Monday, December 17, 2012

1st 5 Pages December Workshop - Letai Rev 2

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

I would have mentioned Grandpa’s vanishing limbs over pancakes and orange juice if I had come downstairs just half an hour earlier. By the time I was up, Mom had already got the phone call from across the ocean. “Bad news, Keiko,” she said, her face pale. Grandpa Ojiisan had “passed” unexpectedly, tripping and drowning in a waterfall at one of his favorite parks in Japan.

No way, I wanted to scream. It was too bizarre that I had just seen him in the middle of the night. He was standing at my bedside, 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 really beautiful, in some eerie kind of way.

Looking at Mom’s tear-filled eyes I realized I had to keep Grandpa’s visit a secret. Mom and Dad would think I was making up a story, or not taking the news seriously…or worse. I’d heard bits of their hushed conversations and seen the headlines when I searched Grandpa on-line… “Renowned Techno-Wizard obsessed with Spirit World,” “Scientists Question Sanity of Secretive Research”... Kind of unnerving to think your own grandpa might be loony. What if it runs in the family?

Still, I had to tell someone. I picked my younger brother, Aki. He likes that psychic and supernatural stuff, especially since Grandpa sent him a book of Japanese ghost stories last Christmas. Together we searched my Japanese-English dictionary to translate what I thought I heard our evaporating Grandpa whisper. “Key-what-soo-kaytaynay,” 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.

Ke, Ki… Ki-wot-su-ke-te-ne: Take care, or be careful. That had to be it. But I had never heard it before. Can you dream words you’ve never heard before?

Aki and I agreed that Mom and Dad would think I was losing my grip on reality, just like the recent rumors about Grandpa Ojiisan himself. We also agreed something must happen after death. You can’t just lie there and rot.

“Do you think you go to Heaven?” I asked him. I like to think Heaven is full of all the chocolate you can eat.

“I think you become part of a spirit world where there is no time or space,” Aki answered me. He’s spent a lot of time reading science fiction during his twelve years on Earth. “That means you also get powers like teleporting and shapeshifting.” Aki had clearly given the matter plenty of thought.

“I think you come back as an animal,” my little sister Juni called out then, listening in from the next room the way she does. “I want to be a monkey.”

“Then I’ll come back as a hippo,” Aki declared. No surprise he is the most right-brained member of our family, according to an Internet quiz the five of us took. The rest of us are left-brainers, especially me. I stick to logic and rational thought. Usually. Yet how rational is it that I agreed to fly halfway around the world to a country whose language I don’t speak, to spend the summer with a woman I hardly know?

“She’s your grandmother,” Mom had said sternly when I objected to the 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.

Why couldn’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? So much for not having any favorites among us. Or least favorites, anyway.

Mom told me Grandmother needs company to get past her grief, and I’m the only one of the family with enough maturity but no real responsibilities tying me down. She 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 fourteen, visiting a continent as far away as Asia. But I definitely did not want to come.

Whatever. Here I am a week later – spending thirteen hours straight on this airplane, squashed in the window seat next to a large, sweaty man who apparently never heard of deodorant. I can’t wait to get off now that the plane’s finally landing. Grandmother will be waiting, and I picture our eyes meeting with instant recognition. I’ll bow in the Japanese way of greeting, as Mom taught me, and Grandmother will bow back, and then we can hug. I could sure use a hug after this long flight. And a restroom.

In the terminal I search the mob of Asian faces. Konnichiwas and squeals, high-pitched with excitement, fill the air. Digital cameras flash. 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 clueless kid.

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 kanji characters, weird 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.

I cast my eyes down at the shiny white floor, gleaming from the fluorescent lights high above. Dozens of business shoes, heels and sandals cross my line of vision – black, brown and burgundy click-clacking past in a chaotic tap dance. I clutch my duffel bag with both hands and shift my weight from foot to foot. I must look like some kind of idiot. The other passengers all find their friends or families and exit together in a flurry of chit-chat, leaving a loud silence in their wake.

