Our last First Impressions submission comes from Julia Tomiak. This is the first page of her WIP, a YA Contemporary titled REDEFINED.
Most seniors from Keene County High School didn’t stay home on Friday nights to babysit their moms, but I did.
Dad called while Billie and I were working on dinner. I hesitated before I answered, wishing for the millionth time that my dad had a normal job. Something predictable, nine to five.
“Hi Cat,” he said, “I’ve got a patient here who has been in labor for hours, and we’re worried about her blood pressure. The baby is starting to show signs of distress. This could be a long night.”
I held the paring knife up in midair. “You’re not coming home, are you?” I asked.
“I’m afraid not for awhile.”
“But I made plans to go to the football game tonight.”
“I’m sorry, Cat. I really need you to stay with Mom.”
I slammed the knife down to the cutting board. “Fine,” I said, and hung up.
“Dr. Tierney working late?” Billie asked.
“Yes,” I said, chopping tomatoes more violently than normal. Then I got an idea. “Hey, Billie, are you busy tonight?”
She dropped the towel on the counter, looked at me over the top of her reading glasses. “Your daddy hired me to help your mama during the day.” She glanced at her watch. “It’s already past five. I’ve gotta help Earl castrate cows in the morning, and then we’ve gotta move some hay. These old bones need to get in bed early tonight.” She pointed a thick finger at me. “And you need to stay here and do what your daddy asked you do to.”
I slid the tomatoes into the salad bowl. “Fine.”
This first page does a good job of introducing us to the facts of Cat’s home life in one short scene: the obstetrician father, the hired care-giver, and Cat – who must give up a regular teenage life to take care of her mother. There are a few lines here that could be thrown out, because they tell us something we can see for ourselves. We don’t need … wishing for the millionth time that my dad had a normal job. Something predictable, nine to five … because that comes across in their conversation. Ditto the sentence Then I got an idea.
I was struck by the fact that no one shows any empathy towards the mother on this page. It's like she's a chore. I'm assuming the mother is an invalid who needs round-the-clock care, which makes Cat's attitude -- hanging up on her father and slamming the knife on the cutting board -- seem self-centered. Of course, maybe the situation is different. Maybe the mother is an alcoholic/drug addict who has to be "watched" all the time, which makes the "babysitting" comment and Cat's resentment more understandable. Or maybe the burden on Cat is unreasonable. But since we don't know this yet our tendency is to think Cat's being selfish, which probably isn't the first impression you want her to make.
I suggest changing the emotional tone to more disappointment and less anger. Make it plain this is the umpteenth time Cat’s plans have been cancelled. Save her temper for a later scene, after we’ve had a chance to bond with her. On the first page, I think you have to enlist our sympathy.
Likewise, Billie’s response could use tweaking. First, she gives an answer that is cold and business-like: Your daddy hired me to help your mama during the day. Then she provides a perfectly reasonable excuse for why she can’t stay late. Since Billie has already stayed past five o’clock to help Cat prepare supper, I assume she is a caring person. Therefore, why not make her response show that from the start? Something like, You know I’d help you if I could, but Earl needs me on the farm and I’ve already stayed longer than I should.