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Sunday, November 8

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at Goals in a 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: One

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through November 14.

This week’s questions:

What I want from this opening scene, is to introduce Zara as the protagonist you want to root for; Zara’s desire to win the competition; a hint of sibling rivalry whereby Zara is keen to earn Aaliyah’s approval. Do these three goals work?

Market/Genre: Middle Grade

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Background: Zara is the protagonist who wants to win the art competition and in doing so, earn the respect of her elder sister (and some greater self esteem into the bargain). But by the end of chapter one a world-famous painting has been stolen where the competition was taking place and Zara decides to find out who did it (as does her arch-enemy, Ruby Naismith).

There were fifty-seven minutes remaining before Zara had to hand in her picture. She crouched in her too-small tartan pyjamas, dabbing crimson paint onto the cheeks of Queen Elizabeth the First.

Aaliyah, Zara’s older sister, burst into their bedroom, vigorously toweling her hair dry.

“You still working on that thing?”

“Yes. I’ve got–forty-nine minutes to go. But it’s doesn’t look right. Oh, I wish Ms. Pennant had never entered me into this competition.” Zara bit her lip in frustration. She would never have entered an art competition–and definitely not one that pitted herself against every single primary school child in southeast London. Ms. Pennant, her form teacher, had called Zara’s art quirky. Whatever that meant.

“And you know who else she entered.”

“Who?”

“Ruby Naismith. The most popular girl in year six. You remember. Blond ponytail, pierced ears. Always wins everything at sports day. And an amazing artist.”

“Sounds annoying.”

“She is. And she calls me a “weirdo”. Ever since I made that Mrs. Trunchball costume for World Book Day in year two.”

“Isn’t that when you–”

“Did a hammer throw with the cricket bat and accidentally hit her on the head? She won’t let me forget it either. It was four years ago!”

So, talented, popular, attractive artist, Ruby Naismith versus the weirdo. No contest.

My Thoughts in Blue:

There were fifty-seven minutes remaining before Zara had to hand in her picture. She crouched in her too-small tartan pyjamas, dabbing crimson paint onto the cheeks of Queen Elizabeth the First.

Aaliyah, Zara’s older sister, burst into their bedroom, vigorously toweling her hair dry.

“You still working on that thing?”

“Yes. I’ve got–forty-nine minutes to go. But it’s doesn’t look right. Oh, I wish Ms. Pennant had never entered me into this competition.” Zara bit her lip in frustration. She would never have entered an art competition–and definitely not one that pitted herself against every single primary school child in southeast London. Ms Pennant, her form teacher, had called Zara’s art quirky. [Whatever that meant.] Perhaps instead of this “I don’t care” vibe, show how the comment inspired her to participate. Her teacher entered her in the contest, but why did she agree?

[“And you know who else she entered.”] I’m not sure who says this. Perhaps tag it so we know Zara has continued speaking, and this isn’t Aaliyah.

“Who?”

“Ruby Naismith. The most popular girl in year six. You remember. Blond ponytail, [pierced ears.] nice detail Always wins everything at sports day. And an amazing artist.” I wanted a hint of how she feels about this. Does she think she has a chance? It’s a moment you could reveal some of Zara’s vulnerability

“Sounds annoying.”

“She is. And she calls me a “weirdo”. Ever since I made that Mrs. Trunchball costume for World Book Day in year two.”

“Isn’t that when you–”

“Did a hammer throw with the cricket bat and accidentally hit her on the head? She won’t let me forget it either. It was four years ago!” Here as well. I know what happened, but not how any of this made her feel or how she feels now.

So, talented, popular, attractive artist, Ruby Naismith versus the weirdo. No contest.

The Questions:

1. Does this introduce Zara as a protagonist you want to root for?


Mostly (readers chime in here). The quirky, artistic weirdo is a solid trope in middle grade fiction, and one a lot of readers will relate to. 

I wanted a bit more internal thought to get to know her, though. She fires off a lot of information, but it’s all about Ruby, not her. It doesn’t need a lot, but a line or two to show readers how Zara felt or was affected by what Ruby did would give us a better sense of her fear and show her vulnerable side. That will make readers want to root for her.

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

2. Does Zara’s desire to win the competition come through?

Not yet, because she didn’t enter it. This isn’t something she’s doing because she wants to, but she has to, and since she says it’s “no contest,” I think she expects to lose, and isn’t trying to win. It even seems like she put it off to the very last minute since she’s working on it the hour it’s due.

Perhaps add hints that she’s excited about this, and her teacher calling her work quirky was inspiring. Or anything that suggests this is an opportunity for her, even if she’s scared. And maybe a sense that she’s still working on it to perfect it, not that she waited until the morning it was due.

You might even consider having Zara have entered the contest on her own, and maybe now she’s regretting it. Maybe she’s thinking about dropping out, but Aaliyah tells her it’s good she’s entering or putting herself out there or something, and she decides to stick with it. If you drop in a hint of stakes there, too, it could pull this all together the way you want. What negative is Zara facing by entering the art contest?

(Here’s more on What's My Motivation? Tips on Showing Character Motivations)

3. Is there a hint of sibling rivalry whereby Zara is keen to earn Aaliyah’s approval?

Not yet, because Zara’s focused on Ruby and why she’s popular, not that she wants her sister’s approval. Her sister is more of a device to allow Zara to reveal the backstory between her and Ruby.

