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Saturday, May 2

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a Historical Middle Grade Opening

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

WIP 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 WIP Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines. 

Submissions currently in the queue: six

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through June 13.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this work and is it all in Freddy’s POV?

2. Is it all in Freddy’s POV?

3. Am I showing or telling?

Market/Genre: Young Adult

Note: This is a re-submission. Check out the first submission if you’re curious how the author revised.

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Ten-year-old Freddy Stone sat on the concrete steps watching the freight train chugging slowly down the tracks in front of his house. Freddy pulled the strap of his overalls back over his thin shoulder and wiped the sweat trickling down his face with the back of his hand. The hot, humid air in Georgia during August was rough on everybody, especially those who couldn’t afford luxuries like air-conditioners.

The conductor gave two short ‘toot, toots on the whistle then stuck his arm out the window and waved. Freddy stood, grinning ear to ear slinging his arm madly back and forth over his head in response to the conductor’s friendly gesture. Freddy watched the last car of the train round the curve disappearing out of sight.

The Stone’s run-down house at the edge of town was just a short hop and skip from the railroad tracks and a large swampy field. Every time trains chugged down the tracks, no matter the speed, the windows, walls, and floors of their house vibrated.

Freddy carefully guided his bike, bumping down the long case of concrete steps to the street. He double-checked the half-deflated balloon tied to the frame of his bike next to the back wheel before taking off to the Gulf Station. Sometimes his bike turned into a speeding motorcycle or a fast and furious race car while escaping from the various criminals chasing him. Sometimes he replaced the balloon with a playing card, which also made a sweet sound for the motor.

Freddy and his dad, John, moved up from Floyd County to Chattooga County three weeks ago. His dad got a job as a mechanic at the Gulf Full Service Station in town. He got fired at the last station he worked at in Rome but didn’t think his new employer needed to know about that little issue. His favorite saying was, “What they don’t know won’t hurt ‘em.”

My Thoughts in Blue:

Ten-year-old Freddy Stone sat on the concrete steps watching the freight train chugging slowly down the tracks in front of his house. [Freddy] He pulled the strap of his overalls [back] over his thin shoulder and wiped the sweat trickling down his face with the [back] careful of repeated words so close together of his hand. The hot, humid air in Georgia during August was rough on everybody, especially those who couldn’t afford luxuries like air-conditioners.

The conductor gave two short ‘toot, toots on the whistle[,] needs a comma then stuck his arm out the window and waved. Freddy stood, grinning ear to ear[,] needs a comma slinging his arm madly back and forth over his head [in response to the conductor’s friendly gesture.] Even with the omniscient narrator, this feels a bit tellish, because it’s clear by Freddy’s actions [Freddy watched] he was watching in the first paragraph, so perhaps find another word or even sentence since this is so similar to the opening line the last car of the train round the curve disappearing out of sight.

At this point, I wanted something internal from Freddy to help me connect to him as a character and let me know what's driving him as the story opens.

[The Stone’s run-down house at the edge of town was just a short hop and skip from the railroad tracks] This is clear by showing the train passing in front of it, so you don’t need to explain it and a [large swampy field.] Perhaps add a few swampy details in the opening paragraph [Every time trains chugged down the tracks, no matter the speed, the windows, walls, and floors of their house vibrated.] This is a bit tellish. Perhaps show Freddy feeling the vibrations under him, or hearing the windows rattle as he’s waving to the train

Freddy carefully [guided his bike,] first mention of the bike or Freddy moving, so I’m a bit lost how we got here bumping down the long case of concrete steps to the street. He double-checked the half-deflated balloon tied to the frame [of his bike] don’t need next to the back wheel before taking off to the Gulf Station. Sometimes his bike turned into a speeding motorcycle or a fast and furious race car while escaping from the various criminals chasing him. Sometimes he replaced the balloon with a playing card, which [also] don’t need made a sweet sound for the motor.

[Freddy and his dad, John, moved up from Floyd County to Chattooga County three weeks ago.] I wanted a transition or something to spur this thought. It’s pulling farther away from Freddy's perspective now to explain the situation  His dad got a job as a mechanic at the Gulf Full Service Station in town. He got fired at the last station he worked at in Rome but didn’t think his new employer needed to know about that little issue. His favorite saying was, “What they don’t know won’t hurt ‘em.”

