Monday, December 10, 2012

1st 5 Pages December Workshop - Letai Rev 1

Name: Jean Letai
Genre: Upper Middle Grade Fiction
Title: Shinto Secret

I push my shoulders back and stick my chin up a couple inches, hoping I look like a young lady of the world instead of a jittery kid stuck at this stupid airport all alone. The time has already hit mid-afternoon here in Tokyo, but it’s still the middle of the night back home in America. The Hour of the Ox, Mom calls that darkness after midnight, when the Japanese believe spirits are most likely to appear.

It must have been the Hour of the Ox last week when Grandpa Ojiisan showed up, reaching out to me with that hand as wrinkled as a bird’s claw. Ghost or not, I knew who he was – even with his scraggly white hair dripping wet, his long wispy mustache drooping against his creased, wind-burnt cheeks, his nose protruding more than it should, and his feet and legs evaporating right in front of me. He struck me as so beautiful then, in some eerie kind of way.

Really not sure why though. He was more like a monster – only partly there, torn between this world and some other place. Those narrow dark eyes creeped me out more than his vanishing limbs. They were so piercing, boring into me…

Then there was that gobbledy-gook he croaked out in his hoarse whisper, so unlike his usual voice. "Key-what-soo-kitane," it sounded like. His mouth was open trying to say more when crash! There went my iPod clattering to the floor. I like to listen to it as I fall asleep, but I wish I hadn’t that night. It scared the breath out of me, and poor Grandpa Ojiisan disappeared altogether. The very next morning I found out he had died.

I wonder how you spell that thing he said. Maybe I can find it in my brand new Japanese-English dictionary. I pull the dictionary out of my backpack’s zippered pocket and look under K. I’m curious, plus it gives me something to do while I’m waiting in this bustling airport terminal looking foolish. Ke, Kee, Ki… Ki-wot-su-ke-tene: Take care, or be careful. Hmmm, that’s got to be it. But I’ve never heard it before. Can you dream words you’ve never heard before?

Sounds like a right-brainer thing to do, and I’m a leftie – the most left-brained member of the whole family, at least according to an Internet quiz the five of us took. I stick to logic and rational thought. Usually. Yet how rational is it that I just flew halfway around the world to this country whose language I don’t speak, to spend the summer with a woman I hardly know?

I try hard to paste a pleasant smile on my face as person after person greets loved ones in this waiting area. I slip my dictionary back into its zippered pocket, glad to have something to do for a brief moment, then clutch the handle of my rolling duffel bag with both hands. I can’t help shifting my weight from foot to foot. I probably look like some kind of idiot.

Digital cameras flash on all sides of me. Konnichiwas and giggles, high-pitched with excitement, fill the air. My Japanese grandmother is supposed to be right here waiting for me, so delighted to see me and eager to hear about my journey. Where is she?

Wishing I could teleport back home, I cast my eyes down at the shiny white floor, gleaming from the fluorescent lights high above. Dozens of business shoes, heels and sandals stride across my line of vision – black, brown and burgundy click-clacking past in a chaotic tap dance.

Strange syllables ring out through the loudspeaker – official-sounding inflections in the Japanese language I cannot comprehend. Biting my lower lip, I look up at the airport signs and giant video monitors all displaying Japanese kanji characters, symbols completely unlike my American alphabet. For some reason I had assumed there would be English subtitles, some way for me to understand where to go. More importantly, I thought Grandmother would be leading the way.

‘You know what a strong-willed lady she is, and how close the two of them were,’ I can hear Mom’s words from last week echoing in my head. ‘There’s no telling what she’ll do if she decides she doesn’t want to keep on living with him gone.’ The words I was never meant to hear had drifted up to my bedroom where I lay trying to sleep. ‘Keiko would give her a reason to move forward, keep her from thinking there’s any other option.’ I had listened helplessly as Mom pressed Dad to send me away.

Now I’m listening helplessly for someone – anyone – to call my name, or thrust out a sign, or give any indication that I am welcome, expected, anxiously anticipated even. I search the mob of Asian faces surrounding me. One face must be looking for me. I had pictured our eyes meeting with instant recognition. I would bow in the Japanese way of greeting, as Mom taught me, and Grandmother would bow back, and then we could embrace. I could sure use a hug after that long thirteen-hour flight. And a restroom.

I know I should feel sorry for my grandmother. I should be going out of my way to help her all I can through this difficult time, especially if Mom is right about her not even wanting to keep living with Grandpa gone. It’s kind of sweet, the thought of loving someone so much you don’t want to go forward without them. But I’m sure Grandpa would want her to go on.

