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Saturday, December 16

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Historical Middle Grade Opening Hook You?

Critique By Maria D'Marco

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 we 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 December 23.

This week’s questions:

Does the opening hook you? Do you want to read more? Does it give enough information for the reader to understand the setting and the critical issues the MC will face? Alice is 12 and Henry 10: does the dialogue seem too mature for contemporary readers? Does the opening suggest adventure and a bit of mystery?


Market/Genre: Middle Grade Historical Novel set in 1893

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Henry studied the mural of constellations in the night sky on the domed ceiling above. Unaware of passengers bustling their way through Grand Central Depot, he was transfixed. And feeling very small. Smaller than small. An insignificant dot in the Milky Way of life.

A voice shook him from his pondering.

“Henry! Can you believe this masterpiece?" said Henry’s big sister, gazing up beside him.

“It's reversed,” he said.

“Reversed? What DO you mean, Henry?”

“Not from our perspective. From His.” Henry pointed skyward. “Human error.”

“Oh, Henry Don't spoil things again. Can't we enjoy a thing without finding fault with it? It's magnificent!”

The chime sounded on the four-faced clock in the center of the main floor below. It was 5:30pm. In one hour, their journey would begin. Alice deemed it the very best thing. But to Henry, it was absolutely the worst.

He hated change. All those destinations on the schedule board hanging from the convex ceiling made him nervous. Why leave the comfort of home and routine to face new foes? It wasn't his idea to go to Chicago. Pulling a small brown leather book from his pocket, Henry penned his angst in his journal. Change equals disaster.

A hand tugged at his elbow. He jerked back.

“Henry — look at those people,” Alice said, observing the scurry of activity on the floor below.

“They are everywhere — moving so fast, and in great numbers, like ants. But no one is bumped or jostled. Everything works smoothly. A universe set in perfect motion.”

Henry hated it when Alice waxed eloquent.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Henry studied the mural of constellations in the night sky on the domed ceiling above [This structure of this sentence is a bit awkward. If he studies the mural of night sky constellations painted/reproduced/etc. on the domed ceiling above him, I have an immediate vision of the scene]. Unaware of passengers [Is this because he’s ‘transfixed’? If so, then I’d want his state of mind presented first, then show that he’s unaware, thus showing the strength of his level of transfixion] bustling their way through Grand Central Depot, he was transfixed. And feeling very small. Smaller than small. An insignificant dot in the Milky Way of life.

A voice shook him from his pondering.

“Henry! Can you believe this masterpiece?" said Henry’s big sister, gazing up beside him [Perhaps consider positioning her first, then looking up].

“It's reversed,” he said [This and the following exchange make me want to know more about what Henry means].

“Reversed? What DO you mean, Henry?”

“Not from our perspective. From His.” Henry pointed skyward. “Human error.”

“Oh, Henry. Don't spoil things again [This makes me wonder what else Henry has ‘spoiled’]. Can't we enjoy a thing without finding fault with it? It's magnificent!”

The chime sounded on the four-faced clock in the center of the main floor below [This is a little jolting, since we assume these two are among the bustling passengers, who would be on some main floor, rushing to get to their train]. It was 5:30pm. In one hour, their journey would begin. Alice [so, this is the sister’s name, right?] deemed it the very best thing. But to Henry, it was absolutely the worst.

He hated change. All those destinations on the schedule board hanging from the convex ceiling made him nervous. Why leave the comfort of home and routine to face new foes?

It wasn't his idea to go to Chicago. Pulling a small brown leather book from his pocket, Henry penned his angst in his journal [This sentence needs to end with ‘penned his angst’ to tie the following presumed entry to his action. The ‘journal’ can be blended with the earlier description]. Change equals disaster.

A hand tugged at his elbow. He jerked back.

“Henry, look at those people,” Alice said, observing [If she nods or points here it will support her demand that Henry look] the scurry of activity on the floor below. “They are everywhere — moving so fast, and in great numbers, like ants. But no one is bumped or jostled [These basically mean the same thing, perhaps this could go further? As in: bumped or knocked from their path]. Everything works smoothly. A universe set [This word seems more than is needed here] in perfect motion.”

Henry hated it when Alice waxed eloquent.

The questions:
 

1. Does the opening hook you? Do you want to read more?
Yes. I have several questions the material has created: how old are the characters? Where are they travelling from? Why are they going to Chicago – and whose idea was it? What has Henry ‘spoiled’ before and for who, or why? I want to find out what happens next, overall (readers chime in).

