Happy April, everyone! For many of us, this might finally signal the end of winter, although I know for a fact that 18 years ago, it was snowing on April 1 in my corner of Pennsylvania. School was even cancelled for the day. I wasn’t planning on going in anyway. My husband was busy shoveling a path to the car to take me to the hospital because I was in labor. Of course, the April Fool’s Day joke was on me: Gabrielle did not arrive until April 2.
We’re going to start off the month with a First Impressions post from Chuck Robertson. This is a YA paranormal/time travel novel called GHOST TREE.
The old, dying oak loomed high above me. Silhouetted against the darkening sky, its claw-like branches looked ready to reach down and snatch me at any second. Rather than get close to that creepy tree in the dark, I would just as soon have let my softball stay outside overnight. But it was the one my dad had given to me right before he went away. I couldn’t leave it there.
I reached into the cool grass at the base of the tree and grabbed the ball. Pounding it into my glove, I backed away.
I thought I heard someone call my name. “Hello?”
Crickets chirped. Fireflies drifted over the grass like yellow embers. Except for the night bugs, I was alone in the backyard, though. Maybe I was hearing things.
The voice came as a scratchy whisper. It grated on me like fingernails on a sheet of glass. And it was not my imagination. The back of my neck tingled. My pulse thumped in my ears. “Who’s there?”
Hey, I’m up here. In the tree.
Slowly, I tilted my head. A misty human-shaped figure floated above me in the leafless branches. Its blurry, transparent face stared back. My stomach twisted itself into one gigantic knot. I stumbled backwards.
The image had to be my imagination, probably just a sheet caught in one of the branches. I threw my softball at the figure. The ball passed through it. So much for the sheet caught in the tree theory. I turned and sprinted home.
The voice called to me as I fled. Please don’t run. I need your help.
My hands trembled as I groped for the door knob. I tumbled inside, slamming the kitchen door behind me.
Mom and Samantha paused in their unpacking and gazed at me. Mom set the dish in her hand onto the table. “Careful. You’ll break the window, banging the door that way. That glass has to be at least a hundred years old. “
Still panting as if I had just slid into home, I leaned with my back against the door.
Mom squinted at me, bringing out a couple wrinkles around her eyes. “Are you all right?”
“I’m not sure.” I stared out the window to see if the ghost had followed me to the house. Nothing.
Samantha brushed back a lock of her hair. Strawberry blonde this month. “For someone who’s not sure, you look awfully scared to me.”
I really enjoyed the opening paragraph. The image of the tree, the softball and the significance of that ball convey a lot of information in a brief, effective passage, and it reads very smoothly to me. Further down, in between the whispers, the paragraphs are constructed with many short simple sentences. Short sentences can increase tension, but too many in a row give the narrative a choppy feel. I would suggest blending some of them to vary the sentence structure and make those paragraphs flow like the first one.
The narrative voice sounds more MG than YA to me, at least in this short sample. I know from communication with Chuck that he’s targeting younger YA and that Christa is 15 years old. To me, this suggests a tween novel – with teenage characters and a youngish feel to the story. However, I know a lot of authors are reporting a hard time selling “tween” books right now. The market is constantly changing, but this post on the quiet death of a tween book deal is worth reading. Well-known authors can sell books in that nebulous in-between range, but new authors might be more successful if their books fall firmly in either the MG or YA realm.
Related to this issue is the appearance of the ghost on the first page. This might be a matter of opinion, but I think that’s rushing things in a YA novel. In a book targeted for teens, I’d love to see the spooky tone and mood of the first several paragraphs extended and a longer build-up to the paranormal – that is, strange and creepy/mysterious events first, before the ghost makes itself known. An agent once told me in a workshop that what he looks for most of all in the first 250 words of a YA novel is voice and a connection to the main character. In this case, I think that means working on Christa’s voice and giving us a feel for who she is, all while building the ghostly tone.
A MG novel can move at a much faster pace. Personally, I’d still put only a ghostly whisper on the first page and save the sighting of the actual ghost for the end of the first chapter. But that’s just me. Readers, what do you think?