First Page Friday #39: MG Horror/Adventure

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About First Page Friday

First Page Friday is a blog series where I provide a free edit and critique of the first 500 words of an unpublished novel. Read the excerpt without my notes first and leave your vote in the poll. Afterward, feel free to leave a comment for the author. Feedback is always helpful!

MG Horror/Adventure – Ryan

Erik admired the way his brother could smile through his bloodied face. Ozzie received a beating with all the regularity of a clock striking twelve, but this time it actually came at midnight. Ozzie crushed stalks of wheat as he fell, but he jumped up and struck back with his ten-year-old arms. He was no match for Jonas though. With four more years of hard farming labor over Ozzie, Jonas’s arms were twice the size and impacted his body like an axe to a tree. With a fist driven to his gut, Ozzie dropped to the ground again, struggling to breathe.

The skin on Erik’s face grew hot, but he just watched. He dug his hand in his pocket, found his rock and squeezed. There’s no use intervening; Jonas would just brutalize him like he did Ozzie. Nothing would be put to right. The rock pained his hand as his grasp constricted. There was a clamp on his stomach every time his brother got beat, but even if he did get the better of Jonas, there’d be hell to pay at home. Besides, Jonas was going to get his just desserts later anyway. Erik smirked and released the rock in his pocket.

“Are you idiots going to get back to work? Uncle Bauer won’t be happy if the harvest isn’t done before the storms come.” Erik said.

“Mind yer own business! Just had to finish teaching your brain-dead brother the same lesson as always.” Jonas strutted away giving his wrist a quick flick. “See you rats tomorrow. I gotta date with Lara.”

“A pretty girl like that…” Ozzie stammered between breaths, “ain’t gonna go for a moron like you.” But Jonas was already gone.

Erik approached his brother and shook his head when he saw Ozzie’s smile, like pearls in a stream of blood. “What’s wrong with you? Fighting him ain’t going to do no good.” He pulled Ozzie up. “You gotta stop getting him angry.”

Ozzie brushed his pants. “I didn’t even do anything; he just wants to be a tough guy. Someone’s gotta do something about it sometime.”

Erik patted down Ozzie’s shoulders brushing off dirt and broken stalks. “Don’t worry about that, he’s in for quite a surprise when he gets to Krause’s barn.”

Ozzie wiped his bloody mouth with the back of his arm. “Why’s that?”

Erik laughed. “You wanna get back at Jonas? You gotta know his weak spot; Lara. I once heard him singing about her hair smelling like dandelions!  It’s pathetic. You know Elsa, right? I got her to write a letter pretending to be Lara. It says she’s always had a secret love for him and that he should go over to her family’s barn tonight because she’s got a special present for him.”

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 the author even more insight into where they’re hitting the mark and where they can improve.

My Feedback

 Critique Key

Original Text is in italics. (Author is already using italics, so my comments are going to be underlined this week)

Red is text I recommend removing.

Green is text I recommend adding.

Blue is my comments.

Orange is highlighting.

MG Horror/Adventure – Ryan

Erik admired the way his brother could smile through his bloodied face. Ozzie received a beating with all the regularity of a clock striking twelve, but this time it actually came at midnight. < I really like this line. Ozzie crushed stalks of wheat as he fell, but he jumped up and struck back with his ten-year-old arms. < His arms are ten years old? What about the rest of him? I’m just teasing. But I suggest you find another way to introduce his age. Also if Erik admires Ozzie, the assumption is going to be that Ozzie is older. If that’s the case, then Erik is probably too young to appeal to most MG readers. He was no match for Jonas though. With four more years of hard farming labor over Ozzie, Jonas’s arms were twice the size and impacted his body like an axe to a tree. With a fist driven to his gut, Ozzie dropped to the ground again, struggling to breathe.

Is this story about Erik or Ozzie? You open with Erik, which indicates to readers that he is the main character, but then the rest of the paragraph focuses on Ozzie. We even get details about Ozzie, like his age and the fact that he always gets beaten up. We don’t know anything about Erik. 

The skin on Erik’s face grew hot, but he just watched. < Here you’re telling me that your character is inactive. If he’s the MC, this is a problem. He needs to be participating. He dug his hand in his pocket, found his rock and squeezed. There’s was no use intervening; Jonas would just brutalize him like he did Ozzie. Nothing would be put to right. The rock pained his hand as his grasp constricted. There was a clamp on his stomach every time his brother got beat, but even if he did get the better of Jonas, there’d be hell to pay at home. Besides, Jonas was going to get his just desserts later anyway. Erik smirked and released the rock in his pocket.

“Are you idiots going to get back to work? Uncle Bauer won’t be happy if the harvest isn’t done before the storms come.” Erik said. < They’re harvesting in the middle of the night? Why?

