Tuesday, March 11, 2014

1st 5 Pages March Workshop - Saunders Rev 1

Name: Merriam Saunders

Genre: MG, Light Fantasy

Title: What Westin Scott Hopper Found


The basement in Grandma’s house is calling to me.

But I’m not supposed to go in it.

So I sit on Grandma’s sofa and cut out the Sunday comics instead. I usually like to cut out the ones that give me ideas for drawing. Grandma sets the warm blue sheets she’s just pulled out of the dryer next to me and starts folding. I dig a tunnel into the toasty pile, thinking about how I can sneak into the basement. I’ll have to wait till Dad leaves. The sheets feel soft on my skin. I wonder what it feels like to cut sheets, instead of newspaper.

“West! What’d you do that for?” Dad leaps out of the brown lounger chair.

I look down at my hands. Uh-oh. “I didn’t mean to!”

“Westin Scott Hopper!” Grandma closes her eyes and shakes her head. “I just bought these. Why would you cut a hole in perfectly good sheets?”

“Sorry Gram.” I have no idea why I did that.

Dad takes a swig from a silver can and sets it on the glass coffee table. “You can’t do stuff like that, West. You’re eleven, not seven. Use your brain.”

Ha! Lot of good that’d do. Someone else’s Brain might have been like “Dude. Bad idea to cut a hole in your Grandma’s sheets.” That Brain’s kid would’ve been like, “Thanks, Brain. I’ll cut the comics instead. Good thing I have you to stop me from doing stupid stuff.”

But my Brain’s different. The part that stops you from screwing up—the same part that makes you pay attention even when it’s super terrifically boring (like math class)—that part of my Brain is on vacation in Hawaii most days. Or climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Or canoeing the Amazon. Wherever it is, it’s not in my head doing its job.

“You’ll have to pay Grandma out of your allowance.” Dad glances at his watch.

And I know what’s coming. Actually, what’s leaving.


“Your mom will pick you up later. You’re her problem now, buddy. Don’t forget anything at Grandma’s.” He leans over and messes my hair. “See you next Sunday night. Be good.”

I usually hate when he leaves. Makes my stomach feel hollow. I follow him to the kitchen. He’s so tall he has to duck through the doorway. And so strong when he slams the back door, sometimes the walls shake. Like now. I watch through the side window as he peals out of the drive-way in the bright red Evidence. That’s what Mom calls his new Porsche—she says it shows he can pay more child support.

But today, I’m glad he left early. Today I just have this feeling. There’s something calling me to the basement.

I pull a soda from Grandma’s fridge. Mom doesn’t let me drink soda, but Gram doesn’t mind. When I shut the fridge, a picture I drew—a flying blue dragon—falls from its magnet and floats to the floor. Dad’s knocked this drawing off three times today getting a drink out, and Grandma puts it back up every time. She loves my drawings. They’re okay, I guess. [ILLUSTRATION]

I finish my soda and look down the hall to the basement door. Sometimes they fall asleep watching TV and that’s the best time to sneak down.

“Don’t you even think of going in that basement!” Pops comes out of his TV coma to yell. “Every time you go down there you break something.”

“Okay.” Darn. Still awake. I throw a tennis ball against the basement door, eyeing the knob. Catch. Ba-dump. Catch.

“No ball throwing in the house!” His screechy voice makes the hair on my neck stand.

“Okay.” I’m going anyway. I look both ways down the hall and take a step toward the old basement door. It’s all scratched under the knob where Jessup used to claw at it before he died. Which was sad because he was a fun dog. I twist the loose knob and quietly open the door. The stair creaks errrt under my foot and I hope they don’t hear.

The basement smells weird. Like wet fur, stale barf and old cardboard. Most kids would be scared down here. It’s dark. Midnight under-the-ground dark. There’s one dim bulb hanging from the center of the room and you turn it on by pulling a long string. But only after you’re all the way downstairs, through Spider City in the floor boards above your head. Once, after I walked into a web, thrashing around to get the sticky wisps off, a giant spider crawled down my cheek and into my sweater. Mega gross.

My heart pumps fast till I tug the string and the light clicks on, dim and yellow. The room is filled to the rafters. There’s a cool record player on a dusty table that works by cranking the handle. The singer sounds like she’s in a tin can. Next to it, is a pink accordion. But I accidentally poked a hole in the middle, so it doesn’t work anymore. There are more books than in my school library, in heaps, on shelves, and in boxes. But nothing I’d read. They have weird titles like “The Edible Northwest” or “Weaving for Dummies”.

