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Saturday, February 23

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Middle Grade Opening Draw You In?

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: Three

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through March 16.

This week’s questions:

Does this opening page work? Does the first paragraph pull you in? Or does it sound to young and ordinary?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Pain vibrated through Mindy’s elbow as she slammed up against the window. She had been on the subway, the train, and once a ferry across Lake Michigan, but never a school bus. She grabbed the bar in front of her and hung on while the bus turned another corner. A small screw wiggled under her fingertips. She grabbed a mini 9-in-1 tool from her pocket, an automatic reaction whenever she saw something broken since her dad gave it to her last year. Wedged beside the pliers, Mindy unfolded the screwdriver and turned the small screw, around and around. But instead of tightening the screw, it dropped in her hand. She closed her fingers around it, embarrassed.

Righty, tighty, she reminder herself.

The railing came loose and wobbled in midair from where it was secured to the school bus floor by bolt corroded in rust. Mindy glanced at the man sitting behind the steering wheel, his eye’s focused on the road. She tried to twist the screw back into the little hole without success as the bus bounced and swerved. Somehow, she had to reattach the railing before he noticed, or anyone else.

“Hey, Jordon, check it out,” a voice said, behind her. “Next time this old bus breaks down, we’ll just ask this girl to fix it with her handy, dandy little tool.”

Mindy’s arm stiffened, holding the railing up and cementing it in place against the side of the bus. She turned around and stared at a boy with dirty blond hair pulled back in a ponytail.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Pain vibrated through Mindy’s elbow as she [slammed] This seemed a little violent for a bus ride and implies more of an attack than a bumpy ride to me up against the [window.] Perhaps add “bus” here to help ground readers. She had been on the subway, the train, and once a ferry across Lake Michigan, but never a school bus. She grabbed [the bar in front of her] It’s been a while since I was on a school bus, but I don’t remember there being any bars and hung on while the bus turned another corner. A small screw wiggled under her fingertips. Good spot for an internal thought She grabbed a mini 9-in-1 tool from her pocket, an automatic reaction whenever she saw something broken [since her dad gave it to her last year.] don't think you need this. Wedged beside the pliers, Mindy unfolded the screwdriver and turned the small screw, around and around. But instead of tightening the screw, it dropped in her hand. She closed her fingers around it, embarrassed.

Righty, tighty, she reminder herself.

The railing [came loose] I don’t think one small screw would hold the entire bar down and wobbled [in midair] makes it sound like the bar is floating from where it was secured to the school bus floor by bolt corroded in rust. Mindy glanced at the man sitting behind the steering wheel, his eye’s focused on the road. She tried to twist the screw back into the little hole without success as the bus bounced and swerved. Somehow, she had to reattach the railing before he noticed, or anyone else.

“Hey, Jordon, check it out,” a voice said, behind her. “Next time this old bus breaks down, we’ll just ask this girl to fix it with her handy, dandy little tool.” This dialogue doesn’t ring true to me. It’s an odd thing to do, and “What are you doing?” seems a more likely question. This can come later though.

Mindy’s arm stiffened, Why does it matter if people see her? holding the railing up and cementing it in place against the side of the bus. She turned around and stared at a boy with dirty blond hair pulled back in a ponytail.

The questions:

1. Does this opening page work?

Not quite (readers chine in). It jumps in a little too fast with a problem I had some credibility issues with, and it never gave me a chance to ground myself in the world or get to know the protagonist. I do like that it starts with something a little odd, and a protagonist doing something a bit quirky. There’s definitely potential here.

I like that she’s new to riding the bus, which implies something in her life has changed. Is she new at the school or just the bus? She’s compelled to fix things, which could suggest there are things in her life that are broken and she’s trying to make them better (or look for things she can fix because she can’t fix this problem). She’s acting in a way that will get her noticed bu the other kids, and they may or may not find it acceptable behavior. Will this make her cool or weird? There are several things here that do pique my interest and would make make me want to read more if the other issues were addressed.

(Here’s more on writing a strong opening scene)

2. Does the first paragraph pull you in?

No, because I had trouble figuring out what was going on. It opens with a sentence that suggests a violent attack, so it puts me in the wrong mindset to read the next sentence. It lists several modes of transportation, and I think maybe this is a girl running from something and she’s just been caught (she took a subway, train, and a ferry), and by the time I get to “school bus” I’m thrown because that contradicts everything I thought until then. Though had I read cover copy first, I’d have known more about the story, but it still gives a different vibe than riding on a bus.

Then it shifts to her grabbing a bar I don’t remember being on a bus, and I don’t think these exist, which pulled me out of the story. There are things on a bus she could fix, but unless things have changed, there are no hand rails on the backs of seats (Where kids can slam their heads into them during a sudden stop). I’m also a bit unsure how the bar attaches to the bus, or why she feels an urge to fix it.

