Friday, May 27, 2011

First Page Critique: A Middle-Grade Novel

This week's first page critique is of "The Automata Maker's Fire-Breathing Housekeeper." The submitter didn't list the age group or genre, but I'm guessing middle grade, and probably fantasy or science fiction based on the title. I think the title is catchy, by the way. A bit of a mouthful which may make it hard to remember, but it is intriguing.

        Miles opened the front door, tripped over the threshold, and staggered into the dark hallway. His backpack, stuffed with schoolbooks and slung haphazardly over one shoulder, threatened to overbalance him and he almost bumped into his brother and sister who were crossing through the hall. They carried a large package wrapped in decorative floral and butterfly paper.

CE: This certainly portrays Miles as clumsy. Of course, it's possible this is not normal behavior, but by starting with this it seems like a character trait. It may be a little too easy, though, a caricature for someone we don't know at all yet. Although his near fall gives a little action to the opening paragraph, I'm more interested in the package and wonder if the opening could be rewritten to focus on that. Maybe something simple like: Miles opened the front door and stared at his brother and sister, who were crossing the hall with a large package wrapped in decorative floral and butterfly paper.

        "What've you got there?" Miles asked as he heaved his gear onto the floor under the hallway table.
        "Uncle Dishwasher gave it to me," Theo said frowning.
        "Why'd he do that, do you think?" asked Billie. Her eyes were wide as she chewed at her lower lip.

CE: As a general rule, when you have action or gestures with dialogue tags, you don't also need the said or asked part. When removing it, sometimes you may want to reorder the sentences for better flow. And in this case, I might skip the part about Miles heaving his gear onto the floor, if I did decide to change the opening as suggested above. So the rewrite becomes:

      "What've you got there?" Miles asked.
      Theo frowned. "Uncle Dishwasher gave it to me."
      "Why'd he do that, do you think?" Billie’s eyes were wide as she chewed at her lower lip.

        "Maybe he's sorry about how mean he's been to us," Miles said. "Maybe it's a box of
burn ointment to use for all the times he's scorched us. Or maybe it's full of poisoned cookies so he won't be bothered with us anymore."

CE: This certainly sets up their relationship with their uncle and makes the question of the package more intriguing. It also shows that Miles is a quick thinker and has a sense of humor.

        Billie gasped and jerked her hands away from the package. "He has been mean, but maybe he's overworked. You know from all the extra lunches and then two kinds of dinner. And extra laundry, and speaking two languages, and." she trailed off and started nibbling on her thumbnail.

CE: Billy comes across as kind of an idiot. Her excuses may be naïve or kindhearted, but why does she jerk her hands away from the package unless she's really afraid of it? And what does she expect poisoned cookies to do to her if she's just carrying the box? And if it took two of them to carry it, wouldn't Theo drop it now? Besides the bit of illogic, you want to be careful about portraying your only female main character (so far as we know) in a negative light this early in the story, unless you are really just going for boy readers. I'd tone down her reaction.

CE: We do get a few more hints about the family. The uncle now seems not necessarily so bad, but possibly someone hard-working but grumpy. And we see Billie as the sympathetic one.

     Miles snorted and gave her the same disgusted look he always gave when he thought she was excusing the undeserving. Then he glared at Theo. "Why did he give it to you? I'm the oldest."
     "I just got home first, I guess."
     Miles shrugged. "Let's get a snack before Kazu and Yuji come home. You can unwrap that thing while we eat." Miles dodged past Theo and Billie and headed to the kitchen. He pushed open the swinging door and was about to step into the room when, instead, he hurriedly backed out, stumbling and tripping into Theo and Billie. He put his finger to his lips signaling silence.

CE: Given their curiosity, focusing on the snack first seems odd, unless Miles is trying to play it cool. I might not introduce Kazu and Yuji yet -- we don't learn anything about them and it's getting confusing with so many characters and elements introduced in the first page.

I'm a little concerned about the point of view in this last paragraph. Normally it's best to stick with a cause-effect/action-reaction sequence. In other words, something happens and then someone reacts to it. When you have someone react before showing the cause, that can be jarring, confusing, or even comical. If Theo or Billy were the point of view character, you could have Miles back out and signal for silence before they know his reasons. The point of view is somewhat distant here -- we haven't gotten anyone's thoughts -- but I would have said it was Miles if anyone. In that case, he should see and then react.

I should perhaps mention here that in American middle grade novels, authors generally use a fairly close point of view, usually third person. If they switch point of view, they stick with a character through a scene. British middle grade novels sometimes have a more distant omniscient point of view or a traveling viewpoint that jumps between heads. I don't know why that is.

In any case, I don't see an advantage to hiding what Miles sees. Perhaps it's supposed to increase suspense by making us ask what it is, but that can feel kind of like cheating. If it's something dramatic, showing it will be more dramatic than letting us wonder. If it's not something dramatic, the reality will feel anticlimactic after the tease.

I've been focused mainly on line editing for this sample. Overall, I think there are some interesting elements here and I'm curious about what will happen next. The small question of what's in the package is a nice way to get the reader’s attention and introduce the characters, and hopefully lead into a bigger plot question. I'm curious enough to keep reading.

My main concern is that the voice seems a bit weak -- those wordy dialog attributes, for example, and the uncertain viewpoint. So many editors hold voice as all important these days. That's not to say that you have to get fancy or write in a way that seems unnatural, but smoothing out the bumps can make for a better read. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King has a lot of advice on how to do that. I'm afraid a lot of great ideas don't get published because the writing isn't quite strong enough. I can see things here that would catch an editor's eye, but a little more polishing would really make it work stand out.

Thank you, for sharing, Mollie, and best of luck with the revisions!

1 comment:

  1. I found your point about the differences in POV between American and British authors quite interesting. All the writing advice I've read harps about keeping the POV as close to the character as possible, yet Rowling succeeded by using a distant, usually omniscient narrator.

    I'm particularly interested in this point since my writing style uses the same approach as Rowling. It just seems more natural to tell a story that way. Maybe I'll have to try selling my books in Britain instead. (when I get around to finishing it, that is.)