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Saturday, November 11

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Have a Clear 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: One 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through November 18.

This week’s questions:

Is there a clear MG voice? Is the story "Show me" or "tell?" Can a MG book be about animal characters?


Market/Genre: Middle Grade

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: Mooshi (a cat) is immigrating to America via Steamship. Opening chapter scene is her experience on the voyage over. Mooshi has sniffed out a despicable rat family who didn't pay fare and had stowed away, with the intent of eating the ship's food supply. This pisses her off.

Cornered, father rat made a pathetic attempt to negotiate their release by offering to steal food for her throughout the voyage.

“It’s gonna get rough, fur ball. I’ve been to sea before and I know what I’m talking about. I know you’re a ratter but I have it on good authority I’m the last rat family on board. We can slip into the smallest of spaces and try as the crew may to hide the food, we’ll be able to get to the fixin’s. I can keep your belly full,” he snarled, placing an emphasis on full. Father rat’s ploy may have worked if Mooshi had been a lesser feline, but the code of a professional ratter kept her on the straight and narrow. Sensing her hesitation, father rat added,

“Look, I’ll throw in the pups as a snack to seal the deal. They just slow me down after all.”

Mother rat nervously nodded in agreement, all too willing to sacrifice her babies in exchange for their survival. Mooshi’s eyes instantly went black. The dim light of the cabin glinted off her razor sharp claws, now fully protruded, as she slashed their legs in two preventing escape. She quickly devoured the pups to lessen their pain. Wiping blood from her mouth with her paw, she turned her attention to father and mother rat, now coiled together, like snakes, holding each other, awaiting the bitter end.

“You know what goes around, comes around,” spit father rat at Mooshi as she sank the tips of her talon-like nails into his leather tail, pulling him closer to her mouth.

“True, “she said, then lowering her voice to a menacing whisper, “but perhaps my finding you today is your come around.”

She ate them, father rat first, if anything but to shut him up. Mooshi took her time with mother rat, toying with her prey. She had no respect for any mother who would sacrifice her children to save herself. Mooshi set aside their bony skulls for last to crunch on, sharpening her teeth. After all, it is what cats do. Especially professional cat ratters.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Cornered, father rat made a pathetic attempt to negotiate their release by offering to steal food for her throughout the voyage.

“It’s gonna get rough, fur ball. I’ve been to sea before and I know what I’m talking about. I know you’re a ratter but I have it on good authority I’m the last rat family on board. We can slip into the smallest of spaces and try as the crew may to hide the food, we’ll be able to get to the fixin’s. I can keep your belly full,” he snarled, placing an emphasis on full. Father rat’s ploy may have worked if Mooshi had been a lesser feline, but the code of a professional ratter kept her on the straight and narrow. Sensing her hesitation, father rat added,

“Look, [I’ll throw in the pups as a snack to seal the deal.] This seems rather gruesome for the age group They just slow me down after all.”

Mother rat nervously nodded in agreement, all too willing to sacrifice her babies in exchange for their survival. Mooshi’s eyes instantly went black. The dim light of the cabin glinted off her razor sharp claws, now fully protruded, as [she slashed their legs in two preventing escape. She quickly devoured the pups to lessen their pain. Wiping blood from her mouth with her paw, she turned her attention to father and mother rat, now coiled together, like snakes, holding each other, awaiting the bitter end. ] This could give readers nightmares

“You know what goes around, comes around,” spit father rat at Mooshi as [she sank the tips of her talon-like nails into his leather tail, pulling him closer to her mouth.] Might be a bit graphic

“True, “she said, then lowering her voice to a menacing whisper, “but perhaps my finding you today is your come around.”

She ate them, father rat first, if anything but to shut him up. [Mooshi took her time with mother rat, toying with her prey.] Might be too much She had no respect for any mother who would sacrifice her children to save herself. Mooshi set aside their bony skulls for last to crunch on, sharpening her teeth. After all, it is what cats do. Especially professional cat ratters.

The questions:

1. Is there a clear MG voice?


It does sound like a younger middle grade voice, similar in tone to the Guardians of Ga’hoole or Warriors. The voice feels like a strong narrator telling the tale in a way common to these types of books in this market.

