First Page Friday #4: Middle Grade Mystery/Fantasy

First Page Friday

First Page Friday is a new section on The Writeditor’s blog. Every Friday I will provide an in-depth edit and critique of the first 500 words of an unpublished novel.

I am still working on the best way to present the edit and critique so your feedback is welcome. Please let me know which sections you like, which you hate, and if you have any ideas for ways to make this segment more useful.

Based on feedback from last week, I’ve decided to change up how the critique is done for this week.

First Page Friday Edit & Critique

Middle Grade Mystery/Fantasy First 500 – By Lisen Minetti

A few weeks ago something happened that changed my life forever.  Something so incredible that some days I still have a hard time believing it.  I remember the day like it was yesterday.  Though ironically, the day started out as one of the worst of my life. 

I got up late, Mom yelling at me to hurry up and get in the shower.  My little brother Alex was hogging the bathroom brushing his teeth, spitting toothpaste all over the mirror and sink.  Gross. 

I was ten minutes late to choir rehearsal which earned me the evil eye from my choir teacher, Mr. Stark. On top of that I had a pop quiz in math, a test in Spanish (my two least favorite subjects) and they were serving fish sticks in the cafeteria for lunch.  I wasn’t sure how the day could get worse.  Until the afternoon rolled around.

I realized that my science homework was sitting at home on the kitchen table and that I had read the wrong pages for my language arts assignment.  To top it off, a freak thunderstorm let loose just as my class was headed outside for recess, forcing us to stay inside all afternoon.  Lightning and thunder boomed for the rest of the day as the lights flickered, casting an ominous air over everything.

When I finally got home from school, I ran upstairs and collapsed onto my bed, miserable.  I just wanted the day to be over.  And that’s when it happened.  Alex barged into my room without knocking and as I was just about to tell him – very politely of course – to go away, I heard Nana clear as day shout ‘Catherine Elise Martin!’

Uh oh.  No one uses my full name unless I’m in trouble.  I think it’s a rule in the Parent Handbook.  I jumped up protesting the whole time.  “Nana, I didn’t do -”

Alex was looking at me strangely.  No one else was in the room with us. 

I went downstairs to where mom was cooking dinner.  “Mom?”

“Yes, dear?”

“Is Nana here?” I asked.

Mom stopped stirring and looked at me, “No, why?”

“I just thought I heard her earlier.”

“Mmmmhmmm,” replied Mom, turning back to her cooking.  I went up to my room and sat down on my bed to pet my cat, Jinx. 

“I could have sworn I heard Nana,” I muttered under my breath.

“Meow,” replied Jinx looking at me knowingly with his big yellow eyes.

I sighed, laid back on my bed, and closed my eyes.

“Cady?”

I jerked up, looking around frantically.  No one.  Jinx just blinked at me lazily and put his head back down.  Maybe I had accidentally fallen asleep. 

“Cady, can you hear me?”

OK now I knew I was hearing things!  But what should I do?  They just don’t cover this stuff in health class.  Feeling sick – yes; hearing voices in your head – not so much.

Reader Participation – What Do You Think?

Before reading my take on this novel opening, please take a moment to record your thoughts in the poll below.

 

Your thoughtful critiques and suggestions for the writer are also welcome in the comments section. Explaining your vote gives Robin even more insight into where she’s hitting the mark and where she can improve.

The Writeditor’s Feedback

 Critique Key

Original Text is in italics.

Red is text I recommend removing.

Green is text I recommend adding.

Blue are my comments.

Middle Grade Mystery/Fantasy First 500 – By Lisen Minetti

A few weeks ago something happened that changed my life forever.  Something so incredible that some days I still have a hard time believing it.  I remember the day like it was yesterday.  Though ironically, the day started out as one of the worst of my life. < Unlike adult fiction, beginning middle grade novels with telling rather than showing is common and acceptable. However, what I see as a weakness here is that you have four bland sentences in a row. The sentences are vague and they also lack voice. In MG, you need to suck the reader in with a great voice from sentence one.

I got up late, Mom yelling at me to hurry up and get in the shower.  My little brother Alex was hogging the bathroom brushing his teeth, spitting toothpaste all over the mirror and sink.  Gross. 

I was ten minutes late to choir rehearsal which earned me the evil eye from my choir teacher, Mr. Stark. On top of that I had a pop quiz in math, a test in Spanish (my two least favorite subjects) and they were serving fish sticks in the cafeteria for lunch.  I wasn’t sure how the day could get worse.  Until the afternoon rolled around. < These are relatively bland obstacles. Setting them as a list like this (rather than showing them) additionally de-emphasizes their severity. She got the evil eye, had a test, and ate fish sticks for lunch, I can imagine most MG readers feeling like this describes every day of their lives, not a particularly bad one. 

