Monday, February 10, 2014

1st 5 Pages February Workshop - Chen Revision 1

Name: Jeff Chen
Genre: Middle grade contemporary
Title: Robot Smackdown

Winner of Robot Smackdown I:


Weight 299.3 pounds
Top speed 5 mph
Weapon Vertical spinning disc
Defense 1/2” hardened steel
Driver(s) Tom Knight
Age of driver(s) 43
Lead Sponsor Motors Worldwide, Inc.
Other Sponsors Nine-One-One Metals
Turbo Engineering
Professional Record 8-3 (5 KOs)
Lost title to: THE KING OF STING

Chapter 1

My ponytail clung to my neck like a wet towel, my lungs burned with fire. I had fought so long I was about to collapse, but I didn’t care. I was going to beat this go-kart frame into submission, even if it killed me. I lifted my hammer and swung hard, wincing as it smashed into a tube stupid enough to defy me. Vibrations tore up my arm, but I pushed aside the pain to deliver jabs and body blows, punishing the steel for its disobedience.

A dozen right crosses later, I dropped into a light-headed crouch, panting. Sweat cascaded off my brow, plinking to the cement as I studied the frame under the buzzing fluorescent light. It wasn’t pretty—rusty metal parts, scavenged wheels, and two dozen bolts holding everything together—but it would do.

I checked the clock on the back wall, biting my lip. Only 15 more minutes before our buyer was supposed to show up. Where the heck was Walker? If my little brother didn’t get here soon with an engine, we’d lose tonight’s sale.

And we needed this one.


I rubbed the big oil blotch staining the floor, a bittersweet reminder of the days when Dad still had his junker car. Still had his job. Still could pay the bills. I wiped a greasy fingertip into the go-kart’s seat, hoping to smear in some good luck.

A rattle sounded outside, and I tensed up. Tucking a lick of damp hair behind my ear, I listened at the garage door as the creaks rolled to a halt.

“Rose,” whispered a high-pitched voice. “Lemme in.”

I worked my fingers under the sharp edges of the garage door. Straining against the broken mechanism, I fought inch by inch, summer moonlight creeping in through a cockeyed gap.

Walker crawled in army man-style, his cowboy hat falling off as he tugged an old red wagon behind him. Getting to his feet, he smoothed out his straight black hair before replacing his ten-gallon hat, the only thing keeping him from being the shortest kid at our school. “Y’all gotta do something about that door,” he said. “How am I supposed to keep looking slick when I have to crawl through sludge? Speaking of that, you better clean up…” Nose crinkling, he pointed to where sweat had soaked through my undershirt and overalls.

“What?” I lifted my arm with a grin. Edging forward, I aimed my armpit at him. “Is there a problem?”

Shrieking and fake choking, Walker writhed in the corner of the garage like a dog trying to escape a bath. “Keep that toxic waste away from me, woman!”

I laughed at my brother, who had to be the girliest cowboy ever. Turning to inspect the wagon’s contents, I ran a finger over the dusty lawn mower engine. “Honda GCV 160. It’s not a 190, but it’ll do.”

“Here, I’ll help,” Walker said. “It’s super heavy.”

I shook my head. Walker could get us just about anything we needed—pretty darn incredible for a seventh-grader, really—but he was a noodle-armed piece of spaghetti. Lifting the engine with one hand, I lowered it into the frame and nodded. Almost a perfect fit.

“Dang,” Walker said, his jaw hanging low. “I couldn’t carry it with both hands. And both legs.”

I shrugged uneasily. So I was strong for a thirteen-year old girl—why did everyone have to make such a big deal of it? Three years of boxing as Dad’s sparring partner would make anyone strong. “Gimme the drill,” I said as I tapped the engine into place. “And the number eight bit.”

Walker pouted by the workbench. “No ‘Awesome job, Walker?’ No ‘You’re the best scrounger in the entire state of Indiana?’ Don’t you want to hear how I got this beauty?”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Did you do anything illegal?”

He pointed at his chest, his face twisted in mock horror. “Rose, Rose, Rose, you insult me. Walker the Texas Ranger lives by the code of the Old West.” Picking up the duct-taped drill, he held it like a six-shooter. “Pa-pow-pow-pow!”

I gave him a sidelong glance as I took the drill and chucked up the bit. I had only ever seen one episode of “Walker, Texas Ranger,” but I was pretty sure the real Walker’s “code of the Old West” was a lot stricter than my brother’s. Placing the tip of the drill against a mark in the frame, I squeezed the trigger, sending orange sparks flying. “Gimme a half-inch bolt and a matching nut,” I yelled over the squealing and grinding.

A thought jumped to mind, and I let the drill die out. I was in a rush to finish this go-kart, but since Dad wasn’t around much these days, someone had to keep Walker in line. Forcing myself out of my usual hunch, I straightened to my full six foot one. “You never answered my question. Did you do anything illegal?”

