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Saturday, August 15

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Adding a Hook to the First Page

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: Two

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through August 29.

This week’s questions:

1. Is the beginning interesting enough to want to read more?

2. Is this in Freddy’s POV? Or is it more of a narrative?

3. Is this age appropriate for middle or elementary readers?

4. If the beginning isn’t yet a hook how in the world can I make it more interesting?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade

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

On to the diagnosis…


Original Text:

Freddy hated being the ‘new kid.’ He hated going to different schools. He hated not knowing any of the kids. He hated not having any real friends. Most of all, he hated school—PERIOD! In two short days, he’d be the new fourth-grade kid at a school he knew nothing about—again.

The first time he got to be the new kid in class was kinda exciting—then it became old in a hurry. Freddy had been pulled out of schools and shoved in different schools more than a dozen times in the past two years since his mom died. He wished he could spend a full year in one school and have at least one real friend. Was that too much to ask?

He wished his dad would find a place and STAY PUT! He might be lucky enough to find a friend to play with for more than a few weeks or months—maybe. He was getting sick and tired of moving around. Him being only ten; he didn’t reckon his dad would ask for his advice on the subject. But if he did, he’d give him his two-cents worth—probably. Maybe.

He double-checked the half-deflated balloon tied to the frame next to the back wheel of his bike. Sometimes he replaced the balloons with playing cards, which also made a sweet sound for the motor. He absently swiped at the sweat rolling down his face and squinted up at the sun. It was too dang hot to outrun the bad guys today or run a race, or the cops, or whatever his imagination conjured up. He carefully guided his bike down the concrete steps to the street and watched the freight train slowly chug-chugging down the tracks.

My Thoughts in Blue:

[Freddy hated being the ‘new kid.’ ] This tells me a lot about Freddy already and offers a hint of his problem  He hated going to different schools. He hated not knowing any of the kids. He hated not having any real friends. Most of all, he hated school—PERIOD! In two short days, he’d be the new fourth-grade kid at a school he knew nothing about—again. I already get a good sense of Freddy and his problem and desires here, and I sympathize with him

The first time he got to be the new kid in class was [kinda exciting] I wanted a bit more here to show me what he’d liked since I got so much of what he hated before—then it became old in a hurry. Freddy had been [pulled out of schools and shoved in different schools] This feels a bit repetitive since the opening paragraph was all about this more than a dozen times in the past two years since his mom died. He wished he could spend a full year in one school and have at least one real friend. Was that too much to ask?

[He wished his dad would find a place and STAY PUT!] Perhaps rephrase this so it doesn’t repeat the previous “wished” line [He might be lucky enough to find a friend to play with for more than a few weeks or months—maybe. He was getting sick and tired of moving around.] This is all repeated information. Perhaps expand on Dad a little since this paragraph focuses on him. It would also give a sense of his relationship with his father that might hint at further conflict Him being only ten; he didn’t reckon his dad would ask for his advice on the subject. But if he did, he’d give him his two-cents worth—probably. Maybe.

[He double-checked the half-deflated balloon tied to the frame next to the back wheel of his bike.] This is the first clue to the setting, but it still doesn’t tell me where Freddy is. Perhaps a lead in sentence or two that shows the setting to help ground readers Sometimes he replaced the balloons with [playing cards] Perhaps switch this with the balloon? I think more readers are familiar with cards in the spokes than the balloon, and a balloon gives the image of it floating, which is the wrong visual, which also made a sweet sound for the motor. He absently swiped at the sweat rolling down his face and squinted up at the sun. It was too dang hot to outrun the bad guys today or run a race, or the cops, or whatever his imagination conjured up. [He carefully guided his bike down the concrete steps to the street] Perhaps move this to the start of this paragraph to help set the scene and watched the freight train slowly chug-chugging down the tracks. You might consider breaking this paragraph up and using the individual pieces as action during Freddy’s narrative. That would help describe where he is and what he’s doing so he’s not just a voice in a white room at the start. It could also help add his goal to the scene and show what he's trying to do while he's thinking about how awful things are going to be in two days 

The Questions:

First, I’d like to give kudos to the author for their revision. This is the third time this has come through the diagnostics, and I can clearly see improvement in the story and the writing skill. It’s always fun to see such growth in these snippets. Great job!

1. Is the beginning interesting enough to want to read more?

Yes and no (readers chime in here). There’s a good sense of a frustrated and lonely little boy who has nothing but his imagination to keep him company, and how he just wants to find a friend and a permanent place to live. That suggests to me that the story will be about him finding those things. I feel for Freddy, and I already hope he finds a friend. This encourages me to keep reading.

