Saturday, January 24, 2009

First Pages: MG / Crash

They’re at it again! The sound of Dad’s shouting and Mom’s crying in the kitchen made it hard to focus on the TV show my younger brother Jason and I were watching. Why does Mom put up with it? I wish Dad would just disappear. I can’t take much more of this.
The impulse to drop us into a scene where something's happening is a good one... but we need somewhere to land, and this isn't giving us something to focus on: the fight in the kitchen? the TV in the living room? which one of the narrator's related but not terribly cohesive thoughts?
CRASH!

Something smashed against the kitchen wall. I wondered what Dad had thrown this time, and hoped Mom hadn’t been hit by it before it shattered into pieces. I glanced at Jason huddled up in a corner of the sofa with his hands over his ears and tears dripping down his cheeks.
You also want to be careful about throwing us into a high-emotion situation before we've gotten to know the characters enough to sympathize with any of them. What are we supposed to feel when we look at the crying kid? We don't even know clearly what the MC feels.
“I’m leavin’!” I yelled, and clicked off the blaring TV. “And I’m taking Jason with me. Come on, Jason—let’s go.” I don’t know if Mom heard me over the shouting, but I didn’t even want to get anywhere near the kitchen right now.

The sounds of my dad’s yelling and my mom’s crying followed us out as the door banged behind us. I grabbed my helmet, jumped on my bike, and started pedaling down the street as hard as I could. My heart pounded and my breath came in gasps. I had to get away.


Jason hopped onto his bike and raced behind me. “Louie, wait for me!”

I looked over my shoulder and saw Jason was almost a block behind me. I stopped and waited for him to catch up. I guess I should have known he couldn’t keep up with me—he’s only seven and four years younger than me.

“Are you okay?” I asked when Jason pulled up beside me.
No sooner are we introduced to to the idea of domestic strife in this kid's life than we're taken out of it. You're not giving your reader the chance to understand your setting or your characters.

That can be hard to do, of course, without running the risk of an info dump, but that's your job as writer. Ask yourself what word choices will show us the mood of this scene; what things we need to know about these characters to intuit how they feel... and then ask yourself if you can achieve that in 1st person. If not, you may need to switch to 3rd.

28 comments:

Sarah Laurenson said...

Pulls me in, but I can relate all too well. Even so, I felt like I wanted more depth, more time with the MC before hitting this crisis point. The violence has been ongoing and yet this time seems to be that last straw and the MC is about to do something different. I'd like to know what he was doing before to see the contrast.

With such a highly charged situation, I think you can start with an earlier time when this happens and show us the building of the tension.

I love being thrown in to an action scene on the first page. It's harder to get a grip on it when it's an emotionally charged scene though.

BuffySquirrel said...

I don't think this works as it stands in first person; we're not getting much sense of what the narrator is thinking or feeling (showing rather than telling is important here). If we're not going to go deep into their character, third would probably be better.

Remember that children this age are likely to blame themselves for what's going wrong in their family.

Anonymous said...

For YA, I prefer first person. For MG, third. That's just my preference, but with MG, I feel a lot more outside influence needs to be shown, which is easier (for me) in 3rd. With YA, I prefer first because teenagers tend to be self-absorbed...

Just my two cents. Could be a great story; just tweak a bit. Very realistic, so far. I work as a guardian ad litem so deal with volatile family situations on a regular basis. I hope somewhere in your story you let kids know that there are places to get help :)

Sarah said...

I wanted more as well. I'd love to see the first paragraph expanded. I think the TV might be a nice place to start if it's obvious the boys are watching it to hide themselves and then let bits of the fight still intrude. I'd be curious to know why two boys are intently watching something funny and not laughing, or something action packed without being moved. And I'm always curious about something I can't fully see or hear.

But that's just me. Lord knows I haven't ever written a scene like this.

Mommy C said...

One thing I found missing in the second paragraph was connection. I would have liked a bit more about how the narrator fit into the action. It sounded detatched. Maybe, "My stomach tightened. I wondered what dad had thrown against the wall. It sounded like a piece of gran's special china." That would make me feel more of the effect the actions had on the narrator, as well as the cruelty of the father, without delving in too much violence. Also, the wondering why the mom put up with it line seemed a little bit flat, to me. I think something more like, "Didn't Mom know she didn't have to take this, that we would support her decision to leave?", or "I would never stay married to a man like" that would add more depth.

