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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | First Impressions: NOT A HOLIDAY

First Impressions: NOT A HOLIDAY

Our final First Impressions post comes from Sharon Mayhew. This is the first page of her MG historical fiction manuscript: NOT A HOLIDAY.
August 1, 1940
            I flung my gas mask over my shoulder and plopped down in a kitchen chair.
            “But I don’t want to carry a gas mask around all the time,” I said.
            “It’s not a choice, Joyce, you have to.  Everyone has to, from grandparents all the way down to babies.” Mummy stacked a pile of newspaper on the counter, and then dug around in the odds and end drawer.
            “Well, I don’t think it’s fair that the war is coming to London.  That Mister Hitler is a real rotter!”
            “I think everyone in England would agree with you on that, Love.” Mummy brushed her long auburn hair out of her eyes.  “But right now I need you to show Gina carrying your gas mask is all right and not fuss about it.  Imagine how grateful you’ll be to have it, if something horrible happens.”
            “I still don’t like it.”  I scratched the back of head and thought about Gina being scared of bombs and gas masks.  “I’m going to make Dolly a little gas mask box. That should make it less scary for Gina.”   Dolly was special to Gina, she was her only doll.  Gran gave her to Gina on her last birthday.
             “That’s a wonderful idea!”  You can make it while I’m getting the house ready in case the air raids start.”
            I found a matchbox, a roll of sticky tape, the crayons, and some string in the odds and ends drawer.  I separated the matchbox into two parts. I cut off a piece of string and taped it to the inside of the outside part of the matchbox, then I slid the drawer part back in.  I colored Dolly’s gas mask box blue.  Gina liked blue and it covered up the words on the matchbox.
            Gina came in the kitchen carrying Dolly.
            “Look what I made for Dolly.”  I held up the tiny gas mask box.
            “Oh!  Now, Dolly will be safe too.”  Gina slipped the gas mask box over Dolly’s shoulder, gave me a cuddle and then plopped down in the chair next to me.
My first thought, as I was reading, was I wanted to know more about Joyce, our main character. I didn’t know why she didn’t like the gas masks (ie: bulky, smelly, uncomfortable, scary) or if she even understood what they were for. And she changed her attitude rather quickly, from being petulant over the masks to making one for a doll so her sister won’t be afraid of them.
I think we need to get into Joyce’s head a little more in the opening page, so that her voice will shine. I want to know how much she knows about “Mr. Hitler the rotter” and the reason everyone carries gas masks. Has she learned about it in school? What has she overheard adults talking about?  Is she scared? Letting us glimpse her inner thoughts will go a long way towards establishing voice and our connection to this MC.
I’d like it to take a little longer before she buys into putting on a good show for her little sister – at least long enough to mull the situation over and decide why it’s important for her to do so. The details of making the mask for the doll could be glossed over in favor of some reflection on Gina and Joyce’s determination to be a good big sister. Readers, what do you think?
Sharon, thanks for sharing your first page with us! Marcy Hatch has a critique of this same page up on her site Mainewords, and you can say hello to Sharon at her blog.

17 Responses to First Impressions: NOT A HOLIDAY

  1. Sarah says:

    What an awesome time period to set an MG! Like the Narnia Chronicles! I agree with your feedback, Dianne. To have been in London just prior to the Blitz would have been intense for anyone. Is Mummy showing any signs of strain that Joyce can detect? What about Joyce herself? How long have they been preparing? What does she think is about to happen? In an opening page, when you’re trying to hook the reader, you might want to hint at these things. You can do it without laying everything out–just a few enticing hints to keep the reader engaged and built to the bigger revelations. That would probably be more effective than all the details of making the doll gas mask container.

    A few writing things–be careful of word repetition. You use “plopped” twice. And you tell me she throws a gas mask and then she says it’s a gas mask in the next sentence. I wonder if, the first time Joyce refers to it, she could call it something else, something more descriptive (smelly black monstrosity?) to give a young reader the sense of what she’s dealing with. And then, “You don’t have a choice, Joyce” in that first few lines threw me off because of the rhyme. Further in, it might not matter, but you want to avoid alliteration and rhyme funniness starting off, maybe (seriously–my editors jump all over that stuff).

    Lastly, you have a few typos and things–in the para that starts “That’s a wonderful idea,” you close quotes while the character is still speaking, and then close them again at the end of the next sentence. You also have a comma splice–“Dolly was special to Gina, she was her only doll.” You could put a semi-colon there and be fine, but not a comma.

    With some polish and reshaping, this will really shine. It’s a fascinating set-up, and I want to know what Joyce is going to go through! Her love for her little sister really comes through. Best of luck with this, Sharon!

  2. Awesome Sharon that you’re sharing this. It sounds like a great story. I loved the first line and wanted to know more as soon as I read about the gas masks.

    I think Diane’s and Sarah’s suggestions are good to draw out the conflicted feelings more before Joyce decides to make the box for the doll. I had to draw out the initial conflict in my own manuscript. Be careful to pull in the sympathetic feelings like fear in Joyce’s conflicted feelings so it doesn’t just seem she’s bothered by it.

