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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | First Impressions: OUT OF TOUCH

First Impressions: OUT OF TOUCH

Today for First Impressions in November, we have a submission from Robin Richards. This is the first page of her Adult Paranormal Mystery/Romance, OUT OF TOUCH.
Until one Saturday morning in July I was only a mildly damaged seven year old kid living in a mostly dysfunctional house.  All of that changed when I went to the Patterson garage sale with my best friend, Franny, and her mom.
Like all self-respecting garage sale junkies, we arrived at the crack of dawn.  All of the good stuff was always gone by 7:30 a.m.  Mrs. Patterson’s house was our first stop.   We had chosen it for two reasons:  the merchandise and the gossip were known to be in abundance.  Mr. Patterson up and left Mrs. Patterson about a month ago and tongues were wagging.    Mrs. Fitzgerald’s eyes opened round as quarters when she saw the contents on the lawn. 
Franny said, “Do you think there is anything left in the house?”
Mrs. Fitzgerald didn’t answer, but she hustled out of the car.  We bounded out after her.  It appeared that the house had vomited up the sum of its contents all over the yard.  I had never seen so much furniture outside of a home.  I didn’t have any money, but I still liked to look.
 It was when I picked up the ivy trimmed teacup that my entire life changed forever – and I can’t say it was for the better.  A feeling of panic engulfed me and the following scene rolled out like a movie:  I  saw Mr. Patterson drink from that teacup, clutch his throat, while his face turned a mean red, and then he pitched face forward into the table and looked…dead.
The cup slipped from my hands, I started screaming, and I tripped and fell into a wheelbarrow that was parked on the grass and marked with a “For Sale” sticker.  Then it happened again…
This time the feeling was satisfaction.  But not the good kind.  It felt black and mean.  And the image of Mrs. Patterson wheeling Mr. Patterson in the wheelbarrow across the backyard to the garage popped up like I was actually there.  She took a shovel, dug a grave, put his body in it, and parked her Oldsmobile right on top.  Her car, right this minute, was sitting on top of Mr. Patterson. 
That was when it sunk in that I was sprawled where his dead body used to be.   I couldn’t get out fast enough.  However, my brain and muscles were no longer working in tandem, so I just flailed around like a beached fish.  Mrs. Fitzgerald yanked me out and we all made a beeline to the car.
Buried her husband under the Oldsmobile, huh? And was going to sell both the teacup and the wheelbarrow? A nasty piece of work, that Mrs. Patterson!
Because I know this story is intended for adults, I assume these events are in the distant past of an adult narrator. But the opening of the story gives me no clue about the time frame. I don’t know who the narrator is, how old she is now, or how long ago this event happened.
I think we need a brief orientation. It could be really brief, as in:
All my problems started twenty years ago at a yard sale with a teacup. (Now we have a reference to the time frame – twenty years ago.)
Or – since I gather from the reference to a dysfunctional household that she already had problems:
I can’t say all my problems started twenty years ago with a teacup, because I was already a damaged seven year old from a dysfunctional household by then, but a whole lot of new problems began the day my best friend Franny and her mother took me to Mrs. Patterson’s yard sale. (Now we’ve got the time frame, plus a little more about her.)
Alternatively, you could show the narrator in the present either using her (I assume) troublesome gift or avoiding using it, and then bring this scene in a little later. But since I don’t know what else is planned for the first chapter, I can’t say whether this is a good option or not.
Finally, I’d like to address the scene itself. If this is not so much a true flashback as a reflectionon the day her life changed forever, it could benefit from a more adult voice in the narration. Instead of making us feel like it’s happening right now, give us a sense of the adult narrator looking back on her damaged seven year old self – the one with no money in her pockets who liked to touch the merchandise. Was Mrs. Patterson’s furniture nicer than hers? Did she pretend she was Franny’s sister and part of the Fitzgerald family instead of her own? Did she hope strangers would think that’s who she was? Or did everyone in that neighborhood already know all about her? A little commentary from the adult version of the girl in this scene will help us connect to the character and demonstrate her distance from this event in time — as well as her distance emotionally.
Readers, what do you think? Do you favor a short orientation to place this scene in time, or would you rather meet the present-day character and get this scene later?

Robin, thank you for sharing your page with us! Everyone should check out Marcy’s critique of the same page at Mainewords, and be sure and say hello to Robin at her blog, Your Daily Dose.

