Monday, June 15, 2009

First Pages: MG / Fat Chance's Magic Map

Tony made a bet with the entire fifth grade class. If he didn’t get Mr. Chance’s magical map by his eleventh birthday, he was going to wash the kindergarten toilets every day for the rest of the school year.
Does fifth grade seem too old to believe in magical maps? Or maybe we just need more introduction to this story before we're supposed to take as a given such a thing's existence?
Some kids said that was desperate. Crazy. Just plain suicidal.
But Tony was a rule-breaker.
Nevertheless, Tony couldn’t ignore the Legend of Mr. Chance, as scribbled in a secret notebook on the back shelf of the Watson Elementary School library. The story filled the entire notebook except for the last page. Tony planned on writing the ending himself.
If I were feeling particularly short of patience on the day this was submitted to me, I might be done reading right here. The Legend of Mr. Chance? A secret notebook?

This is an important, but more conceptual, kind of telling rather than showing. When you deprive us of the experience of discovering the notebook and working through our doubts with the main character, you deprive us of action--and an important piece of the story. But you also place the burden of effort on the reader instead of on yourself. That's what show-not-tell is about: you, the writer, should be doing the work of convincing us of your story, rather than handing us the Cliff's Notes and expecting us to try to invest ourselves in the plot.
He stood in the library, skipping his dreaded math class, and read:
The Legend of Mr. Chance
Mr. Chance had only one purpose in life-to make miserable little kids even more miserable.
Little kids who laugh at his shiny bald head and big bulging belly.
Little kids who hide his glass eye under his wig collection.
Ok, I'm giggling.
Little kids who barge into his magic shop and mess up the fake vomit display.
In spite of myself, I'm a little intrigued.
In short, little kids who fart and burp and sneeze and cough and do all sorts of gross things. Kids who want a little more freedom from their parents and a little more sugar in their lunchboxes.
Kids just like you.
Mr. Chance enjoyed his purpose in life. His daily checklist included:

Spray two boys with girl’s perfume
Chop off the ponytail of a girl wearing a pretty pink dress
Switch the homework of a kindergarten kid with the homework of a fifth-grader
Throw pies at six kids
Throw mud at seven kids

You can probably guess by now, Mr. Chance did not attend the School For Treating Kids With Kindness. But Mr. Chance wasn’t always a half-bald, half-blind, big ol’ bucket of mean.
The last line switches to a different voice.
This has some interest and humor, and it may be going someplace marketable. If I were feeling generous, I might turn the page. But the show-not-tell issue is the kind that is likely to crop up again and again in a manuscript, and if that happens, I'm really sorry, but I don't have the time to fix that with you after acquisition.


Chris Eldin said...

Thanks for your feedback, EA!!

I have a craft question. This story is currently in submission (five agents are reading a full). But I received a rejection last week from an agent who said she loved my voice and the humor that permeates the story, but the pace was too fast.

The structure of the story is very similar to Alice in Wonderland, and I mention that in my query letter. But I think her point is valid ---so right now I am making minor revisions by adding narration to some scenes. But this is a 'boy' book. My question for you is this: In the current market, what are some things that editors look for in a 'boy' book?

If you have time to answer, I'd really appreciate it! And many many thanks for your comments on my opening!!!

Anonymous said...

Great humor!

My only concern is I don't know if Mr. Chance is alive. Is he a teacher or something? Someone we are going to meet? Or has his mysterious notebook been left in the library and that is the draw? (When you say the Legend of Mr. Chance, that makes him sound like he's dead.)

Vacuum Queen said...

Chris, I'm no editor, but I have a comment about your pacing questions. I read a ton of boy books (pre reading before I give it to my son) and I think that if the pace is all just becomes boring. To think that boys all have a short attention span is not the right reason to pace it quickly (I know you didn't mention short attention span, just go with it). I think fast is good, but like a movie, all action becomes lame pretty quickly. You end up kindof glossing over it. Gotta mix it up. Adding some narration is probably not a bad long as it adds a bit of hook here and there to keep the readers looking around the next page.

Chris Eldin said...

Thanks Anon and Vaccuum Queen!

The premise is a kid who is granted ten wishes in time for his birthday, only everytime he makes a wish, something rather twisted happens. Think Bedazzled for kids.

So there are setting changes which quicken the pace. But I did go through after getting that rejection and added narration, which not only slowed the pace but made the character more sympathetic. We'll see... but I agree that too fast is tiresome.

Thanks for the feedback!!!

Sheila said...

Like the Vacuum Queen (can you come to my house, please?), I also read a lot of boy books and am always on the lookout for ones that will interest my three boys. And this definitely looks like one they would like. Humor and magic and a mean guy, that's all good stuff.

