First Page Critique: The Wickedest Girl

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Today we are critiquing the first page of a story called “The Wickedest Girl”. I’ll add my comments at the end, and then please give your feedback in the Comments.

The Wickedest Girl

When my brother Nico gave me a Wicked CD for my eleventh birthday, we all knew what he wanted as a graduation present. He had done the same thing four years ago with Matilda, and then we went to the show in July. Now it’s the week before school, and no one had mentioned anything.

I stretch out on my bed and run my hand over my side table until I find the stack of CDs. I have five in all: Wicked, Matilda, Legally Blonde, and two Broadway Christmas albums. I pick up the top CD and read the braille on the cover: Wicked: the Musical. On the back it says: to Olivia who is always defying gravity.

I can’t help smiling. The messages are from Nico, brailled on to a thin sheet of paper that can peel like a sticker. How he managed to get it done—while at college no less—I’ll never ask.

I lean over and press play on my CD player—a machine I only ever use to listen to Wicked since the songs aren’t yet copied on to my iPod. I press the skip button until I reach song eleven, and then flop on my back to listen.

“Something has changed within me/ Something is not the same/ I’m through with playing by the rules/ Of someone else’s game”

I don’t know why I keep listening to this song. It tells me to break rules. It tells me to not listen to grownups. It tells me to defy gravity. And that has never worked for me before.
“With you and I/ Defying gravity / They’ll never bring us down.”

Back in second grade, I had a horrible teacher. Well, she wasn’t exactly horrible, just dry and sour, a person who despised fun and creativity. Back then I was obsessed with Matilda, and had followed her orders to be naughty. My friend Rosa and I had done it together—smeared Mrs. Walsh’s blackboard with glue and dirt and written the worst messages we could think of—but since I was the one under a magnifying lens for being blind, I was the one who took the heat. The general group of teachers that governed my life back then had labeled me mentally delayed and behaviorally unstable. Mamma had managed to clear all of that up before Christmas, but I will never forget it.

Matilda led me astray once, I won’t letting Elphaba do it again. Yet here I am, listening to the song that will influence me the most.

My comments 

I’m intrigued by the narrator in this story—her physical handicap gives her an immediate obstacle to overcome, and makes me want to learn more about her. I loved the anecdote about the chalkboard, and the way this writer establishes her close relationship with her brother at the top.

I got tripped up by a few issues. I stumbled over change of tenses in the transition between the first and second paragraphs. The switch to the present made it feel as if I’d entered a completely different story. (Disclosure: I’m not a fan of stories written in the present tense, although I understand it is used by many YA authors. I find it a tedious to read a story written in the present tense. I once had a lengthy debate with an aspiring YA author in my critique group about the perils of using the present tense. She decided not to use it).

In the last paragraph, I stumbled over a missing word (be?) in “I won’t letting Elphaba do it again.” I also think it would help bring the reader back to the present if the writer would add a “had” to “Matilda led me astray” in the first sentence of the last paragraph. (I was puzzled by the reference to “Elphaba” in the next line, but I suspect it’s a musical reference that I’m too old and tone deaf to recognize 😁.)

Those nits aside, I do love the character and relationships that are being introduced in this story. The voice is engaging, which is a huge accomplishment by the writer—creating a compelling voice is one of the biggest challenges in writing. I hope to read more of this story at some point in the future. Thanks to today’s courageous writer for submitting this page!

TKZers, please add your feedback about “The Wickedest Girl “ in the Comments. Thanks!

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11 thoughts on “First Page Critique: The Wickedest Girl

  1. I think writing about relatively ordinary events is difficult. The built-in tension is familiar to most of us and we know or know of people who have dealt with it. In this case, it leads to a lot of nice prose but little tension. Very possibly the tension begins in the next 400 words. But as it stands this feels like an essay or maybe a memoir. I don’t find it compelling enough to read on.

  2. My first question was, “Who’s Matilda?” Is she the girl friend of Nico, or is she a school mate of Olivia’s? It would be nice to have that cleared up on first mention. Otherwise, I’m distracted while I ponder this.

    While the character does have a distinctive voice and an interesting disability, I don’t see anything happening in this opening. When I hit the paragraph that began “Back in second grade…” I was done. We’re 80% of the way through the sample, and there’s no real conflict or hint of the trouble to come. The “Back in…” sentence sceams backstory info dump, and sure enough, we get a long one. I believe Mr. Bell suggests quite a lot less backstory than this in the first page.

    So please, brave writer, give this intriguing character some immediate conflict and something active to do in the opening. Then I’d be ready to journey with her through the length of a novel.

