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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | First Impressions: GHOST TREE

First Impressions: GHOST TREE

ChuckHappy April, everyone! For many of us, this might finally signal the end of winter, although I know for a fact that 18 years ago, it was snowing on April 1 in my corner of Pennsylvania. School was even cancelled for the day. I wasn’t planning on going in anyway. My husband was busy shoveling a path to the car to take me to the hospital because I was in labor. Of course, the April Fool’s Day joke was on me: Gabrielle did not arrive until April 2.

We’re going to start off the month with a First Impressions post from Chuck Robertson. This is a YA paranormal/time travel novel called GHOST TREE.

***

The old, dying oak loomed high above me. Silhouetted against the darkening sky, its claw-like branches looked ready to reach down and snatch me at any second. Rather than get close to that creepy tree in the dark, I would just as soon have let my softball stay outside overnight. But it was the one my dad had given to me right before he went away. I couldn’t leave it there.

I reached into the cool grass at the base of the tree and grabbed the ball. Pounding it into my glove, I backed away.

Christa.

I thought I heard someone call my name. “Hello?”

Crickets chirped. Fireflies drifted over the grass like yellow embers. Except for the night bugs, I was alone in the backyard, though. Maybe I was hearing things.

Christa Parker.

The voice came as a scratchy whisper. It grated on me like fingernails on a sheet of glass. And it was not my imagination. The back of my neck tingled. My pulse thumped in my ears. “Who’s there?”

Hey, I’m up here. In the tree.

Slowly, I tilted my head. A misty human-shaped figure floated above me in the leafless branches. Its blurry, transparent face stared back. My stomach twisted itself into one gigantic knot. I stumbled backwards.

The image had to be my imagination, probably just a sheet caught in one of the branches. I threw my softball at the figure. The ball passed through it.  So much for the sheet caught in the tree theory. I turned and sprinted home.

The voice called to me as I fled. Please don’t run. I need your help. 

My hands trembled as I groped for the door knob.  I tumbled inside, slamming the kitchen door behind me.

Mom and Samantha paused in their unpacking and gazed at me. Mom set the dish in her hand onto the table.  “Careful. You’ll break the window, banging the door that way. That glass has to be at least a hundred years old. “

Still panting as if I had just slid into home, I leaned with my back against the door.

Mom squinted at me, bringing out a couple wrinkles around her eyes. “Are you all right?” 

“I’m not sure.” I stared out the window to see if the ghost had followed me to the house. Nothing. 

Samantha brushed back a lock of her hair. Strawberry blonde this month. “For someone who’s not sure, you look awfully scared to me.”

***

I really enjoyed the opening paragraph. The image of the tree, the softball and the significance of that ball convey a lot of information in a brief, effective passage, and it reads very smoothly to me. Further down, in between the whispers, the paragraphs are constructed with many short simple sentences. Short sentences can increase tension, but too many in a row give the narrative a choppy feel. I would suggest blending some of them to vary the sentence structure and make those paragraphs flow like the first one.

The narrative voice sounds more MG than YA to me, at least in this short sample. I know from communication with Chuck that he’s targeting younger YA and that Christa is 15 years old. To me, this suggests a tween novel – with teenage characters and a youngish feel to the story.  However, I know a lot of authors are reporting a hard time selling “tween” books right now. The market is constantly changing, but this post on the quiet death of a tween book deal is worth reading. Well-known authors can sell books in that nebulous in-between range, but new authors might be more successful if their books fall firmly in either the MG or YA realm.

Related to this issue is the appearance of the ghost on the first page. This might be a matter of opinion, but I think that’s rushing things in a YA novel. In a book targeted for teens, I’d love to see the spooky tone and mood of the first several paragraphs extended and a longer build-up to the paranormal – that is, strange and creepy/mysterious events first, before the ghost makes itself known. An agent once told me in a workshop that what he looks for most of all in the first 250 words of a YA novel is voice and a connection to the main character. In this case, I think that means working on Christa’s voice and giving us a feel for who she is, all while building the ghostly tone.

A MG novel can move at a much faster pace. Personally, I’d still put only a ghostly whisper on the first page and save the sighting of the actual ghost for the end of the first chapter. But that’s just me.  Readers, what do you think?

Chuck, thank you for sharing your first page with us! Marcy will have her own feedback at Mainewords, and Chuck can be found at his blog, Author With a Day Job.

9 Responses to First Impressions: GHOST TREE

  1. I enjoyed the sample quite a bit. The imagery in that first bit is fantastic. I would read to find out more.

  2. Tiana Smith says:

    I’m glad you mentioned the MG vs YA thing Dianne – because that was one of the first things I noticed was that this voice seemed much younger. I’d say probably 13. Most teenagers wouldn’t really be scared by a tree, and then, when running to the house, the attitude would be much different. For a younger MC though, this voice fits. In good news though, MG is selling great and if the writer could make it work for that age group, then this is a great opening!

  3. Good point. I didn’t realize the character was fifteen when I read it. Sounded much younger.

  4. Mina B. says:

    I’m with Alex. I didn’t catch the age, but I did enjoy the creepy vibe it gave. 🙂

  5. ChemistKen says:

    Thanks for mentioning the MG vs YA vs tween problem. One of the stories I’ve had on the back burner for a while may very well fall into the tween category, so I’ll have some decisions to make when I pull the file up again sometime in the future.

  6. Sheri Larsen says:

    Great post, Dianne. I really like these previous comments and agree with most of what everyone else said. I’d also like to point out that I like the simplicity of the title. I’m a stickler for titles. Best of luck to Chuck!

  7. I’m not sure if it’s proper for me to respond to my own story, but here goes. If it’s wrong, kindly remind me and I’ll stop. I appreciate the time you all took to evaluate my story. You’ve also exposed something I definitely need to correct; the voice is too young.

    I originally envisioned this as a MG story, but it has a strong romantic subplot and involves a little violence which I did not think appropriate in MG. And you’re right, there is a gap somewhere around 13 to 14 in which stories are difficult to market. Hence the decision to elevate her age to 15. The later chapters have a more mature voice, with little bit of attitude from the MC. The problem is, it usually takes me a couple chapters to really get a voice for the MC. The new, more mature voice is clearly not apparent in the first chapter.

    My solution will be to change her voice in the first few pages by giving her an attitude toward the tree rather than be scared of it. She will also be more skeptical of the ghost. It’s really kind of discouraging to find out your first chapter needs yet another rewriting, but it’s better to find that out before you submit the story. I’ve been chomping at the bit to get this into the submission grinder for a couple months now and want to get it done.

    I’m grateful to all of you for pointing this out in my story. If you had not, I would not have been aware of the need to alter the voice of the narrator. Thank you for taking the time to read this.

    -Chuck

    • DianneSalerni says:

      Chuck,

      In my experience, it is absolutely normal to have trouble with the voice in the opening chapters. I usually have to re-write them several times to get it right.

      And then, for the books that have sold to a publisher, I’ve been asked by an editor to do it over again! The Caged Graves and every book in the Eighth Day series so far … I’ve had to re-do the first chapter for my editor, often multiple times.

      So don’t be discouraged!
      It’s better to just get used to it … 🙂

  8. Lexa Cain says:

    Hi Chuck! Well, my comment was going to be how much I enjoyed it – nice tension, creepy feel – but that the voice was MG. Since you’ve already replied to say you’ll change the voice, then just…um…stick with my “nice tension, creepy feel.” Good luck!