I would also have liked to follow the transition. Ex "I was stretched out on the couch, my brother on the floor. The TV was blaring some childish cartoon. I didn't care. I was lost in a book."
"I heard a crash against the kitchen wall. My stomach tightened. I wondered what Dad had thrown this time. It sounded like Gran's special china ..."

We've now been pulled from a typical laid back afternoon, into the uncertain and edgey world of the character. Now we've got something in common with the narrator. We're jumpy and tense too, that makes us invested.

Mommy C said...

Also, second last paragraph has a bit of redundancy in it. First the narrator sees her brother is almost a block behind. Then she stops for him to catch up. Then she comments that she should have known he couldn't keep up, finally he catches up. It could be much shorter. "When I stopped, I noticed he was almost a block behind. I had been walking too fast for him to keep up. I waited."

Anonymous said...

I think for a topic like this, the reader needs an emotional connection to the characters before they would want to continue reading about this. I think it would be better to start in a mundane situation or something that really shows what the MC is about. Once the reader finds the MC likable, then they care about the drama and stress in their lives. Otherwise, they might just set it down for a more pleasant read.

I also think it needs more of a cohesive flow to it. Either you approach it from a linear perspective or a scattered one. However, for MG, linear seems like the way to go.

Just my two cents...

I think Mommy C gave some good specific feedback.

Merry Monteleone said...

I'm going to agree that we need to be a little more invested in the character before the fight. I didn't know until the end, when we find out his name is Louie, that it was a boy.

I think Mommy C's input was a good take, except for this:

Also, the wondering why the mom put up with it line seemed a little bit flat, to me. I think something more like, "Didn't Mom know she didn't have to take this, that we would support her decision to leave?", or "I would never stay married to a man like" that would add more depth.

I doubt an 11 year old boy would think this way. Also, I think you want to stick with the mc's pov, regardless of which person you write in - so any motivation on the part of side characters would be stronger shown than told about.

Overall, I would keep reading.

Mommy C said...

Merry, perhaps the delivery could be in younger words, but my mother was in an abusive relationship. She left when I was seven, but even then I remember thinking that she should leave and that I wanted to be there for her. I also remember thinking that my "prince" was not going to make me cry all the time, if I ever found one, which I was sure I wouldn't.

And you are right about it being boy. I pictured a girl until then.

anonnumber55 said...

I think this has potential. I didn't get this part, though. The MC says he's taking his brother with him:

"...I’m leavin’!” I yelled, and clicked off the blaring TV. “And I’m taking Jason with me. Come on, Jason—let’s go...”

Then, a few paragraphs later, he's left Jason completely and has to wait for him to catch up. If his concern is for his brother it seems like he wouldn't have let the kid out of his sight.

Also, I sort of wondered if this is so commonplace in their life, would the MC be so bold as to announce his is leaving? Often in domestic violence situations the kids are just as beaten down by the oppressive environment as the "mom" is, even if they are not the ones being screamed at/belittled/hit.


(Also, I think Merry M. had some great comments, too.)

reader said...

This is nitpicky of me, but I think you just need to get into the habit of literally putting yourself into your MC viewpoint.

Example:

"...Jason hopped onto his bike and raced behind me. “Louie, wait for me!”

I looked over my shoulder and saw Jason was almost a block behind me..."

The MC wouldn't know that Jason "hopped on his bike and raced behind me," unless he'd SEEN him do it. And apparently, he didn't, because in the next sentence the MC THEN looks over his shoulder and discovers he's a block away.

I hope that made some sort of sense. I used to make this same mistake a lot in my own writing.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Mommy C,

I'm not taking anything away from your personal experience, my perspective is only from the aspect of what works in fiction, especially in the early pages when you're both showing us the character and hopefully building the reader's trust.

I think it also goes back to being more invested in the character before this scene - if this eleven year old is emotionally mature enough that he's thinking of his mother's motives during a big upheaval like this, I think the reader needs to have hints of his maturity before the scene starts.