The Questions:

1. Does this work?

Not yet (readers chime in). It’s setting a nice scene of a hot Georgia day, and I like the image of a kid enthusiastically waving at a train, and then setting off for imagined adventures on his bike. It captures a sense of the time period and feels very “kid like.”

What I’m not yet seeing, is something to draw readers into the story. Freddy has no goal, and I don’t see where this story is going. It looks like he’s heading down to see his father at work, but for what purpose? What is he trying to do? Is he facing a problem of any type, or trying to achieve a goal? It doesn’t have to be a big deal, but a sense of forward momentum would help draw readers into the story.

It does pick up at the end, and I really like the line with hints that his father might be a criminal or shady character. Makes me curious about the father, but Freddy is the one I’m supposed to connect with here and want to follow along with.

I'm more drawn in with this opening than the previous submission, so it’s a step in the right direction, especially if Freddy is your protagonist. What would have helped me connect more, is more internal thought from Freddy, and a better sense about who he is and what he wants.

(Here's more on What You Need to Know About Internalization)

The submission was longer than what’s critiqued here, but a quick read showed that Freddy is worried about starting fourth grade and getting a mean teacher who beats poor kids and has a terrible reputation. If Freddy was worrying about this even a little in the opening page, it might be enough of a hook and show readers where this is going. They’d worry he might get that teacher.

But I’d also love to see something about what Freddy wants as well. The opening needs to be more than just setting up the kid that is going to be treated badly by the teacher. Does he want to make friends? Does he feel he’s not good enough to be in a “fancy school” or the like? Being mistreated by Witherspoon is his problem for sure as the story unfold, but what problem is he facing as the story opens?

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

2. Is it all in Freddy’s POV?

It’s an omniscient narrator centered on Freddy, so technically, no, though Freddy is clearly the character focus of the scene. It’s Freddy’s scene, but an omniscient narrator if that makes sense. I’m not seeing the world through Freddy’s eyes, but an outside narrator watching Freddy. Omniscient is perfectly acceptable for middle grade, so if this is your preferred POV, run with it.

But if the goal is to be inside Freddy’s head looking out, this isn’t there yet. The information conveyed is not how Freddy sees and describes the world, but how the person watching him (the author) does. For example:
Freddy and his dad, John, moved up from Floyd County to Chattooga County three weeks ago. His dad got a job as a mechanic at the Gulf Full Service Station in town. He got fired at the last station he worked at in Rome but didn’t think his new employer needed to know about that little issue. His favorite saying was, “What they don’t know won’t hurt ‘em.”
This is someone else sharing this information with readers, not how Freddy would think about it. He’d probably not call his father John or state things this way. If you wanted this tighter in Freddy’s head, it might sound something like…
He and Dad moved up from Floyd County to Chattooga County three weeks ago. Dad got work as a mechanic at the Gulf Full Service Station in town. He was fired at the last station he worked at in Rome, but said his new boss didn’t need to know about that little issue. As he always said, “What they don’t know won’t hurt ‘em.”
You know your character, so you’d tweak this even more to be in Freddy’s voice. Maybe he calls him Daddy, or Papa, or Pa. Maybe he speaks with more southern slang, or less grammatically correct sentences.

It all depends on which POV you want. Do you want a full omniscient, limited third person, or a tight third person? If you wanted omniscient, this is doing that. If you wanted readers to feel they were inside Freddy's head, this isn't there yet.

(Here’s more on How a Limited vs. a Tight Point of View Can Confuse Writers)

3. Am I showing or telling?

Mostly showing, though there are a few places where you explain what is clear from how the characters are acting. With the distant narrator, it can feel more told than a closer point of view would.

For example, you open with the trains running past the house, so later, when you explain that the house was next to the tracks, that feels told. You’ve already showed it, so readers know how close the tracks are.

(Here’s more with How Over-Explaining Will Kill Your Novel)

4. I think this is a YA story.

This wasn’t an official question, but I’m chiming in on it (grin). Freddy is ten, which would make this middle grade, but from your previous submission, I know that you also have an adult point of view, so it might be an adult novel. Some middle grade novels have adult POVs, but the focus is on the child characters. If the bulk of this is from Freddy’s perspective, then this is probably a MG novel. If the adults are more important, than this would be an adult novel. Based on the little I know of this book, it seems like the adult POV is the antagonist, so it’s probably a MG novel.