8 Responses to First Impressions: OUT OF TOUCH

  1. I’ll try to react to this like I would an actual manuscript.

    The first line, which tends to be pretty important, is mushy. Think about the information you want to convey. This sentence tells us three things, but which is most important? Certainly not the vague bit about a date of unknown consequences. I could see either the “damage” of the “dysfunction” being the key to this sentence, but either way, I would suggest you start with one of those, and get to the date later. Either in a subordinate clause, or even in a later sentence.

    Then, as we get into the second paragraph, I begin to become confused as to the timeline. Not so much the tense, the tense is fine, but the timeline … not as much. You mention a seven-year-old, but this is an adult novel, so I guess I assume the narrator is reminiscing about childhood memories? If not, it seems odd that a kid would be aware of (or concerned about) relationship gossip.

    Mrs. Fitzgerald is Franny’s mom? Seems pretty clear, but further clarity could be added if you include the last name when you first introduce Franny.

    The house vomiting its contents? Great line.

    “That was when it sunk in that I was sprawled where his dead body used to be. I couldn’t get out fast enough.” Couldn’t get OUT of what? Of of THERE? Or do you just mean up off the ground?

    Those are my nitpicks. Otherwise, this starts out a little clunky, but gets good fast when the paranormal element gets revealed fast and with style.

    I think if you clean up the first half, with a focus on clarity and specificity, this page would be in great shape.

    Dianne does make some excellent points about the voice, too. That would depend on where the story goes from here, though, as she also points out.

  2. Tiana Smith says:

    I like the voice of this, but Dianne is right that it doesn’t seem as adult. If your narrator is older now, then I think it’d have to change. Right now it seems like good set up for a middle grade novel, so if this is where you’re starting your book, you’re misleading your audience a little bit.

  3. Pk Hrezo says:

    Yes I agree, Dianne. I was a bit confused as to when this scene is happening. I was wondering if she’d be better off starting with the 2nd para and putting us right in the scene instead of as a flashback. Not sure. Also agree with the voice part. Would help ground me with who the narrator is.
    It is interesting, tho!

  4. Chris Fries says:

    I think the premise is great, but the story doesn’t start until the teacup is in her hand. Everything else before that is fiddle-faddle preamble. Worse, the two attempts at letting know that a BIG EVENT is coming are very distracting and off-putting to me (in the first line and as an intrusive part saying that “my entire life changed forever” at the moment she got the teacup). Personally, I hate when a writer does that.

    I think it works so much better as simple in-the-moment revelation. Let the reader discover along with the MC the effects of that psychic teacup moment. Make it seem as if it’s happening “right now” and the reader is in on it. It’s much more exciting to be there for the events as they unfold than to get a long-after-the fact retelling, like having to sit through someone’s pictures of their vacation from twenty years ago.

  5. The reference to “one Saturday morning in July” made me think the narration was about something that happened only a short time before the story begins. Maybe if it said “one Saturday morning twenty-five years ago” or something of the sort, readers would be better able to grasp the time frame and possible age of the narrator.

    I disagree with Matt about a seven-year-old not being aware of gossip. Especially a seven-year-old GIRL. Especially if her mother is a gossip.

    Overall, I love the premise of this story, and think the description of a little girl’s reaction to such unexpected “finds” at that garage sale to be spot on.

  6. Robin, It seems like you’re getting contradictory feedback, but it all revolves around VOICE, so it’s not really contradictory.

    I remember from querying, voice is the one thing agents remarked on more than anything else. Either they connected with the voice, or they didn’t.

    It seems like you need to pin down the voice of the main character right from the start — and she should be speaking in the voice of the age she’s going to be for the biggest part of the book.

    OR — if this book follows your MC throughout her life, maybe first person isn’t the right POV structure for your novel. Have you considered third person?

    And yes, I have switched a manuscript from 1st person to 3rd person on the advice of an agent, so I KNOW how much work it is! In my case, I learned a lot and it vastly improved the manuscript.

  7. Lexa Cain says:

    I love the foreshadowing in opening para and the introduction to the mc! After that, however, I got a little confused as to who Mrs. Fitzgerald was, and the beginning seemed to meander until you got to the teacup — and then the scene took off. I’d stick the teacup line at the beginning, and cut some of the yard sale info.

    Also, I thought the book was from a child’s POV and was going to mention the “tongues wagging” cliche (no child would say that), but Dianne’s comment made me realize this is a flashback from an adult’s perspective, in which case the voice is too young to be an adult’s.

    But basically, the story sounds awesome and your prose is very good!

  8. Robin says:

    Dianne, I agree all of the comments revolve around voice. All but these first few paragraphs are written from the perspective of an adult. So, I need to relay this event the way a child lived it, but the adult remembers it.

    Thank you all for the comments!!!