Reader,

I don't think that was nitpicky at all! It was a great catch. I do like reading novels in first person, but this is one of the reasons I haven't attempted it much myself - it's very difficult to write compellingly from a very limited perspective. You can only see and know what the mc does, and with that limited vantage it's really tricky to get everything across... when it's done well, though, it can be fabulous.

nocheerios said...

What your wrote made perfect sense, reader.

Is anyone else bothered by the shifting between present and past tenses in the first paragraph, or is it just me?

I, too, found myself wondering whether the MC was a girl or a boy (and guessing girl) until Jason calls out his name after five paragraphs.

"I guess I should have known he couldn’t keep up with me—he’s only seven and four years younger than me."

When I read this this, I thought "Duh, you KNEW he couldn't. He's your little brother." Then again, I have a little brother five years younger than I am, so it probably bothered me more than it would most readers.

I, too, like being thrown into the action in the beginning. Still, I'd like to hear Louie's voice, get a sense of him, before this scene.

The first sentence, "They're at it again" sounds like something a neighbor would say. Or a trite phrase a kid might use to mentally distance himself from what is happening in his own family.

I don't know that most ten-year-old readers would up with the second explanation. I'm not sure most adults would either, as it's the first sentence and the MC is a total unknown.

Mommy C said...

Merry, I think you are right. There would likely need to be more character development before it was mentioned, and probably in a different way. But, young readers would have no idea why his mother was staying in that situation, so it would probably need to be adressed somewhere. A normal kid would think (especially if they came from a divorced home which many do) "why doesn't his mom leave?"

At any rate, it's a heck of a subject to tackle with young readers. My sympathies to the writer. I've been working for months on a story centred around a different sort of touchy subject to introduce to young children, and it is a battle to walk the line and keep in character. Just when I think I've nailed it, the publisher finds ten more holes. So, best of luck to the writer.

anotheranon said...

Off Topic, but Query Shark has new entries today, as well. Heck I love blogging agents/editors! :)

http://queryshark.blogspot.com/

nocheerios said...

Mommy C:"why doesn't his mom leave?"

The boy in the story is eleven years old, and this is a long-standing problem. Has he never asked his mother why she doesn't leave? Or why she hasn't asked his father to leave? Or got a restraining order? Or something?

This line has not been addressed before, but here goes:

"I wish Dad would just disappear."

Does he always feel this way, or only during fights? Even if it's only in that moment, if he really, really wishes his Dad would just disappear, he can make his wish come true by dialing 911. The cops will make him disappear, at least for awhile.

If the story were set in a earlier decade, the kid probably wouldn't wrestle with the question of whether to call the police. These days, an eleven-year-old knows he has that option. I'm curious why he doesn't even think about it.

Wouldn't an eleven-year-old boy in this situation at least google "domestic violence" (or some similar term) and find out more about it, beyond what he'd learned in school? That's one of the things kids do these days when they've got a question or a problem: google.

Or maybe I'm way off base here.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Generally, what we grow up with becomes our version of normal. I would think a child would have to realize that what is happening at home is not normal before he decides to look for outside help. And the parents generally try to create the illusion of a happy family to the outside world. This includes keeping the kids from saying anything to anyone. That's both parents, by the way, and not just the violent one.

A child who has a sometimes violent father - perhaps especially a boy - will be conflicted in wanting Dad to disappear and wanting Dad to be loving. So, the violence is accepted as normal, but the hope still persists that if this or that was different, than the violence would stop and the happy family would be real and not an illusion.

Generally, too, one of the children will develop the idea of saving mom from the situation as mom has proven herself unable to do so.

My 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

Nocheerios:

I work at a women's crisis center and while it's not always the case, many people in these situations are living in poverty. The kids don't have computers at home and are embarassed to look up things like "domestic violence" at school or the library. For many of the households with computers, the abuser (usually Dad) closely monitors everything, so again, googling "domestic violence" is not an option.

This is why ANYONE suspecting abuse needs to contact the authorities. Children can't be expected to always seek help on their own.

