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Saturday, November 9

Real Life Diagnostics: A Look at a Middle Grade First Page

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: Zero

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are open.

This week’s question:

Is this opening working?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade Science Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

“My mom says the Serenity library has magical powers.”

Josh shook his head. “Whatever you say, Taylor.”

Josh shuffled beside me past houses as we headed toward the library. His head reached my eyebrows. Almost every time Mom brought up the Serenity library, she’d say whoever went inside and grabbed a book off the shelf would magically start reading and love it. That wasn’t true, at least not for me. I always wanted to read no matter where I was. Whether I was at school, home, or riding in a car, I needed to have a book in my hand or I’d be bored. Unfortunately, no one else felt that way, only me.

Before now, I’d always gone there by myself. Unlike my classmates, I had no interest in playing games, videogames, or watching movies. Besides Josh, it’d be a dream come true to have more actual friends who weren’t just characters and liked the same things. Why couldn’t everyone else like books as much as me? If they did, maybe I’d feel normal? If what Mom had always told me was true, maybe Josh could get our peers to join us once they came back from their Labor Day vacations? But the library would need to have a magical effect on Josh? Would that happen? One way to find out.

While my hair bounced on my waist, the sun radiated a glint of light beneath the clouds in which it hid. More brightness popped from the occasional red leaf that mingled between the green maple trees. A feeble wind rustled the leaves, and a cool breeze wafted over me. I glanced at my arms on which goose bumps erupted.

Josh peeled off his hoodie and handed it to me, ruffling his hand through his gelled hair. “Here.”

“Thanks.”

As I pulled Josh’s sweatshirt over my head, I drowned in it while soaking in its warmth. A boat splashed over Lake Superior. What would it be like to experience another place other than northern Michigan? To go to a southern beach? To dig my toes in hot sand and hear the ocean waves crash? To actually see other parts of the world rather than just reading about them through books?

My Thoughts in Blue:

“My mom says the Serenity library has magical powers.”

Josh shook his head. “Whatever you say, Taylor.”

Josh shuffled beside me past houses [are the houses important? If not, this doesn’t add anything] as we headed toward the library. His head reached my eyebrows. [the library seems to be the focus here, so this reference seems out of place – unless something happens that makes his height important. Then again, we don’t know how tall Taylor is…] Almost [is it important to have this limitation?] every time Mom brought up the Serenity library, she’d say whoever went inside and grabbed a book off the shelf would magically start reading and love it. That wasn’t true, at least not for me. I always wanted to read no matter where I was. Whether I was at school, home, or riding in a car, I needed to have a book in my hands or I’d be bored. Unfortunately, no one else [I wondered if this meant anyone else she knew, as opposed to all other humans] felt that way, only me.

Before now, [now or today? Is today special?] I’d always gone there [to the library?] by myself. Unlike my classmates, I had no interest in playing games, videogames, [do we need both here? Are you referencing board games or sports?] or watching movies. Besides Josh, [so Josh also is passionate about reading?] it’d be a dream come true to have more actual friends who weren’t just characters [in books] and liked the same things [I did]. Why couldn’t everyone else like books as much as me? If they did, maybe I’d feel normal? If what Mom had always told me was true, maybe Josh could get our peers to join us once they came back from their Labor Day vacations? But the library would need to have a magical effect on Josh.? Would that happen? One way to find out.

While my hair bounced on my waist, [this gave me the impression that she had hair growing from her waist that bounced, like a ponytail] the sun radiated a glint of light beneath the clouds in which it hid. [huh? Do you mean sunlight was shining through breaks in the clouds?] More brightness popped from the occasional red leaf that mingled between the green maple trees. A feeble wind rustled the leaves, and a cool breeze wafted over me. I glanced at my arms on which goose bumps erupted.

Josh peeled off his hoodie and handed it to me, ruffling his hand through his gelled hair. “Here.”

“Thanks.”

