Friday, May 20, 2011

First Page Critique: A Middle-Grade Fantasy

This week I'm critiquing the first page of a middle grade novel called Finding Evekitas. My comments intersperse the original text.

     Melissa was walking to school, reading, holding the book out in front so she could keep one eye on the street.  Liam Cranton's rusty old bike lay stretched across the sidewalk in front of her.  She saw it coming in plenty of time to step over, but a pedal still snagged her foot.  She tried to twist around and scramble over it, but it tripped her again, and she fell on the concrete.  The book flew out of her hands. As it did, a scrap of paper escaped from between the pages and fluttered away.

CE: This is a nice bit of characterization upfront -- a girl who reads while walking to school. I'm curious about what she's reading. I'd like to see a little more detail of the fall to really bring it to life, to make sure it's shown rather than told. For example, "she fell on the concrete" is a bit vague. I don't know how she landed or if it hurt. I might rework it something like this:

.... the pedal sticking up snagged her left foot. She twisted that foot away from the pedal while hopping on her right foot, but the loop of her shoelace caught the pedal. She pulled, but the bike pulled back. The book flew out of her hands as she wobbled. A scrap of paper escaped from between the pages and fluttered away.
Melissa's foot pulled free from the bike and she went down on hands and knees. She bit back a cry of pain and sat back on her heels, hugging her scraped hands to her stomach. She glanced around quickly to see if anyone had noticed the fall.

CE: I think this creates a clearer picture, and also gives us a little more of Melissa's character. This may or may not be the right character for Melissa. Maybe she cries out loudly and hopes someone saw her and will come give comfort. Maybe she brushes off the pain as entirely unimportant, because she's already focused on the paper. You don't want to spend too much time on the accident, as it's really just a way to get us to the piece of paper, but by showing Melissa's actions and reactions clearly, you create a more vivid scene and also give us hints to her character.

     Melissa picked herself up and looked around.  Beyond the Crantons' worn-out picket fence, the paper had landed in a rose bush.  She tried to reach over the fence, but it was too far.

     The scrap might only be someone's bookmark that got left behind.  But it had looked old and yellowed, and Melissa thought she had seen writing on it.  She wanted to see what it said.

CE: This is straightforward enough. Melissa has some curiosity but she's also practical. It might be nice to give us a specific thought -- what she imagines the paper might be. This acts as a teaser for the reader and once again gives us more of her personality. For example, does she think it might, just possibly, be a treasure map, an antique document, or an old letter from a family member? Different kinds of kids might come up with each of those possibilities and find that particular answer especially intriguing. Giving a thought like this will also help us feel closer to Melissa. So far I feel a bit like I'm on the outside watching her, rather than seeing and feeling this close to her point of view. That may be intentional and necessary to the story, if you want that distance -- if you're trying for a more omniscient point of view because you have a lot of characters and need to skip around between them, for example. But in general, we want to feel close to the main character.

     She stood for a moment with her hand on the gate.  She didn't know the Crantons very well, but Liam was in the lower school, and they started fifteen minutes earlier. He'd have gone to school by now.  Probably there was no one home.

CE: Good details to show her caution and practical way of thinking.

     She opened the gate.  At that moment, a little, fuzzy, yellow dog came flying around the corner of the house, wagging its tail and yammering at her. 

     The rosebush was only a few steps away.  Melissa dashed over to it.  The puppy saw what she was doing, and ran to get there first.  She snatched at the paper, but the dog was faster.  He nabbed it and frolicked away.

CE: Nice complication -- though these must be tiny rosebushes if a little dog can grab something from one. At least I was imagining it landing on top of the bush. Perhaps reword a bit so we see where the paper falls better. Or when she first reaches for the paper, she could wind up knocking it farther down.

     She should just go on to school, before someone saw her.  She didn't want to have to explain this to anyone!  But most of the paper was sticking comically out of the little dog's mouth, and there were definitely words on it. 

CE: I'm getting more of a sense of her character. She seems practical, thoughtful, and rather shy. But she's also curious, which is a good trait in a main character. This little episode introduces her and a small problem to get the ball rolling. Presumably the paper will lead on to bigger things. Right now I'm kind of taking it on faith that the paper will be interesting, because this is a book and therefore you must have a reason for starting with this scene. But the situation isn't all that inherently dramatic by itself, so I'd like to see a little more drama about the paper -- perhaps that thought about what exactly it might be.

You can also end this last paragraph with another thought about why a paper with words on it seems important. And although the complications -- the paper out of reach, the dog grabbing it -- do add some tension, don't wait too long for her to get the paper. If we knew that the paper was important, complications would add lots of tension, but because we're not sure yet, it will get dull if we have to wait too long to find out what's on the paper.

You have a clean, straightforward writing style, written at a nice fourth grade level. I like the character so far and I'm curious enough about the paper to keep reading. I'd suggest you work to keep us close to Melissa's point of view so we really understand what she's seeing, feeling, and thinking, and follow up this little hook fairly quickly with the big hook -- what's on the paper that is going to change her life. Thanks for sharing!


  1. Thanks so much for your critique, Chris!! Your comments as always are useful in developing the hook.

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  4. Wonderful. This is a great site. JS