First Page Friday #43: Middle Grade

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First Page Friday is a blog series where I provide a free edit and critique of the first 500 words of an unpublished novel.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!

Middle Grade – by Diane Webber

A shudder crept down his spine as Dillon inched his bike into the shade of some pines and prayed the boys hadn’t seen him.

Up ahead dust cloud belched as a boy bit the dirt. His bike gouged the grass beside him, one tire still spinning.  Two bigger, rough-looking boys in baggy T-shirts and sagging jersey shorts stood over his bike, jeering at him.

A motor buzzed behind Dillon and he glanced back.

A pink and black motor scooter shot around and spun a circle, spat gravel toward the runners, then burned to a stop. The taunters yelled, shot the finger, and split.

The boy in the gravel unfolded long legs and stood — tall and pale and freckled.  He knocked the dirt from his helmet and raked his hands through dark red hair.

“You okay?” asked scooter rider as she took off her own helmet and shook her head. Taking a hair band off her wrist, she pulled her long brown waves back into a ponytail and put back on her helmet. She spotted Dillon. “Hi. You new here?”

Dillon inched his bike toward her. He had never seen a girl charge at guys before. But then, no girls he knew rode motor bikes, either.

“What’s your name?”

“Dill.”

“I’m Sarah Anne. And that guy in the dirt is Cole.”

“Hey! They snuck up on me!” Cole shot back.

“I know, but you can’t let those losers bully you like that.”  She glanced down the street and added, “You wanna get a Sno-Cone?”

Dillon’s neck itched as he studied the girl. She stood tall, even taller than Cole. Smooth and tan, like a Jamocha shake.

“You, too.” She pointed to Dillon.

His hands twisted around the handlebars; he felt heat crawling up his cheeks. “I dunno. Where is it?” He glanced back toward his house, judging how far he’d come.

“Just down the street. Come on.” More of an order than an invitation. He nodded and turned his bike and followed.

Dillon recognized the tiny Sno-Cone store, stuck in the end of a building advertising Dolphin Cruises and Parasailing. They plopped under a pine tree with their cones.  Dillon watched Sarah crunching the icy cherry Sno-Cone, her red tongue flicking with each word as she spoke. He wondered if the blue raspberry had turned his tongue blue.

Sarah warned Dillon to watch out for the troublemakers who had shoved Cole. “They like to push around kids younger than them,” she said.

A beat-up blue and white pickup truck pulled into the Sno-Cone parking lot, radio blaring. A dark-headed, dark-skinned guy in work jeans and T-shirt got out and ordered a Coke. He winked at the girl behind the counter, who giggled and pushed the bottle toward him.

“That’s Manuel. Need to stay away from him, too,” Cole whispered.

“Why? Is he in trouble?”

“Mamaw says he’s bad news – a drop out.”

Dillon watched as Manuel’s truck roared off, like it needed a muffler.

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

Red is text I recommend removing.

Green is text I recommend adding.

Blue is my comments.

Orange is highlighting.

 

Middle Grade – by Diane Webber

A shudder crept down his spine as Dillon inched his bike into the shade of some pines and prayed the boys hadn’t seen him. < This is a nice hook. You’re immediately dropping the reader into the action.

Up ahead dust cloud belched < This reads awkwardly. Do you mean “a dust cloud belched”? Even with “a” added, it has an awkward ring to it. I would rephrase. as a boy bit the dirt. His bike gouged the grass beside him, one tire still spinning.  < His bike gouged the grass after he fell off of it? This seems strange. Later you mention a motor bike, are they all riding a motor bike? I would make this clearer. Also, the cloud of dust had me imagining a dirt road, but if there’s grass then falling wouldn’t create a cloud of dust. Or do you mean that there is a dirt road with grass beside it? Clarifying the location would be a big improvement. Two bigger, rough-looking boys in baggy T-shirts and sagging jersey shorts stood over his bike, jeering at him. < I feel that you’re glossing over a lot of details here. What are the boys saying/doing? What do they want? How does Dillon feel about this situation? This is a great moment to follow through with the hook. Make the boys scary. Put Dillon in peril by defining the threat (embarrassment, physical pain, etc.). You have a great opportunity to draw the reader in.

A motor buzzed behind Dillon and he glanced back.

A pink and black motor scooter shot around < Shot around what? and spun a circle, spat gravel toward the runners, < Where is this gravel? It’s hard to imagine where these kids are located when there is grass, dirt, and gravel. then burned to a stop. The taunters yelled, shot the finger, and split. <Why would they leave just because this motor scooter shows up? I would expect tough kids to be tougher than this.

The boy in the gravel unfolded long legs and stood — tall and pale and freckled.  < Since no one was previously described as being in gravel, it wasn’t clear who you were referring to here. He knocked the dirt from his helmet and raked his hands through dark red hair.

“You okay?” asked the scooter rider as she took off her own helmet and shook her head. Taking a hair band off her wrist, she pulled her long brown waves back into a ponytail and put back on her helmet. She spotted Dillon. “Hi. You new here?”

Dillon inched his bike toward her. He had never seen a girl charge at guys before. But then, no girls he knew rode motor bikes, either. < Is this a period piece? Being surprised about a girl doing something stereotypical of boys seems a bit old fashioned to me.

“What’s your name?”

“Dill.”

“I’m Sarah Anne. And that guy in the dirt is Cole.”

“Hey! They snuck up on me!” Cole shot back. < He seems defensive but I didn’t take her comment as being offensive.

“I know, but you can’t let those losers bully you like that.”  She glanced down the street and added, “You wanna get a Sno-Cone?”