  3. Needs some work, tense shifts, typo, some repetition, but thumbs up. Didn’t like the back story/flashback so soon into story, but learning the character was blind drew me into story.

  4. I quit reading after the first paragraph. I’m sorry, but I didn’t understand it. Something about a birthday present, going to some show, and one week before school … none of it fits together.

    The opening paragraph is arguably the most important piece of real estate in a novel. Naturally, you don’t have to tell the whole story in the first paragraph, but the reader needs to be engaged in some form or another by what transpires, or is about to transpire, in the opening. I hate to say it, but this paragraph did absolutely nothing to engage me. Perhaps everything was clarified in the second or third paragraph, I don’t know, but if that’s the case, the brave writer should rework that first paragraph so the reader is immediately hooked.

  5. If I were to guess, I’d say this brave writer is early on in his/her writing journey. Perhaps it’s too soon for a public critique. When we’re honing our craft we need to keep the dream alive. I’d rather point you toward posts regarding scene structure, which you can find HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE.

    I, too, was intrigued by a blind main character. I liked the voice, too.

  6. I agree with Sue that this feels like an early step in a writing journey – but bravo for submitting! I feel like the writer might want to explore voice and character a bit more to settle into the story – one option might be to write a journal as if the writer was the main character and explore the issues there to help inform the novel. Just a thought – I also think having a blind main character in YA would be great – there is definitely a need for more diverse voices out there:)

  7. Outlier here. Present tense in YA, absolutely yes. Mystery in first graf, yes. An even greater mystery ends the second graf. Which, I suspect is where this story is headed. (If this is a story. Hang more bones on this and it could be a novel.)

    If more weight were brought to bear on the last graf (as in save some of the other details for later) and the POV gave us a hint what it means, this opening would be in the bag.

  8. Just a cautionary postscript for the writer:

    You won’t be able to include the lyrics from “Wicked” without written permission, and I can pretty much guarantee you won’t get it. Editors might — and I stress might — allow up to two lines quoted verbatim without permission, but even that’s stretching it. The only thing you can do is paraphrase the lyrics. This also goes for quoting poetry, novels, anything involving the hard and fast rules of intellectual property.

    The only exception seems to be epigraphs at the beginnings of novels. But even then, it’s a good idea to get permission. For my first book, I wrote the estate of Langston Hughes and got permission to reprint an entire poem in an epigraph. In my current book, I am using another Hughes poem in a character’s memory but limiting it to one line.

    And if you self-publish, don’t try to bypass this. They will find you. Believe me.

  9. The opening confused me, which might be more my age and unfamiliarity with some of the music mentioned. So did the tense change, although I have no objection to the present tense.

    One of my BFFs is blind–amazing woman–so I would definitely want to read a story with a main character who is blind.

    When you combine all the music references with all the other names in the excerpt, the reader may get distracted from the story, and I think that’s one of the things that’s happening here. It doesn’t take much to show the reader that your character is really interested in music, and one of the reasons why. (My friend loves going to the beach so that she can listen to the waves.) Do you need so many musical references this early in the story?

    i absolutely agree that the lack of conflict is a structural weakness in this opening excerpt. Yes, she’s blind, so if we have any empathy at all, we’ll know that she has more obstacles to overcome in her life than do many sighted people, but that’s not a current conflict in the scene.

    We don’t know much about her: she’s blind, she likes music. Perhaps the conflict you put into the opening could also reveal how she feels about her blindness–does she accept it or does she fight against it? (An acquaintance of mine has a Seeing Eye dog, and even the dog doesn’t like her because she is a very angry person.) She’ll be more admirable if she has risen to the challenge of her blindness and perhaps even laughs at herself for dropping something on the floor and not being able to find it.

    We have no real idea so far in this excerpt of what this story is going to be about. A blind girl? That’s not a story. A blind girl who wants something? That’s the beginning of a story. A blind girl who wants something unusual? That’s even more intriguing. A blind girl whose parents don’t want her to get what she wants? That’s also interesting.

    Please forgive the empathetical incorrectness–she’s not a blind girl; she’s a girl who happens to be blind, but who is she really?

    Please carry on with this story and with studying the craft.

  10. To clear up a little confusion. Elphaba is the main character in Wicked. She becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. Matilda is the title Character of the children’s book and movie of the same name about a little girl who is a genius.

    I immediately recognized these titles along with Legally Blond. The three together made me think that this is a story about a girl who does not let herself be defined by stereotypes. I think this is a wonderful way to help set up the first scene, but the problem here is that not everyone will get the symbolism. The author needs to include other clues to support this.

    I was intrigued and would love to see the story developed further.

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