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Saturday, May 25

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

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 8.

This week’s question:

Is this opening working?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade Mystery

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Elise walked into the synagogue Beth Jacob trailing after her parents, and her older brother Daniel. Hundreds of people were rushing to get into their seats for the most solemn night of the year for Jews the world over. It was the most solemn night of the year but for Elise that also meant nothing to do for several hours but sit and listen. Even though people appeared eager to get inside the synagogue she heard all the complaining as they flooded the building.

“I hate fasting, don’t you?”

“Well, it’s only one night a year.”

“I’m already hungry and I only ate an hour ago.”

“I have to brush my teeth. It’s disgusting to not brush your teeth.”

“Hey, watch it,” Elise said as was pushed and shoved by practically everyone around her. At ten years of age Elise knew she didn’t really have to attend the service. Girls didn’t begin fasting until twelve, and boys at thirteen. She couldn’t remember what her Hebrew teacher Ms. Goldstein had said about it and honestly, she didn’t care. All Elise could think about was finding her friend, Miriam.

“Elise, where are you? Elise!”

She heard her mother’s scream and saw they were only a few feet away from each other but her mother was turned in the other direction. “I’m right behind you.”

Elise’s mother Batya turned around and reached for her hand.

“Mom, I’m not five. I don’t need to hold your hand.”

Batya stood, hands on hips. “Elise, I don’t have time for nonsense tonight. It’s the holiest night of the year. Your father has…”

“Yes, yes, I know. You’ve told me at least a dozen times. Your father is the community president and makes his most important speech of the year. Yadda yadda. I’m going to find Miriam and…oh, wait, there she is. See ya!” Before her mother could protest, Elise bounced off and grabbed the arms of her best friend “Come on let’s hit the balcony.”

My Thoughts in Blue:

Elise walked into the synagogue Beth Jacob trailing after her parents, and her older brother Daniel. Hundreds of people were rushing to get into their seats for the most solemn night of the year for Jews the world over. [It was the most solemn night of the year] this repeats what you just said, so perhaps find a way to rephrase but for Elise that also meant nothing to do for several hours but sit and listen. Even though people appeared eager to get inside the synagogue she heard all the complaining as they flooded the building.

“I hate fasting, don’t you?”

“Well, it’s only one night a year.”

“I’m already hungry and I only ate an hour ago.”

“I have to brush my teeth. It’s disgusting to not brush your teeth.”

“Hey, watch it,” Elise said as [she] was pushed and shoved by practically everyone around her. [At ten years of age Elise knew she didn’t really have to attend the service. Girls didn’t begin fasting until twelve, and boys at thirteen.] Even with the omniscient narrator. This feels a bit told and explanatory She couldn’t remember what her Hebrew teacher Ms. Goldstein had said about it [and honestly, she didn’t care.] Right now, Elise is not coming across very likable to me. All Elise could think about was finding her friend, Miriam.

“Elise, where are you? Elise!”

She heard her mother’s [scream] scream implies her mother is scared, but I suspect she’s just calling for her and saw they were only a few feet away from each other but her mother was turned in the other direction. This sentence is a bit unwieldy. Perhaps edit for clarity “I’m right behind you.”

Elise’s mother Batya turned around and reached for her hand. She doesn’t say anything such as, "Oh there you are"?

“Mom, I’m not five. I don’t need to hold your hand.”

Batya stood, [hands on hips.] She just had her hand out. Did she put it back or is she still trying to get Elise to take it? “Elise, I don’t have time for nonsense tonight. It’s the holiest night of the year. Your father has[] Ellipsis usually denote trailed off speech, while em dashes show interruptions

“Yes, yes, I know. [You’ve told me at least a dozen times. Your father is the community president and makes his most important speech of the year. Yadda yadda.] This seems a bit bratty I’m going to find Miriam and…oh, wait, there she is. See ya!” Before her mother could protest, Elise bounced off and grabbed the arms of her best friend “Come on let’s hit the balcony.”

