This critique is a middle-grade excerpt from Patti Haack, novel title not given. The unadulterated version is posted here first, followed by the one with my critique:
The first page:
Chazz had learned from his dad that his grandpa lived in a house up the hill. It was a little secluded, surrounded by trees and small hills. A fence surrounded the property and there were a gazillion “No Trespassing” signs everywhere. One said, “I have a shotgun and am not afraid to use it.” Apparently, Grandpa liked his privacy.
Tuffer pooched his lips and looked over at Pete and Chazz. “Are you surrrrrre?”
“No, not really.” Chazz looked around. A medium sized house sat in the middle of the property. It was dark brown with dark brown trim. A porch in need of some serious repair jutted out into the yard and a black chicken perched itself on the railing. It eyed them suspiciously.
“It looks like it should be condemned.” Pete shook her ponytail in disgust.
Tuffer looked at her.
“Oh.” He nodded in agreement. “How ‘bout they do that now and we don’t go in.”
“Nope. We need answers.” Pete climbed over the locked gate. “And he’s the man with them.”
Reluctantly, both boys climbed over the fence, too, and followed their ponytailed friend to the porch. The chicken squawked and bolted from its perch, yelling the whole way to the back of the yard.
“Who’s there?” A gruff voice bellowed from inside the house. A curtain moved at one of the windows on the door. “Kids? Get out of here.”
“Um, Mr. Montgomery…” Pete started.
“I don’t want anything. I’m not going to buy any of your crap. I don’t want you trying to sell me anything. And I DON’T LIKE KIDS!!!”
Followed herewith by my verbose comments, added in sky blue:
Chazz had learned from his dad that his grandpa lived in a house up the hill. Chazz is an interesting, unusual name. I like unique names--as long as they're not too complex and mentally unpronounceable as I read a book. It seems odd to me, though, that his dad would have to tell him where his grandpa lives, especially since it seems like recent information. If it's NOT recent info, perhaps you should indicate when he learned it. As it is, it sounds like he just learned it as a young teen, which is a little baffling. You will need to explain why so late in his life, or rephrase; you don't want to start out with a head-scratcher for your very first sentence.
It was a little secluded, surrounded by trees and small hills. Using "was" makes this sentence passive. It also seems that the house would be very secluded rather than a little, if the trees and small hills surround the house.
A fence surrounded the property and there were a gazillion “No Trespassing” signs everywhere. You may not need gazillion AND everywhere; seems redundant. This is another weak verb sentence, with the "were," and while that might be useable, you do need to change the verb "surrounded" because you used it in the previous sentence. Gazillion is popular though; one of those words teens/younger people use (as is gabillion, million-gabillion, etc). One said, “I have a shotgun and am not afraid to use it.” Apparently, Grandpa liked his privacy. Could be personal taste, but I'd give this sentence a line of its own to add punch.
Tuffer pooched his lips and looked over at Pete and Chazz. “Are you surrrrrre?” I'm not 100% clear what this question means. Is he sure this is the right house/property, or is he asking whether he's sure they should go ahead with whatever they're doing (trespassing, I assume)? Pooched: I tend to revel in made-up words like this, but be careful; sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. This one seemed fine to me. Poochy lips…pooched lips--it's almost like an onomatopoeia. You can practically see the protruding, flappy lips. I'm glad to see that Pete has a normal name, though. You wouldn't want EVERYone to have an unusual name. I'm a trifle concerned about the similarity between Chazz and Tuffer in that they both have double consonants in their names…too similar? At least they are different in the number of syllables. It's always good to vary the number of syllables in your key characters, as well as vary the letters they begin with (so you don't have a Barb, a Bonnie, and a Betti, for instance). Less confusing for the reader that way.
“No, not really.” Chazz looked around. A medium sized house sat in the middle of the property. Medium-sized would be hyphenated, as adjectives dependent upon one another to describe house. Although medium-sized really is not a very vivid description, if you think about it. Mere size is often subjective. Can you compare it to something? And really--how important is it that it's medium-sized?? Another adjective might give the reader better flavor. It was dark brown with dark brown trim. A weak verb here: was. If it were me, I might say, "A medium-sized house sat in the middle of the property, dark brown with dark brown trim." No weak verb that way. Uh, wait…dark brown with dark brown trim? That's amusing. Wouldn't he just say it was dark brown all over? LOL Which got me to wondering what time of day it was. I had gotten the idea that it was nighttime, but then as I looked back, I see you didn't say either way. You might give the reader a hint of what time of day they are doing this. Say something about the sun in passing, maybe.
