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

First Impressions: REDEFINED

Our last First Impressions submission comes from Julia Tomiak. This is the first page of her WIP, a YA Contemporary titled REDEFINED.
Most seniors from Keene County High School didn’t stay home on Friday nights to babysit their moms, but I did. 
Dad called while Billie and I were working on dinner.  I hesitated before I answered, wishing for the millionth time that my dad had a normal job.  Something predictable, nine to five. 
 “Hi Cat,” he said, “I’ve got a patient here who has been in labor for hours, and we’re worried about her blood pressure.  The baby is starting to show signs of distress.  This could be a long night.”
I held the paring knife up in midair.  “You’re not coming home, are you?” I asked.
“I’m afraid not for awhile.”
 “But I made plans to go to the football game tonight.”
“I’m sorry, Cat.  I really need you to stay with Mom.” 
I slammed the knife down to the cutting board.  “Fine,” I said, and hung up.     
“Dr. Tierney working late?” Billie asked.  
“Yes,” I said, chopping tomatoes more violently than normal.  Then I got an idea.  “Hey, Billie, are you busy tonight?”
She dropped the towel on the counter, looked at me over the top of her reading glasses.  “Your daddy hired me to help your mama during the day.”  She glanced at her watch.  “It’s already past five.  I’ve gotta help Earl castrate cows in the morning, and then we’ve gotta move some hay.  These old bones need to get in bed early tonight.”  She pointed a thick finger at me.  “And you need to stay here and do what your daddy asked you do to.”
I slid the tomatoes into the salad bowl.  “Fine.”
This first page does a good job of introducing us to the facts of Cat’s home life in one short scene: the obstetrician father, the hired care-giver, and Cat – who must give up a regular teenage life to take care of her mother. There are a few lines here that could be thrown out, because they tell us something we can see for ourselves. We don’t need … wishing for the millionth time that my dad had a normal job.  Something predictable, nine to five … because that comes across in their conversation. Ditto the sentence Then I got an idea.

I was struck by the fact that no one shows any empathy towards the mother on this page. It’s like she’s a chore. I’m assuming the mother is an invalid who needs round-the-clock care, which makes Cat’s attitude — hanging up on her father and slamming the knife on the cutting board — seem self-centered. Of course, maybe the situation is different. Maybe the mother is an alcoholic/drug addict who has to be “watched” all the time, which makes the “babysitting” comment and Cat’s resentment more understandable. Or maybe the burden on Cat is unreasonable. But since we don’t know this yet our tendency is to think Cat’s being selfish, which probably isn’t the first impression you want her to make.

I suggest changing the emotional tone to more disappointment and less anger.  Make it plain this is the umpteenth time Cat’s plans have been cancelled.  Save her temper for a later scene, after we’ve had a chance to bond with her. On the first page, I think you have to enlist our sympathy. 

Likewise, Billie’s response could use tweaking. First, she gives an answer that is cold and business-like: Your daddy hired me to help your mama during the day.  Then she provides a perfectly reasonable excuse for why she can’t stay late. Since Billie has already stayed past five o’clock to help Cat prepare supper, I assume she is a caring person. Therefore, why not make her response show that from the start? Something like, You know I’d help you if I could, but Earl needs me on the farm and I’ve already stayed longer than I should.

Thanks, Julia, for sharing your first page with us! Readers, please share your thoughts and visit Julia at her blog, Diary of a Word Nerd.  And don’t forget to check out Marcy’s response to the same page at Mainewords.

9 Responses to First Impressions: REDEFINED

  1. Good set up. I’m not sure the first paragraph is necessary because that comes through in the rest of the excerpt.

    I get what Dianne is saying about Billie’s response being kind of cold, so I think it could be tweaked. But it also serves to establish that Billie is hired help and not family.

    And I’m very intrigued about why her mother needs care 24/7.

  2. HI Julia!

    I agree with you, Dianne, on all counts! Also, I didn’t know who Billie was until the end. First I assumed her brother, then I thought her boyfriend. To fix this, you might want to say she was helping Billie fix dinner. Just a suggestion. I too am very curious about Mom and her problems! GOOD LUCK!

  3. Tonja says:

    I liked the first line.

  4. Dianne said everything there is to say. Change the anger to frustration and we’ll sympathize with the mc more.
    Great job both Julia and Dianne. 😀

  5. Julia, I second Dianne’s assessments. Also, using “Billie” as the hired lady’s name introduces unnecessary ambiguity that could be avoided by calling her “Mrs. So-and-So” or “Miss Billie.” Great job.

  6. Julia Tomiak says:

    These are all very helpful suggestions. I agree, I need to strive for more sympathy. It’s actually unlike my mc to show anger- one of her main character flaws is suppressing her own desires to please others, so her anger gives the wrong first impression on multiple levels. And I see how a clearly feminine name could eliminate confusion about “Billie”. It’s nice to get input from fresh eyes. Thanks everyone!

  7. Lexa Cain says:

    Dianne’s comments are all spot on. I’m a real nit-picker, but even I can’t find anything to add. It’s an interesting premise and I’d read on. Just fix the telling lines and make the mc a bit more likeable. (Although I have grumpy unlikeable characters, too!)
    Good luck!

  8. Angela Brown says:

    I was/am impressed with this first page. I get the impression that the MC is very upset that her life has to be put on hold all the time because something’s wrong with her mother and her father’s not there to care for her. I was a bit confused about Billie. I thought, at first, Billie was a guy. But then the rest of the words made Billie’s presence make sense.

    I’d have to say that Dianne really hit the nail on the head with suggestions that could work to improve this first page.

  9. AmyMak says:

    Good job, Julia! My favorite line was the knife pausing in mid-air. It made me brace myself physically. As for MC’s anger, as long as a character changes internally by the end, I think it’s okay. But we do have to have some sympathy to stick with her through the whole novel. Good work – glad you submitted!