I tap my thighs and spy around. Nothing new since last time I snuck down except a blue hard-sided suitcase and next to it, a creepy painting of a swamp in a gold-painted frame. I snort out dust and disappointment.

I kneel on the red square of carpet and pull the suitcase over. Maybe there’s something awesome inside. Gold coins. Or Pokémon EX cards. Maybe an intergalactic treasure map with specs to build a space ship.

Empty. Worse than empty. Just a stupid silky bag. Red with scratchy marks like a dog ran its claws over it. Boring, girly thing. I pick it up and look inside. Nothing. Totally not worth the scolding I’ll get when Pops catches me in the basement.

I sigh. Still holding the bag, I lean over to look at the oil painting of the swamp propped against the wall. Why would Grandma spend money on that? So ugly. The crocodile has huge bug-eyes and the turtle on the shore is a strange purple color. Everyone knows turtles aren’t purple. Duh.

I drop the bag back into the suitcase and scratch behind my ears. I’m about to close the lid, when it bangs against my knees.

“What the—?”

Toddling along the inside of the suitcase is a purple turtle. Like the one from the painting. No bigger than a tootsie roll. I reach my hand in to touch it and snap! The bug-eyed crocodile in mini-size leaps out of the red silk bag.

“Look out!” I yell to the turtle. Quicker than the flick of an elastic, the crocodile clamps down and gobbles him up. He looks up with his bug-eye, winks, and crawls back into the bag. I slam the the suitcase down hard.

No freaking way. I did not just see that. I raise the lid, ready to leap away if a mini crocodile attacks my face. I hold my breath. Nothing. Just the red silk bag, flat and empty. How did that happen? I reach in slowly, heart thumping like a basketball and pick it up. I turn it inside out. Empty.

But I know what I saw.

Brain knows it too.

A tiny crocodile ate a purple turtle.

And vanished.

This is beyond awesome.


  1. Sorry to the readers for the gazillion spaces in between paragraphs. I must have formatted something terribly wrong. Thanks for your patience! Merriam

  2. Hi Merriam,

    The new opening pulled me right into the story. You've neatly woven in West's desire to explore the basement with his alternate activity of cutting out cartoons (and sheets!). I thought you did a great job capturing West's voice with lines like "And I know what's coming. Actually what's leaving. Him." One of my other favorite lines from the excerpt is "I snort out dust and disappointment." Fresh and funny. I think the mix of humor and the way you show his relationship with his father with a few snippets of conversation is effective.

    I have a picky point regarding the following lines: "So I sit on Grandma’s sofa and cut out the Sunday comics instead. I usually like to cut out the ones that give me ideas for drawing" -- perhaps you can rephrase/mix up the word choices to avoid using 'cut' two sentences in a row and keep things fresh?

    By the end, I was chomping at the bit to know the connection between the red bag and the picture and how this bit of magic works.

  3. Merriam,
    I like the basement calling to the MC at the start, but miss his voice. Maybe give us some of Westin's voice thus: My grandmother's basement calls to me. "Westin, oh Westin. Yeah, you. Where've you been? I've missed you. I have something to show you." Every time I visit Grandma's basement I break something, and Grandpa yells at me. (Paragraph) I focus on the scissors and Sunday comics in my lap. I like to cut out the ones . . .

    I love the detail about the drawing on the fridge that his dad has knocked it off three times and every time his grandmother puts it back.

    I also like Westin's description of his relationship-or absence of one-with his brain. I love his voice.

    Where did Wes get the tennis ball?

    I love the sound of this basement (once the light is on ;-) ). My great-aunt had one very similar, full of all kinds of things to look at, a treasure cave to a kid.

    Technically, the suitcase is not empty if it has a bag in it. By scratchy marks, do you mean fabric snags? You might describe the scratch marks-four parallel inch long snags (or the like) instead of out and out saying dog claw marks. I get the idea from the scratch marks on the door, and the smell, that we might see Jessup at some point. Leave us less obvious clues. What kind of dog was he? If you say . . . he was fun for a terrier/beagle/poodle/mutt . . . then you can also drop other hints related to his size, color, slobberyness. IF he does show up, that is.

