Monday, February 10, 2014

1st 5 Pages February Workshop - Huerta Revision 1

Name: Lizz Huerta
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Title: When My Father Was Beautiful

I heard right after third period. Joaquin, my Joaquin, writer/skater/rocker crush, my friend and secret obsession, had been caught by a teacher in the darkroom of the photography lab with Hannah. They hadn’t been developing film. My face burned, eyes watered. I blamed the winds. El suspiro del diablo, my Mexican grandmother would say, the Devil’s Breath. It was what she called the Santa Ana winds that blew in over Southern California every fall and winter. Hot, drying desert winds. The devil will breathe on you and you will be changed, she echoed in my mind. I knew if I saw Joaquin I’d start crying. I left school, ditched for the first time ever. I walked home, scorching from the wind or disappointment.

There was a strange car parked in front of my house, a modern station wagon with OM and Born Again Pagan bumper stickers. The scent of burning sage was in the air and I sighed. It smelled like Mom was “getting spiritual” again. She should have been volunteering her day at the Nature Center but a couple times a year she’d decide to find herself. We had evidence of her seeking all over the house; Tibetan singing bowls and crystals gathering dust, a teak box full of essential oils. It never lasted.

I walked in quietly. The good thing about mom in her spiritual phases was that she didn’t get freaked out about things. She “allowed, surrendered.” I could fake the language and she would forgive my ditching. I wondered who her guru was this time. Dad would be annoyed but he and mom got along better when she was being spiritual, she wouldn’t complain about his long hours.

There was no one in the living room but I heard music coming from my parent’s bedroom, a track of tribal sounding drums with voices chanting wildly over. The door was closed. I hesitated. It seemed odd. I cracked the door open a bit, looked in. I turned and left the house as quickly and quietly as I could. They had been too busy to notice me.

Diana found me at the J Street Marina. I was sitting on the boulders staring at the bay.

“Sol! You abandoned me! You can’t answer your phone?” she greeted, climbing down to sit beside me.

“I needed to be alone.” I didn’t look at her. I’d shut my phone off while walking to the marina.

“Yeah, what about my needs? Do you ever think of what I need?” She joked, snapping her fingers to try to get my attention. I didn’t respond. In my head I kept hearing the stranger’s voice saying my mother’s name. Grace, he had whispered as he moved over her naked body on my parent’s bed, Grace. He’d had a graying ponytail and skinny ass.

Diana threw a rock into the water and sighed.

“Joaquin is an idiot. Come on, Hannah? He’ll get over that real quick.” She said, putting an arm around me.

I’d forgotten about Joaquin. My eyes filled again and spilled. Diana crooned a comfort and I leaned into her. Diana and I had been best friends since we were nine. Her mother, Lora, used to watch me after school when my mother was attempting to go back to school. Lora had taught me the little Spanish I knew. She’d always said it was a shame my father didn’t each me the language of our people; that I had to learn to speak in the language of my emotions. I didn’t know what she meant back then but wondered if there was a word in Spanish to describe what I was feeling now, the wreckage in my chest.

“Can I come over for dinner?” I didn’t want to go home, I couldn’t. There was no way I could face my mom, or dad, knowing what I knew.

“Is water wet?” She picked up a loose rock and threw it overhand into the water, breaking up a group of seagulls at the water’s edge. A couple of the birds voiced their protest at her.

“Sol, look at those crazy birds. They are totally related to dinosaurs. You can see T-Rex in their eyes and beaks. If seagulls were the size of humans we’d all be dead.” Diana’s strange observations about the world were one of many reasons I loved her. As we walked towards Diana’s home she went on and on, not needing me to respond. By the time we got to the small apartment she lived with her mother she had broken down the evolutionary chain of seagulls being the last dinosaurs and I was feeling slightly better.

“Your Mama called.” Lora kissed us both as we walked through the door. I froze. Lora gave me a look. “Sol, the school called your house. You didn’t show up for half your classes. She wants to know where the hell you were all day. I’d like to know too.” She turned her gaze to Diana, Lora knew we rarely did anything apart.

“I was at school! I swear, Ma!” Diana protested, slamming her bag down and opening it to pull out papers. “See? I got this handout from History, it’s dated, November 16. Sol didn’t even tell me she was leaving. I found her at our spot after.” She waved the paper in front of her mom.

“Sol?” Lora ignored her daughter.

