dianne salerni author
dianne salerni author

sketchbookThis is the last First Impressions post for 2016! Our author is Jasmine, a middle school student, and this is the first page of her science fiction novel, CURIOSITY KILLS.

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The air was light and crisp, the wind lightly flowing through the trees, gently shaking the leaves which slowly moved their way down to the soft dirt ground. The mood slowly departed to let the sun take over the sky. Purples, pinks, oranges and reds all painted the sky like a brand new canvas waiting to be framed. Axel sat patiently on his smooth wooden windowsill seat. He waited for the perfect time for the sky to set in its place.

“Bingo.” With his notebook in hand, he very gently and gracefully colored a picture of the sky in all its beauty. He grabbed all different kinds of colors form the new pencil set he bought from the store. He had finally saved up enough to buy the best pencils in town. Many of the townspeople would tell him that it was a waste to buy pencils when he could spend his money on something more useful and important. He was very talented, though many people did not approve. He didn’t listen, though. He made quite a good profit by selling all of his artwork, proving to people that it wasn’t a waste. Despite always being busy helping his mother around the house, he usually found time to relax and draw. (more…)

fortune-cookieThis month we have a First Impressions submission from a seventh grade writer. This story was written for a class assignment, and she’s seeking feedback from a wider audience.

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Tightly clutching a twenty dollar bill in her hand, 23 year old Maya approached the counter at an Asian takeout restaurant.

“Uhm, could I have an order of spring rolls?” she uttered.

“Is that all?” The woman at the counter inquired.

Maya nodded. 

“That will be 11 dollars.” The woman added. (more…)

Melissa JulyToday we have a First Impressions submission from Melissa Guthrie. This is the first page of her young adult historical fiction novel. The working title is OHIO 1863.

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Hewitt Town, Ohio
July 4th, 1863

Henry Clemmons opened his eyes just as acid bubbled up from his stomach. He bolted upright, grabbed a pail from beside the bed, and retched into it. The room spun. Henry sprawled back into the mattress. He rolled into a ball and moaned.

“Ah,” a voice said. Calm. Gentle. “You’re awake.”

On the other side of a doorway stood Lincoln Hewitt. Link, as Henry knew him, was bent over a long board made of poplar wood, dressed in the same dark pants Henry saw him in the night before. His feet were bare, stained black. His dark hair, the color of ink, was brown with sawdust. A cigarette burned between the first fingers of his right hand, the scent of tobacco heavy in the air.

“Did you sleep at all?” Henry asked. He climbed from the bed and looked down, his nakedness a stark reminder of the night before, gin in his mind and clothing lost piece by piece. He found his drawers tossed over a trunk at the end of the bed and pulled them on. He looked back to find Link watching him, a small smile on his lips which he moistened with the tip of his tongue.

Link’s eyes were his most notable feature. Never before had Henry met a person, male or female, with eyes like his. Link eyes were the color of sky after a snowstorm, cold and gray. An ash fell from the cigarette and landed dangerously close to his toes. Fire burned in Link’s eyes, sometimes bright as dawn and sometimes smoldering like embers, always burning.

“The Welk baby died last night,” Link straightened and took a drink from the tin mug that seemed permanently affixed to the middle finger of his right hand. Dark circles ringed his eyes. His shoulders were loose and slouching. He wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his arm and looked around the shop as if he were surprised to see slants of daylight coloring the workshop’s dark corners. “Pull yourself together and eat something for breakfast. The Widow up the way brought biscuits and I found some berries.”

Henry cleared his throat and attempted to moisten the inside of his mouth, as if just the thought of the widow’s dry, crumbling biscuits, produced in mass quantities, was enough to make swallowing a chore. Link brought the old woman meat and provisions from town and she repaid his efforts with biscuits best suited as doorstops. “There’s goats milk as well, if you are so inclined. Should you add the milk to the biscuit, perhaps it will be more palatable.”

“You really want me to eat, don’t you?” Henry asked.

“Can’t have you wasting away.”

“What’s the catch?”

***

I was immediately struck by the strong visual images on this first page – the play of color and light in the scene. I can visualize what this would look like on film, the “slants of daylight coloring the workshop’s dark corners” and eyes “the color of sky after a snowstorm, cold and gray.”

