It's Friday again and I'm so glad to have such great editors who critique for us and help us learn our craft. If you would like your first page critiqued, just send your double-spaced 12 pt. font first page to firstname.lastname@example.org
This week's review is brought to us by Heidi Brockbank, a senior editor on the editorial team at Eschler Editing. Heidi assists on many of the reviews, and due to an illness in Angela's family, is the sole author of this week's review. Thank you to Fay and Heidi for their efforts today. See you next week!
by Fay Klingler
(Author's note: This is a juvenile fiction chapter book)
“Gotcha,” squealed Grandma May, smacking her card on the table to beat my play. Her eyes shined with full-blown glee!
“No!” I shouted in disappointment. My strawberry-brown hair slapped the sides of my face as I quickly sat back in my chair. I threw my arms in the air crying, “Not again!”
I’ve played cards with Grandma May nearly every day since she moved in with us a few months ago, soon after Grandpa died. Grandma said I should call her “Grandma May” instead of “Grandma” or “Nanna.” “If you use my first name,” she told me in her slight Wyoming drawl, “there’ll be no question which of your two grandmas you’re talking about or talking to.”
Being named after both my grandmas, there was really never any question whether I’d remember their first names. I was given the name “Louisa” after my mom’s mom, and “May” after my dad’s mom. But everyone prefers to call me just “Lu.”
Grandma May says I’m a lot like her because I’m a good listener, but I see a lot of differences. Yeah, I try to listen to others before I speak. But when I get excited or upset, it’s hard to be quiet and keep my thoughts to myself. Grandma May, on the other hand, can stay calm and keep her thoughts secret. Another big difference is how we use time. I’d like to read a book, most any book, while she’d rather cook a special treat for the family.
Grandma May is 82 years old and quick in spite of her age. My ten-year-old, inexperienced fingers don’t seem to process the card moves like hers do. I rarely win. But I still love playing with her. Dad calls us the giggle girls because of our loud laughter. “There you go again,” he says, “having another of your happy parties!”
Each morning, before I leave for school, I knock on Grandma May’s door to say good-bye. Without fail she tells me, “Lu, people are going to love you today!”
“Oh Grandma!” I shake my head back and forth in reply.
She gives me a firm hug and says, “Heavenly Father placed me here to remind you who you are. Remember, let the real you shine today. Make it a good one! You’re a child of God, and I love you.”
I look up at her and smile. Then I turn to walk out the front door to make the best of my day.
Heidi's Editorial Comments
A Good Start
This story has warmth, a good eye for detail, and upbeat characters I wouldn’t mind spending the course of a story with. With a few tweaks, you’ll be off to a great start.
Children are a demanding audience, but they can be equally rewarding. Young readers want many of the same things that adult readers do: interesting characters, gripping action, a story-worthy problem. At the same time, an author needs to be aware of special requirements for this age group. Here are a few to keep in mind:
Finding Your Audience
A general rule of thumb is that your reading audience tends to be a few years younger than the age of your protagonist. Lu is ten. That will put your likely readers in the 7-10 year-old age range. The next level up is middle reader/middle grade books—targeting 8-12 year-olds. In recent years, a new level has been emerging for 10-14 year-olds. There is some overlap between these categories. The Clementine series, by Sarah Pennypacker, is targeted to 2nd to 5th graders, the transitional age group. Frindle by Andrew Clements, is a fun example of the middle reader group. James Dashner’s The 13th Reality and Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven series fall more into the 10-14 age range. It’s important to pinhole which audience you are writing for, because not only will it affect the age of your main character, but also the length, complexity, and language of your story. At the moment, your protagonist’s age indicates this will be aimed at a younger audience, while some of the language points to an older group. This is easy to fix – either make Lu older or make her language more youthful.
Letting Kids be Kids
Age-appropriate dialogue and vocabulary is important when writing for a younger audience. Lu sometimes has observations that sound too mature for her age. For instance, analyzing the differences between how she and her grandma use time. Most ten-year-olds aren’t thinking along these lines. Also, Lu’s comment about her inexperienced fingers not being able to process the cards doesn’t sound like a kid her age. It’s not that the words are out of range—most kids will have probably had them on vocabulary tests. But comprehension isn’t enough. Young readers are pretty savvy – they’ll recognize when the cadence of the language speaks to them (or doesn’t), even if they can’t say why. You want to avoid usage that sounds “too grown-up.” One of the best things you can do is eavesdrop shamelessly. Really listen to kids—not only what they say but how they say it, so you can choose words and phrasing that will resonate with them.
