Welcome to the first "Work in Progress" edition of It's a Start! Instead of examining the first sentences of published books, as previous editions have done, this entry will take a look at the first 8 to 12 sentences of manuscripts currently "under construction" by fellow kid-lit writers.
While I look forward to sharing my thoughts on their first sentences, the real value to these writers will be in getting multiple reactions to their work. So please, leave your comments. (Note: honest, constructive criticism and/or kudos are welcome; snark is not.)
Disclaimer: I'm not an agent or an editor and have no real standing to offer these critiques. My opinion may not reflect the opinion of anyone else in the kid-lit world, much less publishers, so please take my comments for what they are ... one person's reaction.
Shift (Young Adult), by Kate
I had six weeks to come up with a plan for getting to California. It took me six days. Oh God, I was really doing this.
With a deep breath and a half-hearted prayer, I made my way through the airport terminal. It had seemed so simple when I first saw the flier for the sophomore summer research trip -- a perfect cover for finding Clara. Unfortunately, my internal alarm hadn’t blared until I stepped off the plane that brought me from St. Louis to Crescent City. Not good.
Outside the airport, a grungy looking guy in a dark coat knocked into me and mumbled an apology as he passed. I jerked my bag onto my shoulder and scanned the area for a cab. Alone and cursing myself, I hesitated when a taxi pulled up to the curb.
“Hey, miss! You getting in or what?” The cab driver’s voice jolted me out of my panic.
Lots of good stuff here. Kate does a great job of revealing just enough about what is happening to pique our interest without laying out all her cards. I want to find out who Clara is and why the MC is looking for her.
I get the sense that the MC is enterprising and headstrong, and maybe a tad rash. What might have taken six weeks only took her six days ... but now she's having second thoughts. In any case, enterprising and headstrong are great traits for an MC, and being a tad rash is certainly a believable flaw for a teen.
Which brings me to something else Kate nails here ... weaving in a number of background details without being too obvious. We know that our MC is a sophomore (though it's not yet clear whether in high school or college), that it is summer, that she is from St. Louis, and that she is now in Crescent City, California. Well done!
Now, for the one thing that bothers me a bit here ... and again, maybe it's just me, so I'll be interested in seeing others' comments: Our MC refers to "my internal alarm," "cursing myself" and "my panic." These are strong words and emotions, which is great for indicating high stakes, but I don't feel as though I quite understand what she is referring to. Why is she feeling this way? Because she is rethinking the wisdom of finding Clara? Because she regrets traveling across country by herself? Or is there something else? Raising questions is good, but in this case, her sense of alarm leaves me feeling a bit lost and uncomfortable ... like I'm missing something. I would prefer to see a hint of context for it.
Overall: A terrific entry. I would definitely read on!
The Boy Who Ruined Everything (Middle Grade), by Dawn
A jet of flame shot past the window of Miss Morris’s fifth grade class. Everyone turned an accusatory look at David, who shrunk in his seat. Miss Morris barely hesitated as she wrote her sentence on the board, underlining the vocabulary words in pink chalk. “Louis, please read the sentence aloud for the class.”
David pretended to check his homework as Louis Corning stood up and recited, “The minions of Darkness ask for due penance and are paid a yearly tribute.” Louis had been David’s best friend back in first grade, but that was before. A lot of things had been different before.
Hmm, intriguing scene here. I am guessing we are in some sort of pseudo-fantasy world, maybe George-Orwell-meets-kid-lit? I want to know who the minions of Darkness are, why Louis and David are no longer best friends and what the heck David has to do with the shooting flame.
My only criticism is that I am not 100 percent sure who our MC is, though I am pretty certain it's David. I think my confusion has something to do with the actions in this scene. We have everyone turning, then David shrinking, then Miss Morris writing, then David pretending and then Louis standing up and reciting. It leaves me feeling as though we're bouncing around the room a bit much, and I might like to stay in David's head a little more. It's the last two sentences that most grab me and make me start to care about him. Maybe it could use just one or two more sentences after David shrinks in his seat so that we can focus on how he is feeling and what he is thinking.
Overall: Again, intriguing! I'm hooked!
Untitled (Middle Grade), by Lindsey
Not many people know that goat's eyeballs will bounce like one of those tiny super balls if they get away from you. By my stepmother's scream this afternoon, I figured she didn't know either. But hearing Meredith's glorious, glass-shattering wail was worth all the time it took to gather up all the eyeballs that had ricocheted off the kitchen walls and then wrap them back up in the brown butcher paper.