The one visual element that left me confused was Link “bent over a long board made of poplar wood.” What wood? Is it lying across a pair of sawhorses? This is a workshop, so perhaps he is making something with it, but he’s got a cigarette in one hand and a tin mug in the other, so he’s obviously not working on anything right this second. This could easily be clarified with a change of phrasing.

I assume the relationship between the two young men is sexual, but then, the last time I assumed that two characters on the first page of a First Impressions post were gay, I turned out to be wrong. They were just best friends. However, with phrases like “his clothing lost piece by piece” and “Link watching him, a small smile on his lips which he moistened with the tip of his tongue,” I think I’m on surer ground this time.

My last comment is that “The Welk baby died last night” comes as a non-sequitur between “Did you sleep at all?” and “Pull yourself together and eat something for breakfast.” I don’t know why the Welk baby dying is a reason for Link not to have slept. Is he making a coffin? Is that what the poplar wood is for? This makes sense, but why did he have to have the coffin ready by morning, and how did he get the news of the baby’s death in the middle of the night?

Readers, what are your thoughts? Don’t forget to check out the feedback from Krystalyn and Marcy, and you can find Melissa on Twitter. Melissa, thank you for sharing your first page with us!

ChristyOur second submission for First Impressions is a YA Contemporary manuscript titled EVERGREEN by Christy Hintz. Here is the first page:

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Everything looks perfect.  Strings of red lights drape across the ceiling and dangle from the center of the gymnasium, cloaking all the dancers in crimson.

Everything sounds perfect.  The music is upbeat, the bass a perfect volume, not that crass loud overbearing beat that makes everyone’s ears bleed and heart hurt.  Not like last week’s prom at East High–which naturally I crashed to be sure I didn’t overlook any details.  Nope, my prom is nothing like that.  Everyone is laughing and having a good time.  I circulate, smiling at my classmates, nodding at their dress and accessory choices.  The food table is topped off.  The chaperons are keeping their distance.

I approach a girl standing at the foot of the bleachers. I tap her bare, brown shoulder.  “Where have you been?”

She’s wearing a strapless, short black dress, one electric blue heel and one emerald green heel.  Her nails are each painted a different color of the rainbow, and today her eyes are a natural brown.  A thick strand of her black hair matches the electric blue shoe.

“Bathroom.”  She turns toward me.  “I sat on the seat and everything.”

“Ew.”  I fumble through my purse.

“What are you looking for?”

“Sanitizer.” I hand her a bottle.

She doesn’t take it, but asks, “And what, pray tell, shall I do with it?”

I steer her toward the hall.  “Spread it on the back of your thighs.”

She ducks out from under my hands and moves back toward the dance floor, laughing.  “You really are crazy.  Remind me again why I love you.”

“Why wouldn’t you?”  I put the sanitizer under her nose for one last try.

She shakes her head and I return it to my purse with a huff.

“I promise to wear sweats to sleep in later.  My germ-covered legs won’t touch anything in your house.”

“What about our toilet seats?” I watch as a girl in a mermaid dress takes the last water bottle from the refreshment table.

“Man.  I’ll shower when I get there. Okay?”

“Fine.” I gesture to the transformed gymnasium. “It’s all fantastic, right?”

“Beyond.”

Ms. Fulton, the only teacher not charmed by my straight A+ average and over-abundance of extra-curriculars is glaring at me from ten feet away like something’s gone amok.  All the other teachers patted my back and congratulated me on successfully orchestrating the prom-week festivities, parade, and dance.  Not her.

***

Since I kept scrolling uselessly down to the blank end of the page when I first read this submission, I guess it’s obvious that I would turn the page if there was more to read! I want to know what Ms. Fulton’s problem with the narrator is, although I can guess it might be her sexual orientation.

Our narrator gives us a strong sense of character. She’s competent, organized, energetic, and finicky about details and germs. I like her! It doesn’t bother me that we don’t know her name yet because her character is so strong.

It did bother me that she didn’t identify her date by name. The teacher got a name, and so did the neighboring school. Why not the girlfriend — if for no other reason than to avoid having two unnamed girls in this scene.

The line “I sat on the seat and everything” dragged me out of the story. It seemed like such a strange thing to say at that moment, even if the girl is transgender (which is the only reason I can think of for her to make that statement). And then there was the thought of putting sanitizer on her legs. (Oh, the burn!) By the time we got to sweatpants and germ-covered thighs, I was completely pulled away from the prom thinking about other people’s bathroom habits.  It’s just my opinion, and maybe it didn’t bother anyone else, but I wonder if there’s a way to steer the conversation so that we see evidence of their humor and fondness for one another while keeping our attention on the event of the evening, the prom.

