Monday, May 13, 2013

1st 5 Pages May Workshop - McTavish Rev 1

Dayna McTavish
YA Fantasy

I just don’t want to die. Of humiliation. Besides getting straight A’s, that’s pretty much my only goal this year.

Coach Marshall, evil fiend in tiny man shorts, is out to thwart my plans. When he divides us up for volleyball, he puts me with the people voted “Much Cooler Than You.” This is not where I belong.

Marshall busts me sneaking onto my usual court—the one with my asthmatic friend Jane, Weird Cape Billy and the kid wearing a back brace. My people. He waves me over to the last court. “Talis, I told you, you’re over there today.”

“Coach—” I say, but he’s already moved on, yelling at two freshmen beating each other with the soft baseball bats.

Last year, when I was a freshman, I didn’t really see my other classmates because most of my classes were advanced, all of my math and science classes were with the juniors. I was just that smart girl, viewed from a distance. I wasn’t even the smart girl, my best friend Jane is a certified genius and gets all the academic attention.

Basically my social interaction was limited to Jane and Ethan, my only two friends. The juniors ignored me or treated me like a cute little pet. But this year I’ve been forced into a class with the social sharks of sophomore year. And not just any class, the class I’ve been dreading since I started high school. Physical Education.

Obviously whoever made PE mandatory isn’t an easy bleeder with little to no physical coordination. I put it off until sophomore year, hoping I’d get breasts before having to engage in the horror of group showers. Unfortunately, puberty is eluding me.

I take my time walking over. Standing on the edge of the group, I try to look busy, pretending to read the safety guidelines listed on the wall. I firmly knot my shoes. I pull up my gym shorts, which are always sliding down, even with the top rolled.

When I look up the Trifecta are only a few feet away. I try not to stare but it’s hard; it’s like being able to study exotic animals in their natural habitat. Shawna, Sloane and Staci are like some mythic, flawlessly manicured three-headed creature. Even though they’re all different—a variety of hair colors, differing skin tones, various sizes—there’s a sameness about them, as if popularity has homogenized them. Maybe it’s the matching, perfectly made-up mouths or how all their clothes look expensive, even in gym, or their shared expressions, a mixture of boredom and superiority.

Shawna turns around. For a second I seize up in fear. Her gaze briefly drifts over me before landing on Gina. Gina was a minor celebrity last year when she did some local modeling and a few of the stock photos she took were used in magazines. One of her pics wound up in a teen mag above the headline “My Boyfriend Gave Me an STD.” People stuffed condoms in her locker and everyone started calling her Gina Gonorrhea. That’s what happens around here. One wrong move and you end up being nicknamed a venereal disease until graduation.

“Gina.” Shawna has a smile on her face that only the mentally challenged would mistake for nice. “Are you sure you’re allowed to touch the balls in this class? I don’t want to catch anything.”

I edge back, trying to hide behind a tall guy I recognize from the marching band. Gina just stares straight ahead like she doesn’t hear.

Apparently bored with Gina’s shaming, Sloane tunes out Shawna and studies her nails. Tall and beautiful, like some strange, corporal alien, Sloane’s skinny, with thin wrists and a long neck but in a way that seems graceful, unlike my awkward skinniness, which makes me look like an underfed fifth grader. With her angular cut hair and dead eyes, she looks like a French model or a lounge singer. The definition of cutting edge for Milbank, Wisconsin.

“Are you ignoring me?” Shawna stares Gina down with naked aggression. “How rude is that?” Shawna is the only person I know who can be completely horrible to someone and accuse them of being rude. She looks around for confirmation, and Staci is right beside her, nodding vigorously in agreement.

Staci is the oddity, the anomaly. Lumped with the others she almost fits, with her expanse of whitened teeth and perfectly streaked blond highlights. But under her orangish tan and heavy eyeliner, her face is a little rat-like, her teeth slightly bucktoothed. Despite her push-up bras, her baby fat belly is still noticeable. Sometimes her desperation is obvious, her laugh shrieky, her eagerness to share gossip, the way she jumps to do whatever Shawna says. Staci yelps in fake surprise when a volleyball narrowly misses hitting her, landing at her feet.

“Fore!” Jake Buchanan shouts, running in to retrieve the ball. He’s like a puppy, one that might pee all over everything when your back is turned.

“Jesus, Jake.” Shawna is irritated, but he ignores her.

Cole comes up behind Jake, and Shawna immediately realigns herself. I’m sure most of the girls and a few of the guys in drama club have allowed some Cole fantasies to play out in their heads. It’s not just that he’s Abercrombie and Fitch pretty, but he also has a confident ease, like there isn’t anything in life he can’t have or conquer. It’s annoying really.

Jake is also a feast for the eyes, but once he opens his mouth all previous goodwill gained by his abs is lost. “Sorry, ladies. Didn’t mean to startle you with my balls,” he says. “Although I can certainly arrange a private showing for you, Sloaner.”

Without looking up from her nails, Sloane extends her other hand, raising her middle finger in response. Jake puts his arms around her, trying to give her a sloppy kiss. Laughing, she ducks her head, pushing him away. They make it seem so easy to be one of them. So sure they belong.

“Okay, people.” Marshall blows his whistle and motions us onto our volleyball courts.

For the first few rounds I try to stay alert, pretend like I’m involved in the game. I relax a little when it becomes obvious that Jake, whose testosterone levels are spiking, is more than happy to field all the balls that come into our area. Shawna’s up to serve and when she hits the ball into my territory, Jake steps back to take it. I get out of his way, veering sideways and accidentally knocking into Cole. He grabs my waist to steady me.

