Middle Grade Critique: Workshop Submission #1

A few months ago, I asked for some submissions of the first 250 words of novels for the purpose of educational critique. Let’s do it! I’m teeing up some blog posts, and I will try to make it a weekly thing. Please feel free to jump in with thoughts in the comments, too!

Thank you to P. C., who submitted this sample of a middle grade novel.

This will make sense in a moment … maybe.

Let’s Start the Workshop Critique!

Whatever it was gripped him tighter than a hungry gorilla protecting its last banana in a jungle food fight.

The squeeze made him feel like a human toothpaste tube about to pop its cap. But the thing that torqued his shorts, was that it was creasing his trousers.

This writer really takes the advice to start in action to heart. Good work! However, there may be too much action. Readers don’t yet know the character, nor do they know the situation. I recommend grounding the reader in location. We get a location mentioned here (jungle) but no sense of the actual setting. Also, the true nugget of information here is that the character is in danger but concentrating on his creased trousers. Funny! But by the time we get to it, that data is lost in a lot of imagery.

It’s also difficult to care about a character in danger if we don’t know the character, the setting, the situation, the danger, who he’s running to or from, and why. I’d maybe slow down, actually, and this is advice I never get to give!

It swept up from behind and startled him with a muffled hissing pop like a fizzling firecracker. He spun to face it fully and was blinded by its sputtering glow. Pulses of blue and orange light flowed along its mantis-like body.

It scooped him up and away like a child playing jacks. He was powerless against it.

By now, I’m really starting to see a lot of images. Almost every sentence has a simile or metaphor. Here, we have the fizzing firecracker, and the mantis image. Before, we had the gorilla banana and the toothpaste. Here, the images are quite distracting because they pull focus. This writer could easily pull back and maybe use one or two per page to combat this tendency. I’m not saying to get rid of imagery altogether, but I worry that this writer relies too much on comparisons.

His legs dangled like a rag doll so that the stones at the edge of the frozen stream scuffed his freshly polished shoes. This really put him out of sorts.

More images. Unfortunately, a rag doll limply dangling is a cliché image. You also want to watch out. You are comparing his leg’s to a rag doll’s legs, not the entire rag doll, so it should be: “His legs dangled like a rag doll’s…”

“For the sake of Sir Isaac, watch the wingtips!” he yelled.

After all, the Tall Man was a sharp dresser and proud of it.

His heart pumped so hard that he swore he heard each blood cell swoosh past his inner ears, until another noise drew his attention—a deep droning thrum. It pulsed along in low frequency waves that streamed into the night, slowing only as they surged through his chest wall. The noise came from his abductor.

I’d reconsider the heart imagery, as it’s a bit of a physical cliché. We also know that the character cares about his clothes, so mentioning the crease in the trousers and “Watch the wingtips!” in the same 250 words gives readers the same data twice. Maybe use this to establish something else about the character?

Good mystery about the pulsing from the abductor. Still, I’d love to get some context here about what’s happening, who the abductor is, and what’s at stake. A bit of specific data doesn’t hurt at the beginning to get readers engaged.

This thing sounds like my percolator, he thought, referring to his trusty silver coffee pot, its bottom blackened by so many years on the stove.
“Hey! Can you hear me? Unhand me! Let me go!”

There’s a typo here, with “Hey” preceded by a single quote, not a double quote. The image of the percolator is well-written but I’m not sure that readers want to be thinking about such a detailed coffee pot when the character is abducted. These images continue to pull focus and downplay the danger of the situation—if there is any.

My biggest pieces of advice to this writer? Work less hard on images. The writing is solid, trust it. Give some context for the actual situation (where the tension will be generated) so that readers can care about more than gorillas and coffee pots.

Please feel free to chime in via the comments and thanks to P.C. for submitting!

If you want personalized manuscript critique on your own work, reach out to me for editorial services.

8 Replies to “Middle Grade Critique: Workshop Submission #1”

  1. Talking about wingtips and thinking about a coffee pot don’t quite jibe with a furiously beating heart. But nice writing in any case, P.C.!

  2. I could feel myself clutching, thinking about being the writer whose work is being read and critiqued. Yet I know how valuable such responses are if I want to grow. May I submit the opening passage of a piece that’s more middle grade novella than novel? Thank you.

  3. Thank you, Mary. This is great advice and now that my first draft is finished, I’ll be able to apply it throughout the manuscript as needed.
    Keep challenging us to be better!

  4. This was very helpful to see what sticks out to an editor and the sentence by sentence breakdown is great. Thanks for providing this critique, I look forward to more in the future!

  5. This is great. It’s filled with action, but as Mary mentioned, a bit too much action for the first page. I’m not sure what’s happening to the poor man, and the humor, while light and funny (my kind of humor!), does take away from the fact that he’s been abducted and smooshed, so I’m not sure if I should worry about him at this point. 🙂 Best of luck with this fun MG!

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