Since their ages aren’t clear, that isn’t an issue urging me to read on. I assume from the dialogue that they are still young, but not older teens.

(Here's more on hooking readers in the opening scene)

2. Does it give enough information for the reader to understand the setting and the critical issues the MC will face?

Sort of… I do not get the historical setting, since there are no references to clothing or other hints to place the story in the 1890s. This would be simple to do, adding in a few historically appropriate tidbits – have fun with it!

There are passengers and a place called the Grand Central Depot, so I assumed this was a transportation hub of some kind. With it being MG, my mind went to trains, but that could also just be how I relate to the larger train hubs. The later reference to the 4-sided clock also pushed the idea of trains. I did not initially get that they were standing above the main floor, where travelers were scurrying about to catch their scheduled conveyance until later. The juxtaposition of their position in relation to the masses of passengers and the constellation-filled dome would be an interesting perspective, if played up a bit more.

I do not have a feeling of what I would call critical issues. Henry hates change, and is nervous. Alice seems just fine. The mention of facing new foes could be anything: mean kids, new school, step-dad, or…monsters…or it could just be that Henry views the world in dramatic terms.

I just didn’t get enough to make me feel that they were off on a dangerous adventure (again, readers please chime in).

(Here's more on keeping informative scenes tense)

3. Alice is 12 and Henry 10: does the dialogue seem too mature for contemporary readers?

I’m unsure about this question… If you are wondering if the dialogue too mature for readers who are 12- and 10-years-old, then I would say, No. I find that MG material is more complex than is expected sometimes, in terms of concepts, not word-use. I did assign a higher IQ to both characters – hmmm – that might mean something?

I do not think MG readers would be ‘lost’ by this dialogue (readers?).

4. Does the opening suggest adventure and a bit of mystery?

Yes, somewhat. There is a sense of adventure, dreaded by Henry, not by Alice. Mystery? Not so much…more curiosity at to the why of Chicago.

(Here's more on adding story questions to a scene)

Overall, this sample seems appropriate for MG readers, offers two characters with a solid brother/sister feel, and an apparent MC who journals, has a strong personality, and possibly a quirky outlook. I’d pop a bowl for it…

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.

About the Critiquer

Maria D’Marco is an editor with 20+ years experience. She specializes in developmental editing, and loves the process of wading through the raw, passionate words of a first draft. Currently based in Kansas City, she flirts with the idea of going mobile, pursuing her own writing and love of photography, while maintaining her fulfilling work with authors.

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2 comments:

  1. I agree, this shows skill and insight in crafting it. I think it could dig deeper into both the sense of the specific period setting; more about the non-modern train station, and I love Maria's idea of contrasting the bustling people with the star patterns.

    What I'd most like to see is an immediate sense of excitement, worry, or fear. It's easy to say that since this is before the adventure it should start slowly, but readers want a sense of that energy from the beginning. You use the station (and the constellations!) to make the opening more interesting than say a house or street, but it would be stronger if it felt like the first stirrings of full-out adventure. It might be a specific question that leads to what will happen, or the characters thinking "we only thought we'd be...", or just positioning something as clearly an omen for what's ahead. If you can find something that gives a hint of the specifics to come (or the specific themes), even better.

    This has a solid classical feel to it, with protagonists marveling at a big station and marveling at it as if huge transit hubs were still new construction (the religious reference to Him adds to that). If you can keep that timeless sense but also give a first clear hint of urgency to come, the adventure would be right on track.

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  2. I picked up he's a thoughtful, insightful, 10yo kid ... but the speech *might* be a tad adult-sounding. Yes, kids then might have been more adult-sounding at that age than today, but double-check some historic fiction for the voice consistency, flow, and style. I'm reminded of L'Engle's Charles Wallace, for five years old, he had a vocabulary most older teens would have attained, used, and correctly in sentences. Is Henry smart? Is he intuitive? Is he studious? Maybe, too, drop a hint of that in here to show this to the reader to justify this voice; otherwise, it'll seem as if jarring, even if it's historic fiction.

    Also, I'm familiar with Grand Central Station, which is what you described here (I lived in NYC almost all my life and been through there many, many times). The description's on point with the people busy through there as you'd mentioned, but maybe say this is GCS, too? Not everyone will/may know this place on description alone, which was spot on. And since this is a landmark, I think you're permitted to say this by name (like Fifth Avenue Library, Grant's Tomb, the FlatIron Building, or Madison Square Garden).

    Good start. Tweak this, it'll pop. Good luck!

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