Monday, September 7, 2009

For Critique: Family Treasure

I want to thank Janet for being willing to submit the first +500 words of her manuscript Family Treasure. This is a novel for third to sixth-grade readers. People in the industry call this "middle grade fiction."

It took a lot of courage for Janet to submit her manuscript, so please keep that in mind when offering your critiques. Be sure to open with something positive and close with something positive, sandwiching the negative. And Janet, this is a good time to develop the thick skin that all writers need. Even after publication, we'll still receive negative reviews. It's impossible to please everyone, so this is good preparation for that as well.

So, now we begin:


Chapter One

“I can’t believe this,” Jan whispered, as she held the yellowed paper in her hand. The hot stale air of the attic brought sweat beads on her forehead and her bangs dripped with perspiration. “I worry so about the chest Grandpa brought over from the home country. I fear if they spy the chest they may loot through it and destroy the contents. Have Dudley take it to safe keeping.” Jan finished reading the letter and then stared out into the musty attic. “I wonder if Mom knows about this.”

She looked over at her cousin Sarah. “You picked the best time to come and visit. I just discovered a secret and you can help me solve it!” Jan wiped her forehead with her arm and eased the letter back into the envelope. “Sarah, did you hear me?” She cast an impatient glance toward the corner of the attic.

“What?” asked Sarah. “What did you say?”

“Come on. Didn’t you hear a word I said?” Jan pulled Sarah from the old trunk where she was going through the contents.

“Wait. Let me put these old clothes back.” Sarah barely had time to toss the items back into the trunk as Jan pulled at her arm.

“You won’t believe this. Oh, shoot! I forgot the jelly jars. Could you get them?”

“Where are. . . ouch! I found them.” Sarah rubbed her toe as she picked up the jars and carried them out of the attic. She limped down the old oak stairway to her aunt’s kitchen below. She looked at Jan and saw the yellowed envelop clasped in her hand.

“Mom! Mom!” Jan yelled as Sarah put down the box of jars. “Where could she be?” Come on, help me find her.” They searched each room of the old house, but her mother was nowhere to be found. They ran outside and looked for the family dog, King, in his favorite spot under the porch.

“King! Where are you boy?”

“Jan, get out from under the porch. There could be snakes curled up under there just waitin’ to strike out at you.”

“Oh, Sarah, you’re a scaredy cat. Besides, they won’t hide under the porch; they know King will chase ‘em out.” Jan dusted off her shorts and looked around the yard. “They’re both missing.” She pressed her lips together and looked at Sarah. “This is a case for the Country Cousins.”

Country Cousins! Jan you read too many Nancy Drew books. Besides, I live in the city.”

“Not this summer you don’t. You’re my Country Cousin until Labor Day, and we have mysteries to solve.”

“This might be fun,” said Sarah as they walked back into the kitchen.

“Where is Mom? I have to show her this letter,” said Jan. She sat down to catch her breath.

“What letter? Let me see.” Sarah leaned across the table and reached for the envelope.

Jan clenched it against her chest. “Are we partners? Are you a member of The Country Cousins Detective Agency?”

“Yes, yes. I’ll be your partner. Now let me see the letter. Where’d you find it? I didn’t see any old letters in the attic.”

“While you rummaged through the clothes in the trunk, I found this box of old books.” Jan raised her eyebrows and cocked her head in the air. “Look what fell out of one. This letter is dated April 1863. It’s addressed to My Dearest Anna and signed Your loving husband, Henry.”


  1. Hi, Janet! Well, you've got some interesting points in here. The 200 year-old mystery is, (I think) the most intriguing part of this passage. So much so, that I want it moved up much closer to your first page. Two women (or girls? I'm not at all sure how old they are, but that's another issue) looking for jelly jars in the attic is not a strong hook. Two girls launching on a treasure hunt is.
    When Jan first mentions how worried she is about the chest (which I think you can mention once by name and afterwords as "it"), I thought she was an adult from the 18th or 19th century. It becomes evident fairly soon that I was wrong, but it jolted me to disover that.
    Also, I'd leave Mom out of it for as much as possible. The plot needs to revolve around Jan and Sarah and how they solve the mystery on their own.
    All that said, you did a great job at keeping passives out (I only spotted one) and I love the comparison to Nancy Drew and the title of their "agency."
    Good luck!

  2. Hi Janet
    Your first chapter launched the two girls into your story very well. The attic with a crypic letter is just the sort of thing youngsters want to read about. Secrets, mysteries, old trunks and two chatty girls who want to do something on their own.
    I agree with Victoria in that the ‘jelly jar’ angle is a bit weak. Perhaps the discovery of the trunk could be the focus of their trip to the attic, and include a description of it as being a source of the mystery.
    Also, Jan could ask her Mum about the trunk, but wouldn’t she want to keep the letter to herself? She and Jan see themselves as detectives, so I feel they would be less willing to tell Mom. This introduction certainly made me want to read more and find out who Dudley was and why the trunk was important.

  3. In agreement with the other two . . . I was at first confused by the old-fashioned adult talk, and then I realized later it was a quote from the letter. This is more a formatting issue than a content issue, but you definitely want to make sure it's understood that the LETTER says that, not the girl, lol.

    Otherwise, is there a better way to hook a child than with promise of a treasure hunt?? I actually like the accidental discovery, when they think they're up there for something innocuous like jelly jars. That makes kids think that the mundane chores assigned them might just result in adventure. Great start!

  4. Great plot w/the old mystery letter. Does the mother & dog's missing have to do w/the mystery? If not, go easy w/that. Keep to the letter mystery & focus on the girls' participation. Maybe format the letter contents so that it's understood better. You've got a great start here. Keep up the good work.

  5. Thanks everyone for your comments thus far. I see where I need to work on it a little. The first paragraph needs to be more clear that she is reading from the old letter she found. And I will think about the jelly jar thing. By the way, the girls are 12 yrs old and the story takes place in the 1960s. After the girls discover the letter in the attic, the mother tells the girls a family legend, which sparks their curiosity even more. Don't know if I was supposed to comment or not, but I wanted to thank everyone for their help.

  6. Yes, Janet. Please comment. It's great to see you joining in on the conversation. :-)

    When putting a written document in your text (in this case, a letter) the best way to do that is to indent it half an inch all the way around. Because she's reading the text aloud, use both double-quotation marks and single quotation marks like "'this.'"

    In this case, I'd consider tightening the POV (point of view) throughout the entire scene and have her read the letter to herself, therefore eliminating the quotation marks.

    It's possible each publishing house has their own "rules" for how to format in this situation. But that's the copyeditor's job. So, just make sure it's clear, and if it's not according to a particular house's "standards," they'll make the necessary changes (or have you do it).

    Any questions? Feel free to ask.