Monday, December 3, 2012

1st 5 Pages December Workshop - Letai

Name: Jean Letai
Genre: 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 an 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…

“Kiwotsuketene,” he had called in a hoarse whisper.

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.

What was that word again? Ki-what? I had never heard it before, but maybe it’s 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. Kiwotsuketene: Take care, or be careful. Hmmm. Can you actually dream words you’ve never heard before?

I would have mentioned the whole vanishing ghost thing over pancakes and orange juice if I had come downstairs just half an hour earlier that morning. By the time I was up, Mom had already got the phone call from across the ocean. Grandpa Ojiisan had “passed” unexpectedly, tripping and drowning in a waterfall at one of his favorite parks in Japan. It was then I decided to keep his visit a secret. No one would believe me saying I had just seen him in the night. They would think I was making up a story.

Except my younger brother, Aki. He likes that psychic and supernatural sort of stuff, especially since Grandpa sent him a book of Japanese ghost stories last Christmas. When I told Aki about it, the two of us agreed that Mom and Dad would think I was losing my grip on reality, just like the recent rumors about Grandpa Ojiisan himself.

We’d heard bits of Mom and Dad’s hushed conversations and seen the headlines when we 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?

Anyway, Aki and I 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 careful 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.

Aki is the most right-brained member of our family, at least according to an Internet quiz the five of us took. I think that’s why he seems so relaxed all the time. He just goes with the flow instead of over-analyzing everything. The rest of us are left-brainers, especially me. We 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 desperately 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.

The crowd in the reception area thins until I am completely alone. The other passengers have all found their friends or families and exited together in a flurry of chit-chat. I can feel my shoulders sag. Is that my own B.O. making my nose wrinkle? The smell in the airport – a medley of human odors, perfumes, and fresh fish cooking somewhere in the terminal – suddenly repulses me.


  1. Hello,
    Thank you for sharing your story. I enjoyed it so far.
    Remember I am just giving my opinions for better or worse so take them of leave them. :)


    I think your first paragraph sets up the story well but I wonder what the critiques will say over all. It doesn't early grab the reader and they always seem to focus on that. When you talk about the hour of the ox i was a bit confused because we hadn't been told where we were yet, just that we weren't in America. I struggled a bit to get my feet under me in the story as to whether it was present day, future, and how old the character was.

    I felt like the iPod sentence was a bit awkward too. HAving to explain why it was on and all kind of took the flow of the writing away from me.

    YOu introduce a lot of characters in this first bit and then end up leaving them all in America. Do they show up again? If not it might be good to skim some. Also you tend to use a lot of self deprecating words like looney, stupid etc.... It makes your character come across as either lacking self assurance or kind of harsh.

    Overall I think your writing flowed pretty well and I liked the language choices you used. Good descriptors without over doing the adj.

    Good Luck :)

  2. Hi Jean,
    I enjoyed reading the first pages, too. I would love to know more about Japan and I think you are leading us there!

    I agree with some of the comments above, about the MC's self deprecation. And the comments about the airport--I think most readers would already have a sense of strangeness in airports, especially when entering a foreign country and living there with an almost stranger. I think you give the airport too much attention.

    I wasn't sure if this is going to be a fantasy, as you mention the techno-wizard. (Seeing her dead grandfather doesn't make it fantasy for me, as some people truly claim to have experienced that.)

    Also, there is a lot of telling, not showing. For instance, you mention her brother being right brained. Could you actually work in the family taking the quiz? This could show how rational she is (will we learn her name?). I'm assuming the brother is important since you mention him in the first few pages.

    Overall, I love the theme and look forward to reading more! And I actually like the Hour of the Ox opening.

  3. The voice is spunky and determined and definitely middle-grade. The details are well-chosen, vivid and nicely disorienting. I really get the sense of a kid out of place, worried about what to do next.

    However, there is a lot going on in these pages, and sometimes it’s hard to know where and when I am. At first I’m in the airport, but then I’m pulled back to a dream, then I’m back in the airport and then I’m in the Keiko’s living room meeting her siblings. It’s hard to know what the hook is here, what's driving this story forward.

    Also, it would help to know sooner and more clearly why Keiko is being sent to Japan. There’s a line buried near the end that her parents sent her to comfort her grandmother, but I find that a little hard to believe - a tween kid taken out of school and sent halfway around the world all alone to keep her grandma from going over the deep end? That’s a lot of responsibility for anyone, much less a kid that young. Is there a special reason it has to be Keiko? Why wouldn’t her mother or father go?

    Can't wait to read more!

  4. Hi Jean,
    Thanks for sharing your pages. I enjoyed reading your submission. It's nice to see a story set in another country. I've made a few comments for you to review as you work on your revision. I hope you'll find my suggestions useful.

