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Saturday, April 17, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a MG Historical Opening 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: One

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through April 24.

This week’s questions:

1. Is this in his view point?

2. Does it sound like a 10-year-old boy?

3. Does this catch your attention and want to read more?

4. Am I showing or telling?

5. Does this beginning even come close to a “hook”?

6. How can I improve this beginning?

7. Do these sentences sound mechanical or do they flow with the story?

8. Did I mix his thoughts in with the narrative?

9. Would Freddy’s boredom come across to the reader?

Note: This is a resubmission. The previous versions are here: firstsecond, third, and fourth for those curious to see how this revision has developed.

Market/Genre: Historical Middle Grade

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Freddy Stone stared at the little green army man in his hand without seeing it. I wish I had somebody to play with me. He dropped the toy in the cardboard box with a sigh, then stuffed it under his bed. Wonder where them kids are Dad said wuz in this town. I ain’t seen none yet! I’m tired of not having any friends

He glanced around his room, checking that everything was put back in its place before watching his favorite programs on the television. The room looked neat enough, Gran Mamie would have a different opinion of course. The desk, dresser, and chair cluttered with paper, toys, and clothes seemed fine to him. He knew where everything was, so what was the big deal anyway?

One more glance around the room and one more heavy sigh, he joined his grandmother in the living room, plopped down beside her on the couch, and let loose with another loud and heavy sigh, hoping she’d at least pay attention to him.

Crap, Kennedy again.
“Gran Mamie, Leave it to Beaver is on. Can I watch it?”

“Shh, I’m listening to JFK. He’s so handsome! Don’t you just love his accent? You mark my words; he’s gonna be our next President!” She said all this without taking a breath or her eyes from the t.v.

Freddy crossed his arms over his chest and blew a puff of air out his mouth, blowing his cheeks out as he did it.

“But Gran, it’s time for Leave it to Beaver. I never miss it!”

She ignored him.

“Fine! I’m goin outside and play in the road!” he said, testing her.

She ignored him.

“I’m gonna run away!”

She ignored him.

“I’m gonna join the Army and never come back home again!” he said a little louder this time.

She ignored him.

Disgusted, he stomped over to the front door; maybe she’d at least notice him going outside. She still ignored him.

I’m glad I aint old like her. I like being ten years old, Freddy thought sadly. All Gran Mamie does is watch TV or cook and clean the house. I bet she gets bored all the time. She never wants to ride my bike or play in the yard with me, or anything!

My Thoughts in Blue:

Freddy Stone stared at the little green army man in his hand [without seeing it.] Since Freddy wouldn’t notice what he wasn’t seeing in this way, this establishes this is an omniscient narrator, with Freddy as the viewpoint character. [I wish I had somebody to play with me.] This is an immediate thought, so the first-person present tense works to draw attention to Freddy’s problem and state of mind He dropped the toy in [the cardboard box] “the” suggests readers already know the box is there, but this is the first mention. So perhaps either use “a” or add a detail that further explains the box, such as “he kept under the bed” or “he stored his treasures in” with a sigh, then stuffed it under his bed. [Wonder where them kids are Dad said wuz in this town. I ain’t seen none yet! I’m tired of not having any friends] The present tense italics feels too much, because this is more of a internal narrative thought than an immediate thought. The last line is a little too on the nose, but that’s not uncommon for middle grade.

He glanced around his room, checking that everything was put back in its place [before watching his favorite programs on the television.] You could do a little more here. He’s cleaning up so he’s allowed to watch is show, correct? The room looked neat enough[,] ; Gran Mamie would have a different opinion of course. The desk, dresser, and chair cluttered with paper, toys, and clothes seemed fine to him. [He knew where everything was, so what was the big deal anyway?] This is a good example of internal narrative versus the immediate thought. This type of internalization works well and feels in the POV character’s head

[One more glance around the room and one more heavy sigh,] Perhaps something else so you don’t repeat the glancing [he joined] Perhaps a word that shows his personality better? “He stomped through the hall” or the like his grandmother in the living room, plopped down beside her on the couch, and let loose with [another loud and heavy sigh,] Perhaps cut the first sigh in the previous paragraph. That would make it more obvious he’s doing it on purpose and make his actions feel more deliberate  hoping [she’d at least pay attention to him.] He does nothing to get her attention before he does this. Perhaps have him try, she ignores him, then he sighs heavy

[Crap, Kennedy again.] You could also make it part of the narrative by not using italics “Gran Mamie, Leave it to Beaver is on. [Can I watch it?”] Perhaps add “I cleaned my room, can I …” This is why he cleaned up, correct?

“Shh, I’m listening to JFK. He’s so handsome! Don’t you just love his accent? You mark my words; he’s gonna be our next President!” [She said all this without taking a breath or her eyes from the t.v.] Opportunity here to show more of Freddy's voice. How might a kid say this same thing?