The Question:

1. Is this opening working?

Not yet (readers chime in). There’s nothing that hooks me and make me want to read on. Elise has no goal aside from find her friend, which she does immediately. There’s no sense of something about to happen, and what is about to happen is something Elise and pretty much everyone else there doesn’t even want to do. It feels like I’m waiting for the story to start.

A lot of time is spent on explain how it’s an important night for Jews (I’m assuming Yom Kippur), but there’s nothing to set the scene for readers who aren’t familiar with what this is. And from the descriptions, the “most solemn night” is one everyone is complaining about, which contradicts the importance of the night. The scene seems to be concentrating on “no one likes to go to this service but we’re all here anyway.” Which is fine if that’s what this is trying to say, but why is this the most important thing to tell readers on page one? Why is “no one wants to be here” the key image you want readers to see?

Perhaps add a clearer goal, such as Elise wanting to get through the night quickly, or not be as bored to help give the scene some drive. She’s looking for her friend, so perhaps that can have a bit more importance to both show Elise’s personality better, and that her goal her is to have a little fun during a boring service she wishes she didn’t have to attend.

(Here’s more on Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

Elise is also coming across a little bratty, and I find I don’t like her all that much. I can understand a young girl not wanting to sit through a long service, and I think that’s relatable for readers who attend services of any type, but she’s not generating any sympathy from me with her attitude. She’s not exhibiting any likable quality or giving me a reason to want to spend time with her.

Maybe she and Miriam have a plan in place already to alleviate the boredom? Something she’s looking forward to? That could give the scene a goal and even a little stakes if she worries they might get into trouble for it.

You might also consider showing what’s likable about Elise, and given readers a reason why they might want to hang out with her. Is she funny? Does she have a playful side? What about her would make readers want to be her friend?

(Here’s more on The Triangle of Likability: How to Make Your Characters Come Alive)

From the title (not shown), this is a caper, which leads me to believe a crime or heist or some kind of hijinks are going to ensue. Right now, there’s no sense of that, so I wonder when that’s going to come into play. Since the opening is something mundane, and even the protagonist doesn’t want to see it, it leaves me as a reader wondering why I’m here. But if there was a sense of the story going somewhere toward that caper concept, I’d be more drawn in.

Perhaps the real start of this is a little farther into the story, after she finds Miriam and they’re having to sit through the service and they do something about it. You might look for a spot that starts closer to Elise acting and driving the story, which would help pull readers into it more quickly.

(Here’s more on The Line Forms Where? Knowing Where to Start Your Novel)

Overall, this feels more like setup to explain this is a solemn night and she’s not taking it seriously, not a character facing a problem she has to solve. I don’t yet get the sense that Elise is doing anything, or wants anything that seems to matter (not wanting to go to synagogue isn’t a strong enough goal to drive the scene if it never leads anywhere), and she’s not engaging me as a character yet. But if I saw more of her personality, and I liked her and wanted her to find a way not to be bored, or escape this boring situation, then I’d be more curious about what she planned to do.

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. I agree, this doesn't feel like a lead-in to the story-- but that may be a matter of focus.

    My guess is, this is the first scene because once Elise (and Miriam?) get off on their own, they'll stumble over signs of the mystery. That would make this the perfect beginning, if you streamline it to show what it's heading toward. Make the first lines about Elise wanting to get away, and contrast that with her mother seeming overprotective. That gives Elise and us an immediate goal to root for, and the more her mother worries the more it hints Elise is going to get into actual trouble. That makes her momentary wish both enough to keep us interested until she finds that clue, and a promise of what she will be heading into.

    (Some writers might open with "if Elise had known that going off..." but that's an old-fashioned touch that rarely works these days. Still, it's one example of the kind of ominousness the first moments need. Other mysteries might start with a separate victim of a crime, or the hero as a detective hearing about it, but you don't usually have those options in middle grade. So you want to use what's going on in Elise's day to hint at what's coming, even though she has no idea herself.)