    I'd love to know a little more about your MC, Keiko. How old is she? What grade? She's a left-brainer. We find out she has 2 younger siblings. Is she close to them? Where does she live? Does she live in an area with many other Asians? It seems like she doesn't since she's in the Toyko airport searching the "mob of Asian faces..." Is she half-Japanese? Wondering as she's mentions her Japanese grandmother, rather than grandmother. She doesn't know her grandmother very well, but was willing to spend the summer with her. Why? Was she close to her grandfather? There are clues her family isn't traditional Japanese, as she doesn't know the language; however, the kids all have Japanese names. These are some of the details that will help you as you find Keiko's voice.

    Since Keiko is waiting at the airport, she has some time and is reflecting on the past. While it's nice to know the back story, it gets a little confusing as the story shifts to different times and places. It seems Keiko sees Grandpa's ghost last night, finds out in the morning that Grandpa passed away, and is at the Japanese airport later the next day? Yet, Mom convinced Dad a week earlier to send Keiko to Japan so Grandma might not "want to keep living with him gone."

    I love the dialogue with the siblings. There's energy and humor, which makes this section stand out, particularly with all the right brainers in the family. :) We get a sense of personality with the left brain/right brain. It makes me wonder whether you should change the starting point of your story, so the kids are reading the ghost stories, talking about grandpa, and then later, Keiko sees grandpa's ghost. It'd be great to know if she dismisses grandpa's ghost, or wonders why grandpa didn't show up to Aki, since he'd totally be into it.

    I'm looking forward to seeing how you develop these pages. Best of luck.

  5. Hi there, thanks for sharing your work! Your writing ability is clearly very advanced and your style is lyrical, which I like. I've made a few comments for you to consider below...

    I actually thought the voice sounded more YA than MG, especially after there was a hint about the grandmother not wanting to go on after losing the grandfather (suicide reference?). Please take this comment with a grain of salt though, as I am a YA writer, and even when I was MG-aged I was reading YA, so I'm not all that familiar with what a MG voice should sound like. Perhaps the voice is crossover and would appeal to both audiences? Just something to think about. Or perhaps it's the writing style that seems mature, and not the voice.

    I see several others have mentioned this already, and I second it: Be careful going straight into flashbacks, especially multiple flashbacks like you have above. I'd either wait a bit longer, showing the MC in her current state more before flashing back, or I'd have her doing something more interesting and hook-ish (meaning attention-grabbing, not hooker-ish of course :) ) before flashing back, so that the reader be anxious to hang in and see where the story is going. The use of multiple flashbacks in particular is confusing, as we lose where MC is right now.

    One small comment, and again perhaps I'm not giving enough credit to MG-aged kids: if she's unfamiliar with Japanese language, I think she'd have trouble looking up a Japanese word she's never heard in a dictionary, just for spelling reasons. I know I would, and I'm an adult. I have a 10-year-old stepdaughter and I keep thinking of her in this situation, and I think she would have trouble.

    Also, I've been referring to your MC as female, but there's not an indication in the story of whether MC is male or female, how old he/she is, etc. Maybe see if you can drop some hints about that early on without being heavy-handed; you don't want it to come across as in info dump. Maybe if she just casually mentioned her fifth grade teacher, or in the dialogue if someone referred to her with a female-sounding or male-sounding term, that kind of thing.

    I love the suspense and tension you've set up in these pages! I know that addressing everyone's comments will make that even more difficult to maintain, as you may have to rethink the flashback sequences, but I'm really excited to see where this goes! I think overall you have a lot of great ideas for the story that you're just trying to get out too quickly, so maybe just focus on the grandfather in these pages, and setting up that conflict and why she's traveling, and worry about the other stuff for your later pages. Great job!

  6. Hi! First off really refreshing story! Now, you do such an awesome job describing the grandfather's ghost, I'm wondering why there seems to be a lack of description elsewhere? I know you don't want to go overboard and I heartily agree, but a little more about her house, the people, etc would be nice.

    Also, the flashback at the beginning - if there's any way to avoid it, try! Either start earlier or drip in the info. Maybe starting with the family conversation where she learns it was a ghost and she has to go to Japan would work better? That was interesting enough to hook me.

    Great stuff! Can't wait to read the revision.

  7. Hi Jean,

    I enjoyed your writing and agree that you write lyrically and have a lot of beautiful details woven into this piece! I enjoyed your character and the situation overall and love the idea of a story set in Japan. You've set up the mystery element and I love the way that you use the hour of the ox to weave in the description of the ghost. I wonder if that one initial paragraph might not be enough of a flashback though? Do the rest of the characters come into the story here? If not, perhaps you could have her think that the grandfather was beautiful, which was odd because he was really monstrous, and then tie that back to her loneliness and fear now by herself at the airport waiting for her grandmother? Then introduce the grandmother and work the backstory in later. Do we really need it this early? I get the sense that the grandfather has set her on a quest, and I'd love to see that element explored a bit more. I understand that it's tempting to fill in some of the backstory more actively via the dialogue that breaks up her long stretch of being alone, but perhaps some of this dialogue could come out between her and her grandmother, or someone who notices her waiting alone at the airport? Someone who was on the plane with her, or some other fiscelle?

    Looking forward to reading more!