Thursday, April 17, 2014

First Line Grabber Winners #5

TITLE: Punishment Summer
GENRE: Young Adult/Contemporary

Maybe if I hadn't downed that last shot of tequila, I would've noticed Dad sitting at the desk as I climbed through my bedroom window. Instead, I tumbled over the sill and thumped to the floor with all the grace of a 118-pound bowling ball, my nose landing inches from a brown loafer. Dad's brown loafer. Uh-oh.

I rose to my knees and swayed. My brain scrambled. How could I talk my way out of this one? The frown twisting Dad's mouth didn't help in the inspiration department. But the tequila played a part, too. My stomach lurched. I stumbled to my feet and ran for the bathroom. I managed to lift the toilet lid just as my insides volcanoed out.

When my Mount St. Helens impersonation wound down to dry heaves, Dad spoke from the doorway. "Clean yourself up and get packed." His voice sounded as cold as the tile beneath my knees.

I grabbed the rim of the toilet bowl and looked up at him. "What?"

Dad's face loomed pale in the hall light. He crossed his arms over his broad chest. "You need to pack your stuff. Now."

"Pack for what?"

"You're going to your grandfather's. For the summer. Wash up then grab everything you'll need. It's cold there. Pack your boots, wool socks, that heavy jacket."

Caught somewhere between the tequila fog and reality, I rubbed my face. It sure felt real. "Why am I going to Grandpa's?"

Dad took a noisy breath. "I know you snuck out two weeks ago, Nicole. And then there's tonight."


"Don't. I already saw the pictures Gemma posted of you two.Grounding you isn't getting the job done."

I slumped back on my haunches. "So, you're shipping me off to Grandpa's? I screw up and you send me away? How's that fair?"

"Fair? You want to talk about fair?"

The roar of his voice made me want to puke again.

"In a fair world, I'd have two daughters. In a fair world, you'd have two parents. Life isn't fair. You should know that by now." His strong hand grabbed the door frame as a grimace twisted his face.

In the half-light, he no longer looked like my dad.

"Get packed. You've got fifteen minutes."

I staggered to my feet and leaned against the sink. After rinsing my mouth and face, I tottered back to my room. Inside the closet, I pushed aside the shoes piled on top of my duffle bag. Dad knew I wouldn't dig in my heels. I may have been the queen of the late night sneak-out, but I was no fighter. Dad was the one always ready to rumble. Normally I was pretty good at hiding the kind of stuff that set him off. Not that we spent much time together. I hadn't seen him this mad since-

My stomach lurched again.

No. Thinking about that was a mistake. My insides felt rocky enough.


  1. I like this one a lot and i'd definitely keep reading.

    I wish i knew the gender of the MC sooner, though. Maybe if her dad name drops sooner, like in his first bit of dialogue. Or if there's some other way to cue us in on it when she's climbing through the window.

  2. Ammi-Joan PaquetteApril 17, 2014 at 10:08 AM

    This is a tough one to critique, as it really sets the story off well. I'd give an eye to small picky things (punctuation/grammar type stuff), which could be just a tad smoother. I didn't care for the "not fair" line, which always makes a character feel juvenile to me and a bit whiny. I wanted perhaps just a touch more of emotion/internal sense from the character--the whole scene feels almost more observed than felt. Then again, she is drunk and it seems to me that the purpose is forgetting and separating herself from her emotion, so in that sense perhaps it's right-on. A great start overall, intriguing!

  3. I liked this one a lot. Really a lot. My only concern is with the last big paragraph, which has a lot of telling and strays into info-dump territory. You're doing a good job of showing that she won't fight by having her do what she's told. And Dad's outburst about fairness seemed more natural and gave enough of a hint of the back story without slowing down the story.

    One other nitpick is that I'm not crazy about a character starting to think about something and then cutting herself off with "I'm not going to think about that." It always feels like a tease.

    But this is terrific and I would definitely keep reading.