A porch in need of some serious repair jutted out into the yard and a black chicken perched itself on the railing. It eyed them suspiciously. "In need of some serious repair" is vague. What does the house look like, in a brief cameo? A saggy porch, maybe? Dilapidated? Crooked? Give us a mental picture. In need of repair is okay, but it could be stronger. I do like the black chicken. First of all, it's black, which is symbolic of darkness and gives a more ominous tone to the scene (which builds the conflict). Second, it's simply a nice image, with that dark chicken perching on the railing. Jutted and perched are nice, active verbs; well done. My adverb radar goes up on "suspiciously" though, knowing adverbs usually indicate a telling rather than a showing. What does eyeing them suspiciously look like--glaring or staring? Neck hunkered down? A gleam of challenge or suspicion in its eye? With added detail, you could play up that chicken even more.
“It looks like it should be condemned.” Pete shook her ponytail in disgust. You just finished talking about the chicken, so it almost sounds like she's saying the chicken looks like it should be condemned. Whoa--Pete is a girl! Didn't see that one coming. It also almost sounds like she could be shaking the ponytail with her hands, when I think you mean she's shaking her head which in turn shakes her ponytail.
Tuffer looked at her.
“Wrecked.” Ah, like he doesn't know what condemned means? That is a great way of indicating he's not good with vocab and Pete is.
“Oh.” He nodded in agreement. “How ‘bout they do that now and we don’t go in.” You'll probably have to say Tuffer here instead of He, since you have two males in the group and it's a little unclear who answered. It's fairly obvious that it's Tucker, but these are middle grade readers (8-12) and you don't want to risk being confusing, here. Your dialogue is good, by the way, in that you don't over dialogue-tag your lines (like: he said, she said).
“Nope. We need answers.” Pete climbed over the locked gate. “And he’s the man with them.” I like the mystery here, tweaking the readers' curiosity. Like, answers to what?
Reluctantly, both boys climbed over the fence, too, and followed their ponytailed friend to the porch. Adverb alert (reluctantly). Very close to the last one; if you choose, I'd suggest omitting the first one (suspiciously). This one seems more necessary. On the other hand, you could also just say "With reluctance." The word "too" is unnecessary, here. The chicken squawked and bolted from its perch, yelling the whole way to the back of the yard. Yelling seems rather un-chickenlike. Even screeching or shrieking would be more like a chicken's voice. I like the chicken as a sort of a watchdog.
“Who’s there?” A gruff voice bellowed from inside the house. A curtain moved at one of the windows on the door. “Kids? Get out of here.” "Who's there?" and the line about the gruff voice bellowing are all part of the same sentence (the voice is bellowing those words), so de-capitalize the A. Just say: "Who's there?" a gruff voice bellowed from inside the house." The verb "moved" might be altered for something more interesting, but only if it flows okay.
“Um, Mr. Montgomery…” Pete started. I've seen writers use this expression for a dialogue tag, and it always seems odd to me (Pete started). I'd add "to say" or something, like: Pete started to say. Even "began" sounds more natural to me than "started." And if Mr. M is interrupting him, a dash would be more appropriate than a trailing off ellipses. Like: "Um, Mr. Montgomery--" Pete began. Or the plain simplicity of "Pete said" would work even better.
“I don’t want anything. I’m not going to buy any of your crap. I don’t want you trying to sell me anything. And I DON’T LIKE KIDS!!!” Well, we're definitely getting the flavor of Mr. M here. A definite grouchpot! The 2nd and 3rd sentences are a little similar to each other…but maybe okay if he's ranting.
This work does feel middle grade, so you're spot-on in that regard. It's also good that you've started with a scene where something is happening/action rather than a bunch of internal thoughts and rambling descriptions. By the way, your page emailed as Calibri, 14-point size. If that's your manuscript font size, just be aware that most editors prefer Times New Roman, 12-point (with 1" margins all around). One downside to Calibri is that is has no serifs, those little "feet" on the letters…the absence of which makes the capital I's look like lowercase L's and vice versa.
Thank you, Patti, for sharing your work with the whole class!