Friday, April 22, 2011

First Page Critique: A Middle-Grade Paranormal

Yesterday I posted the 300-word opening of a 55,000-word middle-grade paranormal novel, submitted for critique by Ruth. If you didn't see yesterday's post, you may want to read it first to form your own opinions. But before we start, a note -- when I first read this quickly, I thought, Wow, this is great. I don't know if I'll have any comments on it. Now see what happened when I took a closer look.... (her text followed by my comments with CE at the beginning of them)

Eleanor shivered. It was spooky in the woods, and Lola seemed to have vanished without a trace. She whistled, then paused to listen. If she didn’t get back to the car soon, her mother would be furious.

CE: This puts us into a scene where things are happening and we have immediate tension, which is great. "Eleanor shivered" is good action to suggest either cold or nervousness. "It was spooky in the woods" is telling rather than showing, though. Can you give a few specific details to let us feel the spookiness? The trees loomed over her, casting deep shadows.... It's also not entirely clear here if Eleanor is whistling to call Lola, or just whistling, perhaps to ease her own anxiety. You might clarify with something like "She whistled, a short, loud call, then paused to listen." I might then add the word/sentence "Nothing." This lets us know the results of the whistling and becomes a transition to the next sentence, which otherwise seems a bit of a jump.

She was in trouble already, but it hadn’t been her fault. How could she have known that putting liquid soap in the dishwasher would cause a lemon-scented flood? As for Lola’s crime, if the neighbors didn’t want teeth marks on their umbrellas, they shouldn’t leave them lying about the foyer.

CE: I like the humor here. It stops the action for background information, so I do wonder if there's another way to bring out this information -- maybe in dialogue a little later -- but here it does give us a nice idea of Eleanor’s personality and it lets me know this book won't be too serious, at least in terms of voice.

Eleanor had apologized. She’d mopped up the suds, and she was saving her allowance to pay for the umbrellas. Still, Mom saw the incidents as proof that she needed more supervision. More structure. That was why they’d come to visit Looking Glass Falls Wilderness Adventure Camp.

CE: Again, background information. Can we leave this until Eleanor gets back to Mom, and then maybe see it as an argument? An angry mother is likely to restate Eleanor's crimes and explain the punishment, even if Eleanor already knows that. This could also be brought out in dialogue between Eleanor and a new friend at the camp.

CE: I do like the idea of a wilderness adventure camp, and Looking Glass Falls has intriguing possibilities. But you don't necessarily need to introduce this on the first page. Or you could do it in another way that is more immediate in Eleanor’s thoughts. Perhaps she thinks or mutters something like, Why did she need a wilderness adventure camp? She hated the wilderness and whenever she tried to have an adventure, she got into trouble. Or, She'd only been at this wilderness adventure camp for 20 minutes and already she had lost Lola and herself. She'd be lucky to survive a whole summer. The specifics of her thoughts will tell us something about her attitude.

Eleanor sighed. Somehow she had to convince Mom that, at eleven, she was old enough to keep herself and her dog out of trouble, and that camp was a terrible idea. But first she had to find Lola. She scanned the woods for a gray-white plume of a tail. She strained her ears for the jingle of dog tags. But all she heard was a roar, like rushing water--then, suddenly, a scream and a splash.

CE: Nice details with the gray-white plume and the jingle of dog tags. Using multiple senses helps put us in this scene. And of course a scream and a splash makes for great drama! You've hooked me now and I want to know what happens next.

Eleanor ran toward the sound. Soon she burst from the shadow of the trees into a little hollow and saw a wonderful sight: a waterfall, spilling from the top of a cliff into a pool--and Lola, vigorously shaking water from her fur.

“There you are, you rascal! Did you fall in the water?” As she threw her arms around her dog and fumbled for the leash, a sudden movement caught her eye. She looked up, squinting in the sunlight.

CE: When you mentioned a scream, I assumed that was human, not canine. Eleanor should have expected to find a person, but she immediately assumes the noises came from Lola. I wouldn't mind a bit of Eleanor’s thoughts after "Eleanor ran toward the sound." Maybe something like, "Was someone in trouble?" I'm willing to believe that she forgets about the scream after she sees Lola, but you have to show that by showing her relief, laughter, or whatever. And then she should remember the scream shortly -- though maybe she does and we just don't have that part here.

A girl was walking slowly toward the edge of the woods.

CE: There's some nice drama in this as well, though I'm not certain whether the girl is walking toward or away from Eleanor. I assume away. And is she wet? Since your submission was exactly 300 words, perhaps you cut a few details to get that line in, or maybe things get clearer in the next sentence.

CE: Overall, I thought this was an appealing submission. I like Eleanor and Lola can offer some complications and comic relief. The premise is intriguing. I would keep reading. The writing is smooth, but I would suggest watching out for places where you might summarize and work on showing instead. I know there's a lot of pressure to get everything into the first page or so, but you don't want it to feel rushed. You could leave out the two paragraphs of background information and I'd still be interested. From what I read here, I would check this book out of the library, or ask for the full submission if I were an editor. A few tweaks will make it even more appealing. Good luck!

If you'd like to participate in a free first page critique, post your submission in the comments. See yesterday's post for the complete rules. If you'd like a full novel critique, see my rates on my website.


  1. Thanks, Chris, your critique was VERY helpful. In the intervening time since submitting, I've experimented with dropping this first part (which is really all background) and starting with the first day of camp, which is where the main story begins. I think it works, though it means having to work in the background a bit at a time through conversation with other campers. I love your suggestions re: her thoughts about camp. That will help in establishing her personality and what's important to her. Thanks for the terrific feedback!

  2. I posted about your critique on my blog. Here's the link:

  3. Thanks, Ruth! Starting a bit later in the story sounds like it might work well.