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Sunday, July 12

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

Critique By Maria D'Marco

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: Three

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through August 1.

This week’s question:

Is this a strong beginning and would it make a child want to know more?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade

Note from JH: Since I took the holiday off last week, I'm doubling up this week to keep on schedule. Enjoy!

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Rufus didn’t look for trouble, it just happened. He trudged down the busy street, while across the river the mighty fortress dominated the city. Scowling at the gathering clouds above him, he wondered if he would make it home without getting soaked. Uncle Quintus had told him to take his cloak, but Rufus hadn’t felt like listening.

The cobbles were hard under his feet, the chill of autumn seeping through the leather soles of his boots. Buildings crowded in on him from every side. Tabernas, where just about everyone went to eat, offered lentils, meats, cheeses and spiced wine. Shops selling everything from cooking pots to shoes, spilled out over their thresholds into the street. The noise was unbelievable. Nearby a vegetable seller with a large basket and a stall made up of wooden trestle tables, seemed to be in competition with another man selling hot sausages and pastries to see who could shout the loudest.

Rufus’s heart ached for the countryside, where he had been born, on his father’s farm. It wasn’t much but it was home. It would always be home, and Rufus wanted it back. Six months now since his father had died, since Uncle Quintus had brought him to live in the city. The countless sounds and smells, the crowds of people from all over the empire with their peculiar customs bewildered him. Rufus did not fit in here and he didn’t want to. Ever! At that moment he hated Eboracum and everything about it.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Rufus didn’t look for trouble, it just happened. He trudged down the busy street, while across the river the mighty fortress dominated the city. [does he look at it? Why is this important?] Scowling at the gathering clouds above him, he wondered if he would make it home without getting soaked. Uncle Quintus had told him to take his cloak, but Rufus hadn’t felt like listening.

The cobbles [cobblestones?] were hard under his feet, the chill of autumn seeping through the leather soles of his boots. Buildings crowded in on him from every side. Tabernas, where just about everyone went to eat, offered lentils, meats, cheeses and spiced wine. Shops selling everything from cooking pots to shoes, spilled out over their thresholds into the street. The noise was unbelievable. Nearby, a vegetable seller with a large basket and a stall made up of wooden trestle tables, [build this image from the stall to large baskets] seemed to be [this weakens things] in competition with another man selling hot sausages and pastries to see who could shout the loudest. [short and sweet suggestion: Nearby, two men, one selling vegetables and one selling hot sausages and pastries shouted loudly/wildly at the passing crowd.]

Rufus’s heart ached for the countryside and his father’s farm, where he had been born. on his father’s farm. It wasn’t much but it was [had been?] home. It would always be home, and Rufus wanted it back. Six months now since his father had died, since Uncle Quintus had brought him to live in the city. The countless sounds and smells, the crowds of people from all over the empire with their peculiar customs bewildered him. Rufus did not fit in here and he didn’t want to. Ever! At that moment he hated Eboracum and everything about it.

The Question:

1. Is this a strong beginning and would it make a child want to know more?

To start, I like the first line. It’s strong, piques my curiosity, and makes me wonder about this whole ‘look for trouble’ idea. I have the character’s name, so immediately have identification, which is nice and probably better for middle grade material. The next sentence begins by giving me his location – my curiosity still wondering if he’s been ‘captured’ and is now trudging to some consequence – and I anticipate hearing internal thought or further info on his general state that establishes what is happening right now. Maybe further speculation or facts about the trouble that he didn’t look for, but that happened anyway.

Instead, there is a statement about a fortress. He isn’t shown looking at the fortress. He doesn’t have a thought about the fortress. For a moment, I wonder if that’s where he’s headed, but without any real connection to the place, the fortress will sit on the hill, tucked away in one of the seven memory slots in my mind.

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

The rest of the paragraph is fine, shows that Rufus might be a bit hard-headed, or doesn’t like his uncle. I wonder why he wouldn’t, and since ‘home’ is with ‘uncle’ perhaps he doesn’t live with his parents and resents his uncle or his living situation. This gives some perspective on this character.

Trudging, scowling at the storm brewing, no cloak, not feeling like listening to his uncle – all show his current state of mind without shouting about it. But, with this first paragraph, the fun thing about trouble looking for Rufus is gone. I feel like that idea has been set aside, so perhaps I should set it aside as well.

The next paragraph continues stabilizing the environment. I might suggest re-considering ‘… the chill of autumn seeping …’ as it’s lovely but seems a bit soft for what you’re building. I like the use of seeping but feel it could be stronger with ‘The cobbles were cold and hard … [without] ‘of autumn’, which makes me think of cool air, brisk breezes – something more related to the coming storm than the cobblestones.

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

The next sentence nicely creates further impressions from the character, and I feel/see his form trudging along, scowling and feeling the buildings closing in, hoping not to get soaked, feet cold. Nicely done, very direct – easy to imagine without excess. This sentence is followed by the name of the city, which could be moved up where the fortress is mentioned, and descriptions of foods, shops, etc. As an experiment, remove this and the next sentence. I feel this material was included to contribute/support the idea that the city was busy, claustrophobic to Rufus. However, with this small bit removed, we go more directly from cold feet trudging and buildings closing in to unbelievable noise. The path through the senses is well done here, with strong, simple images and references.