That said, I think you are throwing too much at us at once. We have Tony, a rule breaker, making a bet. We have Fat Chance, a mean old guy who hates children (have you read You're A Bad Man Mr. Gum? It's brilliantly funny, you can read the first few pages on amazon. I mention it because it has a similar opening - this guy is so bad he . . .)

We are in school with Tony, then in the magic shop, then in the library. There's a map and a notebook. I've lost my breath.

I really want to know more about the notebook, mostly. What is it doing in the library? Why is the last page empty? Are those lines about Mr. Chance from the notebook, or from Tony's perspective? What does the notebook have to do with the map? And how did Tony, a risk-taker/class cutter, find the notebook, when it was hidden in the library? He doesn't come across as the kind of kid who would spend his free time browsing the stacks.

I like EA's suggestion of letting us discover the notebook with Tony. Good luck, I really would like to see what happens to Tony, and what is magical about the map, and what the legend of Mr. Chance is . . .

Buffra said...

The premise is interesting. I feel like it isn't flowing quite right, though -- it's a little "jerky" (probably a pacing thing?) to me.

EA got frustrated with another (a dystopian YA) for being too confusing, but this one has that quality for me. I still feel like I don't understand the notebook -- is it written by other kids? By Mr. Chance? Then why do the kids care, if he's so mean? (And why would he write a notebook and have it in the elementary school in the first place?)

Could be that I'm over-thinking this! :-)

Oh, and his nasty daily checklist seems like it could use some beefing up.

MelissaPEA said...

Good premise, that seems marketable, not just to boys either. I like that Tony is a rule-breaker.

Does Tony have the authority to wash the toilets? It seems like a school wouldn't allow a student to do that.

Why the kindergarten toilets? Are they grosser than the other toilets in the school? Not sure you need to specify "kindergarten."

How secret is this notebook, if Tony knows exactly where it is? It doesn't seem hidden, either, on a backshelf. Anyone could find it on a backshelf.

How can Tony skip out on math class unnoticed? That's more of a middle school or high school deed. I know he's inclined to break rules, but it just seemed like something an older kid would do.

The Legend of Mr. Chance notebook is funnny, but I agree with Buffra's comment. Can you amp up the humor on the checklist? Amp up the meanness too.

I agree with Sheila that you're throwing too much at the reader at once. I also don't like the shift to second person when you write "You can probably guess." It's the first time the narrator talks to the reader, and it was jarring.

Good luck - this seems like a fun manuscript.

Chris Eldin said...

Thanks Sheila, Buffra, and Melissa! I really appreciate that you took the time to comment!

This was an early draft so some of your concerns have been addressed, but the new version isn't far off from this one. I've been querying this with the first chapter pasted into the body of the email. I figure you're either going to like this voice or not, but you'll know from the beginning. I describe it in my query as "Raold Dahl meets Alice in Wonderland." The tone is similar to Dahl, and the structure similar to Alice in Wonderland. It's not going to be to everyone's taste, but I decided with this book to try to write specifically for boys. I see what my boys like, and what other fifth-graders like (because I volunteer in a library), and some of it ain't pretty. But it's usually in one of two categories: gross or funny.
We'll see... I wish I could see into a magic ball. But I guess we all do, right?

Thanks for your feedback!

Emily Kokie said...

Great first line, nice humor. Feels like a good premise for MG.

But the magical map thing felt a bit young for 10 going on 11, and then the notebook felt a little old for 10 going on I was left scratching my head a little.

I'd read on, but with an eye toward consistency.

There's also lot going on in this first page and I felt it was a bit too much all at once.

I didn't mind the notebook being tossed out there, instead of discovered, but it did feel like something older kids would be more likely to have than younger ones.

The humor of the "little kids..." parts was great, but I wondered who middle grade readers would feel about "little kids" - would they think they were being called "little kids?" They wouldn't like that very much and it could hurt their interest.

And as much as this has humor, it feels almost like a voice over to me, and I'd rather first get the main character's voice clear before the reading from the notebook.

So, I think this has loads of potential, but I think if the rest moved this fast, with so much narrative rather than the actual adventure, I'd lose interest fast, and middle grade readers would lose interest faster.

But humor is hard to do well, middle grade humor even harder, and you have that. So I say slow it down and take the reader on more of an adventure, and it will come together nicely.

good luck.


ABH said...

EA, thanks, this one was very educational for me. In your slushy experience, is it common to have too many confusing bits of information in the opening? This has come up a few times in the first pages.

I'm guessing the goal is to make people read on in order to learn answers to all the questions raised. What we've seen in the first pages suggests this is easy to overdo.

Chris -- if you want to plunge into action and not gum it up with back story, maybe you could try a prologue? Prologue: Who is Mr. Chance, how he became a legend, what is the notebook, how it ended up in the library. Chapter One: Tony finds notebook, makes rash commitment to find magical map.

And then chapter two starts about where we are now.