Monday, September 9, 2013

1st 5 Pages September Workshop - Rothschild

Name: Peggy Rothschild
Genre: Young Adult
Title: Punishment Summer

“Wake up, Nicki.”

Fingers dug into my shoulders, strong hands shook me. When I opened my eyes, the world tilted. Drank way too much last night. Dad’s face loomed above, pale in the light cast by my bedside lamp. “What time is it?”

He shook his head. “Never mind that. You need to pack your stuff. Now.”

“What?”

“You’re going to your grandpa’s. For the summer. Get up. Grab everything you’ll need. It’s cold up there. Pack your boots, heavy socks, that wool jacket. You’ve got fifteen minutes.”

Caught between dreaming and reality, I sat up, rubbed my face. Felt real. “Why am I going to Grandpa’s?”

Dad took a noisy breath. “I know you snuck out two weeks ago. And again last night.”

“I-”

“Don’t. I saw the pictures on Gemma’s Facebook page. Grounding you isn’t getting the job done. Get packed. And brush your teeth. Your breath stinks of smoke and Schlitz.”

Dad knew me, knew I wouldn’t dig in my heels. I was a wheedler and a runner, but not a fighter. Half asleep but moving fast, I probably set some kind of speed record for packing.

No joke about the time limit. Exactly fifteen minutes later, Dad hustled me outside, my hair uncombed and still wearing pajama bottoms instead of jeans. But I’d stuffed everything I’d need to survive the summer into a duffle and a knapsack. Once inside the car, it hit me: I’d crossed the line Dad cared about most. A stay at Grandpa’s looked unavoidable, but maybe I could get my sentence reduced.

After trying forty-five minutes of stony silence as we raced along the freeway, I unleashed the tears. Both tactics failed.

Dad finally spoke when he pulled off the freeway and into a drive-through near LAX. “Here.” He passed me a breakfast burrito then zoomed out of the shopping center, one hand holding his food, the other gripping the wheel.

My stomach still wobbled after last night’s beer binge. Slumped, knees against the dashboard, I nibbled the tortilla where it folded over like an envelope. After the first few tidbits settled, I took a full bite.

North of Bakersfield, tall glass buildings gave way to squat stucco homes. I checked the dashboard clock. Already three hours closer to Grandpa’s. So unfair. Still, yelling wouldn’t fix this. “I shouldn’t have snuck out and gone to Gemma’s. It was stupid. But I didn’t know it would turn into a party. I only wanted to have some fun.”

“Fun?” The car veered over the double line. Dad jerked the wheel, bringing us back to our side of the road. “You and your friends were drinking, smoking pot. I saw the photos.”

I’d rip Gemma a new one for posting those. Talk about stupid.

Oh no. A fuzzy memory took shape: Me laughing my ass off while Gemma and I huddled over her iPhone. Had I been idiot enough to help her? “You should see the stuff other kids post.”

“Other kids aren’t my concern. You are.”

Dad gave me a lot of freedom. I chalked that up to his sadness over our Incredible Shrinking Family. But drugs and alcohol remained the constant ‘no.’ When I turned sixteen last year, he grew increasingly rabid on the topic. The result of Single-Surviving-Child Syndrome. OK, not a documentable condition, but real in my world. Maybe I could still fix this. “You’re right. I’m sorry. It was immature.” Dad liked me to strive for maturity.

“Immature? Try stupid. Try dangerous. This isn’t the first time. Or the second. I hoped that you… After what we’ve been through…” He shook his head. “I can’t even talk to you right now.”

So that was that. No turning back. Chugging along in Dad’s Smart Car with everything I owned, well, everything I cared about, shoved behind my seat and in a knapsack at my feet. Heading to some kind of midpoint for the state: Nowheresville, California. Dad says I met Grandpa when I was four, but I don’t remember. Obviously he didn’t care much about me -- he never sent birthday cards or presents. Never called. Not even after the fire.




I jerked awake, stared out the dirt-spattered window. The two-lane road was empty except for our car parked on the shoulder. No nearby buildings either. Just a lot of trees and bushes. My brain banged against the inside of my skull. Should have asked for a soda when we stopped for breakfast. Or not drunk so much last night. “Where are we?”

“Your grandpa’s picking you up here.” Dad checked his watch. “We’re a couple minutes early.”

Must have dozed through half the state. Hard to believe I fell asleep with my feet jammed under the knapsack and tension pretzeling my guts. “You can’t be serious about this. I screwed up. But sending me off with a stranger… That’s way too harsh.”

“He’s not a stranger.”

“Right. I feel super-close to the guy. I don’t even know what he looks like.”

“You’re staying with your grandpa. End of discussion.” Dad pulled off his sunglasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. “When he gets here, don’t try to drag things out. He hates coming in to the city.”

I glanced at the dusty road and scrub-covered hills. “What city?” I kicked my knapsack. “This is so unfair.”

“I’m doing this for your own good. Use this summer to grow up. Not play at being grown up – like your friends. Take on some responsibility. Try to figure out who you are.”

“Sending me to Grandpa’s will do that for me?”

“Nicole, nothing and no one’s going to do that for you. You’ve got to do it yourself.”

“Whatever.” I slumped down, which was tricky considering the lack of legroom.

A gray pickup pulled onto the shoulder in front of Dad’s car. Dust filled the air, making it hard to see the driver. When he stepped from the cab, he looked eight feet tall – at least from where I slouched.

“Wait here.” Dad climbed out.

If this meeting went badly, Dad might take me home.

The two hugged. Not a good sign reprieve-wise. They talked for a few minutes before Dad signaled me to join them. I sighed. No stay of execution. I yanked my bag from the narrow space behind the seat, hoisted my knapsack onto my shoulder then dragged my feet and the duffle across the dirt.