And I'm not even going to address the bit about calling the cops to make dad disappear. I get too fired up on this topic, naturally, since I see it every day. Keep in mind, though, that it's very hard for a victim to leave an abuser. Most of the women at my shelter are familiar faces and have been coming here for years. The biggest reason they go back to the abuser? It's not because they are pathetic. It's because they are afraid to lose their children... to the State, or worse to the abuser. Generally, the abuser has the money, the connections, the friends... and can make the victim look like an unfit parent. I have to fight with Child Protective Services fairly often because they often try to remove the children from the shelter (and yes, I will concede that a shelter is not the best place for a child. However, when they threaten to do this, Mom goes back to Dad. And Dad is good for awhile, because that's the Cycle of Violence). Okay, I'm rambling, so I'll stop.

BuffySquirrel said...

One of the reasons many children don't report violence or abuse is because they don't want to break up their families. Some children whose fathers are jailed on their evidence suffer enormous guilt. It's damn hard for us adults to get into a child's view of the world; I think anyone is tries is braver than me! lol

nocheerios said...

Hi Sarah,

I agree with what you say here about kids living in totally messed-up families accepting it as "normal" (although by age eleven, they may sense their family may be not so normal). The MC must realize the situation is not normal or acceptable because he wonders why his mother puts up with it.

I also agree a boy this age will have conflicted feelings about a violent father. I agree with all you say here about the dynamics of family violence. The author of this book has the very tough job of showing, not telling, at least some of these aspects to his/her readers.

EA suggested more introduction to the MC before this scene, and most of us agree. Touching on some of these questions might be a good way for the author to get into the story. I don't know where the story is going, of course. I don't know much about the MC from the first page provided, either.

Perhaps a starting point might be the MC's reaction to one of those "what to do if" pamphlets passed out in schools, for example. How does he feel when he sees the pamphlet? What does he think when he reads the part about calling 911? Does he try to hide his reaction to the pamphlet from the other kids?

Between school, television and the internet, kids get lots of information about domestic violence and are told what they should do.

Readers in the target age range (nine to eleven) are still rather literal about what one "should" and "should not" do. They are also getting good at empathy.

The tension between what the reader thinks the MC "should do" and empathy for the MC's dilemma (if explained well) could be the one of the things that keeps the reader turning the pages.

nocheerios said...

I agree with anonymous and Buffy, too. I know what you say is true. I have some experience in the field, as well.

What we are discussing here is what questions would a reader have, keeping in mind the reader is between nine and eleven. Some of these readers may have personal experience of these horrors. Some will not.

A kid with no personal experience might think "You're supposed to call 911. Why don't you call 911?"
You and I know why he doesn't. A kid who lives in a situation like that might know. But the nine-year-old with no experience of family violence might well ask that question.

Some aspects may be beyond what a kid this age can really understand. Some of it is really scary. Maybe too scary. It's really scary that abusers often win. It's scary to me and I'm an adult.

nocheerios said...

One more comment: kids living with domestic violence feel like they're in a "heads nobody wins, tails everybody loses" no matter what they do.

They feel guilty if Dad goes to jail because they ratted on him and guilty if they do nothing and Dad ends up seriously hurting or killing Mom. (I know a man who still feels guilty at age 39 because he didn't call the cops and his father ended up killing his mother when he was a kid.)

My hat's off to anyone brave enough to tackle this subject. It's a complex and difficult one with no really good answers. It's a grave responsibility, too.

Chris Eldin said...

Interesting discussion, and thank you to the poster who works at a shelter and shared this information. That was eye-opening.

Regards to the writing--I also feel this would flow nicer written in third person. A close third would give you flexibility with pacing, I think. I also agree with EA about starting earlier and letting the reader develop an attachment to the MC.

And, one last thing, for what it's worth---I think quieter is sometimes better for situations like this. This is a tad overwritten, to me. Like we're being forced to be in this situation. This is just my opinion, but I think something more subtle has a greater impact.

Anyway, lots of great responses. Good luck with your story.

Anonymous said...

