Wednesday, July 23, 2014

July Secret Agent #11

GENRE: Contemporary Middle Grade

The ambulance in front of Beacon Middle School should have been Baxter’s first clue things were about to change. Wedged between the first two yellow school buses, its flickering emergency lights were dim in the morning light. Baxter, having just arrived, noticed Morgan, a girl from his sixth-grade science class, and approached her.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Iris Wellington was stung by a bee,” Morgan said.

“Kind of overreacting with the ambulance, aren’t they?” Baxter asked. “Was it a freakishly mutated killer bee?” He withheld the amusement he felt at his own joke as an uneasy feeling came over him. Plus, he kind of liked Morgan. He didn’t want to seem insensitive.

“Iris is allergic to bee stings,” she said with a dirty look. “I heard they couldn’t get to her meds. Someone messed with the nurse’s desk and the keys were missing.”

Baxter’s stomach lurched. A dark feeling cascaded over him like a wave. “Is she okay?” he asked.

“You see the ambulance, don’t you?” she said. “What do you think?”

Morgan paused to consider Baxter. “Sounds like something you’d do,” she said. She turned and walked off.

Baxter had a really bad feeling about what was going to happen next.

* * *

Later the same day, they all sat opposite Mr. Vinyu, the vice principal, in his office. Baxter’s mom and dad sat on either side of him. His mom, her eyes red from emotion, was hunched over her crossed legs. His dad was resting his forehead in his hands.


  1. Baxter is clearly a good kid - moral and eager to be liked - but also one who makes some dumb choices. This feels very believable for MG, and even though he's done/said several unfortunate things in this first page, I like him and feel invested in his success.

    There are a few phrases that could be deleted for better flow and clarity. For instance:
    "Baxter, having just arrived, noticed Morgan, a girl from his sixth-grade science class..." could be shortened to: "Baxter approached Morgan, a girl from his science class." (If he approaches, we know he saw her. His upcoming question tells us he just arrived. The setting of Middle School tells us the approximate age.)

    Good luck with this!

  2. The start with the ambulance is a good hook, for me. It hints at tension without dropping the reader in the middle of action. The fact that it’s in front of a school helps as well.

    Overall, the piece can be strengthened with a few things. Cutting extra words will help tighten the prose to maintain the tension. There’s a lot of passive voice here. People were, something was, eliminate these verbs as often as possible. Last paragraph for example:

    Later that (don’t need same) day, they (don’t need all) sat in Vice Principal Vinyu’s office. (Don’t need opposite, the, in his. Only the vice principal sits behind his desk so we can infer folks are sitting across from him without being told. Also, we have no idea who “they” are, so you can change that altogether.)

    Later that day, Baxter sat in Vice Principal Vinyu’s office with his parents on either side of him. (Two sentences tightened into one.) His mom, her eyes red from emotion, (nix was) hunched over her crossed legs. His dad (nix was) rested his forehead in his hands.

    Changes like this throughout the work will help.

    Good luck!

  3. Good job setting high stakes! If the girl is dead, I wonder if that might be a bit heavy for MG, though. At this age, even if the girl almost dies, it would probably be serious enough.

    A couple of phrases seemed a bit awkward, like "withheld the amusement," and a ____ feeling ... Maybe trying showing instead of telling with those--what does he do to withhold the amusement, for instance? Or what exactly does the feeling do to him--make him feel sick to his stomach? Give him goosebumps? If you show us that way, we can experience it more with him.

  4. I like the tension at the beginning of this piece. The dialogue between Baxter and Morgan is well-done, and I instantly get a sense of foreboding from Baxter's reaction.

    Couple of thoughts:

    In the line where you say, "she said with a dirty look" feels like telling. Could you maybe say, "she snapped" just to give us a sense of tone without telling us she gave him a dirty look.

    Also, I think your end to the scene would be much more effective if you left it with, "Sounds like something you'd do." It's powerful and tells us so much about Baxter's character.

  5. This opening pulls me into the story. I'm afraid for Iris, whose life is clearly in danger. From Morgan's attitude, we get the idea that Baxter is a troublemaker, but his emotional response to the incident makes me want things to work out for him.

    "The ambulance in front of Beacon Middle School" is a strong and engaging image, but I don't see why Baxter should have suspected anything. You're on target, though, with showing Baxter's curiosity right away. His callous joking is perfectly middle school, and I think we all cringe on his behalf when Morgan explains.

    "Baxter had a really bad feeling about what was going to happen next," doesn't work for me. I'd like to know, specifically, what his bad feeling is.

    In the last paragraph, "they all" are a mystery until the second sentence. Consider simplifying. Maybe, "Later, Baxter's mom and dad sat on either side of him in the vice-principal's office." I like the visual of his parents' reactions. If you drop the helping verbs, you get more intense picture--hunched and rested, instead of was hunched and was resting.

    Good work, and good luck! I'd keep reading to find out what happens to Baxter and Iris!

  6. I like this. The one thing I would point out is to cut Baxter asked. It is clear that only the two of them are talking, so keep the so-and-so said to a minimum.

    Otherwise, I liked the sense that Baxter had something to do with the nurse's keys and that he probably feels bad that the girl is now sick.

    I like the voice, too. I think it matches a boy that age well. I would read on.

  7. Oh wow! Now I'm scared. I never even thought that he might have something to do with the keys until I read Dottie's comment above! Yikes!

    Baxter does seem very likable and I too hope the girl didn't die, since this would be a very heavy thing for MG.

    Good luck with your project. I would keep reading!

  8. Nice job with the setup. We get to know Baxter and you get right to the problem -- Iris is stung by a bee, may die, and Baxter is a prime suspect.

    The first parg is author intrusion. Maybe rewrite it so it's in Baxter's POV. Let us see the scene from his eyes rather than yours.

    Since there's only him and Morgan in the scene, you could also cut a lot of the tags.

    Tangynt gave you good tips for tightening up the last parg. You could also get that more in Baxter's POV. Say the same thing, but write the way a sixth grade boy would express it, not as a writer would, and that will help create voice and tone.

  9. The narration here felt a bit stiff to me, not the way a kid thinks or feels, and I agree with other comments here that eliminating the passive voice will help. I’m intrigued by this character, but don’t feel a strong connection to him; I think cutting will get the reader closer to him.

  10. Not sure the best way to say thanks to all commenters so I'll post it here.

    This is all similar to feedback that's starting to trickle in from children's book pros. Baxter has been a complex, elusive protagonist for me so I'm trying to get into his head. "Story is intriguing, but we need more of Baxter's internal journey," so that's where I'm headed. Thanks for all the helpful thoughts. The quality of feedback on this blog impresses me every time.