Friday, April 29, 2011

First Page Critique: contemporary YA

Thanks go out to Shelley for submitting her contemporary young adult novel, Counting Change, for a first page critique. (You can read the submission without comments in yesterday’s post.)

My mother’s mission in life is to change me. She’ll deny it, but ever since daddy’s accident, she colors the rooms of our home like Michelangelo threatened with unemployment. She wears her paint scarf wrapped tight around her curls, and dangles brushes from each hand like a gunslinger from an old movie.

CE: The first sentence is intriguing, and I’m sure many teens will identify. We get a hint of another conflict and recent changes in the phrase “since daddy’s accident.” I don’t understand how the rest of the paragraph relates, though. What does coloring the house have to do with changing the daughter? “Dangles brushes from each hand like a gunslinger from an old movie” is a great image. “Like Michelangelo threatened with unemployment” doesn’t work for me as well. I started to think about what exactly that meant—is Mom painting murals?—Plus, can she really be both Michelangelo and a gunslinger?

“Jenna and I are going back to school shopping,” I say before she can get a word out. All summer I’ve worked at Connie’s Coffee listening in on conversations. A study in human weirdness. Right now in my sock drawer I’ve a folded wad of twenties waiting to buy jeans and shoes for my first day of high school.

CE: This jumps around. What do listening in on conversations and a study in human weirdness have to do with back-to-school shopping? I feel like the author is trying to get in too much information at the beginning. I’d save the coffee shop information for later.

I grab orange juice out of the fridge, and hunt through our cupboard for a clean glass.

CE: Not much going on here. I’d cut this line or replace it with an action which is more relevant, such as trying to get away before Mom interferes.

“Wonderful! I think you’re going to love high school, Stoney. I know I did.” Mama runs her hand over my hair. “Why do you insist on cutting your hair like a boy?”

I tug on my new bangs, knowing I cut them way too short. But I don’t care. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to hate high school, Mama. Just because you liked it doesn’t mean I’m going to like it.” In fact, it’s a pretty sure bet that if she liked it, I’ll hate it.

CE: Lots of good information in these paragraphs. We get Stoney’s name (unusual! I wonder if there’s a story behind it), some of her appearance, and some personality of both characters. It’s a nice example of “showing” through dialog and specific thoughts.

I’m trying to figure out why our lives have to change so much. Why can’t we stay the same?

CE: This doesn’t logically follow from her previous thoughts. It sounded like she was used to opposing her mother, so how is that a change? This feels like a teaser line where the author is trying to let us know right away that this novel is about change. Plus, we’ve gone from feeling like we are right there in the scene to a vague time and place. Is Stoney just standing there pondering through the next couple of paragraphs?

It’s unbelievable the changes one person is required to go through in a lifetime, let alone a simple summer. I’ve written some down:

Besides the unspeakable accident, which changed everyone’s lives forever, at the top of my list is Carl Journey, ex-boyfriend and creep. Also on that list is: school, body, and environment. Mine to be exact.

CE: I could see starting with these two paragraphs, if this novel has a lot of lists or diary style elements, or if the voice includes addressing the reader a lot. It would establish the voice and start by focusing on change. It introduces a couple of interesting elements—the unspeakable accident and the creepy ex-boyfriend. The rest of the list is bland, though. I’d like something more specific, such as suddenly growing boobs or growing three inches with stretch marks like tire tracks or becoming the acne queen. Specifics are more interesting and the way she words things would give us some indication of how she sees herself and the world.

CE: I’m not sure the opening scene fits with these last two paragraphs. Either could work as the beginning, but now it jumps too much. We get so many elements that I’m not sure where the story is right now, let alone where it’s going. What is the main element of the story? Is it about the character’s relationship with her mother? Then the conversation with Mom is a great place to start. It is about how the character deals with changes, the list might be a good start.

CE: Either way, Stoney is an interesting character and the first-person voice, written as if she’s talking to the reader, works well for teen novels. Simplify your beginning so it’s a little more focused, and let other information come out over time. One interesting element and a strong voice is enough to grab the reader. You don’t need to introduce everything at once. Click on the click on the "beginnings" link to the right for more thoughts on story openings.

Thanks for sharing! I have a couple more critiques waiting. If you’d like to add yours to the queue, see the guidelines.

You can get a complete manuscript critique starting at $1.50 per page. Get details and recommendations on my website.

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