Monday, August 5, 2013

1st 5 Pages August Workshop - Hill

Name: Jen Hill
Genre: Middle Grade

Title: Secrets Of The Upside-Down Treehouse

The Christmas of 1895 was anything but merry for Otto and Agatha Palindrome, for twenty days prior, twelve-year-old Christopher had disappeared without a trace. His presents remained unopened under the great tree for over a century, when a wealthy family moved into the old mansion and disturbed them.

His obituary states that he perished in the Farthington Woods, though it is not known exactly how or why. Many believe he simply ran away, living under a false identity for the remainder of his days. Sightings of Christopher Palindrome were common in those early days, but over time they dissipated, and eventually ceased altogether.

B. Lee Banks settled into a seat on the stage of the great auditorium, where two rows of wooden chairs were arranged. She fished a filigreed barrette out of her tote bag and held it tight as she reviewed the vocabulary in her head. A good luck charm defied logic and she knew it, practical girl that she was, but this was one superstition she allowed herself. The barrette was a family heirloom, passed down on her mother’s side, and it gave B. Lee solace.

It was the first week of October, the day of the annual Palindrome Academy Spelling Bee. B. Lee had won every year since she began competing in kindergarten. She was looking forward to adding another trophy to her shelf. So excited was she for the victory to come that she had skipped her usual trip to the bank to deposit the morning’s latte sales. It was more important to be the first one at school that morning.

B. Lee Banks had the second best academic record in the history of Palindrome Academy. The top honor was held by Christopher Palindrome, a star student for whom the school changed its name in 1897, two years after his disappearance. B. Lee strove to unseat him from his academic throne. Two more spelling bee victories would clinch it.

The view from the stage was familiar to her in many ways. It was the same view she enjoyed while giving piano recitals and playing in the school orchestra, and looking out at her family as she received this or that award at the end of each school year. Upon this stage was where she truly shone, receiving awards and ovations for her many outstanding achievements. Every year since she began competing in the bee she had sat in the very same chair, and every year she had won. She had only one more victory before she would tie Christopher Palindrome's record; one more after that to beat him. B. Lee really didn't like to have such a fierce rivalry with someone she considered to be her best friend in many ways, but she thought Christopher wouldn't mind. He'd been dead for over a hundred years, and it was her turn to wear the crown– not only as spelling bee victor, but as Palindrome Academy valedictorian.

Her competitors trickled in. B. Lee was an oasis of calm amid the shuffle of seats and checking of microphones, concentrating on the words she had spent all year mastering. She scanned the room as auditorium seats filled up with the students of Palindrome Academy. She had a few peeves with certain classmates and preferred to know where they sat so she could avoid looking at them.

At the top of the list was Maud Brindlebee, who told tall tales, dressed oddly, got the worst grades and always, always seemed to be stealing attention. She was the new girl that year, having just appeared at the start of 5th grade.

That ridiculous mop-like hairdo of hers with the silly curls: what did they call those– locks? B. Lee thought Maud looked just like a girl from an old black-and-white movie singing about lollipops. Her weird baby voice made the image even more believable. Oh, how she disliked Maud Brindlebee!

Finally, the room was abuzz with the chatter of the entire student body of Palindrome Academy. The bee commenced.

First up was Isobel Antler, who misspelled the word “crumb”. This is going to be too easy, B. Lee thought. She geared up to dazzle everyone with her spelling talents. Her name was called, and she approached the microphone.

“Please spell the word ‘fidget’, as in, ‘Please do not fidget in your seat.’”


“Fidget,” she began, “F-I-...”

But before she could continue a great clanging sound was heard in the back of the auditorium.
Everyone turned to see a disheveled girl who, dragging a tin can on a string, was attempting to creep in unnoticed.

Fury hummed in B. Lee’s ears; she pursed her lips in outrage. Of all times to interrupt, Maud Brindlebee had to choose the exact moment when B. Lee was about to shine in front of the entire school. Typical!

“Miss Banks,” prompted the principal, “please finish spelling the word ‘Fidget.’ ”

B. Lee began to sweat. She could not remember where she had left off. Did she get to d yet? Yes, she must have- that was always where everyone else messed up. She tried to relax, and continued where she had left off, for starting over would disqualify her.

“...G-E-T. Fidget.” She gave a curtsy and smiled at the principal, flouncing off to her seat.
“I’m sorry, that is incorrect. Please take a seat in the audience.”


No, no this could not be, there must be some mistake. How could she have been wrong? She knew that word inside and out! What had she missed? Oh, NO! Horror washed over B. Lee in a cruel wave as she realized she had indeed forgotten the ‘D’. Then the magnitude of this error truly hit her.

Her perfect record was ruined. Not just this year’s, but forever. Thanks to this error, she would never grow up to claim a perfect academic record. All because of Maud Brindlebee and her disruptive entrance. Humiliation, rage, and contempt were having a screaming contest in B. Lee’s brain, and all three were winning.

Mrs. Toole, her teacher, led her to a seat in the audience, where she would remain for the rest of the bee. It was torture to have to watch someone win the victory which should have been hers.
Worst of all, she was seated just behind the frizzy head of Maud Brindlebee.

“You and your horrible can!” she hissed at Maud through tears.

“His name is Poppy,” corrected Maud.