(Here’s more on Who is My Audience? Age Categories for Children’s Books)

Overall, this is an improvement from the previous submission, and I like how it introduces the protagonist right away. I think with a little more internal thought to help ground readers in Freddy’s POV, and a stronger sense of a goal to drive it forward, this could work as an opening page. If readers worry about Freddy getting the terrible teacher, when we meet the terrible teacher they're get a stronger sense of dread about what might come next.

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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8 comments:

  1. Comment 1 of 2:

    Dear author, the first thing I wanted you to know is that you brought back a wonderful memory for me. I lost my baby brother at 31, but we grew up in rural Maryland & when he was a child he was absolutely ecstatic any time the train came by. Wherever he was, whatever he was doing, if he heard the train coming, he dropped everything, ran to the front yard, and was all a-quiver making a fist & pumping his arm up & down asking the conductor to toot the horn. The conductor usually obliged & that made my brother’s day. I’m glad he had such joyous memories in his too-short life.

    That alone made me interested in Freddy. Some readers, of course, will not have a deeply personal memory triggered (indeed, many are not going to understand the relevance of trains in culture in this day and age), but his excitement at the train is contagious to the reader in my assessment.

    Paragraph One:
    It necessarily starts out omniscient—Freddy isn’t going to be thinking about being 10 years old unless it’s his birthday, and the reader needs to be grounded in who they’re reading about.

    In this section: “Freddy pulled the strap of his overalls back over his thin shoulder and wiped the sweat trickling down his face with the back of his hand. The hot, humid air in Georgia during August was rough on everybody…”

    Here’s where you can deepen POV from Freddy’s perspective. I like details like knowing it’s Georgia and it’s August. In paragraph 3 you mention they’re near a swamp. I don’t picture a 10 year old boy thinking in terms of “trickling” sweat. He’s going to haphazardly pull the strap of his overalls up yet again and swipe at the sweat and the bugs and may be thinking along the lines that the mosquitos are bigger blood suckers than leeches (or maybe even a reference to swamp bugs and whatever problem he is going to be facing in the story, something like that. But based on my experience with my brother (just as an example) those are minor annoyances and fleeting thoughts when the train is coming. He’ll pull up the suspenders or swipe at sweat, but what’s on his mind is jumping up & signaling the conductor to toot the train’s horn.

    Delete: “especially those who couldn’t afford luxuries like air-conditioners.” A telling economic detail, but unnecessary in THIS paragraph, as he is outside and air conditioning is irrelevant. And I think you’ve already included some details that set economic tone.

    Paragraph Two:
    My only comment is the word ‘slinging’ implies something that can literally be tossed away, which hopefully he can’t do with his arm. 8-) Maybe find a word that gets the point across but doesn’t create that visual disconnect.

    Paragraph Three:
    If you infer the effects of the swamp in paragraph one (bugs etc) and in paragraph two show us how the ground vibrates under Freddy’s feet as the train goes by, paragraph 3 isn’t needed.

    Paragraph Four:
    Here I had a visual disconnect. There are the spare homes I’m familiar with that are near the train tracks, but when you say “down the long case of concrete steps to the street” that image is taken away and replaced by descriptions I’ve heard of people who lived in mining towns on hillsides and they had long staircases to get up and down to their homes. In short, “long case of….” Is at odds with the rest of the description (to me). Most houses I remember near train tracks had maybe 3-4 steps down to the ground.

    When I read about the balloon, I thought it was going to have some significance—i.e. given to him for a special reason, or he was taking it to someone for a special reason. I like the playful imagination of a speeding motorcycle or race car, but it could be more effective if there’s an opportunity to SHOW that later rather than just tell it here.

    BK Jackson

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    Replies
    1. thank you so much BK for your wonderful insights and advice. The house Freddy is living in is my actual house I lived in as a very young child and I did the same things my character is doing. I love the way you have given me ideas about each paragraph and will certainly use them. thanks so much! Roxie Weesner

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  2. Comment 2 of 2:

    Paragraph Five:
    I infer by reading this 5th paragraph that something is up with his dad and that this story will revolve around their family situation—maybe some problem catches up with his Dad. You could take the Dad’s ‘what they don’t know won’t hurt ‘em’ thought process casually in a light devil-may-care attitude, or it could be more sinister, the reader can’t tell and is unsure how this all fits in.

