Monday, February 17, 2014

1st 5 Pages February Workshop - Chen Revision 2

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

Coming in just eight weeks,

only on XTV…



With the biggest prize yet…





Chapter 1

My muscles burned with fire, my ponytail clung to my neck like a wet towel, but I couldn’t afford to rest. I had to beat this go-kart frame into submission, and quick.

Smashing my hammer into a tube stupid enough to defy me, I winced as vibrations tore up my arm. But I pushed aside the pain to throw jabs and right crosses, punishing the struts for their disobedience.

Five. Ten. Twenty body blows later, I dropped into a light-headed crouch, crinkly red hairs flopping into my face as I panted in the heat of the summer night. Sweat cascaded off my brow, plinking to the cement as I studied the frame under the buzzing fluorescent light. It wasn’t pretty—rusty steel, scavenged wheels, and two dozen bolts holding everything together—but it would do.

I checked the wall clock, biting my lip. Only 30 more minutes before our buyer was supposed to arrive. Where the heck was Walker? If my little brother didn’t get here 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 owned the boxing gym. Still could pay the bills without us secretly helping out. I wiped grease into the go-kart’s seat, hoping to smear in some good luck.

A rattle sounded outside. I froze, listening at the garage door to the approaching creaks.

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

Walker. Anxious to see his haul, I jammed my fingers under the garage door and yanked. The broken mechanism screeched in protest as I fought it inch by inch, moonlight oozing through the widening gap.

Walker crawled in army man-style, his cowboy hat in hand. He smoothed out his straight black hair and put on the ten-gallon hat, the only thing keeping him from being the shortest kid at our school. “Y’all gotta do something about that door.”

I pumped my fist. Walker’s ridiculous Asian-Texan drawl was way thicker than usual, a sure sign he had succeeded. “You got it?”

He nodded, tugging in an old wagon loaded with parts. “But 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 all the way through my undershirt and overalls.

“What?” I aimed my armpit at him and grinned. “Is there a problem?”

Walker shrieked and gagged, writhing like a dog fighting 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.”

“Lemme help,” Walker said. “It’s super heavy.”

I shook my head. Walker could get us almost anything we needed—pretty incredible for a seventh-grader, really—but his noodle arms were like chow mein. Lifting the engine with one hand, I lowered it into the frame and nodded. Almost a perfect fit.

“Dang,” Walker said, his mouth hanging open. “I couldn’t carry that with both hands. And both legs.”

I turned away, red heat spreading through my face. So I was strong for a fourteen-year old girl—why did everyone have to make such a big deal of it? Three years as Dad’s sparring partner would make anyone tough. “Quit staring at me,” I said as I coupled the clutch to the engine. “Go get the drill. And the number eight bit. Hurry.”

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

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

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

I gave him a sidelong glance and grabbed the drill. I had never seen that ancient “Walker, Texas Ranger” show, but I was pretty sure the real Walker’s “code of the Old West” was a lot stricter than my brother’s. I drilled a final hole in the frame, orange sparks flying. “Gimme six half-inch bolts and matching nuts,” I yelled over the grinding.

A thought jumped to mind, and I let off the trigger in annoyance. I only had minutes left, and now I’d have to waste some of them. Dad was gone so much these days, working any odd job he could get, so somebody had to keep Walker in line. Forcing myself out of my usual hunch, I straightened to my full six foot one. “Answer my question. Did you do anything illegal?”

A crooked grin smeared across Walker’s face. “Don’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, our social worker could kick us back into the foster care system.”

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

“Relax, I’m just yanking your chain. I didn’t break any laws.” Walker flicked a fraying stitch on his button-down shirt. “A little sweet-talking down at the junkyard, that’s all. Pulled the dumb ol’ middle-schooler bit.”

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

I scoffed. “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 chuckled as I mounted the engine. “It’s Tom Sawyer, not Jim.” I wasn’t much better at school than Walker, but even I knew that.

“Pshaw, book learning ain’t important,” he muttered. “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 in here. Awesome, right?”

I sighed as I cranked down the final nut. Walker’s constant need for my approval was annoying, but I had to admit, he was good. “Yeah, awesome. C’mon, let’s test this 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. “Where did you get that?”

Walker filled the engine, the stench of gasoline biting my nose. “You don’t wanna know.”

“Nothing illegal?”

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

Someone pounded on the garage door, and my stomach clenched. I signaled to Walker and lost sight of him after he flicked the light switch, a ghost retreating into the shadows.

My hand trembled as I lifted my hammer. I tried to growl, but my voice broke high. “Yeah?”

“I’m looking for Red,” came the voice, deep and menacing.


  1. Jeff,
    I would harken back to my last set of comments, but I guess you and the others disagreed. You did a nice job of polishing it up, and I wish you luck.

  2. Great ad for the contest at the very beginning! This definitely seems like more of a goal for the MC now. I'd still like a bit more of a connection to what Rose is doing to this actual contest though. For instance, after this line, "I had to beat this go-kart frame into submission, and quick." Maybe you could add something like, "We could really use that ten million dollar prize." Otherwise, I'm still not sure how the ad is related.