Freddy crossed his arms over his chest and [blew a puff of air out his mouth, blowing his cheeks out as he did it.] This is long way to say “he sighed again.” Since he’s sighed twice before, perhaps cut and go right to the dialogue. Or cut it way back.

“But Gran, it’s time for Leave it to Beaver. I never miss it!”

She ignored him.

“Fine! [I’m goin outside and play in the road!”] The tense if off here. Perhaps “I’ll go play in the road then?” he said, testing her.

She [ignored] Perhaps “still ignored” him.

“I’m gonna run away!”

[She ignored him] This is feeling repetitious now.

[“I’m gonna join the Army and never come back home again!” he said a little louder this time.

She ignored him
.] Perhaps use this and not the runaway line? This shows better "escalation" of his threats. He's just saying the same thing too many times in a row.

[Disgusted,] This feels more like an omniscient narrator to me, since kids probably wouldn’t describe themselves this way. It’s also tells how he feels he stomped over to the front door [; maybe she’d at least notice him going outside. She still ignored him.] You’ve made this clear so you don’t need this.

[I’m glad I aint old like her. I like being ten years old, Freddy thought [sadly.] His words don’t sound sad. More irritated All Gran Mamie does is watch TV or cook and clean the house. I bet she gets bored all the time. She never wants to ride my bike or play in the yard with me, or anything! ] These aren’t immediate thoughts, so perhaps put them in the narrative. I’d also suggest cutting the “cook and clean” part, since we don’t see her doing that, just ignoring Freddy to watch TV. That’s what he’s mad about.

The Questions:

1. Is this in his view point?


Yes, though there are a few hints that point this to an omniscient narrator. A few times the action is described from outside his perspective, and the italic thoughts are telling us what he thinks instead of making it part of his narrative. This tips into a limited third, omniscient POV.

If you wanted a tight POV through Freddy’s eyes, then just cut or edit those few words, and make most of the thoughts part of the narrative, and it would be solid in his POV.

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

2. Does it sound like a 10-year-old boy?

Aside from those few omniscient POV words, yes. Some things are a little too on the nose and self-aware, but you do see that in middle grade—particularly younger middle grade. You have several opportunities to show more of Freddy's voice, though.

3. Does this catch your attention and want to read more?

I think so (readers chime in). I’ve read this opening multiple times now, and it’s much harder to judge that after so many reads. But Freddy comes across as a lonely kid who just wants a friend, and he can’t even watch TV when his favorite show is on. He’s angry, and I worry he might do something foolish to get attention.

I am a little uncertain about his goals, though. The scene opens with him wanting a friend or kids to play with, yet he’s cleaning his room so he can watch his show, then he seems more bored. There’s a loss of narrative focus there. What does he want most that’s driving this scene? To make a friend, watch his show, or to not be bored?

I think the boredom and loneliness can drive all three, if you had his boredom be the trigger that makes him clean his room so he can watch TV, and when he’s not allowed to do that, he goes searching for the kids he heard were nearby. You can still do everything you have here, just shift things around a little and tweak a few words here and there.

(Here’s more with Why You Should Tighten Your Novel's Narrative Focus)

4. Am I showing or telling?

Mostly showing. The told spots are where I feel the outside narrator poke in. But that’s normal for omniscient, so if you’re going for that, those are fine. If you wanted a tighter POV, edit those so they're more shown and in Freddy's head.

5. Does this beginning even come close to a “hook”?

It’s a quiet hook (readers chime in), but Freddy is looking for something to do to alleviate his boredom and hopefully make a friend, so he has a goal and a need to move the story forward. I get the sense that he and the story are going somewhere, but the next page or so would determine if I stuck with it. If something happened, then I probably would. If Freddy sat and sulked and didn’t act on his “threats” in some way, I’d probably stop reading.

6. How can I improve this beginning?

Tightening the narrative focus would have the most impact. I also put notes in the text on specific word choices to show ore voice.

7. Do these sentences sound mechanical or do they flow with the story?

Mostly flowed. A few comments in the text, but nothing some minor tweaking can’t fix.

8. Did I mix his thoughts in with the narrative?

Yes, though I’d suggest limiting the italic first person present tense thoughts to only thoughts you want to emphasize. Having an entire novel with italic thoughts like that is tiring to read after a while. It also pulls readers out of Freddy’s head, since it reminds them someone else is telling the story, not Freddy.

Internalization reads like part of the narrative most of the time. You only italicize when you want readers to focus on a particular thought. And you don’t even have to do that, as not everyone even uses italic thoughts.