    The first 3 paragraphs are taken up with the excitement of the train and demonstrating the exuberance of youth, so I would not want to disrupt that, but perhaps when he gets his bike (which appears suddenly compared to 1st 3 paragraphs) a more somber note of the trouble at hand could creep in.

    To the specific questions asked:

    Does this work? With some minor tweaking, yes. I am personally hooked by Freddy and am willing to read farther to see what the crux of the story is.

    Is it all in Freddy’s POV? As noted, it starts out necessarily omniscient to get needed info across. The omniscient tone does linger throughout the paragraphs and can be made more personal in Freddy’s POV.

    Am I showing or telling? Caveat: Others may disagree with me as I tolerate more telling than some readers do. But ultimately it’s the target reader of your books who will determine this. I personally grew up reading and still prefer to read 3rd person POV, but not everybody did. Some telling is okay, but there are opportunities in this manuscript to show some things rather than tell. It’s hard to be specific when I don’t yet understand the story problem.

    Final note: Reading Janice’s follow up comments about the character having concerns about school—this is not hinted at all in the opening paragraphs. These opening paragraphs hint at family problems, not school problems (not that there can’t be subplots, of course) but if the main story problem for the character is in reference to school, that is in no way present as written.

    In any case, I like Freddy and would want to read more to see what’s going on.

    BK Jackson

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    Replies
    1. BK you give me so much encouragement to keep going with my story, thanks. I wish we were allowed to offer more than 250 words. Freddy's dad has a drinking problem which started after his wife, Freddy's mom, died. Freddy is forced to be in a fourth-grade class room with a teach who hates poor kids, (set in the 60's era_ they could get away with such behavior. A lot of info is in the first chapter but I am doing my best to learn how to keep it in Freddy's POV.

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  3. Thank you so very much for your insight. I have reworked this even more since submitting last time. I am working hard to get this right. You're an awesome teacher Janice.

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  4. I completely agree: this is a solid grasp of Freddie's moment and can be very appealing, but it could do so much more to introduce the story.

    Some writers agonize over whether an opening scene should be about mood and character or story issues. I think neither answer is good enough: an opening needs to be BOTH.

    Freddie's issue is going to be facing Mrs. Witherspoon in class. Or it could be some initial issue that's going to combine with that, like being short-tempered about his dad's troubles, or taking on every other kid's problems. So the best thing this scene can do is get us excited about what this kind of person is like and what that'll lead to.

    That probably means centering some of this around that specific worry, his school. You could pick a different moment where his friends are telling him how rough Mrs W is or his father is making him promise to stay out of trouble in school. Or it could be a moment like this, but with his attention always drawn back to memories of that -- if the main thing about Freddie now is how carefree he is, he could start with a really ominous memory but show how fast he forgets it.

    But I think you want to be clear from the start that this scene is building suspense about that class, no matter what else is going on in the meantime. Or it could be setting up something else about him that has obvious implications for class, eg it's showing how he gets in enough trouble on his own. But direct links to the class itself are probably stronger.

    Another thing you want to do is make us like Freddie, so we sympathize with him for what's ahead. This playful scene does a lot of that, but you could do more by playing up some particular about him. Maybe you develop that fantasy life of his into something even more fun, or give him a "save the cat" moment of helping someone else, or a goal ("stay out of trouble in school and you'l get a new...") that he desperately wants.

    A third thing you need to show is Freddie as a particular person. If the story ahead hinges on him being the most curious or hotheaded or compassionate or shy kid in school (and it really ought to), you don't want to be playing catch-up showing this to the reader *after* our first impression of him.

    Keep in mind, you can build all of this any way you want. Freddie can ride down by the tracks just the way he is now, but the story will be much stronger if there are scattered but conspicuous moments that keep the reader on edge for what's coming next. Or you can use any number of other scenes -- this might be one of those times the first thing we write turns out to be exploring the story, not something to use first.

    This scene does very nicely at putting us in Freddie's day. But, can it also plug us into what he'll *need*?

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  5. Ken thank you so much! Are you an author? You have wonderful advice and I really appreciate it. I'm beginning to see why the first few paragraphs are so vital and must be packed with important info right at the start. I hope to get there one of these days. With your help and advice I can see it happening. Roxie Weesner

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  6. Glad I could help, Roxie. Yes, I have a few books out (urban fantasy), and I've done a lot of blogging and critiquing. I'm really looking forward to what you can do with a redesigned scene and your deep understanding of this world.

    ReplyDelete