    You do a good job showing the setting, but it may be too good because you give it before you hook us with Elise's own first goal. It's too easy to write a scene starting with overall things --the building, the crowd, the occasion-- and slowly dig down to the character and what they want. I think most scenes and especially opening scenes need to do the reverse: give us the character's first goal in maybe the first line, and work in everything else as context to that. Elise has seen this all before, and to her everything around her is just part of why she already knows she needs to get away.

    Still, be careful which parts of the setting are still important. We do need to have a feeling for what the holiday is and what it feels like to be there, and some things about the family (like her father's position) are probably important for the plotline or understanding Elise. What is the theme or the core conflict of this story, and are there any sides of it that would feel incomplete if Elise ducks out without mentioning them? You may not put those in the first paragraph, but be sure the ones that matter have a place on the first page.

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  2. And for Elise herself... Janice is right, she seems a bit bratty. That's *hard* to avoid when there's so much tradition around her that almost anything except fitting in seems disrespectful. One thing that might smooth it is if her mother has more or less promised that Elise could go off on her own (with that "nice responsible Miriam"?) and now she's starting to backslide on that. (It might improve the tone if the crowd cuts Elise off from her mother before she can actually be forbidden to leave.) Also, it never hurts to make an early mention of something about her family or friends that Elise cares about, so she isn't thinking always of herself-- maybe the balcony will give her a better view of her father, or Miriam's been having problems and Elise wants to be with her. Even a quick mention of those early will soften our sense of Elise.

    Elise's age. I'm glad you worked it in early, and you found an original way to do it. You might look for ways to put it even closer to the first line (ten is so different from twelve, and the reader isn't sure she's not fifteen), or use it as part of her not-quite-bratty goals, but it works pretty well where it is. If you make any changes, be sure you still give her age, early and as a solid number; middle grade lives and dies on making that clear.

    This is a good setting and a character in a good position to find a mystery. Just be sure we latch onto signs of the mystery, the character, and the other key elements in Elise's life that the story will be balancing, so that the environment doesn't drown them out. Even starting in the middle of the trees, we want a glimpse of the forest.

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  3. I agree with Janice's comments (other than the narrator being omniscient rather than limited 3rd person). I also thought mom's scream/yell should be more like a bark. Hyperbole works in some cases, but I wouldn't have the mom overreact.

    I second the idea of it starting a bit later.

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  4. Reading other opening pages from novels helps us see what works and assists in helping us set up our own first page. This opening shows a lot of setting, which is not moving the story forward. If it is a mystery, we should feel that on the first page - Mockingbird is a great example, whose first paragraph ends with: This is the day of the reaping. It makes us want to know what is the reaping? And what is really does is hook us to read on.
    Most readers looking for a book skim the first page to see if they like it, which is why it is so important to make that first impression.
    As mentioned above, right now Elise is not coming across as likable. That's a problem. Your reader must like the protagonist. Again, first page reading will help you see character development. In Mockingbird, something as simple as the protagonist looking over at her mother and sister sleeping does that - (In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim's face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named.)
    Natural dialogue doesn't go back and forth in a ying/yang manner. Do some studying on dialogue and see how you can use it to strengthen your character and move the story forward.
    Don't get discouraged. I once heard John Green say he deletes 90% of what he writes. I know is true for me as well. Often I write a chapter and find my beginning is on the 2nd or 3rd page. Write. Get your story out. Then you can go back and begin to fine tune the pages. But first and foremost, read other successful books of your same genre. It will help you see how plot, setting, dialogue, and character come together. Good luck!
    PS - here's a great link on avoiding a passive voice from Stephen King: http://www.people.ku.edu/~cmckit/TechComm/362/handouts/Stephen_King_on-Passive-Voice.pdf

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  5. I think MG is a great audience, since this is when we can be very brave, but also revert to childhood in a blink, and sometimes at the worst time.