(Here's more on writing the middle grade voice)

2. Is the story "Show me" or "tell?"

More tell, but it’s an omniscient narrator, so that fits the style. An omniscient point of view has a far narrative distance, so telling is the norm. If this was in Mooshi’s POV it would feel told. But if you’re curious what specifics phrases feel distant or omniscient, here they are:
Cornered, father rat [made a pathetic attempt to negotiate their release by offering to steal food for her throughout the voyage.]
This explains what he’s doing instead of showing him doing it through dialogue.
Father rat’s ploy may have worked if Mooshi had been a lesser feline, but the code of a professional ratter kept her on the straight and narrow. Sensing her hesitation, father rat added,
This isn’t Mooshi thinking this, but someone outside the story who knows what she’s doing and thinking.
Mother rat nervously nodded in agreement, all too willing to sacrifice her babies in exchange for their survival.
Same here. An outsider narrator knows this.
The dim light of the cabin glinted off her razor sharp claws, now fully protruded, as she slashed their legs in two [preventing escape.] She quickly devoured the pups [to lessen their pain.]
This states motivations and results of the actions, telling readers the reason instead of showing the action and letting them figure it out.

If you wanted to shift this tighter into Mooshi’s POV you could, but I think it would spoil the voice you have working here.

(Here's more on how the narrative distance and telling)

3. Can a MG book be about animal characters?

Sure. You tend to see animal characters in books aimed at younger readers, more in the ten and under range than the older readers. Animal characters can be a harder sell sometimes, as they’re more of a niche market, but there are plenty of them out there.

Besides the two I mentioned earlier, there’s the classic mouse/rat tale of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Bunnicula, and Tales From Dimweed Forest.

(Here's more on writing the animal fantasy)

The one thing that does give me pause is the level of violence (readers chime in here, especially those who read a lot of younger MG or animal stories). I’m concerned that it’s too dark and graphic for the readers. Giving your babies to a cat to eat is a terrifying thing for an eight year old. So is the cat torturing and eating the parents. If the rats were just simple animals, and the graphic nature was toned down, it might not be so bad, but having them be essentially “people” makes it so much worse. It's murder, it's not cats hunting. Plus, your protagonist can't kill innocent children, even if they are rats and shes a cat.

You can go dark in MG, but usually in the older half of the market. Animal stories are aimed at younger readers and my instincts say this is going to give them nightmares—especially in the opening scene. If this was toward the end and the rats were getting their comeuppance, and the babies were spared, then you might be able to do it, but not as the very first thing readers see.

If you haven’t already, I’d suggest reading a few of the popular animal series I mentioned and seeing how they handle animals eating other animals.

I’d suggest toning down the violence, gloss over the more graphic details, save the babies, and just eat the parents if you have to for the plot.

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. Not that Janet's wrong, but IMHO, better to write the 'pups' out completely. Mooshi, as a 'professional ratter', would be completely out of character letting them go.
    And it's no doubt my fault, but I did a double take at 'pups' wondering where the dogs had come in. Never heard of ratlings referred to that way.
    Thanks for sharing and best of luck with it.

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    1. Hello! I’m the volunteer who wrote this piece. I’m so tickled to get feedback such as this. My original swing at this scene was rather inferred, no tones of violence. Then, in a writing class I’m currently in, it was suggested I spell it out. I had no idea how vicious my Mooshi could be until the rewrite began. Funny. FYI : baby mice are generally called pups. Seriously. It made me pause, too.

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  2. I like the idea of an edgier, middle-grade animal story. But, *definitely* read up on how far the genres have been able to push it.

    It's rare to find an animal hero who isn't a herbivore --mice, rabbits, deer, songbirds, and many many more mice-- or else dogs or cats that live mostly with humans and aren't shown talking to their food. The whole idea of animals as killers is something kids can be sheltered from, and in fact they can relate more to a mouse's nervousness better to a hunting cat. If all animals are "people," predators seem like serial killers.

    I know there are MG stories about predator animals, where the prey doesn't talk much-- and I remember a rat is killed in *Lady and the Tramp*, but that rat is a solo monster whose only thought is to attack a baby. Or *Watership Down* shows how brutal animals can be, but even the villains are territorial rabbits rather than carnivores.