  4. Me likey! We know mom and sis are probably dead and it's 'cause a riff in what's left of the family.

    I would read on.

    My nit-picky stuff
    ...was the dad talking about fair. It sounds like he was planning this since he saw the pics, so I imagine he would have thought though what he was going to say a bit better.

    ...the use of Mt. Saint Helens. I'm not sure it's the right "blast" for vomit. Vesuvius or Pelée might be better.

  5. Love this. Would keep reading. As mentioned above, the dad saying in a fair world he'd have two daughters and she'd have two parents is enough. Don't need the ever since line. We know what's happened. Other than that, excellent!

  6. I like this. There's lots of potential conflict plus a nice sense of humor. Good voice.

    I was wondering though, how does she feel about going to grandpa's? She thinks dad's being unfair. That seems more like a rational reaction, than an emotional one from a drunk teen. Wouldn't she have a more emotional gut reaction first? It's so cold, or grandpa's so mean, it's so remote, I won't be able to text my friends.

  7. I really like this and would read on. These pages deliver on that snappy first line, which is pleasing and satisfying.

    The gender of the MC threw me off. I thought for sure it was a guy's voice I was reading until the dad calls her Nicole. Not sure why. Easy fix though.

    I wonder why the dad tells her it's cold at Grandpa's when later she seems to know that Grandpa's is in the middle of nowhere, etc. I think she would know it's cold. Maybe he could simply say don't forget your heavy coat, etc.

    Overall an interesting premise with a great voice.

  8. This is an excellent setup. I was definitely sucked right in and feel like you gave a good tease as to the family tension and her struggles. I very clearly see her problems with her father in the form of a certain distance and I understand that she's sneaking out and drinking as an escape from (presumably) the death of her mother and sister. I would definitely request the full if this landed in my inbox.

    Here's the red flag that goes off for me from this selection, though. A YA protagonist who's problem is that she's generally dissatisfied with the situation she's in and doesn't have real stakes involved tends to get tiresome quickly. Aka, if her problems are mainly internal rather than a reaction to external forces.

    From this selection, the external threat is staying with her grandfather, but the only problem I see with him is that he lives in a cold climate. That immediately puts up my antennae and makes me wonder whether this character has any real obstacles to overcome. Now, obviously I'm basing all of this off of a very small selection and it could turn out that the grandfather is somehow responsible for the death of her mother or something like that. But I do think it's helpful for you to know that that's what I'd keep in mind while I was reading. What is the actual threat that she's facing? What are the stakes of staying with her grandfather rather than her father?

  9. I think the main issue here is that there's no emotion. She doesn't react to seeing her father. When he tells her she's going to her grandfather's, she says "What?" Is she hurt that he's sending her away? Angry? Glad or indifferent? When she thinks about her Mom and sister, does it bring tears to her eyes? Is there an ache in her heart? You're telling us what happened, but you're not showing us what the results are.

  10. I like this as far as jumping into the story without slowing down to catch up the reader.

    My concern is that I don't care about your character yet, but I'm already put into a position to care about her situation. I would suggest slowing down a bit, not a lot, to let us get a better sense of her emotional state. Give us some internal and external clues to how she is feeling. For example, when she realizes she's busted is she made, immediately sorry, too drunk to care, etc. These little details will help us to connect with her more so the punishment of being sent to her grandfather has more impact.

    Also, be careful with the number of sentences that have the "I + verb" structure. This is easy to fall into with 1st person. It's okay to have sentences like this, but too many create a repetitive structure and make the story feel told rather than lived.

  11. I like that you get right to the point where everything is about to change for the main character, and through her actions you've demonstrated that she comes from a world that's not perfect. In this short amount of time, you've done a good job establishing the setting and some of what makes the main character who she is.

    Though I liked the setup, I struggled with the dialogue. It felt choppy in comparison to the narrative. I also wasn't sure how to feel about the MC being sent to her grandfather's. I assume it's punishment, but we don't yet know enough to know why the main character would protest having to go there.

