Here are the results of the January First Page Critiques brought to you by Alison Weiss from Sky Pony Press:
Susan Amessé, November Sinclair, Middle Grade Mystery
“Girls, let’s get a move on.” November’s father stood in the bedroom doorway running his hands through his hair like he was reviewing a checklist in his head. “I want to get there before dark.”
“I’m not ready.” November needed a few more weeks to pack. “Are you sure we can only take two bags each?” She pointed to her duffle bags, both stuffed to the brim. The toe of a tap shoe was sticking out of a small hole in one of them.
“Just two!” Her father’s tone was firm.
“He won’t come in here, right?” Her sister May stood on the neat side of their bedroom clutching a book, Danger, Destruction, and Death in the Adirondack Wilderness to her chest, looking a lot smaller than four foot seven. “Hate people touching my stuff.”
November worried, too. “Please promise he’ll stay out of our room.” He was their subletter. What if this friend of a friend of a friend trashed their room?
“I promise.” Dad held up his fingers in a boy scouts honor. November wondered if that actually counted since he’d only been a scout for a few weeks.
November fingered her red feather boa and wrapped it around her neck. She’d take it with her just in case there was a cabaret in the wilderness. She giggled thinking of tap dancing lumberman in bright red flannel shirts.
She grabbed an empty grocery box from Gristedes and tossed in her deluxe make-up kit that had a NY subway map design on the cover, just in case she ran into a film crew on location. If only! She’d definitely need her book of monologues. And she couldn’t leave without her Annie wig or her glamorous black 40’s hat with the peacock feathers. She tossed them into the box. Her dad hadn’t mentioned not taking extra boxes. She’d argue that technicality.
“I’ve packed the extra strong bug spray,” said Dad. “You’ll need it.”
HERE IS ALISON :
November Sinclair by Susan Amessé
I do love a good mystery, especially one in which there are characters with a lot of personality, and November certainly exudes personality. You’ve done an excellent job, in a very small space, of painting a girl who is a bit of a diva-in-the-making, and who is clearly not afraid to bend the rules. (That’s a trait that comes in handy for sleuthing.) I also like how you’re contrasting November with her sister, using their differences to further develop your character.
But I’d appreciate more grounding here to understand what’s going on and what’s at stake. We know the characters are leaving on a trip. Where are they going? Is this summer camp or camping? Is Dad not coming? (That’s the impression I get from the very last line—the “you’ll” rather than “we’ll.”) And if that’s the case, then why is there this sub-letter involved?
The reason I’m pressing so hard on this grounding is that if you had not listed “mystery” in your genre header, I would never have guessed that from this page. As a reader, until I feel comfortable where the story is going, I’m not going to feel relaxed enough to trust the author to take me on this journey. And if I feel at sea for too long, I’m going to put the project down and move on to something else.
Be careful, too, of telling over showing. In general, showing is always more engaging than telling, and you want to use dialogue, action, and interaction to keep events moving along and keep the writing interesting. I was a little lost by the emphasis on “he,” until the exposition explanation came. It feels like you’re drawing a lot of attention to a point that may not be all that important. I’d rather see that explanation made in dialogue where you can use that derision more productively.
Which provides a nice transition to voice. You have some nice voice touches here. Your third-person narrator, however, is very strongly aligned with November. It sounds like the thoughts are coming from her head. I wonder if you should try a few pages in first person? See if that fits more naturally with the story. I think it would help you with the showing vs. telling issue, as well.
Great character to build from.
COME FLY WITH ME! – Picture Book by Diane N. Feaganes
For just a day, oh, I wish I could fly!
Soaring and swaying high up in the sky,
I’d fly like an eagle! Ascending the trees,
And circling the lake down below as I please.
Sweeping the water and lowering my feet, I’d cunningly catch a big fish—such a treat!
My great wind-bound wings lift me up gracefully.
I’m such a brave bird! I am strong, flying free!
Come fly with me!
I could be a robin! I do love to sing!
I fly little trips to announce that it’s spring.
My real job’s a challenge, hop-hopping around,
Searching for worms crawling under the ground.
My babies are hungry, they’re crying for more
As I search for the worms. It’s a taste they adore!
With worm in my mouth, I fly straight to our tree.
Their mouths open wide, and they peep gleefully.
Come fly with me!
Oh, goodness! What fun I could have if I found
A beautiful humming bird darting around.
We’d zip up, we’d zoom down, move sideways and then
Go backwards! Then forward! Then dive down again!
Come Fly With Me! By Diane N. Feaganes
What a delightful way to look different types of birds. I enjoyed the specificity you assign to each, and how you’ve made your text so active. I think you’re also doing an excellent job of evoking scenes that are clear and recognizable. That’s a great kid-centric approach to this topic.
Rhyming picture books are very hard. You have to get each end-rhyme just right and your scansion has to be perfect. The end result should appear effortless, though as the writer you put a lot of effort into the construction! This doesn’t feel effortless yet. I can’t help feeling that you start letting your strict structure rules slip about two-thirds down, when your sentences start sliding over line breaks without a natural pause. Make sure that your scansion is precise and that you don’t start forcing your language to fit your rhyme.
One other thing I think you might take a look at is your switch from “I” to “We” in your hummingbird section. For the first part of this book, you are evoking a child—the “I” is really your reader. And I like the invitation you’re extending with your refrain because it’s inviting your reader to imagine himself or herself into the scene as the bird. But when you get to the hummingbird, you’ve shifted your reader out of that. Suddenly you aren’t evoking child as bird, but child with bird. And that changes the dynamic, Take a look at this section again, and see if there’s the potential for readjustment.