“I needed a personal day.” I said, no energy to lie.

“So you went to school, had a change of heart, then left?” She was good at interrogating, I hadn’t been on the other end of one of her interrogations since we were kids and we the drank the rum off her altar.

“I walked to J Street.” It was true.

“In the crazy heat of the day? And you just decided not to answer your phone?” Lora stared into me hard. I used a trick Diana had taught me and stared at the space between her eyes so I wouldn’t break down under her gaze.

“Yeah.” I glanced at Diana who jumped in.

“Ma, Sol is having an existential crisis. Joaquin is with somebody else.” Diana said this all very dramatically and relief coursed through me. I could use the excuse of Joaquin for my sadness and confusion.

“Okay.” Lora raised her eyebrows at me and I saw what Diana would look like at her age. I turned to follow Diana to her room. Lora grabbed my upper arm. With her other hand she held my face and stared into me. Her concern was evident and my eyes filled with tears. But I couldn’t tell anyone, especially Lora. It was too much. I was ashamed. How could I even say it aloud? Thinking about it hurt. Lora breathed in deeply.

“Sol,” she said softly, “No hay mal que por bien no venga.”

I shook my head. My Spanish wasn’t even close to being good enough for me to understand what she said.

“There is nothing bad from which good cannot come.” She kissed my forehead and handed me the phone. “Call your mama.”

“Come home.” My mother’s voice on the phone was tense and matched my stomach.

“I was going to eat here--”

“Soledad, now.” She hung up. She only used my full name when she was angry. It meant big trouble. I slammed the phone down. I wanted to scream. Lora looked like she wanted to say something but didn’t.


  1. Love that opening paragraph! You get my sympathies for the MC from the start, introduce her heritage and the scene very well. And how you wrote the affair scene, included snippets, worked really well. I don't have a lot of general critique, just some nitpicky details:

    -why would the school call if it's her first time ditching? First time makes me think she's a good student / or doesn't break many rules. I don't know if you'll show us this otherwise later or address it here, but it is a question I have. / I'd also assume this is a small school if they have time to note one student's absence. (Back when I was in school, they also took attendance in the morning, so that's another confusing thing - how would they have all known that she missed the latter half of her classes?)

    -Diana gives up Sol pretty easily to her mother. Is there no sense of her potentially lying for Sol or checking with Sol to see what she wanted her to say? Only say this because Diana just comforted her upset best friend, so rather than pull out her papers to defend herself against her mom, why not defend her bf or deflect as she had before? /// Also, if the school calls to say that Sol had left early, would they not have called Lora to say Diana had left too? So even though Sol and Diana are together a lot, she should know then that Diana didn't ditch.

    -why is calling her mother a new scene? Although Diana doesn't know what happened at home, I'd imagine that Sol would want some sort of comfort while she called, and it sort of feels like an abrupt change there.

  2. I like this new beginning with more of a glimpse of the MC's life and her own personal disaster, and I'm also glad we get some of the Mexican flavor right away in the first paragraph. I do feel a bit more emotion from the MC in that first paragraph would connect us to her a little more, like at this point: "My face burned, eyes watered." If we were a bit deeper in her POV, you could show us her thoughts about Joaquin and how her hopes for a romance are over. I don't really get a sense of her devastation. Maybe throw us more into that moment when she actually finds out (in past tense instead of past perfect)? Maybe she and the other kids are watching as the teacher leads them out? Then we could feel it with her.

    I'm not sure about the unreliable narrator when she finds her mom and the guy in the bedroom. I kind of prefer the previous version where we saw what she saw, and I think that's because we got the chance to share the moment with her. Here she sees something horrible but we don't know what it is. It's like we're her friend and she puts up a wall instead of telling us, and here at the beginning of the story in particular, I want her to share with me. I want to become her friend.

    I do like how some of the details of what she saw come out in her thoughts when she's talking to Diana. Maybe we could see what she saw above (at least a basic line or two) and then it could sink in with Diana, where those details could still come out? Just a thought.

    Since Diana knows about Joaquin too, maybe she could even be in that initial scene, calling out for Sol as she runs away from school? So we already know she will have someone to hang on to, and maybe heighten the drama of her running away? These are all just suggestions of ways you could maybe get Sol's thoughts across to us, but however you end up doing it, I guess that's what I wanted more of.

