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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | Special Edition First Impressions: TOUGH GIRL

Special Edition First Impressions: TOUGH GIRL

Today I’ve got an early edition of First Impressions to share – not part of our normal series but an offer Marcy Hatch and I made on her blog last week to anyone wanting feedback before entering the first page contest on Writer Therapy.  Check the link for details of the contest. Entries have to be submitted by midnight, September 29, which means Marcy and I are critiquing Libby’s first page today.
This is the first 250 words of Libby’s manuscript, TOUGH GIRL.
 Reggie’s finger stiffened over the nozzle of bug spray as she slid slowly across the surface of the playground.  The can felt cool and light.  There wasn’t much poison left, just enough to rid herself of an incredibly annoying pest.
Her feet moved in a gliding motion, careful not to disturb any rocks or kick up dust.  Her invisibility cap kept her hidden from the crowd surrounding the basketball court, but they might notice if she disturbed the world around her.  She’d found the cap in a yard-sale.  It was red and faded and made her completely invisible as long as no one looked at her.   
Reggie inched closer and closer to the court, her eyes only breaking from her target to scan for debris below.  There were rumors that the playground was once covered in grass, but it had been killed by trampling feet and neglect long ago, leaving only pebbles and litter for the children of The Apartments to play upon.  A dry condom lay just beyond the toe of her scuffed sneakers.  It was sun bleached a tannish color and blended beautifully into the world around it.  If it hadn’t been torn open, leaving a dangling piece flapping in the wind, she may not have noticed it.  Reggie shuffled to her left, careful to avoid the rumpled heap of paper-thin prophylactic.  It was disgusting, but nothing to fear.  What little use it served was done with, and now it was just another piece of refuse to avoid on her path to vengeance.
Libby didn’t specify whether this manuscript was MG or YA, and reading the first page, I can’t tell. I thought the bit about Reggie sliding and gliding over the playground seemed odd, until I drew the conclusion that she was literally gliding or hovering.  That and the invisibility cap picked up at a yard sale suggest a MG audience to my mind, because we are supposed to accept the magical elements at face value, which sounds like something you’d expect of a younger audience.
But then there’s the condom, which has no place in a MG book. A lot of time is spent on the condom – 92 words in the 250 word sample.  I’m not sure why there is such a focus on this object, when we’d like to know more about what pest Reggie is trying to kill with the bug spray and why she has to be invisible.  I suspect it has something to do with the crowd at the basketball court, but I’m not sure.

In either case, no matter whether this is MG or YA, I’d rather have less condom and more Reggie — not to mention the bug spray, because I’m pretty sure it’s more important than the prophylactic.

Libby, thanks for sharing and good luck in the contest!  Readers, your thoughts? You can read Marcy’s comments at Mainewords and find Libby at her blog.

9 Responses to Special Edition First Impressions: TOUGH GIRL

  1. Sarah says:

    I had the same reaction as Dianne did. I was thrown off by the sliding and wondered if she was actually creeping or walking, so the description pulled me out of the story in the very first sentence. As soon as the invisibility cap was mentioned, I thought, “Oh. This is MG.” That was supported by the matter-of-fact telling about how the cap worked (but not why). And then BOOM–condom!

    The writing here is very good, so you have lots to work with. I’d suggest focusing a bit more on Reggie and the setting, including the target of the bug spray. Take your time. Maybe even start before she’s sliding across the playground, because it’s really hard to picture exactly what’s going on and you need to orient the reader just a bit more. Perhaps consider starting with her observing and putting on the cap (are there lots of artifacts like this in this world? Is it commonplace?), because that gives you a little space to give the reader a sense of both character and setting. Don’t rush! Also: don’t spend half your first page on a used and discarded condom. Yes, it might be symbolic of the bleak environment in which Reggie is operating, but it doesn’t push the story forward or enrich our understanding of what she’s trying to do. Take that out, and you’ll have some room to set the setting and establish Reggie as a character. Best of luck!

  2. I felt the same as Sarah and Dianne about the condom and the sliding/gliding part. To me, the invisibility hat symbolized how she feels as a teen. Invisible. I didn’t get the feel that the book had magical elements. Rather, if anything, it’s about a girl pissed off at being dumped by her ex-boyfriend, hence the talk about the condom and vengeance. So, I guess, the beginning is confusing since we all had different takes on what’s going on.