A very nice start, indeed.
MOO-VIE STAR, by Lynne Marie, Fiction PB
Marilyn Moortensten lived at the Amazing Graze Dairy Farm in Bakersfield, California. Each day she grazed, chewed cud and gave milk, but when the farmer wasn’t looking….
She nosed through moo~vie magazines.
The other cows resented Marilyn.
“She thinks she’s a star,” said Short Horn. “A fallen star, maybe.”
“Absolutely over the moon,” said Brown Swiss.
“All dried up. A milk dud,” said Holstein.
Marilyn batted her starry eyes. “We’ll see who’s dried up. I’ll rise and shine and be a famous moo-vie star someday.”
“Don’t forget to write.” Short Horn howled with laughter. The others guffawed.
“Hrrmph!” said Marilyn. “I’m moving on to greener pastures.” That night, she left a note and tip-hoofed from the cow barn while the other milk cows slumbered. She took only her dreams and left the bovines and Bakersfield behind.
“Hollywood, here I come!” She stowed away in a dairy truck. When the truck stopped, she spilled out into the street and soaked in the sights. (Suggested Art: Rodeo Drive, Hollywood Farmer’s Market, Hollywood Trot of Fame, Grumoon’s Chinese Theatre, and corner of Hollywood & BoVine).
Not long after her arrival, Marilyn landed a job. She spent nights on her feet working for chicken feed. She spent days answering casting calls. But no one called back.
“This isn’t much better than the cattle calls back home,” Marilyn complained. She got a job as a pin-up model, and rented a couch in a cow-penthouse, but no one turned Marilyn into a star.
Moo-vie Star by Lynne Marie
This is a fun concept, and the writer is clearly having a lot of fun writing it. I really enjoyed the dreams of glamorous Hollywood mixed with the constraints of the dairy farm.
With this sort of book, I think clever word play is essential. The criticisms of the other cows reflect this. I like how you’re using culturally relevant cow references here to create her humor. But sometimes, I’m concerned that in an attempt to be witty, you’re overstretching: “tip-hoofed” tripped me up, and I had to think too hard about it, and the play between “casting calls” and “cattle calls” worries me. Remember that you’re still writing for young children, and these references may very well go over their heads.
I’m also concerned about your word count. This one page is over two hundred words, and you’re still pretty early in Marilyn’s story. In a picture book—in any book—words are real estate. For picture books, you should be looking at about five hundred words. (At my house, two hundred fifty is preferred.) Look for places where you’re perhaps giving too much detail and might cut. Does the name of the farm matter or where the farm is? Is the fact that she landed a low-paying job important, and important to your intended reader? (Remember, you want to focus on things that kids are concerned about, and working hard for little pay isn’t what keeps them up at night.)
I think there’s a great concept here. With some sharp focusing, this could really sing.
Dad would say I was up with the roosters that morning. I guess wandering roosters were the norm where he grew up in Mexico, but not here in New Jersey.
It was only because I wanted to catch him as soon he came downstairs. I knew about his big surprise and couldn’t wait for him to tell me. Dad had come through! He was getting me tix to see Chasing Aaron! It’d been an ongoing argument between Mom and I for months.
“The tickets are too expensive,” Mom had said. “And there’s always drugs at those concerts.”
Drugs? I wasn’t asking to have a time machine transport me to Woodstock. Anyway, since when did I do drugs? I was an honors student. If anything I needed drugs. I was always freaking out about my grades. I’d begged, even offered to pay for the tickets myself. Mom could be crazy stubborn about the dumbest things. Until last night.
I’d strained to hear the soft voices coming from their bedroom. Mom’s tinkling laughter was a good sign.
“She’ll be perfectly safe. Kids go to concerts all the time. They’re a really good band,” Dad said.
“Since when do you listen to Chasing Aaron?” Mom’s muffled voice teased.
“I’ve got a radio. And I’ve got a guy.”
“To score seats. I’ll even take Maisie’s friends. Sit somewhere else so she won’t have to be embarrassed to have her Dad with her. Like the front row.”
I imagined Dad close to the stage fist pumping, surrounded by screeching girls.
“Now you’re pushing it,” Mom said but somehow I knew he’d won.
Deported by Elisa Roland
There’s a strong concept set up here. I guess I’m assuming a lot with the title, but I like the sense of normal teen life you’ve created, and the sense of at least initial direction you’ve introduced. Maisie really wants to go to this concert and her parents won’t allow her to, but a change of fortune has made it a possibility. That gives us a direction for the novel. Maisie’s going to the concert. And that direction, we can assume, will be derailed.
But I have some concerns about the voice. This doesn’t consistently sound like a teen narration. For me, it comes across as a little young. But it may be that it also sounds a little generic. You have your own subject matter, but I’d love to see you find a distinct lilt to Masie’s narratorial voice so she doesn’t sound like every other YA narrator. Make her yours. Now, the how on that? Work and work and work who she is and how you express her. Just keep writing.
I think your dialogue, too, may be contributing to my younger read on this. “And there’s always drugs at those concerts.” This is Mom speaking, but it doesn’t sound natural as a mother, or as anyone speaking. Here’s my best dialogue advice: read it out loud, and if it sounds strange, fix it.
I’m a little concerned about the info-dumping in your fourth paragraph, too. Is this information we need in this moment, or is this just a casual way to give your reader more about Maisie? It’s a subtle line, and I personally think you don’t need some of that information there.
Good work. Keep at it.
Thank you Alison for sharing your time and expertise with us. We all can learn from your comments. Thank you. You can find Alison on Twitter at: @