    I really like the idea of Chinese characters in Texas but the details you have raise questions for me. I think a few more well-placed tidbits would clear it up and add some nice flavor. For instance, I wondered why Walker has "straight black hair" but Rose has "crinkly red hairs flopping into my face." I assume this means they are mixed race or have different moms or dads but the end result for me was confusion. Likewise this description of Walker's "ridiculous Asian-Texan drawl" definitely intrigued me, but I simply couldn't imagine how it would sound (and I'm a linguist!). Unless he actually spent a significant chunk of recent time in China, it probably wouldn't be apparent in his speech at that age, and even though the drawl is probably meant to go with the Texan part of his voice, the Asian-Texan made it seem like it belonged to both. I wonder if you might want to play off the difference between those more. Like "the Texan drawl coming out of his Asian mouth" or something?

    Good call to age Rose up to 14. That seems to fit the way she sounds better, to me at least. I know 14 can be a bit tougher to place because it stradles the line between YA and MG, but she's clearly got an upper MG voice, so I think it could work. I'm sure your mentors have more thoughts on that.

    Love the hooky ending! That really makes me want to turn the page.

  3. Hey Jeff,

    I think this is really shaping into an interesting beginning. I've only got a few comments to add.

    I love these bits of detail - "Still could pay the bills without us secretly helping out." This made me think that is why they need the sale of the go-kart. Excellent motivation, though it may be a bit subtle for middle-grade readers. If this is the case, I'd suggest more hints as we go.

    “Honda GCV 160. It’s not a 190, but it’ll do.” - Great specifics, and I love that Rose knows this!

    And this line - No ‘You’re the best scrounger in all of Indiana?’- was a great way to give us a sense of the 'bigger picture' setting.

    In this paragraph - "A thought jumped to mind, and I let off the trigger in annoyance. I only had minutes left, and now I’d have to waste some of them. Dad was gone so much these days, working any odd job he could get, so somebody had to keep Walker in line. Forcing myself out of my usual hunch, I straightened to my full six foot one. “Answer my question. Did you do anything illegal?”
    I'm not sure you need to preface with 'a thought jumped to mind.' We're in Rose's POV, so all of these are her thoughts. It seems like it takes a while to get to the actual thought, which is that Walker might have stolen something, and you've already told us she's in a hurry.

    And this is getting really nitpicky (that's why we're here, right? :) but starting with "I scoffed, every other paragraph begins with I ------ scoffed, chuckled, sighed, squinted. Like I said, nitpicky, but one of those things that just jumped out at me.

    Good luck with this!

  4. Hi Jeff,

    I love the addition in the beginning about the Robot Smackdown. It immediately gives us context, a timeline and tension. TEN million dollars? That's a lot of dough for a robot smash down. While I was reading the rest of the piece I was curious if Rose was going to submit a robot. It seemed far-fetched but I was interested and wanted to keep reading. Nicely done.

    I get from the text that they're a mixed family, which is wonderful. I wish there were more mixed families in literature these days. The "Asian Texan" drawl took me out of the story, I had to think about it and still had a hard time hearing in my head.

    Thank you for clarifying their living situation. It really added to the urgency that these two have already come out of the foster care system and that their father is struggling. I get the sense he's a single father but would love to have that confirmed.

    Rose being 14 feels more appropriate. 14 seems to be that magical age where you can still be a child and have a foot in adulthood as well.

    I don't have much else to add. Great edits!

  5. Hi, Jeff--

    This passage has come a very long way. You've edited your way to an opening that is easy to read, digest, and engage with, which is great!

    Still, I hope you will push for more depth with Rose's character, and more connection to her as a middle-school aged girl. I don't know that 14 is a great age to select--WINGER's protagonist starts out at 14, and the book is very much YA in theme and tone. 14 can be a troublesome spot for a MC's age in MG. You are neither here nor there, in a way. Rose would be in high school. That dramatically shifts things--she'd probably be well into puberty, and hormones have a LOT to say at that age. Your work reads MG to me, so I don't see the necessity to age her up.

    Instead, I think Rose still needs to push beyond the stereotypical tomboy image. Yes, there's only so much room in this intro to show us who Rose is, but she needs to be unique. Compelling. I want to see how her point of view on the world will grab my heart and give it a squeeze. Very small moments can create this feel. In this way, I think I'm agreeing with some of Todd's comments from the last revision--middle school girl is SO TOUGH. Life sucks SO MUCH. I could barely move without thinking about my body or hair or the people around me and what they thought of me. I would like to connect with Rose in this way--I see that she resents her brother staring at her strength...but I would expect her to be more embarrassed and self-conscious than confident enough to feel resentful of the reaction. This is the time when Rose will discover that she can own her strength. Let us see her NOT owning it first.

  6. ^-- I agree with the others about the Asian Texan drawl bit. Also, I want to commend you for the increased urgency you added to the beginning with the buyer, and the clarification on their living situation. I'd like to see some of the urgency in the dialogue too, since I almost forgot what you said about the buyer coming in 30 minutes (it also doesn't entirely read to me as 30 minutes passing - buyer early?). Otherwise, just terrific!