As I pulled Josh’s sweatshirt over my head, I drowned in it while soaking in its warmth. A boat splashed over Lake Superior. What would it be like to experience another place other than northern Michigan? To go to a southern beach? To dig my toes in hot sand and hear the ocean waves crash? To actually see other parts of the world rather than just reading about them through books? [this is really jarring – what is it associated with? Where did it come from? It appears to be internal thought – perhaps better as dialogue where the thoughts and questions are presented to Josh.]

The Question:

1. Is this opening working?


We open with dialogue, which introduces the idea of Mom and the magical library. This set the tone for me and I anticipated either a defense of the idea by Taylor, or perhaps some internal thoughts as she mounted a defense in her mind. My take on this moment was that Josh’s reaction meant the disagreement was an old one between these two.

On the reference to Josh’s height, it is simply an interruption/distraction to the opening. If you want it in there, you could show that Taylor looks across the top of Josh’s head, where she wishes his eyes were, so she didn’t have to look down to make eye contact. We don’t know the relationship between the two yet, but this is a tiny opportunity to show that she likes him, respects him, doesn’t want to give an inaccurate impression of her thoughts or feelings simply because she is forced to look down at him. This might also show that she’s tender-hearted.

(Here's more on Five Ways to Create Likable Characters)

On the reference to Mom and what she said about the library, I suggest not being afraid to make a strong statement, such as: Mom says any book you check out will magically make you read it and love it. This line, as internal thought or dialogue, simply takes the first statement about Mom and the magical library one step further. This could be said to aggravate Josh, if Taylor is trying to get a rise out of him. As internal thought, it could be something she/he wants to say but holds back – and there could be an emotion attached to that repression.

The idea that read-and-love-it doesn’t apply to Taylor, because she must always have a book to read or be bored, is conflicting and doesn’t ‘prove’ that the idea isn’t true for her. If it is isn’t true in her case, then we need to know why. Have there been books taken from the shelves that weren’t immediately read and loved? If so, why not? You might make the case that this idea was true for Taylor, but it was also true that she had such a passion for reading that any book would do, just so long as some book could be in her hands.

(Here's more on 5 Ways to Write Stronger Opening Scenes)

Then we have the final sentence of the paragraph, which (I assume) references the feeling of being bored without a book in her hands and the idea that no one else feels that way. If this is a teen protagonist, we can ignore the extremes of ‘no one else’ and add the unspoken qualifier of ‘in my world’. You could add that qualifying phrase to show that she’s aware there could be others like her, with her same feelings, elsewhere in the world.

The next paragraph is focused on Taylor’s concern about how she relates to books and the characters therein; viewing them as friends – friends that apparently aren’t there in reality. Josh is being brought to the library as a potential emissary to others at school, with the idea to find like-minded kids. I would like to see why Josh was picked as the liaison between Taylor’s love of reading and the kids and the library.

This paragraph is a bit confusing and forces the reader to parse out what is being referenced. Apparently, it’s just before Labor Day and the start of school?

I was under the impression that Taylor had been to the library, but in this paragraph, it feels more like she hasn’t and is simply going on what her Mom has told her about the magical power of the library. Perhaps she presumes this power will help in her quest to have more like-minded friends? 

(Here's more on How to Ground (and Hook) Readers in Your Opening Scene)

I’d like more background on what drove Taylor to feel she needed an ally to help draw kids to the library. Is there family history attached to the library? Why does she feel Josh can help her – what position does he hold in the school or their peer group that would give him social power?

The last three sentences of this paragraph contain several environmental checks, which all ride on excessive descriptors. It appears you might be wanting to show that the first indicators of fall are all around them. It’s a cloudy day, but sunlight breaks through once in a while to cast brilliance on the day. The maple trees are still green, but here and there a pop of orange or red shows the temperatures have dropped enough to cause them to turn. A light cool breeze wafts past, cool enough for her skin to react with goosebumps.