To me, Mom said just that Grandmother needs company to get past her grief, and that I’m the only one of the family with enough maturity but no real responsibilities tying me down. So it’s not enough as the oldest kid I always have to babysit Aki and Juni (which I really don’t mind – we eat pizza and watch TV, not such a bad way to spend a night). But now I’ve got to babysit my grandmother too?

Mom said the poor woman has been dreaming her entire life of climbing Mt. Fuji, the most sacred of all mountains in Japan, the ultimate pilgrimage for followers of Shinto – Japan’s ancient religion. Grandpa Ojiisan had finally arranged to climb the sacred mountain with Grandmother this summer, but now I must go in his place.

It’s only for the summer. My friends think it’s very cool, flying solo across the Pacific Ocean when I’m just 14, visiting a continent as far away as Asia. But I definitely did not want to come.

“She’s your grandmother,” Mom had said sternly when I objected to this whole idea. “She’s in your blood. And Japan is in your blood, too.”

Japan is certainly in my name, Keiko. Even though Dad is American, and Mom and Dad had already settled snug as bugs in small-town New England, Mom insisted on giving us three kids Japanese first names. “With a last name like Jones, you need an interesting first name,” she figured.

Still, I can hardly pronounce Obaasan, the Japanese for Grandmother. I don’t know how I’m supposed to comfort her. I’ve never visited Japan before and will probably be more trouble than help. I can’t even use my cell phone here, since apparently it operates on a different frequency from Japanese phones.

Why didn’t Mom come herself? She can’t take that much time off work, or away from Aki and Juni, but she doesn’t mind not seeing me for six weeks?


  1. I like that you added that she was in Tokyo in the beginning. I felt the piece flowed really well. My only suggestion is that you use the first 5 pages to dump a lot of information about her and her family. It is all good info. but I wonder if you could move the story along a little quicker and then spread out the info. I assume the grandma will eventually pick her up so she could ponder some of the back story while making their way to her home. For example the info about her mom and dad naming them and her half Japanese blood. Maybe when she gets to the house and sees how different it is from what she is use to she can think how distant she feels from her culture even though is is a part of her. Or give her an opportunity to show that she can't pronounce a word instead of telling us about it. Make the story move instead of standing stagnant in the airport with the girl. Over all I think everything you need for a good story is there, I would just suggest moving the information through the story instead of piling it up in the beginning. :)

  2. Hi,
    I agree there is a lot of back story in your first five, although it is interesting and well written. I think you can skip much of the airport until her grandmother picks her up. And lots of the other Japanese info can be dropped in along the way, such as when she tried to use her phone and realizes she can't.

    I love the hour of the Ox, and the grandpa appearing. From loving his look then thinking he was a monster was a bit jarring, however.

    You have so much info here, it's almost like each piece (the grandpa, Mt. Fuji, learning how to bow, etc.) is its own scene. I want to know more about it all.

    And accompanying grandma to Mt. Fuji instead of grandpa is a great idea...I think you need to develop it more. Could he mention it in his "appearance?"

    Finally, I think we need more reactions from all these cool events. For example, grandpa appears, disappears, next day family learns he died. What would MC reaction be? (She calls him a ghost, so I guess she already knew.)

    I want to learn more, but not so much at a time. I love the plot that's developing and can't wait for more.

  3. Hi Jean,
    Thanks for sharing your revision. You have such an interesting concept and I'd like to see you flesh it out more in your next rewrite. While I like how your story is focused on Japan and the Hour of the Ox, I'm not certain the right place to start is in the airport, as there's so much waiting and frustration usually associated with being in an airport.

    Keiko internalizes a lot. While it's good information, the backstory would serve you better elsewhere. I'd like to see what Keiko's normal day is like before her mother throws her a curveball and tells her she has to go to Japan. What is she giving up? You've done a nice job with voicing the resentment leading to the big question, "Why didn't Mom come herself?" but this might be a good place to show it with a confrontation between Keiko and Mom. Some of the backstory could be shown at this point.

    I'd suggest adding back the scene where Keiko and Aki were discussing the ghost stories from your first submission. I really liked the humor there. Combine it with Grandpa's ghost and her reaction, and it's a great setup of what's to come.

    I'm looking forward to seeing what you do next with this. Nice job!