    Watch out for telling. “The can felt cool and light” is distant point of view since you used a filter word. I don’t “feel” the weight of the can as effectively as I would have had you used a close POV. Sorry, I just read a book on the topic, so I’m now sensitive to this kind of stuff.

    Otherwise, strong writing. Good luck with the contest. 😀

  3. First off, I love this piece. I love grit and honesty, so I’m into it.

    Now, I think the main thing this suffers from is lack of set-up. I need to know what to expect going into reading a piece, because it completely changes my perception.

    For example, if this is MG Fantasy, and the invisibility is real, I’m totally down with that. If this is YA Magical Realism, and the cap is … you know, speculative, I’m fine with that too. But either one changes how I read this.

    That being said, I still like it, a lot. The writing is very tight, the descriptions are vivid, and I hate to disagree with some of my dearest friends, but I liked the condom. The idea of a spent condom blending beautifully into the world around it … ahh. To me this is what writing is all about. That one line says so much about the setting, and so much about our character, who she is, what she’s been through, and how she looks at the world. The fact that she sees this bit of waste, and sees it as beautiful, to me that is exactly how you bring a reader into the heart of a character.

    Now, I will agree it goes on too long after that. I would cut all of this:

    “If it hadn’t been torn open, leaving a dangling piece flapping in the wind, she may not have noticed it. Reggie shuffled to her left, careful to avoid the rumpled heap of paper-thin prophylactic. It was disgusting, but nothing to fear. What little use it served was done with, and now it was just another piece of refuse to avoid on her path to vengeance.”

    Once you’ve mentioned the condom, and shared Reggie’s opinion of it, your point is made (made very well, BTW). The rest is just holding up the action of this compelling scene.

  4. Angela Brown says:

    Mainly as follow-up to what Matt mentioned, it is the lack of set up that is an issue.

    I’m kind of going with a few things here, hoping I’ve reached the right conclusion. With the playground and the mention of “the red cap” and “as long as no one looks at her” this makes me think this may not be real invisibility, but rather the character hoping no one notices her, which is where noticing the condom actually played well. I mean, a condom at the playground? That gave me the idea of some roughness…hence, falling in line with the title since things must be pretty tough where the character is at. Mentioning it goes on a bit long but shortening it could really help tighten the writing even more.

  5. mshatch says:

    ah gliding magically, see I didn’t get that but it makes sense. duh! Love everyone’s comments 🙂

  6. See, I know a little bit about this story, as I followed Libby through A to Z where she posted bits of it. I know Reggie’s age, but the title is very telling and so I think I agree with Matt about the condom, both on it being there and on it being too long.

    What our characters see and pay particular attention to tells the reader a lot about them. Unless that condom is significant, so much description gives it too much importance.

    I can’t wait to read this book.

  7. Yes, if it’s MG no condom! Absolutely agree. First I’ve seen of this contest Dianne, my mind being distracted with other things.

    I entered my WIP though, just for fun because I’m still a) writing it and b) it’s in first draft form and still in need of a good edit.

    Of course I didn’t manage to follow the rules completely, having to add in name and genre in a separate comment after the actual entry *sigh* That’s what I get for having a hair trigger comment button finger!

  8. This line got me interested: “It was red and faded and made her completely invisible as long as no one looked at her.” And I thought Oh, MG!

    I guess the question about the condom for ME is, would a MGer know what a condom is or looks like? So that’s the question to answer. And if the answer is yes, then WHY-what about her world or circumstances makes it so?

    GOOD LUCK!

  9. The sliding-gliding part kinda threw me, as did the used condom. Overall, though, I enjoyed this piece, and after a second reading, appreciated it even more. I find the undertone of humor in being invisible “as long as no one is looking at her” particularly appealing. Although there was a little too much attention paid to that condom, the description is outstanding. I think it would be easier to critique this piece if I had a clearer picture of its intended audience. As it stands, I’m getting mixed messages. But, whatever target audience the author is shooting for, she hit close to the bull’s eye for me. I really like it.