Walker shot me a crooked smile. “You shouldn’t ask questions if you don’t wanna know the answers.”

“Walker! How many times do I have to tell you—”

“I know,” he said, rolling his eyes. “If we don’t keep squeaky clean, we’ll get kicked out of here.”

I shoved him. “This is serious. You think any other foster home would take all three of us? We’d get separated—”

“Relax, I’m only yanking your chain. I didn’t break any laws.” Walker flicked an imaginary piece of lint off his T-shirt. “Just a little sweet-talking down at the junkyard, that’s all. Pulled the ol’ dumb little middle-schooler bit.”

He covered his heart with his hat, widening his thin eyes as big as they would go. “Could you help me, sweet ma’am? I have a project for science class, and I need so much help. I bet you’re really smart.” He blinked three times and smiled hard, his trademark dimple popping out.

I scoffed and went back to work. “That actually worked?”

“Of course it worked. I’m like Jim Sawyer. Only Chinese. And better looking. Tell me, sis—am I good or what?”

I couldn’t help breaking into a smile as I cinched the engine down. “It’s Tom Sawyer, not Jim.” I wasn’t much better at school than Walker, but even I knew that.

He kicked at the ground. “Pshaw, all that book learning ain’t important. I bet you couldn’t have gotten a free engine in near mint condition. And look at all this other stuff. A full set of wheels. Brake pads. Two struts, brand spankin’ new. Almost a full go-kart worth of parts.”

I finished bolting in the engine, nodding as I cranked down the final nut. “You did good, Walker. You did real good. C’mon, let’s test this thing out. Did you get gas?”

Walker nodded at a bright yellow container hooked over the back of his wagon. “Your wish is my command.”

I squinted. “That looks new. Where did you get it?”

“You don’t want to know.” Walker filled the tank, the stench of gasoline biting my nose.

“Nothing illegal?” I asked.

“Fire it up already, we’re running out of time.”


  1. I really enjoyed this piece. Your revision is fantastic -- you clarified so much with these edits. I think the only thing I would say is that if they really need the sale badly, I'd like to feel that more in this passage. We're told that they do, and Rose does protect Walker, act like the older sister, but aside from those tidbits when she thinks about how she's in a rush, we don't actually know it ourselves, if that makes sense. Maybe more of her impatience even while she's being protective? Is there a threat of the buyer pulling out if she's not on time, or is she more worried about Walker and her other sibling and not being able to have the money for them? Also, does it really take so little time for Rose to put in that engine? I wouldn't know, but I am curious given the description at the very beginning about her beating the go-kart into submission.

  2. I definitely get more of a sense of Rose and Walker in this version. I love that Rose is so good at this mechanical stuff. Very nice flipping of gender stereotypes! I only had a couple of suggestions while reading, and you may take them or leave them. :)

    The new opening gives the stats of the Robot Smackdown between THRILLA BOTZILLA and THE KING OF STING. Since Robot Smackdown is the title of the book, I spent some time trying to figure out which of these was belonged to Rose and Walker, or if they were going to compete in Robot Smackdown 2? I'm sure this will be made clear as the story goes on, but it seemed like a lot of information in the beginning that I didn't know what to do with.

    Towards the end, Walker says that if they don't 'keep squeaky clean, we'll get kicked out of here.' I'm not sure where 'here' is. Are they at home? If it is, this seems like an odd worry.

    I realize some of these are questions that may be intentional, for story tension. At this point, I am intrigued by these characters and their story, so I would read further to find out. And I like the addition of a third, yet-unamed sibling, as well as the hint that they--or at least Walker--are Chinese.

    1. Nice top-to-bottom revision here! I think a lot of the new parts were successful. I really do like the idea of starting with the tech specs of a winning robot to ground us. I just wanted it to go a tiny step further as to how it related to the MC, and I'd be sold. Does she have a copy of the poster in front of her on the wall? Or had she seen it somewhere? It was a little weird that the winner was a 43-year-old guy and not another kid, but that could just be me. Anyway, if I saw this blurb through her eyes, I'd be 100% on board.

      I love how we find out early on this time that Walker is the MC's little brother, but I still wanted to know the MC was a girl sooner. Her voice still sounded like a boy to me, which is fine for the kind of girl she is, but I want to be able to visualize her as a her, and I'm still seeing a boy in a ponytail. Maybe another small detail would do it? For instance, if her hair were clipped back with a barette or a scrunchie, we'd know she's a girl.

      I do like how Walker leads off with her name, and how he sounds more like a little brother by begging her to let him in. Nicely done. Also much better to just have her aim her armpit at him rather than let him get so close (because ew).