Grandpa wasn’t actually eight-feet-tall, but he stood well over six. Dressed in a plaid flannel shirt, sleeves rolled to his elbows, ropey muscles showed along his forearms. With his iron-gray hair shooting out around his head, he looked a little crazy. His gaze flitted from me to the highway, like he was anxious to get a move on.

“You’ve grown a lot since I saw you last, Nicole. What are you – five-six, five-seven?”

“I go by Nicki. And I’m five-seven-and-a-half.”

“That all your stuff?”

“Everything I had time to grab.” I glared at Dad. Grandpa hoisted my duffle like it was empty and tossed it into the back of the pickup. I held on to my knapsack.

“Be good.” Dad leaned down to give me a kiss. I turned away. His lips grazed the side of my head. “See you at the end of summer.”

I climbed onto the passenger seat, slammed the door and didn’t look back.

Grandpa made a U-turn then gunned the engine. We rocketed along the empty road. Away from my dad. Away from my life.

7 comments:

  1. Was drawn in immediately.

    Only two questions:

    1) what is LAX (my thoughts ran to LaCrosse, Wisconsin and laxatives--so you might want to clarify--haha)

    2) what is "/-"? Is that a computer glitch? or her sticking her tongue out at him?

    Otherwise, I was quite ready to read on. Great premise. Good characterization. Good luck!

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  2. Your writing is strong. I like the rhythm of your sentences, the way you mirror the meaning through their sound, as in the off-kilter first sentences, sounds exactly like waking up still a bit drunk! This paragraph is especially strong in its restraint:
    'So that was that. No turning back. Chugging along in Dad’s Smart Car with everything I owned, well, everything I cared about, shoved behind my seat and in a knapsack at my feet. Heading to some kind of midpoint for the state: Nowheresville, California. Dad says I met Grandpa when I was four, but I don’t remember. Obviously he didn’t care much about me -- he never sent birthday cards or presents. Never called. Not even after the fire.'
    I haven't much to advise, except that I would like more of a sense of how she feels about things, an emotional reaction here and there. She doesn’t seem afraid of how upset she has made her father, or too concerned about what’s going to happen, she’s just logically reasoning out how to get out of it,( e.g. Once inside the car, it hit me: I’d crossed the line Dad cared about most. A stay at Grandpa’s looked unavoidable, but maybe I could get my sentence reduced.) which makes her seem a bit cold – I’d like her to be a bit more vulnerable, in order to feel empathy with her and to feel as if the stakes are high for her. In general this looks promising!

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  3. I feel like you rushed the part in the car until she fell asleep. She tried different tactics, but show her trying them. Not a lot, just a sentence or two would suffice. I'm leery of starting with waking up, but I barely noticed in this case, I will admit, because of the immediate conflict. I'm intrigued by the situation. Still, I'd like to feel more connected to the MC. Why should I bond with her? Why like her so much that I want to take this journey with her? Can you give us a smidgeon of something unusual to really reel us in? Otherwise, awesome stuff.

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  4. Hello Peggy,

    Nice build up of events and the voice is very natural. I like how it reveals backstory without presenting an information dump.
    I know she's hungover and slow to process her dad's decision initially but it'd be great to have more details once she's in the car that show her registering what's actually happening and how she feels. What's her record of punishment? Does she feel this is unwarranted? Does she think back to previous incidents where she pushed her dad to the edge? Did he previously warn her that next time she screws up, he's going to take drastic action? How had she planned to spend the summer?
    Basically, what are the stakes?

    Tell us more about the grandfather, or why her dad thinks a summer with the grandfather will be good for her. Or whether she believes or questions the reason. Is it because grandfather is a strong discipliner? Is it keep her out of her dad's hair? Is it to keep her in a place where she can't muck around?

    Sorry, that's a lot of questions but the bones of the narrative are there. We just need more flesh.
    Cheers!

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  5. Hi Peggy,

    There's a good balance of action and dialog here. The pacing works. And I think you're starting the story in the right place. My suggestion for your revision is to now infuse this piece with strong emotion. Your MC logically recounts the events, but I want to feel her anger, remorse, fear...

    For me, the opening lines move really well. I love: "Fingers dug into my shoulders, strong hands shook me. When I opened my eyes, the world tilted." And all of the dialog sprinkled around this action is elegant. But where you tell me that she's setting a speed record for packing, I want to see the fear of father motivating this. Prior punishments didn't work and things have changed. What is it about her father's expression, posture and tone that communicates this? Also, I want to feel more of the fire and the hole it left in their lives.

    I think you could exploit setting to strengthen this. I'd love to see even more contrast between the MC's ordinary world (car, clothing, possessions, summer plans) and the new world of grandpa. Since we don't get to grandpa's place in these five pages, some foreshadowing could go a long way to differentiate this story.

    I hope that some of these comments are helpful. I look forward to reading your revision.

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  6. Love the pacing. We just jump right in and I know exactly where she stands and what she’s feeling. The little bread crumbs you left us about her past were very satisfying and propelled me to “Not even after the fire.”

    Oh facebook, making things difficult for our poor contemporary MCs.

    I am instantly sympathetic to her having survivor’s guilt. That majorly stinks.

    love “pretzeling my guts” I know that feeling exactly.

    I want to know if the hug is awkward or not. If they haven’t seen each other, I’m guessing it would be.

    I want to know what she’s losing out on by being away. A boy? her friend Gemma? a job? I want this to feel like the worst thing ever. Or maybe she’s actually a bit relieved to be yanked out of what is probably a pretty sad life since the fire. She and her dad don’t talk much on the drive. I’d love to know if that’s purely because he’s angry or maybe they just don’t talk much ever...

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  7. Thanks for the feedback. It's funny how changing one thing leads to changing another detail, to another line... Looking forward to this week's reading.

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