  4. Jean,
    I thought about your story some more. I think it's important to show the confrontation between Keiko and her mom about the Japan trip and why Keiko goes along with it. 14 is a tough age and there's lots of rebellion going on.

    What is Keiko giving up to go to Japan and why does she go along with it? This needs to be believable to your MG reader. If I put my 14yo in this situation, I can only imagine how much she'd get her friends involved to get out of this situation.

    I'm going to throw an idea out there -- Rather than starting the story in the Tokyo airport, how about her city airport, showing her trading her ticket for somewhere else. What if she has a friend who invited her to her summer home, or a place in Europe, etc. What does she need to pull this off? What needs to happen for her to still end up in Tokyo? Does grandpa's ghost intervene?

    Looking forward to reading your pages next week!

  5. This is MUCH less ambiguous than the previous version - nicely done! Summer with Grandma (even in a foreign country) is a perfectly reasonable premise for Keiko’s travel, and I like her faint resentment as well as her confusion and disorientation.

    I do agree with the comment that there should be less airport, unless her grandmother not being there to meet her has plot significance. If this is the case, I think it would work better to have that realization come sooner rather than later - that she’s stuck here and whatever happens next should be happening by the end of the second page.

    Also, after having a creepy and realistic dream about her grandpa as a ghost and then finding out that he died that very night, I’d think Keiko would have strong feelings about the event - either to think it was friggin AWESOME or to be well and truly freaked out. That’s where the drama is for me, what’s drawing Keiko to Japan and the reader into the story. Having a passing mention to it and then moving on to something more pedestrian doesn’t work for me. And why would she wait until now to look up the word he whispered? Wouldn’t she have done that right away?

    This story is intriguing and page-turny - can’t wait to see what you come up with next!

  6. I agree with the others, that there's too much backstory in the these first pages. Figure out what absolutely needs to be understood now. I still have issue with the non-linear timeline. I think you should start with the morning after the grandfather visited so she's distracted by that and show the familial interaction then move on to the trip. If you're in her thoughts be careful too, she wouldn't think it's bad enough I have to babysit (but I don't really mind it) etc. One or the other. Overall really cool story though, I love learning about the culture and the characters are already intriguing.

  7. I enjoyed the rewrite! I do agree with a lot of the comments above about the info-dumpy nature of the narrative now. You have so many interesting things going on that I think you're trying to get them all in too quickly, and would be better served by sprinkling them in between Keiko's actions (I think I'm having the same issue in my work too!).

    I really like Ms. Green's idea of starting with the morning after the grandfather visited! Although it's a no-no to start with a dream, starting with her finding out her grandfather's dead would be conflict enough, especially if there's then conflict between mom and daughter. That would eliminate the need for the flashback elements as well, which can be confusing when introduced too soon.

    That being said, a lot of the things that concerned me in round 1 are so much better this time! There is a lot of internalization here, but it's helped to iron out her voice better, which definitely sounds MG to me rather than YA. I also love how you engage all of the senses with your descriptions, so that we really feel like we're in the airport with Keiko. Great job!

  8. Hi Jean,

    I agree with much of what's been said, so I'm going to be a pale echo here. The voice is clearly MG, and you did a beautiful job with the description. I like how you transitioned the grandfather and used that to pivot the beginning, although I think you can smooth that out a little bit. I totally agree that she would have looked up the word, maybe so many times that the pages of the dictionary fall open there or something if you need to make it relevant here. I also love the idea of giving us her stance on the whole thing --- giving her a real voice that lets us know it has effected her internally apart from physically putting her into the airport in Japan. BUT I also think it is critical that you have active, real-time dialogue and motion in these first five pages. Why are you keeping her at the airport? Bring her grandmother in, or if something has happened to her grandmother, bring in a surrogate. This will let you show us your girl in motion, get her talking, let you flesh out her character and see her reacting to things in real time. All this backstory, apart from the grandfather and the quest he has set her on, can come in later. If the reader knows that she is in japan, there are cool spirits, and a puzzle she has to solve in the first couple of paragraphs, as long as you keep it moving, you are going to take us along for the ride. If at all possible though, I would give her a goal. What has she decided, right or wrong, that she is going to do with the information she got from the grandfather? What is her mission? The story question? And where is she beginning her character arc? Where do you need to begin it so that she can reach the first turning point on time and then progress through the story? Get her GMC in here if you possibly can.

    You have us all hooked. It's a great, unique, fresh concept with tons of room for lots of adventure and conflict, and I really like your pro tag. Now get her moving. :) Looking forward to the revision!