    I'm excited to witness the magic. Westin's use of 'freaking' threw me off though.

    I like his reaction, tentative and thrilled. And, his Brain is on board, too.

    Keep it up,

  4. Oh I was so excited to experience a little of the magic! I love the way this opens now. From the first two sentences, I wanted to know what was down in the basement. I think with little details like the soda thing it could be told in a more interesting way, like he's on his fourth soda and super hyper (contributing to his fanatic need to get to the basement) because he has to drink a whole week's worth before he goes home to mom. Also, instead of telling us that they sometimes fall asleep and that's the best time to sneak down the basement, you have the opportunity to show how well the grandparents know him and also the opportunity for humor. He could look at his grandpa, hear him snore, think he's in the clear and then the grandpa yells. We could experience it with the character rather than him telling us about it.

    After all the stuff about not going down the basement, it seemed a little too easy when he did go down. After his grandpa put up such a fuss I couldn't imagine he wouldn't get up and go after him. I think he needs to be a bit sneakier. I liked the evidence of his prior misdeeds--the hole in the accordion. I love that it's pink.

    I liked the line "I snort out dust and disappointment" but when you say snort I think of an intake of breath, but you say "snort out" maybe cough out? Or just drop the out? Also, hoping to find Pokemon cards in the suitcase threw me a little. They don't seem magical enough alongside the map and gold coins and I didn't know why he thought he might find something like that amongst his grandparents things. If you're imagining magical finds, I felt like the cards were a little too reality based.

    The suitcase isn't empty, so I'd probably just drop the first "empty." Also, I think tears or rips in the fabric might work better than scratchy marks. You have some lovely phrasing in the last paragraphs that really made the story jump off the page--toddling along, quicker than a flick of elastic. I love the end of this scene. "Brain knows it too" made me smile.

    Great job!

  5. Hi Merriam,

    I think you're starting to whittle down to the right scene elements in this revision, and now it's time to focus at the sentence and word level.

    1. VOICE: some of the voice has diminished, primarily from the change in cadence and pace to the sentences. I' recommend reading your first version aloud, and then this one, and noting the key changes. Give yourself another pass where you really push to hear Westin talking to you, as though he were telling you this story.

    2. INTERIORITY: these are comments within the text that come from the character's interior thoughts, such as:

    "I usually hate when he leaves. Makes my stomach feel hollow. "

    This is perfectly valid remark, but it's out of place at the beginning of the paragraph. we need to be led through action, to connection, to emotion. meaning, we start a paragraph moving through the scene, and then come to understand how that change effects our character. In some cases, moving interior thoughts to the right location makes them fit.

    In other cases, interior thoughts can be cut. I find it fascinating to follow West as her trails his father, waiting to find out if he's leaving or not. West's actions and demeanor tells me everything about how he feels, and what the history is here. What I'm most interested in is seeing what happens with him, not exactly why. I'm not saying this should all be cut, but your character should only tell us about history or feelings when it's imperative, otherwise it reads like a stream of asides that interrupt the narrative. Imagine this being read aloud, on a stage. Every time the action stops, and the character talks about their feelings, they look at the audience. If this happens too frequently, it gets awkward.

    3. MOTIVATION/DRIVE: I'd still like to get a better feel for what West wants. I see his wounds. How do those wounds translate into a want? Is he searching for someone to pay attention to him? Is he trying to do something to be special? He should want something (that derives from his wounds) that sets him off on his hero's journey. A lot of times, this can give great momentum to your scene.

    Again, I think you've dialed in on the scene you should be showing, but now go back in and let us settle into his voice and character in those opening moments with a little more voice, ease, and direction.

    Good progress! Keep it up. :)


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  7. Thanks, everyone - great comments. And Melanie, congrats on the publishing deal! So exciting!

  8. Hi Merriam!

    I like that you put the basement right at the beginning. I agree that some of that snappy voice that you did so well the first time around got a little lost in revision, but I think it's the sort of thing that you can fix with just a pas through for language.

    I was also slightly confused when West's grandfather showed up--he's not anywhere in the scene until he starts talking--it's always grandma's house and grandma's rules--to the point where I assumed there was no grandfather. Just a small mention of his grandfather at the TV before he's shouting would work well.

    I do love that we got to see a little magic! Sounds like a fun story.