(Here’s more with Choosing Which Thoughts to Italicize)

9. Would Freddy’s boredom come across to the reader?

It’s there, but not as strong as it could be, and it’s muddied by his other thoughts. It’s part of the narrative focus issue. But if this is the most important part, then strengthen this aspect and make all his other thoughts a result of his boredom. He’s cleaning his room because he wants to watch TV. He wants to find the other kids so he has something to do. He’s bored because he’s lonely—though you might want to put this part in the subtext. It’s a strong need, and it’s taking over a bit if the boredom is the main problem driving the scene. Maybe show readers he’s also lonely, but don’t come right out and say it. Save that for later scene when the loneliness is driving him more than the boredom.

Overall, it’s very close. Minor tweaks and tightening, but the bones are good. 

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 paranormal thriller series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.
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10 comments:

  1. Thanks so much Janice. I can always count on your honest insights and expert advice. It's back to the drawing board! I'll keep working till I get it right though.

    Roxie Weesner

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    Replies
    1. Not back to the drawing board. This isn't far off, and Ken had some great suggestions on how to tighten up some of the things I mentioned. You've got the right pieces here, they could just use some tweaking to take advantage of the good things going on.

      I know it seems like a lot, but there's actually less work than you think. A line here and there can make a lot of difference and add the drive and tension you want. :)

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    2. thats encouraging to me. thank you.

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  2. This is a fair slice of life for Freddy, and his boredom and perspective do come through. Still, if it's a first scene, you want to look harder at what could make it work more strongly.

    This is squarely focused on Freddy's boredom and loneliness -- if that's the center of the story for a while, very good. But a first scene (and often the whole book's chances of being read) have to meet some high standards about either choosing an exciting moment or making an ordinary one compelling. You're trying to take the second approach, and you haven't raised it to the level of a "hook" yet.

    This reads as if you've picked a moment that introduces Freddy, and you just let it happen and make sure some bases are touched (Gran and so on) and tensions rise. That's a good start, and it shows you can work with the story. For a first scene, it needs to go deeper into finding an angle of plot or description that absolutely hooks us.

    For instance, Gran (or his father) could have promised that he could watch TV if his room was clean, and Gran ignores that promise without even considering it. Or better yet, Gran could have promised some way to play with him, so her betrayal is specifically leaving him bored -- her fixation on the TV also takes away his second choice (if Leave It To Beaver isn't a "never miss it" first choice, or it's on later and she shows no signs of letting the TV go at all). Or you could play up some damage he does or almost does here, as a consequence of being ignored.

    I really didn't like "I wish I had someone to play with me." It's "on the nose," too obvious, and it's right in the first line before we've started to like your writing. Even for a middle grade book, I think you'd do better to say it less directly (eg "I always win, there's nobody to play the other army") and make it stick by how many different ways you bring it up. His "where are the other kids" a few lines later is more natural and more interesting.

    (And this is assuming that loneliness and being ignored are clearly the One Thing we need to know about Freddy at the start. If the story works better with a different first impression, everything else would be built to deliver that instead.)

    There's so much going on in Freddy's world here, and you walk us through a lot of it. For a first scene, though, we really want to be *dragged* into this moment from some direction that keeps us hooked.

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  3. Thanks Ken, I appreciate your advice. One of these days...I'm going to get it right. Maybe...I hope...

    Roxie Weesner

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  4. Sasha Anderson4/19/2021 4:15 AM

    Question for you, Roxie: have you written the rest of the book, or are you just rewriting the opening over and over again? If you haven't written the rest of it, I'd suggest you do that, and come back to the opening at the end. It's often hard to know where a book should start until you know where it ends.

    Also (and I realise this seems to contradict the previous paragraph), it might be helpful to put this project aside and work on something else for a bit. I find that a break and change of perspective can be just what I need, sometimes. Your first book doesn't have to be perfect, or even finished - keep writing, and with time everything will hopefully make more sense.

    From someone who's glad this sort of thing didn't exist when I was a young writer, good luck!

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    1. Sasha Anderson4/19/2021 4:18 AM

      And to clarify, by 'young writer' I didn't necessarily mean age (I have no idea how old you are!), but beginning to write / writing first book. I happened to be young in absolute terms when I got started, but I meant it relative to writing experience!

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    2. I believe you are correct about taking a break from this story, Sasha. I have been working on this for quite some time and beginning to realize that I'm getting tired of trying to have a perfect beginning. No, I haven't completed this story and still have no idea how it will turn out. I want to learn to write so much and also want it to be perfect right away. Thanks for your advice.

      Roxie Weesner

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    3. Roxie, if this isn't written yet, absolutely finish the story, then come back and tweak the ending. It's very common to not know the right beginning until you've written the ending.

      If you don't know how it turns out, it's hard to know where it starts. And "perfect beginnings" don't happen until later drafts after much revision (and this is true for the pros, too). No writing is ever perfect, *especially* early drafts.

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    4. Thanks Janice. I need all the encouragement I can get.

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