The thought of Grandpa’s ghost suddenly strikes me as creepy – only partly there, torn between this world and some other place. The lingering smell in the airport – a medley of human odors, perfumes, and fish cooking somewhere in the terminal – makes me really queasy.

Chapter 2
For another half-hour I sit holding in my pee, even as I see my summer swirling slowly but steadily down the toilet. I work so hard during the school year, summer is supposed to be my time.


  1. I like the different start, but I think you need to slow down and watch to make sure the timeline is linear. What you have is a bunch of small flashes to cram in information. Well written, great plot, great extra info you've added. But take it easy and show us the whole thing unfold. At least give it a try and see what you think. Either way, as I said great writing and great story.

  2. I like that you have made some changes but I think the beginning is moving too fast. I agree with Lisa on slowing it down a bit. When you look at the beginning look at as what do we really need to know now in the story and what can be trickled in later. I feel like there is a lot of information being dumped on us in the beginning trying to get us to understand the MC. When in actuality what we need to know is her grandfather died. He visited her in her dreams, and now she is going to Japan to help her grandma. What in the piece is moving the story forward with that information in mind. I think you also need to focus a bit more on her feelings about going to Japan, a country she doesn't know, to live with a person she doesn't really know. that seems to be the important part of the story right now. The information about her grandfather and his interests can be given later. There is a lot of back story that could be taken out and put in later. In order for me to feel connected to the MC I think you should take the time to have her go through the emotions of being sent off when she doesn't know this person and a grandfather she didn't know is visiting her in her dreams. I think your pages are getting close. YOu are in the midst of revision and just need to keep working and it will plop out at the end as a great beginning.

  3. Hi there! I completely agree with everything stated above. I like that you've started the story at a different place, but the timeline is still confusing, and I think it's because of the backstory. At first I thought she was with her mom, then she was with her brother, then turns out she was on a plane the whole time, which just confused me. I agree that the writing is good and the plot elements are all there, just need to slow it down and make the timeline clearer, and cut a lot of the extraneous details that pull us out of the story. We need to be right there with her seeing what's happening in the moment, with only the elements of backstory that are absolutely essential for understanding what's going on in the present. You're definitely getting closer!

  4. Hi Jean,
    I like your new starting point. You did a good job drawing my interest. Glad you brought back the siblings. Things read smoothly up to, " Yet how rational is it that I agreed to fly..." show Keiko's emotions. Show how she objected to going, rather than transitioning to "She's your grandmother." Let us feel empathy for her. I'd end the chapter with this and then start the new chapter with the paragraph starting with, "Whatever."

    I really enjoyed reading your pages. As you work on revising this, think about what details are needed to move the story forward and what backstory you can move to another point or take out altogether. You have an intriguing plot and great writing style that will appeal to MG readers. Best of luck with your manuscript!

  5. I love the new setup, and I like that there’s less airport. I also like how you approached Grandpa’s warning; it feels more organic while still getting the message across.

    I don’t think including *some* backstory here is too boggy, but I wonder if you need all of it - particularly the section about her discussion with her brother about Heaven or the explanation of her name. The parts that worked best for me were the ones that explained why a teen would be sent across the ocean by herself and why she needed to go - that her parents were worried about her grandmother and there was no one else who could go.

    I’m loving the middle-grade voice and the tempting hints of the supernatural. Good luck with it!

  6. Hi Jean,

    Wow. I LOVE this revision. It is genuinely wonderful. Trim it down a bit to keep it more linear and provide the information and backstory only when we really need it, as everyone has already suggested. Apart from that, you are there. I love this, and I think readers will love it. Best of luck with it!



  7. Coming in late here, but I agree with having a little less back story because you have hundreds of pages to explain things! Love the plot and character and want to know more about MC feelings. Good job on the revisions, and best wishes for continued success in 2013.