Monday, February 4, 2013

1st Five Pages Workshop - Balter

Name: Stephen Balter
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary 14 & up


I wish I could fly.

I’d ride the thermals with my wings outstretched, soaring, carving, diving toward the ground in a death-defying plunge, only to pull out at the last moment.

Then maybe I wouldn’t have to face the consequences. I could run away, fly away.

I know it might seem like cowardice. But tell me, what would you do? I don’t expect you to feel sorry for me. I just want someone to hear me out. You can come to your own conclusions. It’s a free world. Or so they say.

I suppose you could just trust me when I tell you that I shouldn’t be here, in this untenable situation, between this rock and that hard place. But how could you trust me? I’m standing here in a pool of blood, and I think I might have just killed the only person that ever believed in me.

Damn, I wish I could fly.


I’ll begin at the beginning, or as close to it as I can remember. Because nobody remembers their absolute beginning, so there’s no shame in starting after that.

I have to remind myself of that all the time, the part about there being no shame. Shame is for losers. And I’m not a loser. Not anymore.

My father. That’s a different story. Now there was a loser, with a capital “L”. I know. Respect your elders. But are you really supposed to respect an elder who tosses you like a rag doll across the room? Aren’t three-year-old girls supposed to want to play with their dads? Yeah, that’s one of my first glorious memories. Looking back, I’m kinda proud of myself. It didn’t really take me long to figure out I needed to stay away from that asshole.

But Mom wasn’t much better. She never threw me across the room. At least I don’t remember her doing that. She just sat in a trance all the time. She was probably liquored up or baked or something.

More recently, I’ve wondered what was worse. Having a father who beat the shit out of me, or a mother who let him. I still haven’t decided, but for the last two years, since just after my fourteenth birthday, it hasn’t mattered. That’s when Mom died and I got the hell outta there…

I’ve changed my mind.

You don’t really need to hear all that cry me a river crap. Let’s just say it wasn’t all peaches and cream and move on.


Six months ago everything changed for me. Up until then I guess you could say I had been down on my luck. I had been living on the streets, doing what I had to do to get by. Stuff I don’t really want to talk about. It’s not important anyway. What matters is that six months ago, late at night, on the Vegas strip, I met Captain Jack, and everything changed.

I wasn’t working that night. You can’t work every night. Besides, I had enough to get by on and when it was like that, when I didn’t have to worry about food for a few days, I took a break. I liked going down to the strip, the nice part, where all the fancy casinos are. It’s like a dream world.

I would stand for hours, leaning over the wall in front of the Bellagio Hotel, watching the fountain showthe colors, the dancing water, the music, it’s Vegas at it’s best. If you ever want to feel alive, stand in front of the Bellagio.

That night I felt as alive as I had in a long time. I was primed. I just knew something had to go my way. Just had a feeling, you know? Given the way my life had gone so far, I figured the odds were with me.

So there I was, leaning over the wall, listening to music blast out of the speakers, when fate tapped me on the shoulder.

I know it was fate, because it was just how Sugar had described it.

I miss Sugar.

I met Sugar not too long after I got to Vegas. She had been on the streets for a long time, longer than she could remember. She looked out for me, showed me the ropes.

She always would tell me that the streets weren’t the life for me, that I was destined for something better. One day I said, “How do you know, Sugar?”

And that’s when she sat me down on the bench at the bus stop and laid it all out for me. “Sweetness,” (that’s what she always called me) “you different than the rest of us. I seen it in you since I first laid eyes on you.” Her gold teeth reflected the neon sign in the liquor store window. “You got somethin’ special. And one day, you gonna make somethin’ outta yourself.”

“You really think so?”

“I know so. First off, ain’t nobody on these streets talk like you. Half the time I ain’t even know what you talkin’ about. You too smart for the rest of us. And you just a baby. Sooner or later, someone’ll see that you ain’t belong here. Fate’s gonna tap you on the shoulder. And then you gonna be saved.”


“Sweetness. You know all them fancy words, but you ain’t know fate?”

Of course I knew what fate was. Page 258. After fat cat and before fated.

Fate: the will or principle or determining cause by which things in general are believed to come to be as they are, or events to happen as they do.

I knew what fate was. I just didn’t know that it could tap you on the shoulder. But it did.

That night, six months ago, I was leaning over the wall staring at the fountains, lost in the magic, when something hit me. Not like a thought, something actually hit me.

The desert nights can get pretty cold and windy. I don’t suppose as cold as some places, but I’ll bet windier than most. The wind was whipping that night, the spray from the fountains soaking me. But I didn’t care.

I was standing there, minding my own business, when something hit my shoulder. It was fatein the form of a baseball cap.