However…as I said before, I like that she’s a bit odd, has some implies problems, and a change of something in her life. Although not a lot is happening yet, I do get a sense that this is going somewhere. So I think the situation works, but it just needs some fleshing our and clarifying to get readers on board. If I knew a bit ore about what’s going on here and with Mindy, and had a better sense of who she was, I’d be drawn in better.

(Here’s more on signs you might be confusing readers in your opening scene)

3. Or does it sound to young and ordinary?

It doesn’t sound young to me, and feels appropriate for the age group. It also doesn’t sound ordinary, despite it being set in an ordinary setting. Mindy is doing something unusual, she’s not just sitting on the bus thinking about breakfast or a mundane task.

It does sound detached to me, though, which is keeping me from connecting to Mindy as a character. There’s only one line of internalization, and I never get a feel for who Mindy is and how she’s thinks. I’d like to know what compels her to fix things, and why she wants to hide that from others. I also wanted to know more about her surroundings. You don’t need a lot, but some sense of how her mind works and what she’s feeling would help.

(Here’s more on internal thoughts in a third person point of view)

Overall, this scene has potential, and with a few tweaks to clarify and flesh out the confusing areas, I think it could be a fun opening scene. I think Mindy’s voice and her reasons for fixing the bus are key to making this work. If readers like her, they’ll keep reading.

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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4 comments:

  1. Too ordinary? not at all.

    This is a really clever concept for a scene. There are plenty of YA stories about computer kids, writer kids, and jock kids, but a Miss Fix-It has to be a rarer thing in fiction. (And like Janice said, it could resonate well with what else might be broken in Mindy's life. And do those changes relate to the different rides she's been on, or how something as ordinary as a school bus has been last on the list? And it's her connection to her father too. What starts out smart might get even more insightful.)

    Most of all, having Mindy jump up to fix something --and get it wrong-- is a unique, colorful way to start a story. She's really *doing* something a lot of us wish we could do (or at least, that we were more prepared about), and the mishap shows how much she still has to learn.

    But...

    To make the scene work, Mindy's trying to fix the bar has to feel believable. Right now it feels forced, like she's sticking her neck out more because the story needs her to than because she's a person who would-- when of course convincing us she's that kind of person is the point of it all. You say doing this has become a reflex for her, but it's better to see it happen first.

    I think the problem is the pacing: within four lines and at the first feel of the screw wobbling she's grabbing for her multitool. So I'd suggest adding maybe two shortish paragraphs before she does it, where she tries to focus on something else but keeps feeling the bar wobbling and looking back at the loose screw. Those paragraphs would be your chance to say a little about her situation-- maybe not a standard relaxed background but what's in her mind right at that moment, that only hints at the larger story and mostly holds on to her frustrations and wishes right now. (And drop a mention that her father could fix the screw, or something like that, so we're a little prepared for her producing her multitool.) Keep it tight, keep it energized, and it'll have us right with Mindy feeling the growing need to get something done.

    I'm also concerned about the first two sentences. A first line of "slammed up against the window" really does sound like an assault, partly because it's "she slammed" rather than "her elbow" or any mention of the lurching bus. That means following it with what other rides she's been on is too sudden a clarification. And if this part of the scene is really about her frustration with the bar and what she does with it, it wants to be as smooth as possible in showing us the important facts of where she is and why that environment drives her to do what she does. (That includes being sure about the bar itself-- Janice has a point, where would a bar like that really be, and can you make it clear?)

    I love this concept for a character and an opening. Just look around at other stories that have set an opening well, especially ones that took a couple of paragraphs of frustration to push the character into her first action. Dig a little deeper into what the scene needs, and you'll make Mindy's moment real.

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  2. Anonymous12:02 AM EST

    I do like the concept of the girl being handy with tools. But I agree with Janice. I don't think kids would be allowed to stand on a school bus, and it seems that's what she was doing. I don't recall there being any rails or anything like that to hold on to on school buses. Another thing I wondered about is the tool she carried. A lot of those multi-tools have knives, or a blade of some sort, and the gadget could possibly be considered a weapon. Many schools have strict policies regarding knives, even tiny ones. Carrying one might get a student suspended from school. She may not have known this, if it were so, and especially if she is new to the public school system. I think this scene can be re-worked to sound more credible.

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  3. I love the idea of a female MacGyver, it gives the author endless possibilities. Janice points out some valid issues with the first scene, which I agree with. I would like to know a little more about the character, to help me bond with her. I always remember taking a writing class where we studied the first page of The Hunger Games and how much we learn from that first page about the protagonist.

    You have a great concept here that will be fun to work on and expand. Good luck.

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  4. Uhm, It didn't take me long, even though I'm left-handed, to learn which way tightens a screw to that tightening it became AUTOMATIC. So it either implies she doesn't tighten things very often, or she's brand-new at it. Having had this become an automatic response, she would automatically be turning it correctly. I've been doing what she's doing since I had my first such tool: perhaps, seven years old? For me, it is pretty automatic, but having also become used to being attacked for repairing things, I tend not to do it where people can see. -tc

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