  1. Something an agent at a conference told me is that when she or any of her colleagues read the word "Prologue" they hit delete. She told me this because I initially began my manuscript with a prologue. She advised me to work the prologue into a chapter. I don't know if you can do that with your manuscript somehow, but I thought I'd pass along the tip. All that being said, I was intrigued by your prologue and wanted to find out more about Christopher Palindrome.

    You have Middle Grade as your genre. Is it fantasy? Historical fiction? Ghost story? I wasn't sure.

    The voice in this feels a bit old-fashioned. Honestly it took me a while to figure out that the story had moved ahead in time from the 1800s. The word "latte" completely tripped me up and had me wondering in what year the story takes place. Phrases like "So excited was she" and "Upon this stage was where she truly shone" feel a bit clunky. Then alluding to Shirley Temple confused me all over again. I had to go back and look at the date Palindrome disappeared and then search out the line where the reader finds out how long he's been dead.

    I love "B. Lee really didn't like to have such a fierce rivalry with someone she considered to be her best friend in many ways, but she thought Christopher wouldn't mind." I thought that line revealed so much about B. Lee. It's a great look into her character.

    Hope that's helpful.

  2. This sounds like a fun read because it comes across as a tale from the perspective of the girl who always gets everything right in school; the know-it-all type who usually plays the bad girl in other stories. It’s a fresh twist.

    I’ve heard many people recommend skipping prologues and while yours is short, you could consider weaving the important parts into your first 5 instead. While I’m unsure if this is fantasy or not, I assume the fact that he went missing and there were sightings for a while afterwards implies he’ll make an appearance in B. Lee’s story, although I could be wrong.

    I was confused about the era from the writing style. You indicate it takes place 100 years from Christopher’s disappearance but it comes across as older than 1995 with the Shirley Temple hair reference, and quaint turns of phrase (oh, how she disliked Maud; locks of hair, pursed her lips in outrage, flouncing). Of course, you could be aiming for a prim and proper girl who may have been raised by an eccentric relative. Yet the modern references of latte sales/bank deposit come across as conflicting to me.

    I love Maud’s last line; I can picture her in my head from your description and understand why B. Lee feels frustrated by her.

    Best of luck with it; hope this helps.

  3. Thanks for raising these points: the story takes place in present day, and is specifically a middle-grade ghost story.

  4. I loved the names. I think that a few of the sentences could be broken into two to build up the suspense or the tension level a bit, starting with the prologue.

    I love the idea of her dead best friend.

    From what I've read in the prologue I'm sure it has a great place in the story but don't see it fitting into the first 5. It might be best to leave it for later because at the end of the 5 I had already forgotten about it.

    I like the idea of prologues. But a prologue that tells you how everyone from earth now lives in a satellite and starting the first chapter with a boy living in a satellite works well because it leads right up to the first word.

    Good job!

  5. I don't mind a prologue, especially if, as in this case, it's short and succinct. If you can work it into the narrative, great. If not, keep it where it is.

    My only nit pick is the language. It reads very turn of the century. I would expect Victorian characters to speak and think this way, not modern kids. You might jazz it up a little.

  6. Hi Jen,

    This sounds like a fun premise, and there are a lot of elements in it that kids really love. I'm a bit ambivalent about the prologue. The information in it could easily be transmitted directly to your modern characters in a more active way, one that could immediately give us their reactions to the information.

    To me, that's the key here. The old-fashioned language and the distance of the narration makes it feel very much as if you are telling us a story, but you don't have the emotional depth of telling that is necessary to make a reader feel compelled to follow a narrator rather than a character. So, that said, I think you need to put this more into a scene immediately. Put your character into an active situation from the first line, which you have if we skip the prologue, and make something happen to her. Make her react in a way that is unique to her, which you have with the filigree barrette. But you take us away from her with comments like, "practical girl that she was," which is the voice of a narrator rather than a character.

    Go through this and ask yourself who is saying each clause or sentence, and if that is your intent. Consider if it brings us closer to the main character, let's us identify with her, connect with her, or whether we are looking at her from a distance. Most importantly, consider whether the information is needed by the reader right then. At that moment. And make sure what your mc does is supported by her character in a way the reader can understand.

    For example, she has a barrette as a good luck charm. Great. The barrette is cool. But why isn't she wearing it in her hair? Knowing that is more important and informative RIGHT THEN than the rest of the information.

    And why not have a friend sitting there with her? Or an adversary. Think how much more you could share with the reader by showing us the way she interacts with someone while she is trying to conquer her nerves, and how easy it would be to slip in the information about her past successes in a conversation where someone is trying to assure her that she will do well. And that would let us see her with a more likable motive for wanting to win than just filling her trophy case.

    Don't get me wrong. I like the charm of your narrative. But I think there is a too much of it on balance. :)

    Looking forward to the rewrite!

  7. Hi! I love the spelling bee, the names, and Maude and her can. LOL! I like that the ghost of the boy is her best friend (which is my assumption here). BUT I would go through and do as much showing vs. telling as I could. Example? Don't tell us about Maude's absurdity. Show us what she looks like when she comes through the door. Also, just curious why Maude's loud interruption didn't disturb everyone else? I have no clue, but wouldn't she get another chance? Anyway - great story!