I realized that my science homework was sitting at home on the kitchen table and that I had read the wrong pages for my language arts assignment.  To top it off, a freak thunderstorm let loose just as my class was headed outside for recess, forcing us to stay inside all afternoon.  Lightning and thunder boomed for the rest of the day as the lights flickered, casting an ominous air over everything. < As a reader, I don’t know this kid. I actually don’t know a single thing about her, her age, her personality, the stakes in her life, etc. So I don’t have any reason to care that she had a bad day. You could write that a tornado wiped out the whole town and I’d still be thinking, so what? You have to earn your reader’s caring by giving us a reason to care about the character.

When I finally got home from school, I ran upstairs and collapsed onto my bed, miserable.  I just wanted the day to be over.  And that’s when it happened.  Alex barged into my room without knocking and as I was just about to tell him – very politely of course < This is the first inkling of a voice. You need to pump it up and give the reader more. – to go away, I heard Nana clear as day shout ‘Catherine Elise Martin!’ < I thought she was a boy until right now.

Uh oh.  No one uses my full name unless I’m in trouble.  I think it’s a rule in the Parent Handbook.  I jumped up protesting the whole time.  “Nana, I didn’t do -”

Alex was looking at me strangely.  < This is bland and vague. Show the reader his face. Are his eyebrows raised? His mouth scrunched to one side? No one else was in the room with us. < I didn’t think anyone was in the room with them. I assumed the shouting was coming from another place in the house. 

I went downstairs to where mom was cooking dinner.  “Mom?”

“Yes, dear?”

“Is Nana here?” I asked. < I think this scene would play out a lot more interestingly if she still thought Nana was there and came downstairs saying, “Hi Nana!”

Mom stopped stirring and looked at me, “No, why?”

“I just thought I heard her earlier.”

“Mmmmhmmm,” replied Mom, turning back to her cooking.  I went up to my room and sat down on my bed to pet my cat, Jinx. 

“I could have sworn I heard Nana,” I muttered under my breath.

“Meow,” replied Jinx looking at me knowingly with his big yellow eyes.

I sighed, laid back on my bed, and closed my eyes. < Is Alex gone at this point?

“Cady?” < This name makes me think of Mean Girls.

I jerked up, looking around frantically. < Instead of using an adverb, use more evocative language. For example: I jerked up, flinging my head side to side. No one.  < I understand what you’re going for here, but I think you need to emphasize that the voice sounds like it’s coming from within the room, otherwise I would assume it’s coming from outside the room so she’d have to search the house rather than just looking around herself. Jinx just blinked at me lazily and put his head back down.  Maybe I had accidentally fallen asleep. 

“Cady, can you hear me?”

OK now I knew I was hearing things!  But what should I do?  < The mixing of tenses here bothers me. They just don’t cover this stuff in health class.  Feeling sick – yes; hearing voices in your head – not so much. < This is the second inkling of a voice. 

My Overall Thoughts

I’m a big fan of middle grade and as such, I have really high standards. To me, this opening page was pretty flat. It wasn’t bad, but it was very bland. In a stack of middle grade novels, this is unlikely to jump out at me.

Key Places to Improve:

  • Voice, voice, voice! You need to crank the dial up from 2 to 90. Character is very important to middle grade readers. They want characters they can grow to love, which starts with a very strong, unique voice. Let her be in her world and experience it, make observations, comment on things. Give her some space to show us who she is before introducing the inciting incident (hearing voices presumably).
  • In addition to voice, you need to give Cady an obstacle, motivation, or desire. This is something that the reader sees coming long before it’s relevant to the main plot. For example: wanting to be popular, having a sick parent, being poor, hating her hair, having a mean older sister, dealing with a bully, etc., etc., etc. These things serve as an extra psychological push during the main plot, and it also gives us a reason to care about the character.
  • Try to create more vivid imagery. You don’t need to give long descriptions of everything, but right now you’re not giving the reader much of anything. Cady feels like a stick figure on a white paper. What does her room look like? What color is her cat? How much younger is her little brother? What does her mother look like? What is her mother cooking? How messy was the bathroom sink and mirror? What does she think fish sticks taste like? Does she like school or only hate it? These are just some ideas of ways you could add color and life to the story.

The Writeditor’s Grade: 2

I’m giving this a two because while I think there’s a hint of something interesting, it isn’t pulling me in. It feels a bit like you couldn’t wait to get to the hearing voices part so you just wrote a few throwaway paragraphs to get to that point. But the problem is that readers won’t stick with you if they have no reason to care about the character, have difficulty visualizing what’s going on, and don’t have a voice to latch onto.

My Grading Scale:

1 – Wouldn’t have finished the first page if I wasn’t editing. Back to the drawing board.

2 – Read the whole thing, but couldn’t look past problems with the writing to enjoy the story.

