Middle Grade Critique: Workshop Submission #8

Thank you to our last writer of this workshop series, E.S. This is an early draft of a middle grade fantasy.

Get the creepy factor across with action, rather than telling.

The Workshop Submission

It started when the two faceless men knocked at the back door. If I’d known it was them, I would never have answered.

The potential for some solid tension here. The one thing I’d keep an eye out for, however: “I would never have answered” leaves the present moment. There’s this “If I’d only known” vibe. We go into some hazy, undefined future, from which the narrator is writing. It risks pulling the reader out of the moment to wonder, “When are we relative to the present moment?” My preference is to only use tension that’s available in the present. But since we don’t really know what’s going on in the present yet, I’ll allow it. 😉

Usually I wouldn’t have answered. I hate answering the door. It’s never anyone for me, anyway. All I want is to be left alone to mind my own business and have everyone else mind theirs.

“I wouldn’t have answered” and “I hate answering the door” are redundant. Consider this post about writing description. We get even more into the same point with the discussion of minding one’s business. This is also telling about the character, which I’d much rather avoid.

But I figured it was Mom with her arms full of groceries or something, so I answered the door. Because who else would come around the building and through the gate in the fence and past our sorry excuse for a backyard and knock on the back door? Anyone else would go to the front door. And Mom should have been home already, anyway. It was way past the time she usually gets home from work, and she hadn’t even called. She can be a real pain like that.

This is much more relevant to the present moment. I think that Mom not being home yet (tension) meets the element that it’s the back door, not the front door (tension) should be played up from the beginning, eg, “Nobody ever knocks on the back door. Only Mom comes in that way, and Mom would never knock…” Though I do love “our sorry excuse for a backyard” for voice purposes. This could be cherry-picked and used to start the novel.

So I just unlocked the back door and opened it. I expected Mom to come bustling into the kitchen, saying, “Samantha, young lady, have you finished your homework?” and puffing loose hair out of her face. But it wasn’t Mom. It was two tall, faceless men.

The difference between this opening and what the writer currently has is that this opening is in action. Samantha is expecting Mom (neutral) but it’s not Mom (tension!), it’s two faceless men (tension!!!!!!!). Give it to us in the moment. All the discussion of wanting to be left alone and blah blah blah is just telling. Give us the action instead.

Maybe they actually did have faces under all that bristly hair, but it was impossible to tell. Plus their tall furry hats were jammed down so far on their little heads that the hats would’ve covered any faces they had. Their arms and legs look like giant pipe cleaners. Creepy. And not brand new pipe cleaners either.

The rambling here (the long sentence about the tall furry hats) and the humor (though I love humor) undermine the shock or tension of the moment. Two random strangers have shown up at Samantha’s back door, and you ideally, I think, want the reader to be scared. But by making fun of their hats and faces and head shapes, you let the true fear out of the moment. Is she meant to be scared? This would be better for tension. Or is she just going to hang back and poke fun? This would be better for voice but … for the beginning, tension should be king.

That’s all they wrote! Thank you so much for joining me for this workshop series, and thank you to all the writers who have furnished your openings for potential workshop. I’m planning the next one as we speak.

If you’re struggling with your beginning, bring me on board as a novel editor and trusted writing partner.

One Reply to “Middle Grade Critique: Workshop Submission #8”

  1. Hi! I totally agree with Mary’s comments here. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be scary (I’d think so! I mean, faceless men at the back door!!) or humorous. Plus, I was a little confused about the pipe cleaner arms description. I think that, if you keep things in the moment, you can touch on the extra details later. For now, I’d stick with the door and the men. I was totally intrigued! I’d love to read more of this. 🙂

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