her internalization. This is the moment when readers will see her problem, so you want it to be clear.

(Here’s more on getting what's in your head onto the page)

3. Does this opening make you want to keep reading?

I’d read on a few more pages (readers chime in). I think I’d be more hooked if this were fleshed out a little more and I got a slightly stronger sense of the narrator. I can see she wants to ride the race car simulator, and her condition is keeping her from that, but it’s missing that “why should I care?” element. A hint of stakes or what her larger goal or hope is could help. She’s taking a risk, but why is this risk so important to her? Why is the car important? I can see glimpses of it in how she talks about the powerful cars, but not enough to know her motivation here.

(Here’s more on showing a character’s motivation)

Is it just because she loves cars, or is this a good excuse to try to exist in the world more? Is there more going on than meets the eye? For example, if she’s frustrated over her condition and this is her attempt to live her life despite it, and it’s not working and she’s unhappy, I’d probably feel for her more. But she doesn’t seem all that upset about her energy being sucked out. I wanted a little more emotion from her to know if she’s just bummed, very disappointed, or angry. How does failing here make her feel? Why is this important to her?

Overall, it’s a good start, and I think just slowing down a bit and showing her situation and how it affects her more clearly would probably fix the issues I had. The pieces feel right, and she does have a goal and a consequence driving her actions. Her physical limitations are acting as the conflict here, so with a touch more stakes to round that out, I think it’ll work.

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. I'm not a big reader of middle grade fantasy fiction, but the premise of a girl with a love of fast cars and a desire for speed and energy, when she has so little of it herself, makes me want to know more about her. I like the carnival setting as an opener. This promises to be unique. Rev up those engines and keep going!

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    1. Thank you for the encouraging words! You got it exactly: the MC loves fast, strong cars precisely because she's completely the opposite. Thanks again. I'll take all the encouragement I can get :-) --Carolyn

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  2. This is a clever idea, taking introversion so literally. Real potential.

    I'd say Janice nailed it, that we want some contrast from the start about what in particular this girl wants right now (that puts her in conflict with her condition) and what it hints about her personality. You say the inciting incident is coming up, but we want a "goal for this minute" to intrigue us for now and let us reach that struggle ahead knowing what kind of person she is.

    (If it really is specifically that she's a car fan, you could drop more hints about engine trivia, races, and other things that show how she's into this and how it's mostly through studying because she can't get out often.)

    In any case, I like the car metaphor: it lets you make what could have been a hard-to-follow condition clear, with a teenage tone, and it does add poignancy to her coming to a car simulation. But I think the several paragraphs she spends about her own condition might be more at once than you want. If you could break it up slightly between other paragraphs--while keeping the meaning about her condition clear--it would slow the story down less.

    I think a scene like this has special potential if you play up the senses. Try to bowl the reader over with how vivid the carnival is (because it is, and the heroine certainly thought so to come here) and especially with impressions of her shaking hands, drooping eyelids, and other signs of her growing exhaustion, plus her sense of how many people are filling her senses to cause it all. If you MAKE the reader feel those sensations, and carefully build them up between her working her way inward (and then during that inciting incident?), you'll make a powerful impression.

    Rev those engines indeed!

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    1. Thank you, Ken. I appreciate your point that the reader needs the "goal for this minute." Once I clarify that, I think I can work in the stakes, which, as Janice helpfully noted, are missing. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment! --Carolyn

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  3. Well, I wouldn't have known what her special problem was if I hadn't read the author notes explaining it. The reactions we are shown all have to do with getting tired, not to ultra-sensitivity or emotional or mental exhaustion. The references to a 'full tank' sets the criteria within the physical realm, which is then reinforced by physical reactions.

    I wasn't too worried about her or what she was doing, because the scene isn't framed to show that the risk involved is a danger to her.

    After reading this a few times, to overcome initial impressions, I suddenly wondered how this would play if the MC had already tried to do this while people were there. The attempt had failed miserably and she had barely made it out without a big scene - in her lingo: the whole falling down, looks like she's dead thing... And now, she's snuck back to the carnival, determined to have what she desires. She'll only have one guard to deal with, and he just drives by and shoots his flashlight out the car window. She gets inside and powers up the 'ride'-- (or you could create other obstacles to this, but that might be delay tactics--but since people are the real problem for her, it could be that the guard comes early and drains some of her 'energy') -- and then relishes in her coup, feeling triumphant. That's putting it in the simplest terms, of course. But in this approach, she can think back to the failure of that afternoon. Can revel in her covert activities, feel very daring and smart to have figured out and executed this work-around. And the reader can learn about her problem by example, and can feel triumphant for her as well.

    When you're 13, everyone ignores you, it's a very irritating age--you are given responsibilities you don't want (chores) and denied things you do want. Treated like a child or a semi-adult (you're a young lady now) by real adults, who talk gibberish more often than not. Triumphs are few and far between, so to have conquered a situation through a 'sneak', which will get you in tremendous trouble -- just the sneaking out is a horrible offense. is pretty darned exciting. So you would have multiple dramatic or exciting things going on: failure on your first try, plotting 'revenge' by avoiding the crowds, sneaking out of the house (say at 10pm), sneaking into the carnival, risking the guard, then reveling in the driver's 'seat' and preparing for the thrill you've been waiting and waiting for -- and you did it all on your own! Heady stuff at 13. :o) In the meantime, the risks simply continue to rise the longer she's gone. She could forget about the guard and he sees the lights from the ride. She could notice him, maybe too late, because he's getting close and is starting to drain her energy. This could be shown by her aggravation at making silly mistakes during the ride...almost like she was getting too tired - boink! light bulb over head --someone is near! Run! :o) Lots to play with in this option.

    The more options you place in a scene, the more options you have to play with what happens in that scene.

    Great start I think, with a unique premise -- I wondered if she was home-schooled due to her problem, maybe mom is a teacher, or used to be? Or dad... Or a hundred other questions -- which is fun in middle-grade books. The presumptions of the adult world are always such a great foil as well.

    Thanks for your hard work and we wish you best success!

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    1. Thanks for your ideas, Maria, especially your perspectives on what it's like to be 13! You're right-- sneaking out is huge & the MC did sneak out to the carnival. Perhaps I will try to highlight that earlier as I weave in the stakes. --Carolyn

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  4. Like last week's submission, a new take...the car metaphor. Very clever..but a question...is the target primarily middle-grade boys? I wonder if my 12 year old granddaughter would pick this up and get hooked. She may be young for your target, but I think a 15-16 year old girl would be even less intrigued with the formula car metaphors. Of course, you know your target readers, so this is merely an observation on my part.

    I think it's clever...just throwing out food for thought:) You should be able to have a lot of fun with this!

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    1. Thank you for your observation! --Carolyn

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  5. Many thanks, Janice, for your insightful comments. The stakes for this particular scene (& the MC's goal) ARE missing. You've helped clarify for me where they need to go and that I need to include more of the MC's emotions (& that emotions & stakes go hand in hand). I'm figuring I can convey both with more internal thinking & one or two physical details to convey her growing fatigue/feelings about that fatigue. I want to be careful not to add too much length, though. You've given me great concrete advice and I have a lot to work on. Thank you again and thanks to other readers and commenters. This Saturday column is such a wonderful gift to the writing community. Cheers, Carolyn

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