  1. Man, I have the worst trouble with stream of consciousness narrative. Not following it, but critiquing it. As it stands right now, I can't see much wrong with it. The character voice is strong, the setup and conflict is good--any critiques I'd come up with have to do with the stream of consciousness structure itself. And I think that's probably what you intend.

    So, not much to say from my corner on this one. Maybe others will have more experience with this style. :-)

  2. Hey there! I'm not a part of the workshop officially, but I thought I'd toss some comments your way anyways. Take them or leave them.

    Chapter one: I love your opening line. It really pulls a reader in. That one line could come from any number of people - a kid wanting to be Superman, a teenager thinking about suicide, a mother trying to escape the death of her son... all kinds of things.

    But then the description afterwords feels rather pointless. One line of description about flying feels out of place, especially when you give so much away of the opening afterwards. The best way to fix it would be to try really delving into that description. Let your character really BE the bird in her own mind and let her run through all the tricks a bird might perform. Then end the chapter with "Then maybe I could fly away from these problems." You're giving us a teaser. Now I'm interested.

    As it stands, I feel bombarded by too much info. Your character uses "you" and addresses the reader outright, which, frankly, is alienating in a lot of cases, this one included. Second person addresses are geared more for diary scenarios, not deep thinking.

    Also, you leave us with "I'm standing in a pool of blood" and she's saying she just killed someone. That's really powerful. But then you immediately pull us away for a long backstory. At that point, I don't care about the backstory. I find myself skipping ahead to find out who she killed, if anyone.

    Which leads me into the next chapter.

    Chapter two:

    You give us a ton of information about the character at once. It's an infodump basically. While I'm sure it's important, it feels out of place at the moment. Especially when she ends with "Let's just say it wasn't peaches and cream and move on." As a reader, I moved on long ago.

    Rather than info dump that stuff all at once, spread it out throughout the story. Have her remember specific events rather than dumping it all on us at once. Then I'll care a little more.

    Chapter Three:
    While this is a good set up, you tend to bounce around. Your character talks about getting tapped on the shoulder, then suddenly she's reminiscing about "Sugar." If she's been tapped on the shoulder, she doesn't have time for retrospection, regardless about whether or not it was metaphorical tap. She's thinking about the present. Have her think about Sugar BEFORE she's tapped on the shoulder, then talk about Fate, and it makes the whole story flow better.

    I did like your "Fate in the form of a baseball cap" line, though.

    Hope I wasn't too harsh there. If you want more precise critique, let me know and I'll be happy to exchange emails. Be warned though, I'll be a lot harsher. XD Hope that helps!


  3. I like the beginning, but the consequences part pulled me away from that initial imagery. It seems a bit... inconsistent, or maybe it's just that I'm not sure that you actually need to state that? Or the cowardice part. When you write about flying from blood and killing the only person who's believed in the protag, we as readers know the protag wants to escape those consequences/the memory of what she's done. We can infer it.

    I like the voice a lot. But the abrupt switch in chapter 2 threw me off. And I noticed that that had happened in chapter 1 too, this sudden switch after throwing out crucial pieces of information. Those endings didn't feel like cliffhangers so much as punches in the gut and I'm not sure that I, as a reader, would be able to deal with that for the entire book. I think that it might be better if you develop those reveals a bit more or at least ease us into them more. After having read chapter 3, I also wonder why Chapter 2 is where it is. I understand that this is stream of consciousness, but I think that it would be better to go directly into the story and introduce thoughts of her mom and dad later/throughout the story.

  4. Standing in a pool of blood to begin with? Awesome! I LOVE pools of blood! (No, not kidding. I write pretty gruesome stuff for kids, yanno.) I’m excited to begin this piece, but then I felt like I didn’t get to begin! You left me standing with your MC in that pool of (I hope not just metaphorical) blood, and gave rather vague details about the background of your MC.

    Chapter 2 is all back story – and not specific enough to place anywhere else in the text. The mom was “probably liquored up or baked or something?” I want to know, if you’re going to tell me about the mom at all, exactly what her drug of choice was, and SEE her in its grips. Make it real, not vague – it doesn’t seem TRUE if it’s vague.

    I would cut the whole second chapter, and add hard details if and when you need them.

    To be frank, I might cut the first chapter, too. All the talks of rocks and hard places and general “untenable situations” didn’t light my fire, although it did promise more to come.

    What really piqued my interest was Chapter 3, when you get us to the streets, and we meet Sugar (although all the visual we get of her is gold teeth. More, please? She’s a Vegas hooker who’s been there forever, you can show us precisely what that’s done to her, the mark it has left on her physically as well as emotionally.) This is where the actual story starts for me – where things start happening, instead of back story being related.

