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Sunday, June 17

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Keep Reading This Middle Grade Opening?

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 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: Two

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through June 30.

This week’s questions: 

1. Does it hook you enough to want to read on?


2. Does it give you enough background to give you a sense of why he’s so nervous?

3. Does the last sentence work if I don’t let the reader know the reasoning behind it immediately.

Market/Genre: Middle Grade

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

“Are you excited about your visit to Texas?” the flight attendant asked Johnny. The plane had just landed in San Antonio and she was escorting him up the jet way.

“Yeah, I guess,” Johnny said, although “excited” wasn’t really the right word. He was so nervous it felt like his stomach was filled with swarming bees. It felt the same way it did when he was about to talk to a cute girl in school. Only it wasn’t a cute girl he was about to talk to. It was his father.

When they reached the terminal, Johnny immediately spotted his dad. Even though it had been three years since Johnny had seen him, he looked exactly the same. He had thick black hair and a matching mustache, and stood tall and stiff as a pole. His clothes were big and stiff too―humongous belt buckle, perfectly ironed shirt and jeans, and pointy boots. A straw cowboy hat dangled from one hand.

The bees buzzed faster in Johnny’s stomach.

His father’s searching eyes found him and did a full inspection from sneakers to head. It wasn’t until Johnny’s eyes locked on his that a grin broke out under the mustache and he tapped the shoulders of a woman and boy standing on either side of him.

“Is that your family?” the flight attendant asked.

“No,” Johnny said, sharply. “It’s not my family. Just my dad.” Since his parents’ divorce, he’d thought about this meeting a billion times, but never once had he considered his dad would bring along the new wife and one of her kids.

The boy started waving at him excitedly. “Over here, Ignacio!”

Johnny looked down. “Name’s Johnny,” he muttered.

My Thoughts in Purple:

“Are you excited about your visit to Texas?” the flight attendant asked Johnny. [The plane had just landed in San Antonio and she was escorting him up the jet way. ] This feels a little tellish, so perhaps put it more in his voice

“Yeah, I guess,” Johnny said, although “excited” wasn’t really the right word. He was so nervous it felt like his stomach was filled with swarming bees. [It felt the same way it did when he was about to talk to a cute girl in school.] I’m not sure if this implies a good nervous or a bad nervous. [Only it wasn’t a cute girl he was about to talk to. It was his father.] You could easily cut this to raise tension and make readers wonder why he’s nervous a little longer.

When they reached the terminal, Johnny immediately [spotted his dad] this explains why he’s nervous, and seeing a parent shouldn’t make a kid nervous, so now we wonder why. [Even though it had been three years] this gives us another hint about why he’s nervous and the potential problem since Johnny had seen him, he looked exactly the same. He had thick black hair and a matching mustache, and stood tall and stiff as a pole. His clothes were big and stiff too―humongous belt buckle, perfectly ironed shirt and jeans, and pointy boots. A straw cowboy hat dangled from one hand.

[The bees buzzed faster in Johnny’s stomach.] Confirms that Dad is indeed the issue here. I’m getting a sense of dread, but after the “girls” comment, he could be happy, but nervous. Perhaps clarify his emotions?

His father’s searching eyes found him and did a [full inspection] I like how this implies Johnny feels judged, not welcomed first from sneakers to head. [It wasn’t until Johnny’s eyes locked on his that a grin broke out under the mustache] Makes me wonder if Dad means it, or if he’s smiling because he knows Johnny can see him, which adds tension and he tapped the shoulders of a woman and boy standing on either side of him.

“Is that your family?” the flight attendant asked.

[“No,” Johnny said, sharply.] There’s a lot of nice subtext in this simple answer “It’s [not my family. Just] my dad.” Could trim to “It’s my Dad’s” to reinforce that subtext [Since his parents’ divorce,] I’d cut to tighten the hook. he’d thought about [this meeting] this suggests seeing his father is pretty new a billion times, but never once had he considered his dad would bring along [the new wife and one of her kids. ] If you cut the other details, this confirms all the nice subtext

The boy started [waving at him excitedly.] I like how this boy really is excited, though Johnny is not “Over here, Ignacio!”