Note: I'm the anonymous poster who works at the WCC shelter. It occurred to me that it may have seemed as though I was speaking negatively about Child Protective Services and that was NOT my intention. CPS does outstanding work and have a very difficult job. CPS and WCC are on the same side: safety for Mom (generally) and kids. The problem is that domestic violence is such a huge problem that it doesn't get addressed as it should. Agencies are all separate (and will remain that way because of federal and state funding) so we can't work together as well as we could if things were more comprehensive. There are often several groups involved with one family: CPS, WCC, Legal Aid (for the Temporary Restraining Orders that have to be filed in civil court for protection), Public Defenders (appointed in many cases where a crime has been committed), guardian ad litems appointed by the courts to determine the best interests of the children, etc.

If the cases are in the legal system, they may be in district court (for the TRO), circuit court (for the custody issues/divorce), and criminal court, all at the same time! The whole thing is a big mess. All the workers involved can do is hope for the best, work as closely with other agencies as possible, and do our best to give the families hope and support. It can be a very tough and discouraging job, but it can also be very rewarding :)

Chris Eldin said...

Anon, I personally thought your post was informative and sensitive, and had no negativity about it.
It just shows, to me, that women with children are vulnerable if they lack financial resources, or a friend/relative there to support them when needed.

There was a story a few years ago about an African country (not that they're all alike, I just forgot which one), where the crops were particularly bountiful one year. The farmers earned extra money. The farmers control the family income. There was a spike in AIDS cases because this extra money was spent on prostitutes.

I would like to go on my "It takes a village" rant, but this isn't the place. I just felt your post touched a nerve--for me. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Wow, lots of new responses. In reading the weight of all the responses and going back and re-reading the entry, I have to wonder if the level of domestic violence being talked about is on par with what the book actually contains?

ANY domestic violence is unacceptable, of course -- but my point is that if we are actually talking about a continual drag of screaming, throwing things, and worse towards the MC mother, I have to say the tone of the entry seems "off" to me now.

From the first line on: "They're at it again!" even the exclamation point seems wrong, the tone of bravado as he announces he's leaving, etc.. it's almost like he doesn't seem that upset. When you experience oppressive enviroments on a continual basis, you internalize them, they rest in the center of your belly. This MC seems very "external" about it -- as if it's not effecting him on a gut, emotional level. Isnt' he afraid of the results of him leaving? If that will piss off dad more?

Now I wonder if the violent home life is even the focus of the book, or simply the main characters environment? If the book is really about his little league team making it to the playoffs or something, you shouldn't start with this, and it shouldn't be such a force.

If this is a first book it's an awfully tough road ahead.

nocheerios said...

To the anonymous poster who works at the women's crisis center:

I didn't find anything negative in your first post, either. Both your posts were spot on. Kudos to you for covering the subject and the system so well in only a few paragraphs.

It's true that most of the women in the shelters are also poor. Women from the middle and upper classes have more resources (usually in the form of family members who can help out) and usually manage to stay out of the shelters. They nevertheless find themselves caught up in the same system and faced with many of the same dilemmas you describe. They usually end up paying lots of visits to the Victim Advocate at their local courthouse instead of in the shelter.

Some of the problems they face are a bit different, such as having to pay lawyers because they are told they are not eligible for legal aid, etc. You can imagine where that can lead: poverty or giving up. The abuser (who invariably has narcissistic personality disorder or some other Cluster B personality disorder) manages to keep legal battles going until the woman is drained, financially and emotionally.

I only added this bit because many people have the notion that domestic violence only occurs in families living in poverty.

Anonymous said...

I am the author of the story being discussed here. Thanks to all of you for all the wonderful comments and suggestions...I will have to revisit the beginning and see what I can do.

I agree with the comment about kids thinking their situations are 'normal' so don't consider doing something about it. Just a little more insight to the family. It does come out that they are low-income "I wish Mom would let us get free breakfast at school but she says 'we don't accept charity.'

I have worked in an inner-city school where I have seen kids in these situations, and that is why I wrote the book.

Re: this comment: "Now I wonder if the violent home life is even the focus of the book, or simply the main characters environment?"

It is NOT the focus of the book... Dad is actually gone early on, and the focus of the book it whether or not the MC can be successful in life with such a poor family background; what happens to the family after the father is sent to jail, and particularly how the MC deals with it, and what he figures out.

Again thanks for all the input. Sorry it took me so long to read the comments and get back to you.