Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Page Critique Tuesday: Know your genre


If you would like to nominate your page for a future Page Critique, please enter it in this thread in the Forums!

Also, if you'd like to test your editing chops, keep your eye on this area! I'll post the pages and queries a few days before a critique so you can see how your redline compares to mine.

Now then. Time for the Page Critique. First I'll present the page without comment, then I'll offer my thoughts and a redline. If you choose to offer your own thoughts on the page, please be polite. We aim to be positive and helpful.

Random numbers were generated, and thanks to writerinbloom, whose page is below:
Title: The Secret Keeper
Genre: MG Magical Realism 
You’re not supposed to know I exist. 
Of course you’ve heard of, and even seen, me a time or two. But if asked to describe me? 
I bet you couldn’t. We come in all shapes, sizes, and shades, much like you. We reside all over the world and don’t discriminate whom we help. I’ve helped more people than there are stars, but my lips are sealed. Anyway, enough about me. I’ve got work to do. 
I’ve never much cared for schools, but it’s where my job often takes me. This particular school reeks of body sprays, cologne, and fruity lotions, in that order. All of them are too strong for the average nose, but twelve-year-olds have yet to learn the fine art of moderation. Let that be another of our little secrets and a lesson for you. And another thing—they’re loud. So very, very loud.  
Within minutes I’m standing outside John F. Kennedy Middle School. I enter the building and follow the signal to Room 38.  
The classroom is filled with twenty-eight boys and girls scribbling notes while the teacher, Ms. Counterman, lectures about hyperboles. She stops mid-sentence and stares at me. I’m confused at first. She’s the one sending a signal. It usually isn’t the adults who are burdened. I stare at her for a few seconds and watch her aura flicker from peach to yellow. I move so close to her that I can smell her perfume.
This page has a clear and memorable voice. For someone who professes to help people, the narrator sounds a little sinister and mysterious.

My biggest concern about this page is that this doesn't quite sound to me like a middle grade voice, which the author suggests is the genre. (For those unfamiliar with the terminology, middle grade novels are intended for 8-12 year olds, occasionally stretching up and down a few years.)

Now, a middle grade novel does not necessarily need to be narrated by someone who is 8-12 (see the Series of Unfortunate Events novels or From the Mixed Up Files..., which was middle grade before it was called middle grade). But it does need to speak to the sensibility of a middle grade reader.

To me, the voice here feels just a tad too hard boiled and a tad too vague for a middle grade reader. Middle grade readers have much better attention spans than they're given credit for (go ahead, try and take that book out of their hands!), but I'm not sure it's an age that thrives on this much ambiguity.

Mysteries in middle grade novels tend to be very clear in their outlines so the reader immediately can be intrigued and hooked by the mystery. In this case, however, I couldn't really tell you what's actually happening here, and I'm in my thirties.

The Lemony Snicket novels are a good counterpoint. Yes, they're dark and so sardonic that you almost wonder if they're too adult for kids, but the edge is pretty straightforward and perfectly graspable by young readers.

If this mystery were revealed a bit more straightforwardly, and if some of the phraseology were smoothed out, I think there are some solid ingredients here that could attract middle grade readers.