But there’s nothing to hook me yet, because while I see Freddy’s general problem and hints of where the story’s conflict is likely to come from, he isn’t facing a problem in this scene. The last paragraph describes him calmly walking with his bike and watching trains. He’s not doing anything, so there’s nothing for me to wonder about or want to see unfold.

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

2. Is this in Freddy’s POV? Or is it more of a narrative?

It’s a third person POV centered on Freddy. It reads as his POV, not an outside narrator. It feels like his thoughts and views on the story and world, and gives a sense of his voice. 

You might look at ways to use this tight POV to show the setting as well. That will help ground readers in the scene.

(Here’s more on The Literary Tour Guide: How Much Do You Need to Describe Your Setting?)

3. Is this age appropriate for middle or elementary readers?

Yes. This reads like a younger middle grade, which is perfect for a 10-year-old protagonist. The target readers here would be 7-10.

4. If the beginning isn’t yet a hook, how in the world can I make it more interesting?

This one’s easy because you set it up in your opening paragraph. You already showed him being unhappy, dreading school, and wishing for friends, then you showed him heading out. Give Freddy a goal in the last paragraph that relates back to his problem. He’s not just pushing his bike because it’s too hot ride, he’s actively doing something that will make readers curious to see how it turns out.

Maybe he’s checking out his new neighborhood, looking for kids to play with. Maybe he sees kids playing down the road and he goes to ask if he can play with them. Maybe he wants to check out the school so he’s familiar with it and doesn’t feel so lost on his first day. Just give him an external goal that will lead to a problem of some type.

The problem will relate to his fears. Maybe he runs into bullies. Or the kids won’t play with him. Maybe the school is bad in some way that he knows is going to hurt him (it’s fancy and he’s poor). Maybe he sees his father do something embarrassing in front of other kids. Brainstorm things that would ruin Freddy’s day and make his first day of school worse that he fears.

He’s already dreading school, so let one of his fears come true now. Give him something to do and have it all go wrong. That will provide the goal, show his motivation for acting, and put him into conflict right away. Readers will also see the stakes when he fails and is hurt by it.

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

Overall, this is a great revision that just needs a little tweaking and something for Freddy to do to get the plot rolling. The problem and conflict has been established, so now show Freddy’s goals and what he’s actively doing to achieve one of them. That little bit of narrative drive at the end will take advantage of the sympathy built in the opening paragraphs and make readers want to see if Freddy can make a friend or find a place to fit in.

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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2 comments:

  1. I think the first paragraph sets up the character, the external conflict (hates being the new kid - which rings true for any kid switching schools), and the external desire - wanting to stay in one place. And I agree, it's always nice to know where the story is taking place so we, as a reader, are grounded.

    From the first submission, we know there's trouble with his dad. This can help with the internal desire - is that to have a cohesive family, consistent friends, a real home? That will help drive the story and give you the conflicts that will interfere.

    Personally, I felt the second and third paragraphs felt a bit "telling". Perhaps bringing in another person (friend or antagonist) so we can actually "hear" Freddy's voice would be a great way to move this beginning forward, let us see deeper into the character, and set up the conflict.

    Lots to work with here and good job with the revision. Good Luck!

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  2. One more vote here to applaud this first paragraph, and then ask this to move on to find new ways to look at Freddy's problem.

    There's a basic rule of writing: anything you can say with a long or loud statement, you can say better with several smaller ones in different places. The second and third paragraphs do become a bit "telling" because you've already made the main point (including that a lot of it's from being the new kid), and this is lingering on background for it. It's better to start shifting right here to something new that relates to the problem, rather than him ruminating more on it.

    The straightforward choice would be to show him worried or angry about school ahead, and trying to lose himself in the moment with his bike. That works best if there's something to strengthen the transition, like him being so angry his hands shake and he breaks the balloon, or as soon as he starts riding he finds his imagination can't focus with all this hanging over him. (But a transition like that is important, so the second paragraph isn't simply putting aside the first one's issue for the time; that would look lazy.)

    Or the second paragraph could go right to the kind of immediate, newness-related goal Janice asked for: "So when he saw a couple of kids on the street, he steered his bike toward them..." Or it could be a picture of him riding but at the same time noticing kids or the Newness of the town, with a strong sense that he's about to do something like approach those kids. Or maybe he's riding so fast trying to get it out of his head, it's immediately obvious he could crash into something, and then he does.

    You have a perfect hook here in the sense that you immediately make us care about Freddy's frustration, but you want to start "pulling on" that hook by having Freddy do something we can root for or worry about. More than anything else, a scene is defined for the moment by what the character's goal is, and even a desire as strong as "new kid hating school" should start doing something with it.

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