“Mind yer own business! Just had to finish teaching your brain-dead brother the same lesson as always.” <What lesson is he teaching him? As a reader, I expected the scene to focus on the fight and why it occurred. The fight not being addressed feels like a let down.  Jonas strutted away giving his wrist a quick flick. “See you rats tomorrow. I gotta date with Lara.”

“A pretty girl like that…” Ozzie stammered between breaths, “ain’t gonna go for a moron like you.” But Jonas was already gone.

Erik approached his brother and shook his head when he saw Ozzie’s smile, his teeth like pearls in a stream of blood. “What’s wrong with you? Fighting him ain’t going to do no good.” He pulled Ozzie up. “You gotta stop getting him angry.” < I’m not sure what personality traits Erik has. Is he bossy towards his brother or caring? Is he afraid to intervene or not? 

Ozzie brushed his pants. “I didn’t even do anything; he just wants to be a tough guy. Someone’s gotta do something about it sometime.”

Erik patted down Ozzie’s shoulders brushing off dirt and broken stalks. “Don’t worry about that, he’s in for quite a surprise when he gets to Krause’s barn.”

Ozzie wiped his bloody mouth with the back of his arm. “Why’s that?” < The blood makes this seem like upper middle grade (ages 10-12) but Ozzie’s age (10) makes it seem like lower middle grade. Remember that middle graders read about kids older than they are, not the same age or younger.

Erik laughed. “You wanna get back at Jonas? You gotta know his weak spot; Lara. I once heard him singing about her hair smelling like dandelions!  It’s pathetic. You know Elsa, right? I got her to write a letter pretending to be Lara. It says she’s always had a secret love for him and that he should go over to her family’s barn tonight because she’s got a special present for him.” < I feel like I’m coming into the story a bit late. This seems like a solution that the reader should have been able to learn about as it was being conceived.

 

My Overall Thoughts

From this opening, I’m getting the impression that Erik is a fairly weak character – both in the sense that he is inactive and in the sense that his personality is not fully conceived/conveyed. I’m also not sure when this is set. The harvest makes me wonder if this is historical but it’s certainly not clear.

Key Places to Improve:

  • Clarify who the main character is. If it’s Erik, why open with a conflict involving his brother and another boy? This is our first impression of Erik and he’s standing on the sidelines. His lack of involvement makes him seem like an observer, which is not a good trait for a protagonist.
  • If Erik is afraid to intervene, why does he have no problem calling them “idiots”? The emphasis on the rock and his inaction seemed to indicate that a fear of fighting is a character trait for him, so the name calling and his plan to trick Jonas contradicts that. Give the reader at least one concrete character trait to latch onto.
  • The setting of the scene is confusing. Why are they harvesting wheat at midnight? Why are kids harvesting wheat at all? Is this historical?

The Writeditor’s Grade (out of 5): 2.5

I’m not sure that you’re starting in the right place or getting the best details into this opening, but the writing was pretty smooth with a few lines that stood out (standing out is good!). Make sure that you keep your voice apparent because I do see a risk of slipping into a bland voicelessness.

But of course, since you’re participating in Novel Boot Camp, we’re going to get your novel polished to a shine!

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.

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About the Editor

Ellen Brock is a freelance novel editor who works with self-publishing and traditionally publishing authors as well as e-publishers and small presses. When not editing, she enjoys reading, writing, and geocaching. Check out her freelance novel editing services and mentoring.

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18 thoughts on “First Page Friday #39: MG Horror/Adventure

  1. Julie Griffith says:

    I liked the writing style and thought the writing itself was really good. A little more detail about the circumstances and character motivation would be nice, but I think it’s a good start as well.

    • Ryan Slattery says:

      I think you are correct, and I also think the theme and overall dark descriptions that are to come are also a bit too much for MG…I think I may have to bump up to YA, which bothers me because I am struggling to even hit 50,000 words with this story.

      • Ellen_Brock says:

        Darkness isn’t necessarily a no-no in MG. If things don’t get graphic, you’re probably okay with upper MG, but I’d have to know more details about how dark it gets.

  2. Filip says:

    I really liked the first two paragraphs, really well written 🙂 t
    However, the dialogue doesn’t really sound like kids after a fight, I though it was a bit mature and not enough bitterness/anger/resentment.

    • Ryan Slattery says:

      Thank you Filip for the kind comment and the constructive criticism. I do agree with you that the characters sound a bit too mature and don’t react with the emotions you described, but I did that for a reason. I hoped that it communicated that this was an ongoing fact of their lives and they had just accepted it as part of their life. Also, I think children who lead these hard lives of forced labor and hardship generally are more mature.

      I don’t know if that translates in the story well. Apparently not, because if you picked up on it sounding unrealistic, its probably because I didn’t deliver it quite right.

  3. Ryan Slattery says:

    Thank you Ellen for the thoughtful critique.