Christy, thanks for sharing your page with us! Readers, do you have any other comments for her? Don’t forget to check out feedback from Krystalyn and Marcy, and you can find Christy at her writing blog, Erica and Christy.

 

 

 

AlaskaHi, everyone! I’m easing my way back into blogging after a 6-week hiatus with a First Impressions post. This is the first page of a YA post-disaster adventure novel titled OVERLAND by Kristen Zayon.

***

           It was a seemingly innocent thing, that first flicker. We were sitting in the Anchorage airport waiting for our flight home to Cordova when it happened. The lights trembled once, twice, then went out completely. If it hadn’t been daytime, the blackness would have been absolute. There were none of those emergency back-up lights shining in the corners, no glow from someone’s iphone. Anything electrical or computerized was just finished. We heard what sounded like a few distant explosions, then an eerie silence. We looked at each other and around at the other passengers. Everyone was stabbing fingers uselessly at their phones, laptops, the kiosk computer terminals. A murmur of voices rose, as everyone began to speculate.

Some of the airport personnel arrived with good old-fashioned battery powered or crank operated flashlights. The intercoms weren’t working either, or the little cars they sometimes drive around, so they were busy hoofing it from gate to gate, letting everyone know as much as they did, which was not much. There appeared to be a blackout that was at the very least spread across the Anchorage Bowl and Matanuska-Susitna Valley, and was most likely statewide. Perhaps it went even further. Nobody knew because communications were gone along with everything else; even old school land lines.

We hung out in the airport for a few more hours, until the time of our flight had come and gone. Eventually, someone announced that all flights were cancelled for the day, or until the power came back on. We left the airport to go back to the hotel we had just checked out of that morning. We had to walk, because anything with a motor was simply not running. Something major had happened, we knew. Power outages don’t affect cars. Solar flare? Nuclear bomb? We noticed smoke rising in several spots over the inlet, and remembered the explosions we had heard immediately after the outage. The planes. They had all crashed. I started feeling sick to my stomach.

We were in Anchorage for the state cross country running meet. For the first time ever, both the boys and girls teams had qualified, so we’d taken the ferry to Whittier and made the short drive to Anchorage. There were seven guys, six girls, and two coaches for the three day trip. By the time we were supposed to return, a storm had moved in to Prince William Sound, cancelling the ferries, so we had to book flights back to Cordova. This was always a hazard in Alaska when traveling in remote areas. Then we couldn’t all get on one flight at such short notice – it’s a small plane – so eight kids and Coach Ron were on the first flight, while the rest of us waited for the next one with Coach Casey.

***

I’ve read my share of post-apocalyptic YA books, but never one set in Alaska. This is a setting that will provide unique challenges in a world suddenly bereft of electricity and transportation. I looked up Cordova and Anchorage on a map (see above), and it looks like a long way to get between them over land (which I’m betting is the meaning behind the title) rather than by boat or plane.

The opening scene with the flicker of lights and then the failure of everything at the airport will work for this story – but we want to experience it in real time with the narrator, rather than as the summarization we have now. That first paragraph alone could take a page or so to convey if we get all the sensory details as they happen – what did it feel like, what did they hear, see, smell? Most of all, we want to experience the uneasiness that gradually turns to alarm and fear and panic after they realized the planes crashed.

A literary agent once told me that he looks for two things in the opening pages of a manuscript: character and a sense of conflict. The conflict is evident here, but kept at a distance from us because we don’t really know the character experiencing it. By the end of the first page, I know the narrator is a member of a cross-country team from Cordova, but not if it’s a boy or a girl or their name.

I think this story needs to start with us getting to know the main character in the Anchorage airport. He/she and teammates are coming from a state meet. Did the team do well? Are they feeling victorious? Their travel home has been delayed, and they’ve been split up. Has the delay brought them down from their post-meet high, or are they still in boisterous spirits? Are other travelers annoyed by their antics? Has Coach Casey asked them to settle down, or is she too busy on her phone to pay attention?

Then comes that flicker, and everything changes.

