Monday, August 6, 2012

First Impressions: PLENG'S SONG


Today, our first page comes from Patrick Maher, whose book PLENG’S SONG has already been published to some acclaim and is popular with students at the international school in Thailand where he works.  In fact, Patrick wrote the book while he was trapped in his home for 5 weeks during the 2011 Thailand Flood, and he then shared the manuscript chapter by chapter with his class as he worked on it.

Chapter 1
Busted by the Principal! 

Unbelievable! I just had the worst day of school ever because I got busted by the principal for having my iPhone in class. My teacher, Mr. James, was making us organize our notebooks, folders, pencils, markers, and all our other boring school supplies when the principal stopped by to say hello.
      “I’m just walking around to see how all
 the classes are doing,” Ms. Sinclair said in a friendly voice. “We are so lucky to have such wonderful students at Union of Hearts International School.”
      As she spoke, I was scrolling through
 my iPhone looking for a message about my father who is a businessman in Thailand. He was supposed to be meeting the prime minister at the Government House and I was checking to see whether my dad had sent me a message telling me they had met. I mean, how many people get to meet the prime minister?
     “Excuse me young girl,” Ms. Sinclair said
 with an angry voice as the skin above her upper lip wrinkled up tightly. “You need to come to my office, right now.”
     The whole class froze, even my teacher.
 I stood up feeling sick and followed the principal out of the classroom, down the hall, and into the principal’s office. My heart was racing. I passed the secretary, Ms. Nok, and her jaw dropped. In the morning, I had told her my dad might be meeting the prime minister. I wanted to ask her for help but Ms. Sinclair angrily interjected.
     “Get this girl’s parents on the phone
 now!”
    I could feel the rice soup I had eaten
 for breakfast slowly start churning in my stomach. It was as if the pieces of rice had become ants and were crawling up my throat. Trying not to throw up, I sat down in the chair facing the principal’s desk.
     “What do you think you’re doing with
 an iPhone in the classroom?” Ms. Sinclair asked with her long red hair looking like it had flames rising from its tips. I knew I had a lot of explaining to do.
    “Well…” I said, gasping for breath
 and speaking quickly. “My father is a businessman and...”
    Ms. Sinclair quickly interrupted me.
 “I don’t care what your father does for a living. At this school, we don’t allow iPhones in class under any circumstances.”
   The pieces of rice in my throat started
 moving and felt like dirty cockroaches trying to escape an angry housekeeper. The principal continued talking but I wasn’t listening. I tried my best to focus. Everything was blurry and I felt dizzy. Then my gaze fell on the garbage can next to Ms. Sinclair’s desk. I dove for it as the most disgusting rice soup shot out of my mouth, landing right on the principal’s carpet. I 
missed the garbage can completely.
   
Even though Patrick has already published his book, I’m going to go ahead and treat this excerpt like any other submission for a First Impressions critique and make suggestions for revisions.

First of all, it’s a great opening situation. Because of the way Pleng reacts to getting sent to the principal’s office, I assume she's normally a good student who rarely gets into trouble.  I immediately feel sympathetic toward her. She’s excited about her father’s meeting, and she’s hoping to hear all about it. Then the principal treats her like a troublemaker, and the poor child throws up in the principal’s office.  The reader cringes on her behalf.

The narration keeps us at arm’s length, though. From the very first sentence, we feel like we are reading a summary of Pleng’s day instead of living it with her.  I’d like to see this written more in the moment.  Some people would suggest present tense, but that is not a favorite of mine (as a writer) and I think the same thing can be done in past tense, too.  The trick is to allow the narrator to reflect on the events, but not lapse into summary.

I’d love to see this start with Pleng scrolling through her phone, looking for a message from her father – hoping he’ll send one, because she’s so excited about him meeting the Prime Minister.  She knows she’s supposed to be organizing her desk and folders, but they’re already neat.  She doesn’t even notice the principal has come in – until the principal spots the iPhone and pounces on her.  I think it’s a matter of ordering the presentation of events from Pleng’s perspective, blow by blow, rather than letting her stand off to one side and tell us from a distance.

Any thoughts from readers on this?  Thanks, Patrick, for sharing your first page with us. You can read an interview with Patrick about his experience in Thailand during the flood here. Pleng's Song is available for Amazon Kindle, and don’t forget to check out Marcy’s critique on Mainewords.

3 comments:

  1. Dianne, I think you nailed my reaction. I felt like I needed to be more inside Pleng's head.

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  2. I agree with the suggestion to change the summary-style. It sounds as if I'm reading someone's journal/diary, not like I'm part of her in the scene. Less explanation, more physical reactions.

    Also, to increase the tension, have the narrator know that it's against the rules but do it anyway, hiding the phone below the desk and scanning the room every few seconds to make sure she's unobserved. A character doing something in secret immediately increases the reader's anxiety.

    Good luck!

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