    Not that I am against the idea of doing major surgery on the scene, but I wondered if the problem of Erik’s inaction could be remedied by changing the second paragraph’s sentences around. Having the first verb associated with him being “just watched” is a big no-no, but supposed he “grabbed his rock and squeezed”, then mused about the benefits of jumping in the fight, but then ultimately went on with his reaping.

    I know that sounds like a cosmetic solution, and that’s because it is. But the first bite is with the eyes, and I wonder if the first action he had being “just watching” was the eye-bite that ruined the meal for the mouth. If not, that’s fine, but I really do want to learn good mechanics and this is a question that I wonder about.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      It would be an improvement, but you’d still be opening with a conflict that doesn’t concern your main character. If he had strong feelings about the fight, that would help more than switching the verbs.

      • Ryan Slattery says:

        Yes, the major problem is Erik’s inaction. Based on your advice I think I will be rewriting a good chunk of this scene and maybe even add one before (or just change most of the whole chapter).

        Also, it seems like you are suggesting I need to communicate the reason for the night harvest better. Heavy rains can ruin wheat harvests, so they were rushing to get it done before the storm (and sometimes that means doing it at night). I mentioned that the storms were coming, but I probably should mention that it will destroy the harvest? There is advice running around that you don’t want to insult the readers by telling them too much, but maybe this isn’t in that category?

        Thanks again for the edit. You’re help has been so great already!

        • Ellen_Brock says:

          I don’t think you’ll be insulting the reader’s intelligence. I wouldn’t expect most readers to know much about harvesting, especially not 8-12 year old readers. I would be explicit about the storm ruining the harvest. You may also want to be clear about why the kids are doing it without the help of the adults.

  4. Lara Willard says:

    I think this has a ton of potential, but my main issues that haven’t yet been mentioned are the “character soup” in the first paragraph (too many names, no chance to connect with any of them) and the inconsistency in the voice. For example, “Fighting him ain’t going to do no good” would read better as “Fighting him ain’t gonna do no good.”
    I’m a huge proponent of hearing the dialogue out loud. If you can’t hear the rhythm while you read (it’s a learned skill), then have someone read it out loud for you, and mark the awkward parts.

    • Ryan Slattery says:

      I think you are right about the “character soup” in the beginning, because the first time I read this to someone, I myself was thinking, “whoa, slow down, who are all these people”…but I haven’t edited it since then.

      You are also right on the “going to” into “gonna”, which is something I had switched to half-way into the novel and haven’t gone back and edited…this being my first novel really means the editing process will be laborious!

      Thanks for the great insights!

  5. trazanacho says:

    Change suggestions – ‘He was no match for Jonas though.’ [The younger boy was no match for Jonas.]
    ‘There’s no use intervening’ [No good intervening]
    ‘Just had to finish teaching your brain-dead brother the same lesson as always.’ [Just teachin’ yer stupid brother his place. Again.]
    ‘Are you idiots going to get back to work?’ [You idiots gonna get back to work?’]
    ‘Fighting him ain’t going to do no good.’ [Fightin’ him won’t do no good.]
    TYPO ALERT- ‘I gotta date’ [I got a date]

    All in all – I rather liked it. We’ve been introduced to [I assume] the 4 main characters. The fight scene makes me care about them, and I can’t get the idea out of my head that the rock has some significance. I had absolutely no problem following the flow, nor keeping track of who is who.

    There were a few lines that didn’t seem consistent with the rest of the dialogue, which I mention with suggested changes above. Try it with both versions and see which one rolls off the tongue easier.

    Good opening for my money! Now to read all the other comments…

    Ellen – what the heck is an MG reader? Over the course of this week I’ve been caught off guard by dozens of acronyms… is there a blog on your website that lists all these acronyms? There should be. 😉

    I didn’t have a problem not understanding the reason behind the fight – the selection is too short for all the details [which I expect will be explained shortly]. Starting in the middle lets me jump right into the action.

    By the end of this opener, I have no idea who will emerge as the main character – possibly both – but I expect to earn shortly. 500 words only goes so far.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      MG means “middle grade.” An MG reader is just a middle grade reader (ages 8-12).

      Immediately establishing a connection to the main character is one of the most vital aspects of a first page for a middle grade novel. Readers at this age need an immediate point of connection or they lose interest.

  6. Holly Dolly says:

    I think “like pearls in a stream of blood” is a bit strong. That’s fine if this is something you want to stand out, but I would edit the word “pearls”. I know some writers like imagery to contain contradiction; i.e. beautiful pearls, ugly blood. But the way we describe our characters shows how other characters feel about them, and “pearls” seems a bit romantic. I’m sure these brothers don’t have any romantic feelings about each other! Maybe change “pearls” to a different comparison. Perhaps something white that is also childish, seeing as how the subject is a child.

    I hope you find this feedback helpful!

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