Here's my redline:
Title: The Secret Keeper
Genre: MG Magical Realism 
You’re not supposed to know I exist. 
Of course you’ve heard of me. You may have even seen me a time or two. But if asked to describe me? I bet you couldn’t. [Moved the line up from the following paragraph] 
We come in all shapes, sizes, and shades, much like you [I found the "you" here confusing. Does the narrator mean humans? Also, there's a switch from "me" to "we." Is there a reason that's inconsistent?]. We reside all over the world and don’t discriminate against whom we help. I’ve helped more people than there are stars, but my lips are sealed. [I think we either need more straightforwardness around who the narrator is, or at least more clues so we can start piecing it together. I'm afraid as is it feels too vague.]
Anyway, enough about me. I’ve got work to do. 
I’ve never much cared for schools, but it’s where my job often takes me. This particular school reeks of body sprays, cologne, and fruity lotions, in that order. All of them are too strong for the average nose, but twelve-year-olds have yet to learn the fine art of moderation. 
Let that be another of our little secrets [Why would the fact that schools smell and twelve-year-olds are immoderate be a secret?] and a lesson for you. 
And another thing—they’re loud. So very, very loud. 
Within minutes I’m standing outside John F. Kennedy Middle School [I found this confusing. How did the narrator know it's smelly and loud if they weren't there yet? Even if he/she has been there before it's a bit jarring]. I enter the building John F. Kennedy Middle School and follow the signal to Room 38.  
The classroom is filled with twenty-eight boys and girls scribbling notes while the teacher, Ms. Counterman, lectures about hyperboles [A middle school lecture about hyperboles? I can't picture that]. She stops mid-sentence and stares at me. I’m confused at first. She’s the one sending a signal.
It usually isn’t the adults who are burdened [What does it mean to be burdened? Why hold out on a young reader here?]. I stare at her for a few seconds and watch her aura flicker from peach to yellow [What does this signify?]. I move so close to her that I can smell her perfume.
Writing for this age group is super tough. Trust me, I wrote a whole freaking trilogy for middle grade readers, and even by book three I still struggled to get it right on the first try.

But if you tighten your storyline, let your reader in on the mystery, and make sure what's on the page is very clear, you'll be on your way.

Thanks again to writerinbloom!

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.

Art: Hausaufgabe by Simon Glücklich






8 comments:

Sarah said...

I also write MG ... and know how difficult it is to nail the voice! I have one comment: the perspective seemed adult to me. The narrator is ageless and the first human character we meet is an adult. Often, the first pages of a novel set up the protagonist's goal or thwarted desire, but the first need we run into belongs to an adult.

It would seem more MG to me if we had the protagonist(s) noticing something wrong with the teacher, for instance. (Except that I am positive that the writer has a much better way of addressing the issue!)

All the best to you, writerinbloom, as you pursue this writing adventure!

Nathan Bransford said...

Great points, Sarah.

JOHN T. SHEA said...

Interesting points about an interesting piece. As usual, I'm inclined to suspend judgment until I've read more, but this is a first-page critique. Likewise, we are reading this without the benefit of a cover blurb etc., a very unnatural situation but unavoidable within the limits of this exercise. The exercise IS worthwhile but I'd be intrigued to see a Forum section where writers could post both a query AND the first page for Nathan's perusal. Just a thought.

I think we can safely assume the narrator is addressing us readers as humans, at least until we learn otherwise.

I take the narrator's comments on smells etc. as remembered from previous visits, or maybe the narrator has a very powerful sense of smell!

Hyperboles do indeed seem a bit hyperbolic for MG, though perhaps that is part of the teacher's problem? Certainly, my young nephew's homework is too hard for me at times!

I agree about attention spans. The house could fall down around my nephew when he was reading and he'd hardly notice. Mind you he's gone off reading except school books at the moment, but that's likely just a phase.

Many thanks to Writerinbloom, Nathan, and Sarah!

Nathan Bransford said...

John-

Lots of readers eschew cover copy and blurbs because they don't want spoilers and want to go in fresh. A friend's recommendation is often enough. (I avoid them whenever possible).

And, also, some agents will jump straight to the pages and start reading. Can't make the assumption people will have read cover copy/blurbs/queries.

JOHN T. SHEA said...

Thanks for your opinion, Nathan. Mine remains very different. I doubt many readers begin reading many books without knowing anything at all about the book. Even a friend's recommendation is likely to tell one more about a book than that it is good. One can and almost certainly will learn a lot about a book without any need for spoilers or loss of freshness.

As for agents ignoring queries or cover copy and blurbs, there's no accounting for taste, and a writer cannot please every agent, or other reader, no matter how or what he or she writes.

Nathan Bransford said...

John-

I just tweeted a poll - we'll see. But I don't see why any writer would want to leave any of their readers in the dark. Particularly agents!

Nathan Bransford said...

Oh - also, John, another thing to bear in mind is that authors don't write the cover copy on their books.

JOHN T. SHEA said...

Nathan, what I said was that we cannot please everyone, not that we don't want to please them.

You might want to include cover illustrations and the many other sources of information about a book in your poll.

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