Johnny looked down. [“Name’s Johnny,” he muttered.] I like how this shows he’s not who they think he is, and that he identifies with being Johnny, not his given name

The questions:

1. Does it hook you enough to want to read on? 

Yes, I’d read more. There’s a conflict here with Johnny and the father he hasn’t seen in a while, and his new brother (I can’t tell yet if it’s a half brother or step brother). Johnny is nervous about being there and I’m curious what brought about this visit. The family seems happy to see him, though he’s dreading it (I think), which suggests there might be more here to the relationship than just a kid mad at his dad for leaving his mom. 

2. Does it give you enough background to give you a sense of why he’s so nervous? 

Mostly, though I’m unsure if he’s happy to be there or dreading it (readers chime in). I can see he’s nervous and that there are issues with Dad, but the comparison between talking to girls and talking to Dad made me question his emotional view on it. 
 
I’m reading it as dread, but he could be eagerness. I equate talking to girls a good thing, even if it freaks him out (but I could be wrong). I’d suggest clarifying his emotional state there and maybe picking a different thing to compare his buzzing stomach too (or just cut those few lines, as the scene works without it). 

3. Does the last sentence work if I don’t let the reader know the reasoning behind it immediately. 
 
Yes. I can see that his father thinks of him as Ignacio, which I assume is his given name. It suggests he’s of Mexican heritage (Dad’s in Texas and has dark hair), but he doesn’t think of himself as an Ignacio. I sense he’s rejecting Dad, but he might also be rejecting his heritage as well. It also shows that Dad doesn’t know him very well if he doesn’t even know what name he goes by. 

There’s a lot of nice subtext in here (a little trimming would even enhance it) that shows the potential issues and how Johnny is uncomfortable meeting his dad and step family. I can see the problems, and even though I don’t yet know the details, I have no trouble following where the story will go. I get the sense of a book about a boy’s relationship with an estranged father and discovering or embracing identity. 

Overall, I think this works, and a little trimming would tighten it up nicely and bring out the gems ever more. It’s a quiet opening, but there’s a lot going on under the surface.

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

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. 
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6 comments:

  1. There's plenty of background here, and a good hook. The hook might get to its full form sooner, though. A knockout first line or two is always worth having.

    And you've got some great lines here with "not my family, just my dad" (much better than "my dad's," I think; he's trying not to see the others at all) and him not using the name they call out.

    I also like the first descriptions of the father: stiff as a pole, and the assessing look he gives Johnny. The other details round him out, but the main impression is intimidating enough to do the job.

    Your first couple of paragraphs feel like they're getting in the way of those. "Not my family" would be a superb first or second line, and you could fill us in on the rest after that as they're walking closer. (I definitely see "nervous" and "swarming bees" as a sign that "talking to cute girls" is not a comparison to good or mixed feelings, but getting "not my family" in first would make it clearer still. You might even harshen it to "angry bees," or "nervous" into something more upset.)

    There's a skill that can do a lot to help first pages: explaining things as you go while the action is already happening. Starting with the attendant walking him down and asking questions is the easy way to open this, but not as good as going right to a stronger moment and knowing you can get the rest in right behind it. Look at the key facts we have to know and see how easy it is to work them in in time, even if it's just a few words at first. Even if there's no good place to put them before the moment we need them, it's often fine to put them *right after* that moment; the character himself fills in the full meaning just when we want to know.

    This looks like a solid story here, with some vivid moments to show you know how to write it well. A little streamlining would do a lot to make the most of that.

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    Replies
    1. Thought I'd responded to this earlier, but evidently my post didn't post. Thank you Janice and Ken for your insights. I've rewritten to hopefully make the beginning stronger.

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  2. I liked this a lot and would definitely continue reading. The one thing you did well is set up sympathy for the character. Johnny doesn't seem like a jerk, just a kid with lots of apprehension. Anyone feels bad for a kid flying by themselves on a plane and most of us know the dread of divorce and mixing families. So, great job on developing Johnny early on. Without knowing where the story is going - I would certainly turn the page.

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  3. Many good points already made. I would definitely read on.

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