Hi there #pg70pit people!
(Don’t know what #pg70pit is…click here for more info).
I’m one of the slushie readers in the Middle Grade category. There were some great pages entered for 2017 and I absolutely loved reading them. I submitted my vote for the best pages and I hope they all make it to the agent round – seriously, some good writing in those pages, and they deserve an agent.
However, as much as writers love to hear what worked, it’s just as important to know what didn’t. Even in the pages I voted for, there was room for improvement. I’ll run through a list of recurring issues that popped up in the entries, but first a word about editors. Now I’m not an editor, I don’t work for an editor, and I’m not endorsing any particular editorial service. However, I have most certainly benefitted from having a thorough editor eviscerate my work. A good editor is trained to see the issues I point out below and help you correct them.
Believe me, you can learn to see these things in your own writing, and then burn them out of that precious manuscript with a flame flower. But sometimes it takes an objective eye to get you pointed in the right direction – that’s where your friendly neighborhood editor comes in.
Ok, so on to the recurring issues I saw.
Listen, there is some great writing in the pages I read….but then the author starts second-guessing themselves. They conveyed the meaning perfectly, but then felt maybe the reader wouldn’t quite get it – so they added more words to really try to hammer that meaning home. Don’t do that. Trust your writing and trust your readers. The writing in these pages was more than good enough without those extra words clunking everything up.
Here’s an example (totally made up on my part):
“Ms. Hatchett’s hair just burst into flames!” Clay shouted alarmingly, his heart pounding as he pointed wildly at the red hot flames shooting from the teacher’s gray hair.
Whoa…I know, right. The dialogue says Ms. Hatchett’s hair just caught fire. Is there really a need to point out that Clay was alarmed? Or that he was pointing wildly? Or that that the flames were shooting from her gray hair?
The dialogue on its own conveys everything the reader needs to know. Trust that the reader sees the lady with her hair on fire and the alarm on Clay’s face. All that other stuff is just slowing your pacing down and killing the flow of your writing. Cut it out and you have a much more impactful scene.
2. Stage directions.
Ok, I’ll be the first to admit I’m guilty of this one too. Here’s what happens to us as writers. We get this strange idea the best way to write a scene is to describe every tiny little detail and action so the reader sees exactly (and I mean exactly) what we want them to see.
Here’s an example (totally made up of course):
Johnny turned slowly to his right, raising a single eyebrow ever so slightly. “Who do you think is guilty?”
Mary walked across the checkered green and white linoleum floor. She stopped near the open window and sighed as if in deep thought. “It could have been anyone.”
Sitting at the desk in the back of the room, Tom cleared his throat. “Anyone?”
Johnny pulled in a deep breath, took five quick steps toward Tom and then raised his other eyebrow. “Yes. Anyone.”
Ugghh….Ok, hopefully you get it. There are so many stage directions telling the reader where everyone is at, and exactly what everyone is doing that it just becomes painful to read. It’s slow, really slow. And in this day and age where MG readers have a gazillion electronic gadgets vying for their attention, the last thing your writing can afford to be is slow. Because they will put your book down and go play a video game instead….wouldn’t you too?
3. Disorienting the reader.
There are a couple of things that fall into this category. But the basic issue is the same – the writing ends up confusing the reader. One way this happens is a lot of head-hopping. That doesn’t mean you can only write from one POV. However, when you change POV’s make sure you clearly indicate that’s what happened – particularly in MG. Because if you don’t you will lose the reader. A good rule of thumb is to only change POV at a chapter break or at least put some white space in between POV switches. Try not to jump from character to character within a single page. That’s really tough on the reader.
Another way the reader can become disoriented is time shifting. I don’t mean actual time travel, where your story is about jumping around in time – that’s great if that’s what your story is about. What I’m talking about is something like a flashback within a flashback. It may seem perfectly fine to you as a writer (because you know the whole backstory), but to a reader they can easily become ungrounded.
Sally rushed through the forest, the dark shapes of trees flying passed her. A thought flashed into her mind. She had felt this same fear before, when a pack of dogs chased her when she was only seven. She ran for her mother then. But her mother wasn’t here now. She had been missing ever since the strange man had shown up at Sally’s bat mitzvah. Everything had seemed so normal that day. How could Sally have known her life would change so much after his appearance?
You can see how we start out in a good action scene (running through a dark forest), but then we get lost as Sally jumps around from memory to memory. By the end of the paragraph, as readers, we’ve completely forgotten what Sally was doing before. Flashbacks are fine, but try to keep them to a single time and clearly signal when the flashback is done. Don’t linger in memories.
4. Word choice, Sentence Structure and Paragraph structure.
This one is a lot about the technical aspects of writing. When it comes to creating a good MG voice, word choice can either make or break your writing. If you’re using words or phrases that a middle grader wouldn’t use, then your voice comes off sounding too old. Now don’t get me wrong, there is something to be said for sprinkling in a few challenging words to increase a young readers vocabulary. But as writers we have to be careful not to overdo it.
Sentence structure and paragraph structure are also really important. We have to be careful we don’t get stuck in a rut of repeating the same sentence structure over and over.
Tom blinked. “What do you mean by that?”
Sally shook her head. “Forget it, I shouldn’t have said anything.”
Tom locked his jaw. “But you did. So now you have to tell me.”
Sally glared at him. “No I don’t.”
Is that pattern noticeable to you? Yeah, it’s noticeable to an MG reader too. They are much more sophisticated readers than we give them credit for. They pick up on repetitive patterns in your sentence structure and it will annoy them to no end. Break up your sentence structures so the writing flows better.
The same thing goes for your paragraphs. Be particularly careful not to start each paragraph with the same sentence or subject.
For example, don’t have three or four graphs that start out like this.
Paragraph 1: Emilio jumped to the…
Paragraph 2: Emilio clung to the side of the boat…
Paragraph 3: Emilio felt his grip slipping…
It’s very easy for us as writers to try narrating everything that Emilio did. The problem is we start out every paragraph with Emilio + some action he is doing. That’s a very noticeable pattern and it gets boring really fast.
Ok, those are some of the issues I noticed in the pages. Like I said there is some great writing in the entries and I would absolutely read many of the full manuscripts, just based on the single page I got to see. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. If you noticed any of these issues in your writing…get out the red pen and start correcting!
As always, I’d love to hear your comments. Feel free to post them below.
All the best,