    I wonder if Sol might pull the two betrayals together more in her thoughts before she starts crying. Something like, "First Joaquin, then Mom. I couldn't trust anyone to be who they were supposed to be." OK, that's a crap example, but maybe you see what I mean. I love how Lora interrogates her and is the perfect mix of good mother and sympathetic aunt. Once Sol goes off with Diana, I do wonder that Sol seems more hurt about her mom than Joaquin. I think both would kind of do her in--especially the combination of both at once. I mean, this girl has had pretty much the worst day possible, and she's a teenager, so I kind of expect it to come with more drama.

    At the very end, you have a lot of potential for tension, but because we already know that mom knows she ditched, it seems a bit less dramatic than it could be. Maybe if Lora is just sympathetic without grilling her etc. and then her mom calls, we'd get left off with much more of a hook at the end of these five pages.

    I really like where this is going, so great work on the revisions!

  3. I love the opening paragraph, with the additional description of the Santa Ana winds. Very powerful.

    Sol mentions this is the first time she's ever ditched, so I did question how she knew her mom would forgive her. I get that she is more accepting when she's in one of these phases, but it seems like it still might be a question if Sol has never skipped school before. Parents can be unpredictable, or so my kids say. :)

    I did miss the reveal of the affair from the first version. That had more surprise, and I think more of a way of connecting us to Sol as we felt empathetic toward her and her situation. In this version, we have to wait for her to tell us what she saw. Since we're in first person POV, it seems odd that we don't see it.

    I'm glad you kept the line from Lora in. I am still wondering if Lora knows about the affair. I'd like a few more details there, even to keep me guessing. Or maybe Sol is wondering if Lora knows? I also can't tell if her mother knows that Sol was home and might have seen her. In this version, it seems like not, like she's just angry about the skipping school. In the previous version, the backpack made it seem like Sol's mother might be concerned they'd been seen. I liked that bit of mystery, but it really depends on what you are going for as the writer, and where the story is headed.

    Good luck!

  4. This opening captivated me, especially seeing how the MC was first disappointed by her crush then her mom.

    Also, a note on the school calling about the kid's high school has nearly 2000 students and attendance is computerized, so an automated system calls and emails the parents even if the student missed just one class during the day.

    Last, her mom calling and insisting she get home is one reason I want to keep reading. I suspect mom knows her daughter might have come home earlier and caught her in her act of infidelity.

  5. I also loved the opening paragraph. I live in So Cal and know exactly what you mean with those Santa Ana winds!

    We connect with Sol right about because of Juaquin the rat. That's great. And then the bomb is dropped at the end of the first scene. Mom with the ponytail guy.

    I have to say…I much preferred the way you had written this part of the scene in the first round. It was very clear to me what was happening with mom and the other guy. I was shocked and sad for Sol. This time around it's vague. You mention it in the later scene, the skinny ass part, but by then it had lost some of its punch. When I read it the first time it was a big twist in early pages. That's great. Plus, with the earlier version we're seeing it as it happens in Sol's pov. Of course opinions will vary, which may be why you switched it up!

    I really liked that her mom called searching for her. Made me think, Oh, now you're deciding to be a good mom? That's great for Sol. Makes me want to defend her and stick up for her. I wonder if this would be a good place to foreshadow? Does mom's voice shake? Like it does when she's guilty of something? Or whatever foreshadowing would work here. I think it would work well to get more of the sound of mom's voice here.

    Oh, which brings me to another point. You have some great opportunities to "add more fleas" in this opening. Sensory details. Not too many, because you need to keep the reader focused, but small details would ground us more in the scene. You do a great job when she arrives home. The scent, the drum beats, etc. (Oh, does she hear the man calling the name before she opens the door? I just got sidetracked.) Anyway, when she's at the marina, do the seagulls squawk? Do sails flap in the wind? Does the water smell old or oily? That sort of thing. Just a quickie word or two would ground is in the scene better.

    Overall an excellent revision. I'm rooting for Sol!

  6. Wow, what huge improvement! I really enjoyed the start this time; it felt much natural and engaging. Hitting Sol with the double-whammy created a lot of great tension. You do a nice job of keeping her sympathetic without verging into the pathetic.

    I had a much better emotional connection with Sol this time around. Even though I still don’t know what the book is going to be about, I would likely keep on reading now, since I feel like I’m better tied to Sol.