This leads us to the two shouting vendors, which is funny and an easy image to concoct. If you want to expand upon description, I suggest showing how Rufus reacted to these two contributors to the noise and chaos. This also allows you to show his trudging progress (grin).

Going into the final paragraph, I wanted to see internal thought, or some kind of narrative transition that re-framed the scene, showed some reaction from Rufus to his current situation. Body language can work here to give transition to him pining for the home he no longer has.

(Here's more on Set up Your Story in the First Paragraphs)

This paragraph works well, except that the sentence about the bewildering aspect of the city feels out of place. Perhaps a small shift? “… in the city. He felt bewildered by the countless sounds and smells, and the crowds of people from all over the empire with their peculiar customs.”

Overall, I could engage with Rufus, felt his misery – but I still don’t understand why the reference to trouble was included and never explained. The impression is that the story leaps into play, then gets caught up in painting a picture that tells no story. There are conflicts in the wings, but there is no hook to lure me on.

(Here's more on 5 Questions to Ask for Stronger Scenes)

If you bring in a reason for the first line, you’ll entice readers to read on. I would like to see, for example, if Rufus is trudging and crabby because of some very recent ‘trouble’ that he escaped from – on top of everything else. I would like to see concern that something happened, not his fault! but that would create consequences – maybe consequences that he’d endured in the past six months, since his dad’s death.

Put him in trouble, right now (grin).

Chime in readers, would love to hear your impressions. And thanks to our brave author, who has an interesting historical time as a setting.

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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4 comments:

  1. Is this a strong beginning? Not to me. Sorry. It feels like a bunch of disjointed lines.

    "Rufus didn’t look for trouble, it just happened." is a bit cliched, but also nothing in the rest of the paragraph references this is any way. In fact, nothing in the next three paragraphs does.

    "He trudged down the busy street, while across the river the mighty fortress dominated the city." forces two things together in an unnatural way -- it's rushing to get facts out.

    "Scowling at the gathering clouds above him, he wondered if he would make it home without getting soaked." And we switch topics again. Now we are talking about the weather and ignoring the street and fortress we just mentioned.

    "Uncle Quintus had told him to take his cloak, but Rufus hadn’t felt like listening." At last something personal that says something about the MC.

    What is your focus at the start? The city? And the way Rufus feels in it? Then may be your best opening is your last line: Rufus hated Eboracum and everything about it.

    And why is Rufus going through a market past the busiest restaurant in the city when he doesn't like noise? or the people? A stated above, bringing the scene into Rufu's head (internalizations) would help.

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  2. I agree, this is some well-written material, that could do better at coming together.

    Most first pages could take a lesson from horror writing. You have an opening where nothing much happens at first, but uses a number of glimpses of the setting (and well done ones!) and the character to keep us going. What if you pushed harder at creating a single mood through this that just built and built so we're ready for that "trouble" to happen?

    Instead, I think your description here pulls in three different directions. The details about the street are interesting, and Rufus's thoughts are good, but they seem separate. That's not nearly as good as mixing them together: he walks past one shop and his casual description of it is unhappy, then another seems worse and it brings out his first thought about why he hates the city, and so on with the two escalating together. (And the whole third direction you have is the fortress, because it seems far off to the side --across a whole river!-- and hard to believe it would cross his mind at all, if you don't find a good way to direct his thoughts to it.)

    You really do come up with some great descriptions. Still, in a first scene, the question isn't if you can make each interesting for that one line, it's whether you can weave them together to make something larger and keep us reading. This isn't an ordinary scene, it's the one that sells readers the whole rest of your story, and also gives some needed background while readers are open to it. A first scene needs and deserves much more attention than a regular page.

    I'd like to read this and feel each line is more and more Rufus simply fuming his hatred for the city, or maybe wallowing in his sense of bad luck, and feel how that emotion is certain to stir up or attract that trouble you promised. Horror writers do this by building suspense; what are you trying to build through this? Can you test it word for word (there's a lot of great suggestions here), maybe read it aloud, and feel that pressure building?

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  3. I think you have a lot to work with. Figuring out what the character's external desire and internal desire is important to starting a book. It seems Rufus external desire is to go home, his internal desire - to have his family back? What is he going to do to follow those desires.

    For children's books, we want to dive in quickly and we want to know how the character feels. Seeing the vendors yelling at each other is one thing, but what if a chicken or duck flew out of the booth and startled Rufus, or if he tripped on something and made some of the goods fall down? Here's where trouble can find him, and we will feel the action, not just observe it.

    The last paragraph feels like telling- but it is useful information. Find a way to convey that in a different manner - like dialogue.

    Remember that everything you put into the beginning of the book should mean something, so the fortress either needs to mean something now - or later.

    You have lots of good material to work with - just a little rearranging and you will be on your way. As far as the comment from Anonymous - not everyone has the ability to critique without making a writer feel bad. Don't give up - you have the start of something and you will be able to mold it into a good story.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you. This is my first attempt at writing a novel and I know I have much to learn. There are some good constructive comments here and I will take them all on board. Thanks for the encouragement. x

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