Today's post features a sample page sent to me for a critique. (Yes, these can be anonymous! Just let me know when you send it. See sidebar for how to submit.) This piece would be categorized as middle grade fiction, based on the subject matter and the age of the main character.
RichfieldThe long dirt road to the main road through the wheat fields seems like an eternity to walk. Although I beat my older sister out the door of our trailer, now she's ahead of me. “Can’t you walk any faster?? Come on, hurry up, were going to miss the bus!”
Finally we reach the main road, and the bus is late. I start to wander, looking at the ground. Sis says, “Don’t go too far, you’ll miss the bus.” “OK, ok! I ain’t going far.” Much to my amazement, I find a frog on the side of the road. Kinda flat, but not too bad of shape. “Hmm, wonder what would happen if I stepped on him?” “DON’T YOU DARE step on that frog, that’s just too gross!” So, being the obedient brother, I step on him. Not enough to squish him, just enough that his tongue came out, un-rolled, and exposed a fly at the end of it. So, I released the pressure off his back and the tongue obliged and rolled back in.
“Sis! You gotta see this!, This is neat!!!” “What’s neat?” she responded. I quickly stepped on his back and the tongue rolled out to show his prize. I let go and the tongue rolled in. “I TOLD YOU NOT TO DO THAT! THAT’S GROSS!! STOP IT!” So, I stepped on him again, but this time, I think the stress got to me and stepped a little too hard. Instead of the tongue rolling out, his guts came out his sides. No more toy.
The bus arrives just as my sister finished vomiting on my frog. Poor guy. We get in and I ride to school.
Tenses changed to present tense + a few other bits:
"Can’t you walk any faster, [MC's name]?? [she says] "Come on, hurry up, were [we're] going to miss the bus!”
Not enough to squish him, just enough that his tongue came [comes] out, un-rolled [unrolls], and exposed [exposes] a fly at the end of it. So, [could omit this So] I released [release] the pressure off his back and the tongue obliged [obliges] and rolled [rolls] back in.
“What’s neat?” she responded. [responds/says]
I quickly stepped [step] on his back and the tongue rolled [rolls] out to show his prize. I let go and the tongue rolled [rolls] in.
So, I stepped [step] on him again, but this time, I think the stress got [gets] to me and stepped [I step] a little too hard. Instead of the tongue rolling out, his guts came [come] out his sides. No more toy.
The bus arrives just as my sister finished [finishes] vomiting on my frog.
COMMENDABLE STUFF: The voice of this is nicely chatty and conversational, and sounds believable for this age group. It seems to flow well. I find the bit with the frog quite real and amusing, and this is good since humor often plays a big part in middle grade fiction. Especially boy readers enjoy "gross" things like stepping on frogs with party-favor-like tongues, and hearing about someone throwing up.
GENDER and DIALOGUE: It might be good to let the reader know that the main character is male sooner, perhaps slipping in his name when his sister first tells him to hurry. It would also help readability to begin a new paragraph/line every time there is a new speaker; readers 8-12 (middle grade) are fond of "white space," and lengthy paragraphs can be daunting. Adding a dialogue tag [she says] would be helpful at the very first line of dialogue, since it's not ultra-clear it's the sister speaking.
TENSE: The story starts out in present tense, and slips into past tense for most of the latter part of the story. Make sure this is kept consistent, as indicated in red, above.
PUNCTUATION and WORDS: Use only one form of end punctuation: one question mark or exclamation mark instead of two or three. The word "were" should be "we're" (as in a contraction of we are), and inserting "in" into the "but not [in] too bad of shape" sentence would help clarify. The word "so" is repeated three times close together; omitting one or two would be good, probably the second one. A simple "said" might be better than "responded" for the sister's line of dialogue.
I'm not sure of the official policy of using CAPS, but I find them a little distracting. I think I've seen it done in published books, however. Be careful not to overdo it, because all caps tend to wear the reader out. It looks like shouting, which can make the reader feel numb after a while. This also goes for an excess of question marks, exclamation marks, dashes, ellipses, and italicized words. Don't overdo any of them.
Thanks for the submission of this lively excerpt!
Can you add or subtract any feedback to this critique?
Do you prefer to write in present or past tense?
When you write in present tense, does past tense often creep in where it shouldn't?
Do you use CAPS IN YOUR STORIES? What do you think about using them?
Do you find yourself overusing question/exclamation marks, dashes, ellipses, or italics?