    I really enjoy Diana’s kooky observations. Can you give us more? It’d be cool if you wove in how she has an innate sense for when someone just needs to have the silence filled without having to reply. Showing Sol appreciating Diana would also help make Sol even more sympathetic.

    In your first paragraph, I think “They hadn’t been developing film” has so much more potential for a bigger wallop. Perhaps try this several different ways to see if you can come up with something with stronger impact?

    To me, that first paragraph isn’t as tight as your other writing. I do like injecting the “El suspiro del diablo” line to give it a Latino feel. But there is an awful lot of talk about wind, with the word used four separate times. It felt a bit repetitive; perhaps try to streamline this.

    Your line, “They had been too busy to notice me,” could also use some punching up. Perhaps try it a few different ways to see what hooks the reader more strongly? Also in that paragraph, I felt like Sol is too robotic. She just saw her mother in bed with a strange man, yeah? Show us some of her reaction, lips quivering, tears flowing, fists balled in anger, confusion, whatever it is you’re going for.

    A minor note on dialogue tags. Where you have “greeted” and “joked”, I think it would work better if you used “said.”

    Finally, I would still like to know more about where this book is going, so if there’s any way to naturally work that in, even minor foreshadowing what’s to come, I would find that helpful.

    Nice work!

  7. Lizz
    I am so impressed with your willingness to make extensive revisions, and I think this is so much better. Great work. I have just a few additional points.
    In the fourth paragraph, perhaps just a little bit of a hint as to what she saw in the bedroom? Or at least, how she feels about what she saw? (See below) And in the following paragraphs, just a little more of the emotional devastation she must be feeling?
    I still feel like I need to see a little more of this setting. What does the bay looks like? The marina? Is it filled with ultra-modern yachts, or broken down old boats? The outside of Lora’s house? The Inside?
    “Lora grabbed my upper arm. With her other hand she held my face and stared into me. Her concern was evident and my eyes filled with tears. But I couldn’t tell anyone, especially Lora. It was too much. I was ashamed. How could I even say it aloud? Thinking about it hurt. Lora breathed in deeply.” -- This is good. It shows how she’s feeling. Can’t we have more description like this earlier in the story? (See above)
    I am a little confused by the last paragraph. Perhaps Soledad should speculate that her mother knows she cut school, but doesn’t know what Soledad saw at home? Otherwise it’s hard to imagine Mom being angry. Rather I’d imagine her being desperately ashamed, yes?

  8. Hi Lizz,

    WOW. Kudo's for going there with Joaquin and the character. You're really jumped into the challenge and I love so much of this revision. LOVE!

    I think you could tone the winds down a wee bit in the first paragraph. Really choose the strongest of your related concepts and make sure they pack the biggest punch.

    I truly admire your willingness to stretch the urgency of the situation with what she saw in the mother's room, but I'm not sure that, for me, it was the best choice. I feel more sympathy for her from the beginning, but at the same time, I don't know her well enough to go with her on a book long journey if she is going to withhold information from me. That's a personal take on it, but consider very carefully WHY you are making this choice and make sure there is a significant payoff for the reader as a result. If not, then I'd recommend reconsidering.

    Overall, apart from that, my biggest advice this time around is that I still very much feel the authorial hand in this manuscript. You are manipulating events to suit yourself, instead of designing a finite, real situation for a set of characters who have their own, set and established, backstories and letting them react to the situation as they would react, as they cannot help but react because of who they are. I love the mother's spiritual journey binges, but I don't believe your MC would be confident that, even on a spiritual binge, her mother would be fine with her ditching. And if she hasn't ditched before, how does she know how her mother would react--also why would the school call? I'm also not convinced about the way she is willing to peek into her mother's room when there was a strangers car in the driveway. Basically, I'm not truly convinced by many of the things she's doing or how things are evolving, which signals to me that you need to do some journaling or worksheets or backstory evolution to get to know your characters and the situation better.

    I think, I genuinely think, that you may have a winner here. I'm excited to see where you can take this story. But before you can take readers by the hand and walk them into your storyscape, you need to dig in and make us believe, make yourself believe, that every word you put down is true.

    Congrats again on the truly fantastic work you've done. You're the kind of writer who is going to shave years off the publication journey by being willing to push yourself and your stories. That's a gift. Now take the next leap. You can do it! And I can't wait to see what you come up with next week.