Friday, May 13, 2011

First Page Critique: A Middle-Grade Novel in Verse

Today I'm critiquing a middle grade novel in verse, currently titled "tilt." First of all, I had better say that I rarely read novels in verse. Just not my thing. I do recognize bad poetry though, and this is not bad. It might even be good, but I'm not the best judge. The poems certainly create mood and are gracefully efficient at conveying information. Here and there the rhythm feels a bit choppy to me, and I wonder about having proper punctuation for some sentences but not others, which makes some sentences sound like run-ons. Now I'm going to look at the content, rather than the poetry. (And this is more than a first page, but because the poems are so short I'll go with that.)

I’ve kept notebooks
forever. Mom has all of them
in a box somewhere.
Each filled with thoughts, ideas and drawings.
My current notebook is
dedicated to Jackson
It has all the poems
I’ve written about my friend.
I started writing about
Jackson the first summer he was gone
I wanted to remember everything
about him, every last
detail. Even when I didn’t stay.

CE: This gets off to a nice start. It's not the most romantic first line ever, but it sets up a situation -- why we are getting these poems. Then we get a hint of mystery and conflict -- Jackson is gone. Does that mean dead? Disappeared? Or just that he left town?

The last sentence threw me off a bit. “I didn't stay.” Wait, I thought Jackson was the one who was gone. So have both gone somewhere? But if Jackson was already gone, why does it matter if the narrator also moved? This introduces another question, but in this case, I don't think it's a good one. I'm more puzzled than intrigued.

Rhymes With
Dad’s expression for
the changing course
of an event.
Kinda like playing pinball
if you’re clever
you can “tilt” the game
and if not, game over.

Tilt is also
like the carnival
“tilt-a-whirl” that
spins you round
until you become dizzy,
like I did
that spring night two years ago.
Also rhymes with guilt.

CE: There's some nice imagery here and I bet this relates to the theme. I wonder if it's too early in the story, though. This is general information and doesn't intrigue me with anything specific. At this point, I want to know more about what happened and what's happening -- the conflict. Guilt is too general if I don't know who is guilty or over what.
Walking Home
School’s almost out
jump and shout
School’s almost out
Jumping and shouting all the way.
Only seventeen more walks?
Until elementary school is over
a summer to get
ready for middle school
Big changes ahead
Am I ready? No.
I’m already worried about that
first day.
Will I get lost? Will the older
kids be mean?
And my best friend from elementary school
wont’ be there.
I round the corner and there
in front of me, lips curled, head low, ears back,
a huge dog
blocks my path.

CE: This voice sounds much younger than the earlier one. At first I wondered if we were jumping back in time, but that doesn't seem to be true from the rest of the poems. Make sure your narrator has a fairly consistent voice. Obviously it may change with her mood and it's fine to use different poetry styles, but it should always sound like it's her. (This feels like a female narrator to me.)

This has drama, both from the anticipation of middle school and then from the threatening dog. But it worries me that this sounds like a different person in a different situation. I'm not sure where the story is going, or even where it's starting. There is a mention about the best friend from elementary school, but with so much else going on in this poem, I only caught that on a second read.

Run. No, wait.
Think, Darrah, think
What did that lady say?
Be a log? No, a tree. Close my eyes?

I stop. Drop my pack.
Whisper: Freeze, Darrah, freeze.
Dare to glance down,
see that dog through buttonhole eyes.

Dog sniffs my backpack,
my shoelaces.
Does it smell fear?
Can it tell I’m shaking?

Dog turns its head, sees the
cat teetering on the fence
bolts after it.

CE: I like this one. Good drama and it creates a clear scene with multiple senses. The short, choppy sentences work to convey the tension.

Puzzle Solver
I run home
through the front door, out the back door to
my trampoline, the puzzle solver!
Whoosh, plop! Whoosh, plop. Up. Down.

Knees bent, pushing off
I feel the last of the fear
dissolve. I wonder, whose dog?
Whoosh, plop! Whoosh, plop! Up. Down.

Did those people
adopt another dog?
How could they? Why would they?
Whoosh, plop! Whoosh, plop! Up. Down.

I wonder Jackson,
Do you have dogs with you
wherever you are.
Whoosh, plop! Whoosh, plop! Up. Down.

I wonder, Jackson,
were you with me today?
did you see that dog,
did you feel my fear?

CE: I'm not sure what "the puzzle solver" means here, but this helps connect the dog to the question of Jackson. It shows how the narrator keeps Jackson in her heart even though he's gone.

Mischief Ninja

Mom yells
Darrah, getting dark out.
Yeah, okay, I yell back.
I whisper to the first glimmering star in the tangerine sky
Good-night Jackson.
Yep, I admit it. I talk to Jackson a lot.
He’s everywhere; apple tree tops,
tetherball, in class.
But last spring was different.
Clouds hung like funeral drapes,
my mom says we could cut the air with
a knife it was so still.
Stars vanished.
You see, my best friend
My mischief ninja:

CE: I like the imagery and the specific details. We get the answer here about Jackson, but in a way it feels anticlimactic. I was already pretty sure he died, so it's not much of a surprise. I wonder about cutting out the last six lines. With his death revealed to us slowly, you don't need to state it outright.

In general, I'd say this section is working, so long as you have a reader who likes verse novels and wants to read a story about a friend who died. I'd like to see even more of a hook, though. Dead friend? Fine, but it's been done before and that premise alone doesn't make me want to read the novel.

I like the term of mischief ninja -- I'd like to read about a mischief ninja, but one who is active, not one who has died. So far, the most interesting character is dead and the most dramatic action (the death) has already happened.

Is there something specific about this friend, this narrator's journey, the specifics of this experience? Guilt has been mentioned, but that could be survivor’s guilt or misplaced guilt so doesn't really suggest some great secret. She talks to her dead friend, but what is the conflict now, looking toward the future? Is this just a quiet story about living through grief? If there's something more, I'd like a hint of it by now.

As I said, I don't usually read verse novels. Also, I tend to prefer stories with plenty of action and adventure, so it may simply be that I'm not the best reader for this story. But the other verse novels I know of have a lot of inherent drama in the situation. Maybe this does too, but I'd like to see more of it by this point in the story. You might think about bringing a specific, current conflict into play earlier, or even starting the story earlier, perhaps just before Jackson's death. Make sure you have enough interesting conflict to sustain a novel as well.

If I were an editor/reader looking for verse novels, I'd be interested enough to give this a little more time and try to figure out where it's going, but I wouldn't want to wait too much longer for a current conflict.

Thanks for sharing! Best of luck with your revisions.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Chris. I had totally forgotten that I had submitted this until today. I appreciated your feedback. It has some great food for thought as I continue this process.