    The emotions here feel very real, and I think just a little more setup and narrative could really amplify them.

  12. I really enjoyed this and would request the full manuscript based on what I see here. The opening line is great, and you do a good job of keeping the action moving forward, while giving us lots of information about Nicole and this family. I’m intrigued!

    The line that threw me is the “roar” of his voice. I don’t have a sense of dynamics in this scene – I think this is a big dramatic moment between father and daughter, but it feels somewhat…muted or muffled. That could be because she’s drunk, so everything is fuzzy to her, but we know Dad is upping the ante by sending her to her Grandfather’s, yet it doesn’t feel like a serious blow. Perhaps that’s because Nicole isn’t a fighter, so she isn’t reacting to her Dad very much, but just because she doesn’t show him what she’s feeling, doesn’t mean she isn’t reacting inside. I’m curious to know more about that. At the ending, a more subtle shift away from that memory might be more interesting, as well as give you an opportunity to reveal more of your character’s emotions.

  13. Your prose is solid. Try reading your dialogue out loud when you write it. It might sound awkward when you read it like that but I do it and it helps to avoid rocky written speech.

  14. This was interesting! Thanks for sharing.

    Actually I really liked your dialogue sections.

    I've heard some agents despair of characters who are nauseous in opening pages but if that aspect is crucially important to your story-start & progression then it makes sense.

    It would be easy to have Dad indicate ", Nicole" in his opening line rather than holding off for a few exchanges as you do now.

    This paragraph (below) is where I find it shifts to 'telling'. That makes narrative appear to be speedier but in fact it would be sharper/more vivid if you keep a deeper POV here. - Also in my opinion (like other readers) I got a fine sense of the stakes (her sister lost in some way, her mother too or else her parents split) from Dad's comments, so you don't need to hold-off from heroine's thinking at the end of this passage. Rather I'd like more of her thoughts/feelings/emotions, rather than cutting them off/short.

    So here's the passage:
    I staggered to my feet and leaned against the sink. After rinsing my mouth and face, I tottered back to my room. Inside the closet, I pushed aside the shoes piled on top of my duffle bag. Dad knew I wouldn't dig in my heels. I may have been the queen of the late night sneak-out, but I was no fighter. Dad was the one always ready to rumble. Normally I was pretty good at hiding the kind of stuff that set him off. Not that we spent much time together. I hadn't seen him this mad since-

    ... The "After..." clause is a hint you're telescoping action out of immediate moment. Instead why not consider having her comment in passing on awful taste of mint toothpaste in her mouth. I imagine she's in front of the mirror. Not that you'd want the cliche opening of self-examination. Perhaps she keeps the lights off or avoids looking at herself there. Then "tottered" while a great verb is more of a self-view rather than a self-experience. She could remark on how the room spun, the floor wobbled beneath her feet, her knees buckled, whatever suits your voice, just something more physical-internally-to-her or to what she sees/experiences, rather than the 'viewing-herself'=telling verb of tottered.

    I like the reflection on Dad as ready to rumble. Suits his strong hands earlier.

    This sentence: Normally I was pretty good at hiding the kind of stuff that set him off. might work well in between these two: My brain scrambled. How could I talk my way out of this one? (if you don't think that takes too much time/thought for her muddled drunken brain) - - Or if not there, in passing as a piece of reflection in direct conjunction with something that Dad says or she tries to get by him in these opening exchanges, instead of here interrupting her packing. Unless there is something more direct-and-real to spur this particular thought than the elision of searching for shoes/ digging in her heels.

    But I'd certainly keep reading bc/ I like the sharp clear prose & question of how she'll adapt.

    Good luck with your writing!

  15. Tricia Lawrence, EMLAApril 21, 2014 at 10:20 PM

    Nicely done. It's really hard to care about this protagonist in the first lines, but I start to become somewhat interested and invested as the pages progress. I also wonder if you could rework this to include some sort of investment so that the reader is swept into this story from the first line. Congrats on being inn the top five! I so loved reading this.