Dillon’s neck itched as he studied the girl. She stood tall, even taller than Cole. Smooth and tan, like a Jamocha shake. < This description of the girl seems a bit sexualized for middle grade. Remember that most MG readers have no interest in the opposite sex.

“You, too.” She pointed to Dillon. < Since Dillon’s neck itched, I assumed that he was who she was asking in the first place.

His hands twisted around the handlebars; he felt heat crawling up his cheeks. < I get the impression that he is crushing on her. If you want to include much of this type of material, you will need to make this upper middle grade, which means that the intensity and maturity will need to be increased. “I dunno. Where is it?” He glanced back toward his house, judging how far he’d come.

“Just down the street. Come on.” More of an order than an invitation. He nodded and turned his bike and followed.

Dillon recognized the tiny Sno-Cone store, stuck in the end of a building advertising Dolphin Cruises and Parasailing. They plopped under a pine tree with their cones.  Dillon watched Sarah crunching the icy cherry Sno-Cone, her red tongue flicking with each word as she spoke. He wondered if the blue raspberry had turned his tongue blue.

Sarah warned Dillon to watch out for the troublemakers who had shoved Cole. “They like to push around kids younger than them,” she said.

A beat-up blue and white pickup truck pulled into the Sno-Cone parking lot, radio blaring. A dark-headed, dark-skinned guy < Having the dark-skinned guy be the bad guy could come across as cliche (or even racist) so you will want to watch your portrayal of this character. in work jeans and T-shirt got out and ordered a Coke. He winked at the girl behind the counter, who giggled and pushed the bottle toward him.

“That’s Manuel. Need to stay away from him, too,” Cole whispered.

“Why? Is he in trouble?”

“Mamaw says he’s bad news – a drop out.”

Dillon watched as Manuel’s truck roared off, like it needed a muffler.

My Overall Thoughts

You have a nice hook in the beginning, but it never pays off for the reader. There’s no explanation of who these bad boys are or what they want or why Dillon prayed they hadn’t seen him. Has he encountered them before? What is he afraid of?

The voice has no major problems but would be significantly improved by focusing in tighter on the main character.

Key Places to Improve:

  • Having the boys jeer around Cole rather than Dillon makes Dillon a bit useless in this scene. He does not save Cole and he is not even the one being bullied. This makes him feel more like an observer than a participant in the scene.
  • Stick closer to Dillon. Focus on what he sees and how he feels. There is currently no difference between Dillon and Cole, which creates a barrier for the reader in connecting/bonding with Dillon. He needs to be distinct. Ideally he should have some sort of motivation/conflict that is unique to him.
  • A lot of characters are introduced in this opening page. Do the bad boys and Manuel both need to be introduced this early on? I’d rather know more about Dillon.

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

You start off with a great hook but it isn’t followed through with – there is no sense of danger or fear in the scene. Dillon has no clear personality, motivation, or even conflict (since the boys aren’t after him). The romantic elements feel too heavy this early in a middle grade. That said, the writing has no problems other than that it is too distant from Dillon.

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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5 thoughts on “First Page Friday #43: Middle Grade

  1. Diane says:

    I’ve been working on this beginning for a while, knowing something wasn’t working. You have pointed out what I couldn’t see myself. Thank you. I think I can revise and take it forward now.

  2. Kate Sparkes says:

    Wow, I feel like I’ve probably missed a lot of FPF this summer!

    I agree that this would be better if we got more description. The characters are kind of floating in an indistinct setting right now. I’d like to be able to see it playing out like a movie, hear what the bullies are saying, etc. I’m guessing that in MG it’s important to keep the word count down, but especially in the first pages I’d like to feel like I’m right there. Right now I can’t really picture what everyone is doing, so I’m distracted by trying to fill in the blanks. And it all happens so quickly that I don’t feel grounded.

    Sounds like it could be interesting, though!

  3. Adrian Christiansen says:

    First of all, I liked the opening. It has action. But it also seemed to lack consequences. The main character watches and does nothing while a boy his age is shoved off his bike, but we’re not told about his inner conflict – does he feel guilt, for example, for not intervening or for feeling glad it wasn’t him. Also, how does he feel when he’s offered a sno-cone by the friend of the boy he didn’t help? If that were me, I might make some excuse to leave, because I would feel ashamed and a fraud.

    There are a few sentences that I feel lose force through misplaced emphasis. The best example of this is “Up ahead dust cloud belched as a boy bit the dirt”. The primary verb – “belched” – emphasises the action of the dust cloud, relegating the violence against the boy to second place in the sentence. My preference – which you might say is prejuidice masquarading as opinion – would be to say something like “A boy bit the dust, shoving a cloud of dust into the air.” The very first line has a similar issue, and I would shorten it to simply “Dylan prayed the boys wouldn’t see him.” Where he is (behind a tree) and how he feels (afraid) can be worked in later.

    I think the issue of the other boy and what he falls in is also pertinent – is he in dust, gravel, or grass. The bike is on grass, he raises a dust cloud, he gets up from gravel. It might be worthwhile just picking one. If it’s gravel, though, as I remember from when I was a kid, if you fall in gravel, you’ll get up in pain – torn trousers, bloody hands and knees.

    I hope this is useful, and good luck.

  4. bluegreenaqua says:

    Cool start, but just a few notes from my perspective:
    I’m having a very hard time keeping track of who’s Dillan and who’s Cole. Maybe I’m not reading closely enough, but in the first five paragraphs, I was under the impression there was only one boy. Like Ellen said, the portrayal of Sarah is a bit sexualized and over-hot for lack of a better term. The starting sentence seems to be a bit long for a first line, but that’s about all of the major issues with me. Good job.

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