Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Page Critique: MG Opening

Yes! It's déjà vu time once again. I'm recycling an old post because I'm still hot on the trail revising for my lovely new agent. At the moment, I'm hacking away and redoing the entire ending of the book, as Kelly suggested. Rah!

Feel free to shred this passage, since I wrote it as a bad example--you will hurt no feelings.

THE EXCERPT: Middle Grade

The morning sun streamed into Jen's room through window and woke her up. It was Thursday, the dreaded day of the algebra final, and she knew she had to move fast in order to get to school on time. She had to meet Randy in the library to study before first period. Randy had been her best friend since third grade, and he was a great study partner. She hoped he could help her at least get a D.

Her hazel eyes filled with tears as she wriggled out of her blankets. She couldn't flunk this test. An "F" in algebra meant no allowance for the month of November, and she really needed that money. Her bike was shot, the gears ruined, the tires threadbare. It was way past time to get another bike.

Her feet landed on the cold hardwood floor, and she shivered. Running for her robe and the shower, she flinched as the hot water hit her skin and washed over her long dark brown hair. As she shampooed, she reflected upon how much money she had. She'd counted it two nights ago, and there was about twenty dollars.


Where The Action Is (or Isn't)
Although this passage contains conflict, having a character wake up in the morning to start the day is a tired, cliché opening. Is this where the action REALLY begins? A better method of beginning a scene (ANY scene) is to "enter late and leave early," which means entering just prior to the key action, and ducking out before the action fizzles. This way, you're not boring your reader with mundane actions like taking a shower, getting dressed, and eating breakfast.

If you feel you must include a morning routine, make sure it is streamlined, contains pertinent dialogue, or is a very unusual waking. A better place to begin this story would've been showing Jen on her way to school, or as she's approaching the school--or even as she reaches the library and scans the room for Randy, worried that he might not be there.

Character Description:
The lines about Jen's hazel eyes and her long dark brown hair border on narrator intrusion. Don't do this! Such details often feel "shoehorned," as the writer's way of making sure the reader knows what the main character looks like. Try to work in these few details more naturally (not by looking in the mirror, either, which I discussed in my last post as another cliché).

Pacing, Goals, Details:
1. The pacing here is slow but is meant to be fast. Jen is in an obvious rush to get to school, but certain things slow down that rush. She describes Randy as her best friend since third grade and a good study partner. Is this really necessary to say that HERE? It would be better to work in details like that at a more appropriate place--and to do it more naturally than straight out telling. And then there's the whole shower scene, more internal thoughts, etc.
2. As far as character motivations, this is pretty lightweight for a compelling story goal. Will a MG reader care enough to follow Jen through the rest of her day, and throughout the rest of the novel? There'd better be something more crucial cropping up, more interesting than passing a test and obtaining money to fix a bike.
3. There is a modifier error in the second sentence of the last paragraph:
Running for her robe and the shower, she flinched as the hot water hit her skin and washed over her long dark brown hair.
Technically, the second part of this sentence has to happen AS she is running for her robe and the shower. She can't be already showering and washing her hair while she's still running to get there! Watch out for sentence constructions like this.
4. If your character is "reflecting," don't bother to say it and then show her reflect. That's Telling (and then showing). Pointless!
5. There are a number of weak "to be" verbs (was) in this short excerpt--five of them --which could be reworded and eliminated. They dilute the passage.

Can you add any other observations to this critique?
Where would YOU have started this story--instead of the waking up cliché?
Have you ever found yourself describing your main character by shoehorn phrases like "washed over her long dark brown hair"? (See my hand waving? I have!)


  1. I've definitely made most of these mistakes at one time or another... I would have started when she's taking the test and freaking out!

  2. Hi Carol, I actually enjoyed this tidbit of Jen's inner thoughts. However the whole scene made me feel as though I was an observer watching her go about her morning routine rather than seeing it from her point of view. Whenever we are told what a character does can't help but put distance between the reader and the character. I think observing automatically slows down the pace. Not being inside her head, we don't get the full impact of her antsy feeling. And yeah, having to describe your MC is always awkward for me because it takes you out of the MC's POV. Trying to find an indirect way (through the action or observation from another character, say) is harder than it might seem.

    Have fun with those revisions.

  3. The only snippet that had any good sensory detail for me was this: "the gears ruined, the tires threadbare." That led me to think: What if there was a story behind the ruination of the bicycle? And what if she desperately NEEDS the bicycle for some really dangerous and important thing? And what if the bicycle becomes sentient, and becomes the MC! Aha!

  4. your excerpt is masterly..I see nothing wrong with it ;)

    Love the advice: enter late and leave early. I have a tendancy to overstay my welcome in scenes lol.

  5. I should do this on my early mss, but I'm too scared to. :D

  6. I like that "enter late and leave early" advice. It's golden.

    Good luck on your revisions!

  7. I bet this type of critique not only helps your readers, but you as well. Have a great day. :)

  8. I would actually open just as she is about to turn the test page over. :-)

  9. I pretty much agree with the critique. The only thing I can add (maybe) is there's nothing to make me curious. It's just an ordinary day in the life of a teen struggling to pass algebra.

  10. Great critique, Carol, and best of luck with your revisions!

    BTW, I tagged you over at my blog today.


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