And we're back with our second live critique that's not live! This week, we're bringing you the first 250 words from a middle grade fantasy. Let's go!
‘One of the Tiddy people?’ Jenifer said through a mouthful of cream bun. She crinkled her nose. ‘Are you sure?’ Although starting with dialogue isn’t necessarily wrong, it is often felt stronger to begin by giving a reader a visual, something to see, a character. Perhaps simply swap the action tag with the dialogue and give the reader some insight into Jenifer's character and what's so intriguing about this conversation. Perhaps: ‘Jenifer shoved a squidgy chunk of cream bun into her mouth and paused, looking up at her grandmother. ‘One of the Tiddy people? Are you sure?’ Grandma’s stories were always a delight, but talk of fictional characters like the Tiddy people was not something she usually spoke of.’ or similar
‘Oh yes, dear. He was the size of a six year old and he had pointed ears. What else could he have been?’ Again, perhaps here show us Grandma. Her facial expression, reaction or lack of in response to Jenifer’s questioning, to show the reader that Grandma considers nothing of seeing the Tiddy people and that it’s a rather ordinary occurrence or that maybe it isn't, or could she be teasing Jenifer, and so on. Give the reader a clue as to how ordinary or extraordinary this is.
Jenifer fixed her grandmother with a steady look. Perhaps show more of Jenifer’s reaction and character here. Maybe: ‘Jenifer coughed as she held in a snort. Pointed ears? Grandma really was talking nonsense today’ or similar A slow smile crept ‘crept’ generally suggests that the action is happening slowly, gradually, so consider deleting ‘slow’ from this sentence on to her lips and she narrowed her eyes. ‘. . . This ellipsis isn’t necessary here as no time lapse has occurred Had you been eating that strong cheese?’
So far there has been no clear description of Grandma so perhaps blending one or two details of her appearance in with her action will help the reader see the scene clearer. Maybe her spectacles perching on the end of her nose, or her unkempt grey hair, or her smeared red lipstick, and so on. Give the reader a subtle description of how she appears as she moves or waves off Jenifer’s comment. ‘Of course not, dear! That little man was as real as the nose on my face . . . Again the ellipsis isn’t necessary because Grandma has finished speaking and this punctuation suggests she has paused ’ The old lady dabbed the corners of her mouth Maybe here sneak in a description; mention her red lipstick or her painted fingernails or similar delicately since ‘to dab’ is a delicate action, ‘delicately’ is redundant and not needed , this comma isn’t necessary here with a paper napkin, then crumpled it up and dropped it on to her empty plate. ‘Oh, I doubt we ever would have seen him – poor thing was caught in a snare, you see. Ruddy poachers. If your grandfather hadn’t managed to remove it, I dread to think what might have become of him.’
It was a cold and dismal Saturday afternoon and Jenifer had popped around to visit her elderly grandmother just as she did on most days. The two of them were sitting beside the fire in the old lady’s cosy living room drinking tea from rose patterned china cups and eating cream cakes fresh from the local bakery. This paragraph is rather telling and takes the reader suddenly from the conversation and action taking place. Try to blend in these details with the action as it’s happening. Maybe ‘Jenifer sipped the last of her tea and placed her cup on to the table carefully. Grandma’s beloved rose-patterned china tea set only ever came out when Jenifer popped over – and after they’d made a trip to the local bakery for some cream cakes. The fire crackled and popped beside them, casting a flickering golden glow across the cosy living room. She tilted her head and glanced up at her grandma, chewing her lip (or a similar habit that Jenifer might do throughout the story). Grandma often told funny little stories, but today’s was more odd than funny.'
‘Are you feeling okay today, Grandma?’
As Jenifer has spoken the above words, join this paragraph up with the previous Jenifer popped the last of the bun into her mouth and leaned forwards, As Jenifer is meant to be showing concern for her grandma here, the action of eating the last of the bun takes away some of the emotion. Perhaps showing Jenifer placing down the last of her cake or cup (suggested above) will help to reinforce how Grandma and her story has an odd feel to it today, stranger than normal, and it’s giving Jenifer cause for concern studying her grandmother’s face intently ‘intently’ is redundant as ‘studying’ implies her look is intent. Earlier Jenifer gave her Grandma a steady look and now she is studying her intently, both of these are similar and give a repetitive feel. Perhaps use some different body language, something to continue building Jenifer’s character. Might her stomach flutter or turn over, might her eyes widen, or similar. ‘You’re not coming down with something, are you?’
Her grandmother chuckled By building in a description of how Grandma looks here through carefully chosen words will help the reader see how Jenifer views her grandmother. Such as showing the crow’s feet around her sparkling eyes, or her warm, childish chuckle, or sharp eyes throwing Jenifer a telling wink, and so on. ‘Oh, I probably wouldn’t have believed it either, dear. . .’ She cradled her teacup in her hands ‘in her hands’ is superfluous and can be deleted as removing it makes little difference to the meaning and clarity of the visual and sighed softly. ‘. . . Not if I hadn’t seen him with my own two eyes. The punctuation could help create clearer flow to this broken dialogue and give more tension and tone. Such as: ‘Oh, I probably wouldn’t have believed it either, dear,’ she said, cradling her teacup and sighing softly, ‘had I not seen him with my own two eyes.’
Overall, although intriguing, perhaps this opening requires more visuals and characterisation to make it stronger and hook in a reader. A reader will want to immediately connect with Jenifer, who we can presume is our protagonist, and hear her voice, discover something about her personality, and listen to her inner thoughts. By using Grandma, this can be achieved easily. In the examples provided above, by showing Jenifer’s concern for Grandma’s unusual story and how she feels about her, the way she sees her, what she observes from the room around them, and so on, using words that Jenifer would use, all help layer Jenifer and her character. Why has she gone to Grandma’s? Because Mum forces her to? Or because she loves her and her wonderful stories? Because she wants to avoid the bullies after school? Because Grandma is the only one in her life who loves to have fun and feeds Jenifer’s ‘out there’ imagination? What motivates Jenifer to go there, thus setting off the chain of events that follow after this unexpected mention of the Tiddy people, and eventually the unfolding plot?
Also, it would be good to include an immediate, internal thought Jenifer might have to the mention of the Tiddy people to show the reader what’s so unusual about Grandma’s mention and why they too should be concerned about Grandma bringing them up. Are these creatures similar to elves or goblins, only ever spoken about as fairies might be? Clue the reader in.
So, what do you think? Do you agree? Can you provide the author with some other ideas to strengthen the opening of their novel? We love to talk edits, so leave your comment below!
Fortnightly on Mondays, we live critique one writer's query letter or first 250 words of their manuscript. Every Wednesday & Saturday we bring you an edit tip of the day!