    Overall, I'm seeing too many loose angles, but all can be tightened up nicely if you show a reason for Elise's 'attitude'. A hint as to why it's so important to hook up with her best friend will help. Internal thought can serve you well for hinting. Perhaps she and Miriam hatched a plot to 'escape' parents and head for the balcony the day before. Elise could think: Boy, she better not go wishy-washy on me!

    Of course, you can set this up to indicate several things, such as Miriam being squeamish to go off to the balcony - or maybe it was Miriam's idea? This is your chance to show a bit about both girls.

    Elise may sound bratty, but to me she sounds like a MG character trying out teen bossy-talk, trying to show she's not a little kid anymore. How her mom reacts to this 'sass-talk' will also show what consequences Elise being a smarty-pants will face. She's already taking advantage of situations that open up ways to 'escape' those consequences.

    You need to consider who Elise is, who her mom is, and who Miriam is. Then, look for ways to support those personalities. Consider what helps you size up someone -- is it looks, then voice, then attitude toward others? Whatever the hints, make a list of what each of these intro'd characters need to have as hints, then find little ways to present these assessment hints.

    Every comment on your opening has mentioned not liking Elise that much. That's a judgement you have set up, so you can alter it. I believe you want Elise to be a bit further along on her experiments with being 'older'. She's bold and takes chances. And yes, she's capable of being a brat, but you can make that be a transitional behavior -- a testing-out kind of thing. When she is a little smart-mouthed to her mom, you can just show the mom's expression and have Elise react with internal thought, the 'uh-oh, I'm about to get it', which triggers the 'flight' reaction. She's not a bad kid, she just flirts with risky stuff, then squeaks like a mouse inside and races off.

    Middle grade involves a lot of experimenting with behaviors and learning the worth of values and ideals. Right and wrong, being pulled between hiding and deciding to take on a huge battle, and wondering why showing independence can mean appearing to reject comfort and support are all parts of this really vibrant time of life.

    I, too, assume that the balcony represents trouble -- or a plan to get into trouble. So, just make getting there a bigger deal.

    Also, is the speech the only reason she's at this solemn occasion? The troubling thing for me was her showing such disrespect for her father. It appears she's showing disrespect for the entire occasion. Her mom says 'no time for nonsense', which made me feel Elise had been disrespectful before. If this is the case, then you might not want to show her gaining her escape to the balcony -- or having to plead with her mom, altering her disrespect with a honeyed plea that she could see her father better from that vantage point. There could be the crowd factor, which might make the mom anxious to just get seated, then Miriam is spotted. Perhaps both mothers share a glance, shaking their heads over their pushy daughters, and both nod agreement to let them go to the balcony.

    Hints as to what is actually so alluring about the balcony could also be dropped.

    Good luck and have fun playing with your opening -- it will click soon enough!

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  6. Just focusing on structural composition, I'm seeing a lot of awkwardness. For example: "Elise walked into the synagogue Beth Jacob trailing after her parents, and her older brother Daniel" could work better as "Elise walked into the synagogue, trailing after her parents Beth and Jacob, and her older brother Daniel." Likewise "the most solemn night of the year for Jews the world over." should say what night it is.

    The explanatory feeling could be avoided if the sentence was made more personal and immediate: "At ten years of age Elise didn’t really have to attend the servicen she wouldn’t begin fasting until twelve". That is also a good place to follow up with why she's there, and how she feels about that.

    Unlike pretty much everything else, I don't find Elise being bratty a problem. Ten year-olds are often bratty, and it actually feels like an interesting personality hook to deal with, especially if adults tend to disregard her for being a brat.

    What may help though is to put it into context- she's being forced to tag along on a boring adult thing, and the only important thing to her is joining her friend. Everyone has had the experience of being forced to go to a boring event, so her being vocal about her feelings may actually build sympathy.

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