I urge you to keep these observations simple and to acknowledge them in the text as observations, things she’s noticing during their walk to the library. These things are only meant to establish and reinforce the season/time of year. Embellishments can distract from the clarity of this purpose, unless they are meant to underline Taylor’s perceptions or feelings this particular day.

The last bit of text had me reaching for a life preserver. :o) If it was presented as dialogue, offering the ‘what if’ questions to Josh, I would have accepted it as a ‘blurt’ intended to get Josh to engage. As narrative it was a jolt. Without more information on Taylor, or on Taylor and Josh’s relationship, this all comes from left field. Perhaps they regularly engage in ‘what if’ type conversations and enjoy sharing epiphanies or sudden wonderments?

(Here's more on Open Up! Writing the Opening Scene)

Overall, I’m curious about the library and want to know more about it. I want to know what Josh is or has that makes him a good candidate for getting other kids involved in the library and/or reading, and from that contact be more like Taylor, the bookworm.

There is much more that could be shown in this opening in terms of facts and a sharper defining of the two characters and their relationship. I would save the embellishments for magical happenings, where they will be more effective and informative. I would like to know how old Josh and Taylor are, or what year in school. I would like to know, since Taylor’s mom seems supportive of her reading, what has happened that has made Taylor feel she’s not normal.

Good start here. I suggest noting the points you want the reader to be aware of, building the library up with some other facts or speculations, and crafting some clear information that grounds the reader in what is happening and why.

Fearless readers, please chime in with your thoughts – always important to hear the thoughts of others!

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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3 comments:

  1. This is a perfect choice for your opening scene. Your first words are about the library, and you build that on to her friendship with Josh (any boy who on the first page gives a girl a coat is a supporting hero by the book's end and a husband down the road), and her wish for other friends and other sights. And she's taking him *to* the library, all set for important next things to happen.

    (Bonus points that the first line uses the word "magical" to promise the genre that's coming up, and also says "my" mom to tell us Josh isn't her brother.)

    The execution of this isn't as smooth as the concept, though. Taylor's wishes are appealing but not quite compelling. You use large paragraphs to have her run thoughts around in her head. But if you look at the starts of the best stories you know, line by line, you'll find they often make a point quickly and then move on, then find a different way to bring that point up again in a paragraph or three. It can be a juggling act, but you already have the most important part ready: you seem to have a clear sense of which points are your priorities here.

    It works for descriptions too. Sometimes we want to settle into mood and environment, but often it's better to describe the setting with a line here and another there as things move along. This is home to the characters, and most of it's just part of their day.

    One thing I'd like a bit clearer is the status of the library right now, in a town where Taylor says nobody else actually reads. Has she seen people in there devouring books, but there just aren't many visitors and none of them are kids? Is the library neglected and her mother is only talking about how the town *should* love books, not how much they do? You have a contradiction between a compelling library and a town of non-readers, and we want to know how the balance really works out. (You probably can't explain much on this page, but it should lead into that soon.)

    You want to check for slips of the pen like "Besides Josh" (it does sound like he's the only other reader; you mean she wants more friends than him) and "that wasn't true" (when you mean it can't make her love books more than she already does). It's easy to lose track of how one part of a sentence relates to the pieces around it, or how some readers could make the wrong connection if it isn't clear enough. Something to watch as you review it and show the story around.

    The concept here is pure gold, and you've got a solid sense of what you want to show us. I hope we get to see how you tighten your grip on how to present it.

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  2. I was confused about the sweatshirt, which is, in the way she drowns in it, too large. Wouldn't it be tight if she were taller than the boy

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  3. A small point, but it always sticks out to me:

    as we headed toward the library

    Toward tends to come off as passive—it’s almost (but not always!) better to direct your characters to or for something. You can see my extended rant here: https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/2016/03/08/toward-a-more-balanced-use-of-toward/

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