    This sounds like an awesome story. Good luck!

  3. Thanks for sharing Sharon. I would agree with Dianne. I wanted to know more about Joyce. I also thought she changed her tune quickly to put on a good show for her sister. I know her mom is probably acting calm but I would think a little hint of worry would be showing through. Otherwise, great start to a great sounding story. I really like the time period too. Good luck!

  4. T. Drecker says:

    I had to read the first sentence twice, only because it’s such a new idea for MG. Definitely an interesting setting.

    I have to agree with the others, we need to get into the MC’s head more. This is also a problem I have 🙂 Even in the 3rd person, it’s important to see things from the MC’s view and know exactly what she’s feeling.

    I also found the flip to help her little sister a bit fast. Before she helps her little sis, she’s going to be half-way convinced herself that these gas masks are important.

    There’s still a few typos and things to clean up, too.

    Lol! Now that I just basically repeated everyone else… Good luck!

  5. Aloha Sharon,

    I agree – *great* time period and a so very interesting time for any family living in London, (which is why I clicked over to read the excerpt:)

    As mentioned above, there were the few typos and I was wondering if there is a male voice coming in soon. (Is Daddy in the RAF, or is he MIA somewhere? – Does Joyce and Gina have a brother or cousin who will cause all sorts of trouble as the War heightens…?)

    I don’t know, of course, but I *would* read on to find out 🙂

    Thanks for sharing, GOOD LUCK and “tally ho, old bean” 🙂

  6. Jackee says:

    I think this story is fabulous. I love the setting and I love the characters. But having read more than this of it, perhaps I have a huge advantage. My suggestion would be to make that first sentence stronger. The verb pulls me from the story a little before I even start. I think one strong glimpse of character or foreshadow of the rest of the story here can go a long way. I can’t wait to read the whole thing!

  7. I too would be very interested in hetting inside the head of Joyce more in order to find out about the root of her apprehension. I love historical pieces like this.

  8. Everyone else has made so many terrific comments, I don’t have much to add. But I wholeheartedly agree about strengthening Joyce’s characterization so your young readers can empathize with her and get a real feeling for what life was like during WWII. Great choice for a setting, and I wish you much success with it, Sharon. You can make history come alive for your readers.

  9. Susan Oloier says:

    Sharon, I felt pulled into the era during your first page. It reminds me of some of the stories my mother has told me about her childhood in the 40s.
    Like Jackee, my only thought was to strenthen the first sentence, too. I like teasers where you know you’ll learn more as you go along. I get a sense of that with your first page.

  10. Gwen Gardner says:

    I was a bit thrown by the POV. The dialogue was age appropriate, but some of the description sounded a bit older. You have the beginnings of a great book here. Everyone gave you great pointers, so I won’t add anything else. Except – I do love the time period. There’s so much you can do with it from emotion to action aspect. Lovely. Thanks for sharing:)

  11. DL Hammons says:

    Not to beat a dead horse (heck…I wouldn’t want to beat a LIVE horse), but I agree with the previous comments about wanting to get inside Joyce’s head more, and the suddeness of her switch from petulance to helper. Overall I enjoyed the writing and commend you for offering it to us! 🙂

  12. Joanne Fritz says:

    Great time period, Sharon. I just read A TALE OF TIME CITY by Diana Wynne Jones and there are gas masks in that. I admire you for writing historical fiction, which takes a lot of research, and I love your dialogue. It’s very realistic.

    What threw me right off the bat was “choice, Joyce.” Can you find another word for choice so it’s not so hard to read aloud?

    Then I felt you went into far too much detail about the matchbox gas mask box for dolly. It’s a sweet idea and shows how much the character loves her little sister, and how resourceful Joyce is, but I agree with Dianne that we need to get to know Joyce better first. You could consolidate the description of making the box into one or two sentences at the most. Give us a few more sensory details, too. What are the sounds and smells in the kitchen?

  13. Sharon already knows I’m a HUGE fan of this story. I love seeing how she’s tweaked the beginning.

  14. Hi Dianne and Sharon .. I’ve been wanting to read Sharon’s book for ages … I wondered about Joyce’s age … and where they were –

    and I also thought there should be more fear … Britain has just gone through the Depression and Hitler has been pretty ruthless already on the the continent … I’d have thought there’d have been more anxiety about the future … which everyone would have picked up on ..

    Though I loved the idea of helping Gina get used to the necessity of the gas mask via her dolly was a jolly good idea …

    Not an easy period to write about .. I’m so glad I never had to experience it .. cheers to you both .. Hilary

  15. Jemi Fraser says:

    Just came from Marcy’s where I forgot to say I love the first line. I think it gives us setting and character so well 🙂

  16. Thank you guys for giving me so many good tips to improve my story. I added a lot more inner dialogue on my last revision. That is one thing I need to look at again.

    I also changed the title based on a suggestion from a HC editor. It is now Surviving Operation Pied Piper.

    I’ve done a lot of research and would love to make it into a series. The story shows how the children’s lives were effected by the war.

  17. lbdiamond says:

    Love this story idea! Bringing out the voice more will really make it pop. 🙂