    Besides killing the pups (I don't see how that could ever work), the hardest thing to keep might be the cat playing with her food in the name of accuracy. But come to think of it, I've read that's more of a myth, and real cats do it only if they're too clumsy to kill quickly.

    I like Janice's idea that you might just be able to get away with killing adult rats at the end of a story once they deserve it. You might look at human crime stories for different ages (including superheroes) for standards of how fast it's acceptable for a villain to get deeply nasty, and how far they have to go to justify how much harshness from the hero.

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    Replies
    1. One example: if this is the first scene, one way to soften it might be that Mooshi hasn't caught the rats, but she's chased them so well they've been forced back into hiding and missed the ship's food. That's a bit Disney-esque, hinting there could be killing but not letting it happen, but it would let you set the basics and then develop the story by going further into how Mooshi does have reasons to hunt. Just as one example.

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    2. Ken, good points. Avoid murder in the first chapter. She is a cat who kills rats, who are in this tale moral-less, lying cheating scourges of society who ravage food from the law abiding, honest creatures of society, therefore her profession exists to take them out. The rat family potentially could cause a food shortage to all on the voyage if not taken into hand. Maybe mom and dad should be childless. I can see how killing rat pups might freak out a young one. Thank you so much for the great feedback. I feel honored to sit in the interrogation chair. Fun! I’ve learned quite a bit today. YAy!

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  3. Agree with Janice's guidance and the advice of the other posters. For my two cents:
    What is the purpose of all this violence?

    Why is the cat pissed off that one rat family exists on an entire steamer? Has the cat killed all the other rats and is now 'angry' that one family is still alive? (a creepy premise)

    Why does the cat care about the human food supply -- beyond it serving as food for the cat?

    The cat calls the rats despicable, then the rats are written as truly despicable creatures, a concept that your readers may not have encountered or considered. This would be okay, but the lesson learned is that despicable deserves to be eaten alive. The idea of babies being part of this serves no purpose except to add an additional grossness to the scene.

    Additionally, cats aren't sadistic or calculating and cruel. They're predators. I would dispute the purpose of showing this character in a way that just feeds into cat mythology (cats play with their prey).

    I am uncomfortable with the projection of sadism in the cat character.

    As an editor, I would be urging you to reconsider this material, which is currently being overwhelmed by aggressive concepts.

    If you're willing to attribute human characteristics to your animal characters, why not show how intellect can create conflicting feelings about actions? This whole scene needs a better reason for existing in the story than just that the cat is pissed.

    So, perhaps consider inferring the cat's sinister potential instead of portraying it bite-by-bite. There should also be a strong 'reason' for the violence or killing, like with Ken's Lady and the Tramp example.

    Also, use the reader's imagination! :o) The in-your-face, graphic details will probably shock the reader out of the story, maybe all the way out...

    I like the steamship, the adventure, the potential for close calls and having to depend on the wiles of a cat. I'd love to learn more, if I don't have to wade through more baby rat eating...

    Thanks for offering this sample up for consideration and comment. Everyone learns from your willingness to do so.
    Best of luck to you!

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    Replies
    1. Maria, thank you for such wonderful feedback. Believe me, the original version of this scene wAs more unicorns and rainbows meaning no blatant visuals. In a writing class I was challenged to show more than tell. I guess I went a tad overboard. Yes yes yes... save the babies. The questions you asked are answered outside of this scene, such as why Mooshi was so pissed, but I’ll spare you the buildup. I see that perhaps it went far darker than planned. I’m a novice in this area of writing, trying to figure out where the lines are drawn. I think I found several in the feedback of this scene! Thanks again! Best to you too!

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  4. I agree with Maria...good story concept.I think a less violent version would appeal to a younger audience. But the poor baby rats. Even tho rats are nasty creatures, no way parents would want to expose their children to this gruesome depiction. My guess would be it could get banned from elementary libraries and book sale fund-raisers..haha! Even as an adult, I almost didn't read Water for Elephants because I thought the elephant would be tortured. And let's not forget how we all bawled when Old Yeller got shot (tipping my age hand). Point being, think you'll have to cut the violence for kiddies, or try your hand at an adult thriller book. Sounds like you've got the stuff!!

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  5. If you're interested, I'd look at Terry Pratchett's The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents for a good middle grade example that deals with cats who eat rats, if you don't know it already. And if you don't, you're in for a treat!

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