Meredith held her neck with one trembling hand and her breath sounded like the brown rabbit I found hurt on the side of the road last week. (The rabbit didn't make it, but I wound up drawing a picture of its feet once it had passed on.) "Till...," she said, "you...should label that...next time."
I started out the kitchen. "People don't usually snoop through my stuff."
Yes, the goat's eyeballs are mine, and they are most definitely real. My best friend, Benji, gave them to me when two of the old goats died on his dad's farm. They give me all kinds of animals parts when they're available.
OK, in the interest of full disclosure: I used to belong to a critique group with Lindsey and helped crit a funny MG manuscript of hers that I adored.
This is a new one for me, though, and so my first reaction when reading this is: More goats? Girl, what is it with you and the goats?
My next reaction is that I think I would once again adore this MS and this character. Till has a wonderful voice and comes across as funny and spunky. And this scene is plain funny.
We know that Till lives in a rural area and that she is not terribly fond of her stepmother. And we know these things because Lindsey has shown us, not because she has told us.
Potential thoughts for making it stronger: First, grammatically, I think we need to pluralize the goats and the eyes and the bouncing balls so they're all in sync in that first sentence. A couple of tweaks gives us: "Not many people know that goats' eyeballs will bounce like those tiny super balls if they get away from you."
Second, I didn't care for the parenthetical aside about the rabbit's feet. It took me out of this scene just as I was starting to get into it. I'd ditch it.
Finally, a question for Linds: Do you know for a fact that goats' eyes bounce? Cuz somebody out there is gonna know, so you want to make sure. And if you do know it for a fact ... um, how?!?
Overall: Lindsey's doing it again!
Untitled (Young Adult), by CC
If it wasn't for Kathleen O'Grady I wouldn't have this job at all, so I couldn't knock her for being an hour late with dinner, though it meant I'd have to take the bus back to my gangster Baltimore neighborhood instead of catching a ride with my cousin, Murphy. I would've blown it off, left, but Kathleen was bringing me college brochures and there was mention of a surprise as well. Last time she had a surprise I got an extra buck an hour pay raise.
Four weeks ago, just as school let out for the summer, Murphy got me on at the lawn care crew where he worked. His crew wore matching green T-shirts that read "Lawn Care, LLC," and, as the foreman, Murphy got to drive the kick-*** company truck, rows of mowers trailing behind in the flatbed, to their different jobs. I'd been tempted to take the wheel a few times, but I'd never been on Murphy's **** list before and I didn't want to be. That thick Irish body of his was apt enough to offer quite a beating. I'd seen him break someone's jaw with a single hit. Mostly, though, he was low-key. Minded his business. Worked and stayed out of trouble. Murphy was my favorite person in the whole world.
I like the voice here and the fact that we're easing into this character's world. Lives in a gangster neighborhood, works a summer job with a lawn care company, thinking about college. Admires his (her?) tough but quiet boss. Seems smart but not averse to street language. (And forgive my censorship, but I'm trying to overcome a black mark here.) We have no hint yet about the problem the MC faces, but this piece feels more literary to me, so I'm good with that.
Suggestions: Technically, the third word in the first sentence should be "weren't." Of course, this is written in first person, and maybe the main character wouldn't say that. I struggle with whether to make sure things are grammatically correct in my own writing, which also tends to be in first person, but I usually err on the side of being correct (occasional colloquialisms, slang and "teen talk" excepted).
I wondered whether the MC would refer to his/her neighborhood as "my gangster Baltimore neighborhood"? Do people who live in gangster neighborhoods think of them that way? I imagine some do, and that it depends on the person and the circumstances. My thought is that because this person refers to it that way, he or she is angry about the gang activity.
Finally, I like the second paragraph, but the first phrase, "Four weeks ago...." made me brace myself for backstory. My initial reaction was along the lines of, "Oh no, we're one paragraph into the opening scene and she's giving us backstory?" As I read on, I found the paragraph interesting and relevant, so it didn't bother me, so I'd suggest maybe flipping that first sentence around: "Murphy got me on at the lawn care crew four weeks ago, just as school let out for the summer."
Overall: I want to know more about this person and his/her life, which I'm certain is very different from my own. I'm reading on!
Many thanks to the four talented writers who agreed to participate in this exercise! I hope this is helpful, and I hope many of you will share your reactions to their first sentences. What do you like? What could be improved? Do you agree with my comments or am I out in left field? Let’s hear it!