      About halfway through the pages, I got confused about their ages. It seems like she's talking about Walker when she says "pretty darn incredible for a seventh-grader" but a few lines down, it says she's thirteen, which is a typical age for a seventh grader, so maybe stick with either ages or grades so we know for sure?

      I'm still not sure about the Walker, Texas Ranger reference. Will today's kids know this show?

      When "all three of them" might get kicked out of their foster home, who is the third person? I might have missed something, but it seemed like only Rose and Walker have been introduced.

      This line confused me: "I’m like Jim Sawyer. Only Chinese." Are they actually Chinese? I didn't get that sense at all, so I'd really like to have more a hint of this sooner if it's true.

      Like the hint of bad things to come at the end. Definitely makes me want to read on!

  3. Nice revision, Jeff!

    Things make a lot more sense in this version. We can tell where we are, what's happening, and how everyone fits in. Well done!

    I feel like the voice could still read more like a girl, and that's hard to quantify, so my only advice there is to reference some existing published books for girl voice. Even a very Tom-boy-ish girl frames her world in terms of girl-specific references at some, mentioning Wonder Woman (dating myself) rather than Superman, or comparing her tangled hair to Barbie's, or even the state of her fingernails comparing unfavorably to her Mom's (or other female authority figure). Generally, her state of mind is GIRL, so some of those things should bleed through in her passing comparisons and references. That will help with the gender distinction more than physical description. I mean, she's bound to be wearing at least a training bra by then, but a lot of MG avoids things like walks a fine line.

    Now that you are settling into your voice, my next question is: how does this scene relate to ROBOT SMACKDOWN? As in, how far are we from entering the story? That is my only big remaining hesitation about this scene. While I like to get to know characters, the voice has to be spanktacular for me to read onward, waiting for the story to begin. Perhaps the urgency of the deadline isn't coming across enough. Perhaps we need to understand why the deadline matters at all, in a more direct relationship to the central story question. Or maybe we just need you to show us the ball a little bit more.

    You open this scene with the camera very close to your character. You are showing us the story, which is great, but there is an opportunity to back the camera up a bit and show us the who what where when...hook us on a larger scale. I know this sounds like I am asking for telling, and maybe I am to a degree. I ask myself: If I met Rose, right now, and asked her to sit down and tell me her story, where would she start? I think she'd tell me straight off that she started building gokarts, and that's what led to Robot Smackdown. I think it's worth exploring an opening that lets us get to know Rose before plunging into the action of the scene. Remember, this is told in past tense, so Rose can hop around, she can give her perspective to a degree...she can see the connections. I might be totally wrong. But I still feel like Rose isn't quite talking TO me, like this is written in third person as opposed to her direct POV. This has mainly to do with those opening lines, and how she introduces me to her world. I'd explore some variations there.

    One note on the dialog sections: there are a fair number of stage directions. I'd ax 50% of those, and just let the dialog fly. With two characters, you don't need as many tags or cues, and it'll allow the scene to pick up some pace.

  4. Hi Jeff!

    I feel much closer to Rose and Walker in this version. I love the dialogue. Their relationship was a lot easier to experience.

    It keeps surprising me that Rose is only 13, she seems really mature for her age. I get the sense she is somewhat of a caretaker in her family and I’d like to see a few more hints of that. I love Walker, I think he’s a great character and I would love to see even more of his sass.

    Rose swearing trough her overalls made me smile and cringe. I wear overalls for work, she would have to sweat a TON to sweat through overalls, those suckers are thick :)

    I’d like the stakes raised higher earlier in the piece. Why is this go-kart so important? What will happen if they don’t make the sale? I’m also confused at to their current situation.

    “I know,” he said, rolling his eyes. “If we don’t keep squeaky clean, we’ll get kicked out of here.”

    I shoved him. “This is serious. You think any other foster home would take all three of us? We’d get separated--”

    Can kids that young get kicked out of their homes? I understand their father isn’t working. Is he a single father? Who is the third sibling? ‘Any other foster home” makes me think they’re currently in foster care but Rose also mentions that their father isn’t around much. It feels like an important detail and trying to figure it out took me out of the story.

    I look forward to more!

  5. Jeff,
    I really like what you’ve done here. Your writing feels so much clearer and orderly. It’s an enormous improvement and I hope you’re feeling good about it, because you should. I have two comments about this draft, but both are debatable and it will be interesting to see if any of the other mentors agree.
    To me, both characters sound older than their years, much more like older teenagers than middle-schoolers. I’m not sure if it’s the vocabulary or sentence structure, but I wonder if there’s a way to make them sound more age appropriate?
    At 13 Rose is unusually tall, unusually strong, and very masculine, and yet she seems to be utterly unselfconscious. To me 13 is an age where both boys and girls are uncertain and insecure about who they are, what others think of them, and what they will someday become. Do you think some sense of that should come through to give her character depth?