Today’s middle grade workshop critique comes courtesy of writer E.M. volunteering a novel opening.
The Workshop Text
Avery Lawson had nine hundred ninety-nine cats. Too bad none of them were real.
Love, love, love this grabby opening! It raises a lot of questions and the cheeky voice is immediately interesting. Try to start your novel with some tension or mystery. Here’s a previous post on novel opening pages.
Her parents had told her she couldn’t get a live, breathing cat until it didn’t rain in their town of Mount Crescent, Oregon, for a year. Or when she became responsible. Whichever came first.
The first sentence of this paragraph “buries the lede.” Their rain stipulation is absurd but we don’t learn about it until the end of a longer sentence. Break it up. Love the rest of the paragraph. Super fun voice here right away, and we learn that the character is likely somewhat irresponsible. That is certainly telling, but the voice helps it feel less heavy-handed.
Avery scowled out the window at the soggy schoolyard. It always rained, and no matter how hard she tried, nobody ever called her responsible—even though another word for responsible was dependable. Her mom and dad said they could always depend on her to add to her cat collection, which included stickers, pencils, posters, and a bedroom wall painted with cat faces.
Good instinct to start in a present moment and action. Maybe put this setting detail earlier? I’d put the words when they’re defined in quotation marks, eg: … was “dependable.” The transition between the dependable comment and “depend on her to addd to her cat collection” is a bit thin, though.
That meant she was responsible.
Too bad her parents didn’t see it that way.
Getting into some more telling here. Maybe we can have a scene with Mom and Dad here instead, them arguing about this, so it’s more active. (As the rain comes down outside, of course.)
So, she uncapped her black dry-erase marker and prepared to draw her one-thousandth cat.
Really establish why she wants a cat. Most kids want pets, yes, so it’s universal, but why does THIS CHARACTER want a cat? That’ll help readers get to know her. And if she wants a cat, why does a drawn cat fill the void? Or does it?
With a tiny sigh, she slid the marker across her paper. The pleasant squeak drowned out the annoying scritch-scratch of pencils as the other fifth-graders copied spelling words. Boring words like peaceful and business and vulture.
Format the onomatopoeia in italics. Use quotation marks for the words. So many stories start in a school settings that don’t have to. If you can at all avoid it, do so. That will help you stand out with your opening scene, especially in MG.
The squeaking filled her ears as she drew a fluffy tail right over the word cabbage. She added whiskers, but one got so long it wouldn’t fit on the paper. She stopped the marker at the edge of her worksheet. She shouldn’t draw on her desk. Only kindergartners did that.
Some nice voice, but nothing is really happening in the moment. She’s drawing. I’m looking for more tension and action for a first scene.
But the whisker wanted—no, it demanded—to be longer. Clutching the marker, Avery stretched the line to the end of her desk.
GREAT personality here!
A familiar (school) setting and slightly slow pacing could be opportunities for growth with this piece. As could character objective (what she wants) and motivation (why she wants it). But I would’ve happily kept reading.
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