3 – Read the whole thing, was entertained at times, but I probably wouldn’t read on.

4 – Read the whole thing and liked it. Wasn’t really “wowed” but I would read on.

5 – Read the whole thing and loved it. I’m excited to read the rest of the book!

A note on the grading scale: The rating of the first chapter does not indicate the rating of the novel as a whole nor does it indicate the writer’s overall ability.

Connect with Lisen

You can connect with Lisen (the author of the first page)  on Twitter: @LisenMinetti

And check out her blog: http://lisenminetti.wordpress.com/

Submit to First Page Friday

If you’d like to submit your novel for First Page Friday, please send the following to ellenbrock@keytopservices.com:

  • The name you want me to use in the blog post (real name, alias, or anonymous).
  • The genre of your novel.
  • The first 500 words (give or take, don’t stop in the middle of a sentence) pasted into the body of the email.
  • Any links (Twitter, Blog, Goodreads, etc.) that you’d like included in the post (not required).

Please do not submit if you are not okay with your first page being posted, critiqued, and edited on my website.

About the Editor

Ellen Brock (AKA The Writeditor) is a freelance novel editor who works with self-publishing and traditionally publishing authors as well as e-publishers and small presses. She owns the editing company Keytop Services and the writing and editing blog The Writeditor. When not editing, she enjoys reading, writing, and geocaching. Check out her freelance novel editing services.

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10 thoughts on “First Page Friday #4: Middle Grade Mystery/Fantasy

  1. lisenminetti says:

    Reblogged this on Lisen Minetti: A work in progress and commented:
    Before I go any further, I want to thank Ellen Brock for hosting First Page Friday Crits – If you don’t know what they are, go check out her blog! I’ll wait.
    So as you now know, she (for free) offers crits of your first 500 words (you know the first few words that everyone who ever reads your book will see) and posts her thoughts for all the world to see. And in my usual spirit of being an open book, I like to share so that others may learn – so I’ve reblogged her crit of my first 500 words. Before I’ve read it (and wow am I nervous).
    I welcome any additional comments you may have – and encourage all of you to take a look at Ellen’s blog and follow her on Twitter – she has some great insight and loves to share her expertise.
    But right now, I am dying to read my crit! Happy writing everyone!

  2. lisenminetti says:

    First of all, thank you so much Ellen for offering First Page Friday in the first place, and also for doing my crit this week!

    I love how honest you are and how things struck you. Given that this was my first attempt at writing – well rather completing – a novel it’s really important to me to get the honest feedback from others.

    I also loved your comments on voice because that is the main feedback I have gotten from others (especially in the limited querying I have done). All of them were really helpful. And they give me a lot to think about when I un-shelf this MS after NaNo.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      I’m glad my critique helped you! Voice can be very challenging, but I’m confident that you will get there. You’re probably closer than you are far, so definitely dust this thing off after NaNoWriMo.

      Let me know if you have any questions once you get back to working on this.

      Have a great weekend!

  3. Arphaxad says:

    Well, I started off enjoying Lisen’s first page, it was really interesting. Then I got to the critique and it made me go back and re-read. Ellen’s comments really showed how the story could be presented in a more interesting and exciting way.

    Now I’m scared to go back and re-read my own stuff. This was very eye opening, thank you Ellen for doing this and thank you Lisen for being brave enough to participate.

    Question for Ellen. How would you define, or explain, what a good voice is for your character? Based on your comments, how can a writer measure if they are given their character a good voice in first or third person?

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Hi Arphaxad, and thanks for your comment!

      Voice is very hard to define, but I would say what makes for a great voice is when things are phrased in a way that feels unique to the character. A good voice shows us something about the character through the word choices and phrases as well as the things that are noticed and commented on versus those that are not.

      For example, a character who loves animals is going to describe in detail the color, fur length, etc. of her neighbor’s cat, but a character who hates animals might call it a “dirty vermin.”

      In essence, voice is the ability to convey characterization through the narration so that as a reader, we feel like these words could only have come from this character and no one else.

      If you can imagine your narration coming out of the mouth of any person off the street, then it has no voice.

      I hope this helps and makes sense.

  4. Dianna Winget says:

    Interesting critique. And Lisa, while I agree with most of Ellen’s comments, I also feel that your opening offers a lot of intrigue and potential. I’m the author of the middle grade novels, A Smidgen of Sky (Harcourt 2012) and the upcoming True As Steel (Scholastic 2014) I just recently served on the faculty of a SCBWI conference in Spokane and gave a presentation on developing voice in fiction. If anyone would like a copy of the tips I offered, just email me through my site and I’ll be happy to email you a copy. http://www.diannawinget.com

  5. Hailey says:

    Having a character whine when things aren’t that bad feels like you’re trying too hard to sound ‘authentic’. Maybe some twelve-year-olds can relate to it, but I know I never have.

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