    Now, to the issue that make me wonder the most… you have given us a teenaged MC who is also a prostitute, if I read this correctly. And that experience is sort of casually thrown in there. “You can’t work every night.” I’ll admit, I don’t write YA, but I do read quite a bit of it. I don’t know if I’ve yet read a YA that has this set up, which could be good. Or it could be a warning sign – tread carefully and intentionally here, so that your writing is so incredibly strong it pushes aside worries about suitability of subject matter.

    No matter who your audience is, YA or adult, in the end the writing needs to be specific and believable. I think that might begin with cutting to the action, and giving us those heart-rending details as we travel through the story.

    I'd love to see what you do with this, and see which changes might resonate with you! I think you've got some exciting material here to work with.

  5. I love the pool of blood but I want more detail worked in. If she is standing in the pool of blood she is smelling and feeling it. Also, the info in Chapter 2 is great but can be moved and rearranged. I loved finding out more about the MC in chapter three but the feel of the chapter is choppy. I think all three chapters could be made one chapter and rearranged to become an incredible thing. More sensory detail to put us there. Rearranging the details so that we meet Sugar earlier and also learn what "page 258" means. I'm assuming she has memorized a dictionary, which is interesting if true.

  6. This is tough. I like the voice, but it's too choppy. It goes back and forth and every time you think you're getting to the meat of it, you go back to something else. There are too many flashbacks and too much telling I think. You can keep the flavor of that without going overboard. I'm five pages in and I couldn't really tell you what the books about, other than a down on her luck teen in Vegas. I'm not even sure I like her yet. I feel for her, but is that enough? I'm not sure. I LOVE the dictionary line. That gives me some info on her that's different and interesting. I also don't know her name.

  7. The MC has a very compelling voice and an edgy story. These are assets for YA. I like your opening line although if it were mine I'd be worried by the simplicity of it that it might have been used before by another author?

    The voice is also very masculine, to the point that I thought it was a male MC until the words "three-year-old girls" (and because I might have the same issue, I will be adding a very early reference to my MC's gender in my first person story as well :)

    Lisa pointed out what I noticed as well, that the MC confides all this horrible stuff in the reader, but never says her real name. I assume it's intentional, but she doesn't even give us a nickname she picked out for herself. It might reveal character, but it also makes me feel distant, and like Lisa, I suspect I won't like her unless she's in this situation for very noble reasons (like saving the world, perhaps).

    I agree with Nikki -- when I read "She was probably liquored up or baked or something," my reaction was, "She doesn't know?"

    I was confused by the dictionary reference. Does she have a photographic memory? If so, I'd be okay with her coming out and saying so before she pulls quotes out of thin air. :) Likewise the use of the word "untenable" early on struck me as a bit formal compared to the mostly casual tone.

    These are all minor issues, because the voice is so compelling that this chapter read VERY QUICKLY and I didn't need to re-read much if anything for comprehension. If I had the second chapter I would have begun reading without pause, because there are great questions that need answering.

    How can fate come in a baseball cap?
    And did she kill the only person that [who] ever believed in her, or is that person only "Mostly dead"?
    And what is her real name?

    Do I trust you, the author, to have satisfying answers to these questions? Your compelling voice says you probably do. I would keep reading though if the subject matter turns too dark I would likely stop. Subjective.


  8. Stephen, my hat is off to you for tackling this subject matter. And you can write; that is clear. I love your opening line, some of your narrative is amazing, and your scene! Wow. I loved the scene. So fresh and poignant. But I need more scene!

    What really, really struck me is the idea of her being a prostitute and -- if you're going to go there -- go there! Taking her having to sleep with strange men, I'd love, love, love to see her wishing she could fly while she is having to sleep with a man for survival. That's such a TRUE thing for a girl in that position to feel. If she emerges from that and then you expand the scene that you currently have in Chapter Three, you'll have us hooked. I love the pool of blood, but I don't know that you need to lead with that. The backstory in Chapter Two can all be slivered in as we go. It doesn't make us feel for her any more than we would by having you show us her vulnerability, her self-loathing, her desire to escape, and the sense that she is trapped and wishes she could fly above it all.

    You can DO this. I can feel it. Jump in with both feet. Commit. Show us this amazing character and this incredible situation and we will follow you anywhere!

    Can't wait to read it!

  9. Hey guys,
    Thanks for the insightful comments. We're getting ready for 2-3 feet of snow up here in New England so I will be spending the weekend shoveling, sledding and revising. Can't wait to read everyone's next version.

    Have a great weekend,

    1. ... and Martina, I'm scared to death, but I'll go for it.