As always, thank you to the authors who submit and to the editors who critique. I have learned so much! See you next week.
by Chas Hathaway
What is it about sinking one's teeth deep into the sides of a number two pencil that is so satisfying? Is it the feel of the crushing wood, or the crackly sound it makes?
The recess bell rang. I scolded myself for not watching the clock more closely. Pocketing my pencil, I was out the door with a gym-ball, jacket, and a sonic-boom (I may have knocked over a desk) before my sixth-grade teacher had even turned from the whiteboard.
I was on the playground, smugly tossing my dodgeball into the air and catching it, before any other kid made it out the door. For the seventh recess in a row, I would be the first girl to be it for the Nigel Elementary Daily Dodgeball Tournament. I smiled as the second, third, and fourth kid bumbled out of the building, each looking around as if expecting a bear attack.
I decided to be generous and wait until at least ten kids were out of the building before going in for the kill. I didn't want to lose the advantage of being first, but it was always more fun when a bunch of kids were part of the action (and of course, watching me win).
“Five. . . six. . . seven. . .” I said as each kid zipped out the door, running for cover.
With a splash of white swirls, I found myself sprawling to the ground, a welt instantly rising on the back of my head, grass and stars spinning in front of me.
“Well, if it isn't Lindsey Barchopious. Guess you weren't first today!” came the words of a snorty voice I knew all too well. I turned and saw Barney Pendleton retrieving his own gym-ball. He must have left class before the recess bell to make it out before me. What a big fat cheater. Not to mention his ball must have been way overinflated.
I looked around quickly. My ball had been nabbed by a classmate who was now chasing a kid half his size.
“Looking for something?” Barney said.
I turned back at my bushy headed, freckle-faced attacker. He had his ball, but in his other hand, he held up my favorite #2 pencil. It must have fallen out of my shirt pocket when I got pegged.
“You're in so much stinking trouble, Barney.” I said, “Give it back now!”
He laughed, and put the pencil in his back pocket. “What are you going to do, cry on me? Boo-hooooo!”
Then his eyes widened as I ran at him.
Angela and Heidi's Comments
What Works Well
What a spunky character with spark. Her narrative voice is fun and energetic, and should appeal to the middle reader age group. You’ve got strong details and specific descriptions that leave a vivid impression in the reader’s mind: sonic-boom, freckle-faced attacker, bear attack, zipped, nabbed. Right from the start, you establish a light-hearted tone that conveys a great sense of humor: “I may have knocked over a desk, I decided to be generous…before going in for the kill, I smiled as the … kid bumbled out … looking as if expecting a bear attack.” Energetic and funny is the way to go. You’ve definitely got a flair for it.
Conflicting Messages and Deep Thoughts
Chewing on a pencil, especially for satisfaction, seems a bit at odds with the ball of energy that erupts as soon as the recess bell rings. Is Lindsey really the type of person who would be a pencil chewer? On top of that, she is waxing philosophical about it. Not that kids her age don’t have some pretty deep thoughts. But she strikes us as a girl of action, not one who meta-analyzes why chewing on her pencil makes her feel so great.
And why is she so attached to this particular pencil? Readers who pick up a fantasy book will have some pre-conceived ideas. They will be looking, at least subconsciously, for clues that reaffirm that they are entering a fantasy world. Even if the initial setting seems normal enough (recess, dodge ball, the school bully), readers will be searching for the point where normal intersects with the fantastical. By emphasizing the pencil, they may even assume (either correctly or erroneously) that there is something unusual about the pencil. Is it a literal good luck charm? Does it have magical properties? Like you can’t make a mistake on any test you take with this pencil? (Although if I had a pencil like that, I certainly wouldn’t be chewing on it.)
Now I haven’t read past the first page, so I don’t know if my assessment is accurate. Of course, readers won’t either, at least until they get past the first page. But I guarantee that at least some of them may think along those lines, and when they get to page two or three or ten, and it turns out the pencil was just an ordinary pencil, they will be disappointed.
No Clear Problem
Other than her dodge-ball nemesis, we have no clear sense of a problem. The importance of using the first page to hook your reader (and also your agent or your publisher) is a reality in today’s publishing world. The heart of every story is a problem, and even if you decide it doesn’t serve the story to present the main problem right out of the gate, it’s helpful to either give a hint of troubles to come or start with preliminary problem – sort of an opening act for the main act. At first glance, this story seems like it’s going to be about Lindsey’s run-in with the dodge ball bully. Bullies are a great proxy until the main problem reveals itself. Just make sure that you intend it to lead to THE problem. Diane Duane uses this approach very nicely in So You Want to be a Wizard. The main character in that middle-grade fantasy is running away from mean girls who want to beat her up. It isn’t the main problem of the novel, but it’s a good starter problem, and is the catalyst that leads our heroine into bigger, juicier problems. (She hides from the bullies in the library and comes across a magical book that eventually leads her to other time-space dimensions.)
Unusual names can be a mixed bag. Lindsey’s last name is definitely an attention-grabber, but it looks intimidating enough that younger readers may gloss over it if they don’t have an idea of how to pronounce it. If you keep it, you may look for a way to work the pronunciation into the text. You may also consider having the bully deliberately mispronounce it so Lindsey can correct him. No bully with any self-esteem would miss the fact that her name starts with the same sound as barf. Don’t let that opportunity go to waste.
You’ve got an intriguing main character who sounds like someone you’d want on your team. If adventures, especially magical ones, are around the corner, she seems like the type to face them with spirit and maybe a little sass. No fading wall-flower, she’s sure to be in the middle of any dust-up, whether it’s with a bully or someone from the supernatural side of the fence. Details with zing and a touch of humor promise a fun story for the readers.