Stirring up Trouble
Grandma May is charming, and her relationship with Lu is touching. But this isn’t the start of a story. You don’t have a story until you have a problem. As Les Edgerton says in Hooked, “There’s simply no reason for a story to ever exist unless it’s about trouble.” That’s as true for children’s books as it is for adults. Conflict is essential – if there is no problem, there is no story. As with adult and YA books, first sentence, first paragraph, or first page is where you’d like your hook to land. Your hook can be an attention-grabbing first sentence, fun or quirky language that pulls the reader in, or even a unique character. But in order for the reader to stay hooked, you need to follow that up as soon as possible with a story-worthy problem. (Note: Sometimes the hook and the problem are one and the same.)
This is demonstrated on the first page of Clementine. In the first sentence, she tells us that she’s had a “not so good week.” Then she starts explaining why, including having to explain to the principal that Margaret’s hair was not her fault and that she looks fine without it. That’s the third sentence in, and I’ve never seen a kid (or adult) that wasn’t already hooked by this point and dying to find out more about the trouble.
All the wonderful rapport and camaraderie between Lu and her grandma is great, but it doesn’t belong on the first page. It can come later, once we establish the trouble.
Show and Tell
A friend of mine just recently had an agent respond to her manuscript by saying that she loved the idea, but there was too much telling. Her advice to this author was to rewrite the first chapter completely, making sure that the reader will learn the information as the main character experiences it. Lu’s story starts with two show-y paragraphs. But the rest of the excerpt is told to the reader by the main character. One thing you could try, instead, is for Lu to discover the problem in a conversation during the card game. As for the rest of the information, some telling is okay, but spread it out and make sure that you have plenty of showing.
Lost: One Reader between Past and Present
The story starts out in past tense, but after a few paragraphs, morphs into present tense. Tense should be consistent through the story. Present tense can be trickier to use than past tense, especially if you are going to present back-story and events that have already taken place. You may decide that’s the tense you want for your particular story – just remember to stick with it.
Bracing for a Lecture
Avoid teaching obvious life lessons – the reader should be able to draw their own conclusions from a well-told story. Grandma’s words to Lu are sweet, but especially on the first page, most kids (who have a built-in radar detector when it comes to lectures) will already be on high alert. Grandma may be able to say something like this, but not on this page, and only if there is a realistic progression up to that remark.
Seinfeld Episode #68
You may recall the Seinfeld episode where Elaine has a fascination with exclamation points. She even breaks up with her boyfriend because he doesn’t put an exclamation when taking a phone message. Later, her boss at the publishing company has a conversation with her about the “inordinate number of exclamation points” she has put in a client’s manuscript. She explains that she was just trying to increase the emotion and intensity.
Let’s face it: exclamation marks are exciting! But you want to ration them out. If everything is exciting enough for exclamation marks, there’s no room left to get even more exciting. I counted seven exclamations on this page. Even Clementine, who is a very exclamation mark kind of kid, averages only one every 1.7 pages for the first 3 chapters (although to be fair, she sometimes uses 2 or 3 on a single page, and then goes several pages without any.)
Don’t be afraid to use them. Just be sure there’s balance. Also, avoid Elaine’s misconception: you can’t make the writing more exciting with an exclamation mark. The words have to carry enough punch by themselves. If there’s no zing without the punctuation, all the exclamation marks in the world won’t be a cure.
The Adventure Begins
Ten is a wonderful age to be, and Lu sounds like a sweet, spunky kid who is going to have great adventures, once she finds her problem. Once she has that, make sure that you “show, don’t tell.” Keep words and phrasing at the 10-year old level (think of it as writing a foreign language – that of elementary school kids). And let your words convey excitement, not your exclamation points! After that, you’ll be off and running. May your own adventures in writing be as wonderful as your character’s.