Kristen, thank you for sharing your first page! Readers, do you have anything to add? You can find Krystalyn and Marcy’s thoughts on their websites. And you can find Kristen as AKLibraryChick on Twitter.

 

Christian JanuaryHappy New Year, everyone! I’m starting out 2016 with a First Impressions post from Christian Bensing. This is the first page of his MG fantasy novel, SWEPT.

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Chapter 1:  3pm

            Bobby Conrad used every last ounce of his brain power in an attempt to somehow stop the marathoning minute hand of Mrs. Winkey’s clock from reaching its destination, but its will was unstoppable, silently cheered on by the eager eyes of his classmates.  Three o’clock, the end of the school day, had come despite Bobby’s best efforts to forestall the dreaded moment when he would have to leave the safety of the classroom and enter the unsupervised, terrifying world seventh graders of his minimal stature and reputation had to face on a daily basis.  If only Mrs. Winkey’s algebra test, which looked to Bobby as if it were written in Egyptian hieroglyphics, had not racked his brain to the point of delirium, maybe he could have stopped that clock through sheer concentration and enjoyed the serenity of 2:59 for a few more precious seconds.  Instead, the minute hand ticked forward with one more click.  The bell rang, and his classmates scattered.  Bobby faced the fact that he had to go home, his own virtual prison.  The only thing worse was getting there.

            Bobby slowly shuffled through the classroom door to the bustling hallway.  He took one last look at Mrs. Winkey, who seemed to take great pleasure in dishing out deliberately dramatic red slashes  across the test she held in her hands.  Her eyes went from the test to Bobby, then back to the test and back to Bobby again.  It was as if she had to restrain the corners of her crooked mouth from forming a smirk.  Winkey’s eyes continued this dance as her head swayed sideways, back and forth in disapproval.  Bobby knew deep in his heart she was grading his test.  He impulsively looked at his feet as metal locker doors crashed closed behind him.

            “Crap,” was all he could say in a hushed tone as he found a break in the hallway traffic and exited the room with the cartoon-like vision of a sneering Mrs. Winkey engrained in his brain.

            Bobby navigated his way to his locker and waited for the hallway to clear before he dared open it.  He slowly gathered his books and stuffed them into his backpack.  The backpack had seen better days and already had more stitches in it than Frankenstein’s monster after a car accident.  A new tear had developed which required repair, and Bobby could clearly see his recently acquired library book, Strange Tales of the Weird, peeking out one of its sharp, new corners.  The sight of the book made him forget all about the bloodied math test and Mrs. Winkey’s mocking features.  He had gone to great lengths to secure this book, having stalked its very first borrower, Randy Reinhold, the entire first week Randy had it, waiting for its return to the general circulation. When that rat Randy had renewed the book for yet another week, Bobby almost lost his mind.

***

I really like this opening! Several years ago, I took an online workshop with an agent who said that what he looks for in the opening pages of a manuscript is a sense of character and conflict. I think this page really gives us the flavor of Bobby’s character right off the bat. He’s got a quirky personality, and there are hints of bullies in his life and a less than optimal home environment. The book Strange Tales of the Weird foreshadows fantasy elements to come, and there are tons of wonderful visuals: the minute hand ticked forward with one more click, more stitches in it than Frankenstein’s monster after a car accident, the bloodied math test.

The only thing I think this page needs is a slashing of unnecessary words. Many of the sentences are longer than they need to be and would read more smoothly with less words. For example, take this sentence of 43 words: Bobby Conrad used every last ounce of his brain power in an attempt to somehow stop the marathoning minute hand of Mrs. Winkey’s clock from reaching its destination, but its will was unstoppable, silently cheered on by the eager eyes of his classmates.

It can be trimmed down to 34 words while retaining its meaning with this re-write: Bobby Conrad used every last ounce of his brain power attempting to stop the marathoning minute hand of Mrs. Winkey’s clock, but it marched inevitably toward its destination, silently cheered on by his classmates.

What I tend to do in my own manuscripts is overwrite in the first draft and trim the fat in revisions, so I am very familiar with this process! I suggest that Christian look for unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases. Reduce the number of Mrs. Winkey’s head movements, leaving only the most visual and effective ones. This will streamline the narrative and make the voice really “pop.”

Readers, what do you think?

Christian, thank you for sharing your page with us! Readers can find Christian on Facebook, and don’t forget to read the feedback on Krystalyn and Marcy’s blogs!