“Dude, watch out,” he says to Jake. “You’re forcing ladies to run me over.” He leans in, his breath tickling my ear. “Nice work, Skee Mee. Way to get in the mix there.” He pats me on the hip before letting me go.

I stumble away, unsure what’s worse, that Cole Howard is talking to me or that he’s using a nickname I hoped died in elementary school. I concentrate on staring ahead, like my life depends on paying attention to volleyball. Stupid PE and

“Skee Mee,” Cole says. Ugh, there it is again, that nickname. Cole has been my neighbor since elementary school, when his dad gave me the nickname “Skinny Minny.” Cole adapted it, calling me a lot of things—Skinny, Skin Min, Skins, Skee, Skeezy Breezy, until finally settling on Skee Mee as the winner.

“Skee,” he singsongs. Even though I don’t look at him, I can hear it in his voice, like he thinks he’s doing me a favor by talking to me. Giving me something to write about in my diary when I go home tonight. Dear Diary, Cole Howard honored me by talking to me today. Every once in a while he’ll pretend he’s being benevolent by saying hi to me in the hall. “Oh, silly Skee.”

I can’t hear you.

“Come on, Skins.” He stretches his arm out, halfheartedly trying to reach my shoulder. “We’re about two feet from each other. I know you can hear me.”

I freeze in place, like if I don’t move he’ll go away.

“Talis.” He drops the teasing tone.

“What—” I’ve just turned to look at him when the volleyball smacks me in the face.


  1. Three nitpicky things:

    1) the kid wearing a back brace - I never see any kids wearing the scoliosis brace anymore. Actually I've wondered if they do surgery earlier now or what is the reason? (My good friend spend years in a brace and has had two major surgeries, so I know the pain all too well). My only questions is: I saw this in my childhood but not anytime recently. If the brace is no longer in use, this might date your book and confuse readers. This is something that could easily be checked on, but my impression was that it was found to not be as effective as previously thought and so was discarded as a useful treatment.

    2) I was just that smart girl, viewed from a distance. I wasn’t even the smart girl, my best friend Jane is a certified genius and gets all the academic attention. I'M CONFUSED BY THE SMART GIRL--FIRST SHE IS, THEN SHE ISN'T. PERHAPS THE SECOND REFERENCE NEEDS TO BE MORE SPECIFIC. NOT THE "SMARTEST" GIRL?

    3) perhaps see what the others think, but I almost think that the fact that Cole is her neighbor should be mentioned right away, then referred back to

    LOVED underfed fifth grader
    all her anxieties about PE
    really funny stuff! would love to read more!

  2. The Heading says this is CAMPEN revision, but it's actually the McTAVISH revision -- though I wish I could take credit for the writing!

    My revision (the pony-shopping story) is lost somewhere in the internet! My apologies if I somehow messed up.

  3. I still really like this piece but I felt like Paragraph 5 pulled me out of the immediacy of the action. I might reconsider whether you need it, since the rest of the piece gives plenty of info as to the non-popular status of the MC. Maybe the reader doesn't need to know the whole story on why yet, particularly if it interrupts the nice flow you have going.

  4. I know, my story hijacked your space. My five pages are in Camden and McTavish. Possibly because no one could think of good ways to improve your story, it was already done so well?

    The back brace thing is a good point. I'm not sure if kids still wear them or not, I just thought it was funny. I could easily change it to a kid in a helmet, which could be funny.

    Should I just remove that paragraph I added? I was trying to make it easier to know why she's scared of being around her classmates now.

    Question-- so this is YA fantasy and obviously there's no fantasy now. I have toyed with putting in a kind of prologue where she's in the middle of the action and then flash back to the beginning. But I do write in first person present tense so I'm wondering if it would be weird to do that? I've seen it done before but I don't know if it would work. Or if it's necessary.

    Thanks for the comments!

  5. Hi,

    I'm sorry we seem to have switched things up somehow. I've been delinquent, traveling all week and in and out, so poor Jan has been having to deal with everything. Thanks for putting up with me!

    Okay, and back to our regularly scheduled critique...

    Your writing is wonderfully engaging, and I love your voice in this piece. The current version reads faster, but I would love for you to bring us into this even faster and with fewer distractions. My main reservations have to do with the amount of backstory and the number of characters you are throwing at the reader without giving us actions or QBCDs strong enough to set in our minds. I also feel like you could leave much of the backstory for later and just bring us into the current situation.

    For example, consider something like this:

    I don't want to die. Of humiliation. Besides getting straight A’s, that’s pretty much my only goal this year.

    We line up for volleyball, and I shuffle out onto my usual court, the one with my asthmatic friend Jane, Weird Cape Billy and the kid wearing a back brace. My people. But Coach Marshall, evil fiend in tiny man shorts, does something that establishes what he looks like, "The name he calls the MC," he says, "over there."

    After that, give a brief overview of the kids she is supposed to go play with and how they react as she walks over. Use those reactions and her reactions to them to sliver in the backstory you absolutely need, but focus on the conflict.

    You've done a great job setting up the story question, but don't give your reader a chance to get lost or confused. Save anything that can be saved, and be careful to limit the number of people you introduce to those who you can involve in direct interaction with your MC.

    I don't think you're going to lose anything important by doing that, but the story will feel even more immediate and give your fabulous voice even more opportunity to suck the reader in.

    Looking forward to seeing this next week.

  6. Funny, descriptive and engaging. I like “easy bleeder”. I also like knowing more that she is not pitiful, she fits in with her different group of people. The paragraph with Trifectia is best ever. I can feel this story, you are guiding me along. The interactions, action, dialogue let me disappear into the story.