Perhaps show Aaliyah encouraging her? Or saying something that suggests she’d be proud of Zara for doing this, or would be proud if she won, or something along those lines. Something that would show how Aaliyah feels about her sister and give Zara a chance to show she wants her sister’s approval.

Or, maybe the sister also thinks Zara can’t win or do well, and Zara’s reaction shows she wants to win to make her sister proud of her or respect her. I don’t yet know why she wants respect—because she looks up to her sister and wants to make her proud or because her sister doesn’t respect her and she wants to prove her wrong.

(Here’s more on What Are You Really Saying? (The Use of Subtext))

Taking a step back, you might also look at the end goal for this novel and how you might show hints of that here as well. It doesn’t look like winning the art contest is really the point, but recovering the missing painting. If so, you might consider what you want this opening to do.

If recovering the painting is the thing that will make Aaliyah respect Zara, and let Zara “beat” Ruby, and find the self esteem she needs to be the artist she wants to be, then perhaps the focus should be more on Zara’s lack of faith in herself, and the need to prove herself to her sister that Ruby. She’s not good enough to beat Ruby, but she wants to.

Overall, this is a decent start, but the focus feels too much on Ruby and not the issues you want to cover. I think more internal thought from Zara and why she’s doing this would help position this the way you want it to, as would a better sense of the sister and the relationship between them.

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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3 comments:

  1. I agree, this is nicely written but is giving its attention to everything except Zara herself.

    Maybe the most important thing an opening scene can do is show us the protagonist, in a way that makes her feel like a specific kind person so we're ready for what that person will do when the story accelerates. Here, you might have two main approaches for how to present Zara.

    One would be to focus on determination. She really loves art, and maybe she always secretly wanted attention for it, or it could be she just wants to paint well and the rest is a distraction. Or she wants something else that competing in the contest can get her -- maybe she's only a bit into the painting but comes alive when her sister walks in and she realizes this could impress Aaliyah.

    The other focus could be reluctance. She likes painting, but mostly she likes staying out of the spotlight and hates all the attention this is getting her. (That's slightly harder to win the readers over with because it can sound weak, and it may not fit with wanting to compete with her sister -- unless there's a real ember of competitiveness in her too that her sister's reaction kicks up.)

    A good scene, and especially a good first scene, has a sense of focus. The focus here seems to be on showing what's going on *around* Zara, with her sister and the contest and Ruby. If you pick a focus about Zara instead you can make this whole scene work as that. Is Aaliyah showing up just another distraction from Zara doing what she does best, until she gets her interest? is Zara so quiet that the thought of Ruby really scares her? These can be real statements about who Zara is rather than just signs about what she'll be facing soon.

    (As it is, it stands out that Zara didn't enter the contest herself, and that Aaliyah seems to be walking in just to tell her what's ahead rather than for something related to their own relationship. Those put more emphasis on setting up the future, and less attention on who Zara is now.)

    And there's a second kind of focus you might give the scene, that combines with those: use something specific like the painting. Zara could be struggling to decide on how to paint one shape, or just about to put one key dot of paint in place, when her sister interrupts her. She could be wondering, or realize at the end, that she's made Elizabeth look a little like Aaliyah, and maybe want to hide that for what it says about herself. A specific image or arc that frames one scene can do even more to make that scene grab the reader and keep them going -- and it ought to mesh with that first lesson about the character, of course.

    First scenes are usually the hardest to write, because they have to set up so many plot elements as well as who the character we're caring about is. I hope you think about why we're rooting for Zara first, and how you can show us the rest in terms of that.

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  2. A good start overall, yet with the background notes about the painting theft and Ruby becoming the obstruction in sleuthing, I want to see what it is about Zara that supports the idea that she would be involved in solving the theft.

    Perhaps she's rushing to finish because she was caught up in a mystery book. Perhaps her sister mentions that she wouldn't be in that rush if she had prioritized the painting competition. That could lead to some sniping between the sister's that would reveal their differences. How much older is Aaliyah, what about her makes Zara want to earn her respect or positive attention?

    Ruby takes on the role of antagonist, but perhaps these two girls have a common interest or predilection, which allows them to slowly become friends. However, Ruby's position can just be barely mentioned -- establish that she's the thorn in Zara's side, for the past 4 years, over an accidental event. If the mention (establishment) of Zara is put strongly enough, readers will retain that stamp of disapproval. Don't be afraid to use strongly worded dialogue from Zara to show her aggravation or disapproval or defensiveness, which could create an opening for her sister to chastise or offer advice ('Ruby doesn't forget it because you haven't forgotten it.').

    I also was thrown early on by the dialogue not tagged and read through thinking the sister was the speaker. That impression was set right, but I had to re-read to get the proper perspective.

    It seems to me that the painting contest is simply a vehicle to get us to the actual story, so it's just not the big deal -- we need to encounter hints that support what's to come, define what makes Zara's art 'quirky' and that this means she (maybe) sees the world differently than most.

    So, sister is traditional, Zara is quirky. :O)

    Have fun reworking this, you have a good scene to introduce three characters and establish the basic differences between them through a very direct approach. Be bold! Be adventurous! I believe that Middle Grade readers understand that this is a time and age where blurting, saying the wrong thing, etc. seems to happen a lot.

    Good luck!

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  3. oops - didn't check this before posting! I meant to say: "If the mention (establishment) of Ruby is put strongly enough," -- sorry for that slip up!

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