Monday, March 17, 2014

1st 5 Pages March Workshop - Saunders Rev 2

Name: Merriam Saunders
Genre: MG Light Fantasy

The basement in Grandma’s house is calling me like lightning to a flagpole.

“Oh, Westiiiin. There’s something really amazing down here to plaaay with…”

But I’m not supposed to go down there.

So I sit on Grandma’s sofa cutting out the Sunday comics instead. Thinking about how my former friends are all at Peter Madsen’s birthday party, stuffing their faces with cake. I wasn’t invited. Whatever. Grandma plops blue sheets next to me and starts folding. Fresh and warm from the dryer. I dig a tunnel into the toasty pile, thinking about how to sneak into the basement, which is way more fun than some stupid party anyway. I’ll have to wait till Dad leaves. He and Pops are watching football, so could be a while. Mmmm, these sheets feel soft. Wonder what it’s like to cut sheets, instead of comics.

“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?”

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

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

I have no idea why. “Sorry Gram.”

Dad takes a swig from a silver can and sets it on the glass coffee table. “You can’t keep doing stuff like that, West. You're twelve, not two. Use your brain.”

Lot of good that’d do. My Brain’s not the cooperative kind. 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. Mom says it’s not my fault. 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 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. “Bye, Dad.” I whisper. 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.

My stomach usually feels kind of hollow when he leaves early. But not today. Today I just have this feeling. There’s something cool in the basement.

I pull a soda from Grandma’s fridge. My fourth. Mom doesn’t let me drink soda, so I have to load up at Grandma’s. 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.

I finish my soda and peak into the living room. Pops is fading fast in the recliner and Grandma has a TV-coma glaze to her eyes. I creep down the hall to the basement door.

“Don’t you even think of going in that basement.” Pops grumbles. “You’re always breaking something.”

Darn. He’s got supersonic hearing for an old guy. I grab a tennis ball and throw it 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.


I wait.

Doesn’t take long.


We have lift off! Full-snore throttle ahead.

I look both ways down the hall and step toward the old basement door. It’s all scratched under the knob where Jessup used to claw at it before he died. He was a fun dog till he started peeing everywhere. 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 with stuff Grandma buys at garage sales. 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. 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. There’s nothing different since the last time I snuck down except a blue hard-sided suitcase. I snort out dust and disappointment.

But there could be something awesome inside that suitcase. Gold coins. Or Pokémon EX cards. Maybe an intergalactic treasure map with specs to build a space ship. So I kneel down on the red square of carpet and pull the suitcase toward me.

Worse than empty. Just a stupid silky bag. Red with a draw string and scratchy looking symbols shaped like forks. Boring. 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 look around. There’s an ugly oil painting of a swamp propped against the wall. Why would Grandma spend money on that? Totally hideous. 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 around the inside of the suitcase is a purple turtle. Like the one from the painting. A teensy version, 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 at me with his bug-eye, winks, and crawls back into the bag. I slam the top of the suitcase down hard.

No freaking way. I did not just see that. The painting…came alive? Brain is playing a joke on me. 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.

I am so totally getting all my friends back now.


  1. What great voice you have! This reads so smoothly now. I love the small additions around the grandparents and them falling asleep. There's just enough detail about the dad to make us feel sorry for West. The little phrases you've put in do so much for voice--like his heart thumping like a basketball. Middle grade is so difficult to write and get it right. So great! Wonderful job. Good luck.

  2. Merriam,
    I am so glad to have more of Westin's voice! Glad to have the problem with the friends back, and tied to his discovery in the basement. Nicely done.

    I don't think you need Westin to wonder what it feels like to cut sheets. I think he would just do it, completely without the preamble.

    I like the revisions around the dog, and also the detail about Grandma's garage sale habit.

    Small typo: peek instead of peak into the living room.

    Maybe: heart thumping like a dribbled basketball? A basketball by itself doesn't thump.

    Nice work. Keep it up.


  3. You nailed this pass at the revision. From here, I would suggest these line edits:

    1. He was a fun dog till he started peeing everywhere. --you can lose this bit of interiority, unless it is critical to the plot.

    2. I sigh. --this phrase kills pace. I recommend cutting it.

    3. Earlier, the thoughts about cutting the sheet...they kind of spoil the shock of what he does. Maybe just let him keep thinking about cutting the comics while playing in the sheets--that's what would be on his mind, correct? The cutting of the sheets is accidental, and not his focus.

    4. Whatever. No freaking way. --- these lines seem a little...older? Or feminine in a way? They just don't *quite* connect with his character for me. I want some more unique, selective phrasing that doesn't sound like a tween girl from central casting. You've brought in so many incredible, tiny references that show his character; this is the one area that you can push your writing to be even more precise.

    5. Take this perspective with each sentence. Read them aloud, and double check that there are no other missed opportunities for precision and clarity. This is the point that you need beta readers to examine the story as a whole, so that the rest of the work holds up to the standard you've created in these opening pages.

    Again, excellent work. You've taken a very thoughtful path through the pile of feedback you received, and you ended up with an opening that shows us your likable character, his wounds, his wants, and the direction of the story. I really enjoyed reading this, from opening to finish!!



  4. Love what you've done with the changes! The top flows so much better. And I love your extrapolation on his impulsivity. I also liked how you handled Dad. Well done! I won't go into any tweaking of details because the comments above have given you sound advice. I would like to mention that the scene in the basement needs a little clarity for me. Your creepy descriptions were great--I'm talking about the logistics of the suitcase, the bag and the magical animals. Because you are world building here, it's really important to remember that there is no way for the reader to really figure out what is going on inside your head--the way we might be able to do in a contemporary scene. For instance, when you talked about the scratches under the doorknob, I immediately used my experiences to assume it was a pet. But when you are talking about magic--I can't put the pieces together so easily. I know part of the confusion is because the MC IS confused, but I also had trouble sorting through the jump from the suitcase--to the bag--to the oil painting--to the magical animals appearing. Also he was dead set to get in the basement from the start--was there a connection to that and the magic? Or was that just him being impulsive? And lastly--your last line sounded good on the tongue but wasn't clear to me. You said he was on the outs with his friends but you didn't say exactly why and this line doesn't make that completely clear. Was he too boring? And now he's not? Is he going to show them this cool thing and then they'll want to be friends? Or did they dump him because he always made up outlandish stories that weren't true and now he can be vindicated? Or something completely different. I know this might only be a stopping point in this contest, but I thought I would check because I wasn't sure. Good luck with the next round of changes!!! I know you've got this. <3

  5. You've done such a good job with the beginning, and I still love the idea of this impulsive kid as the MC for a MG magical romp.

    I also love the idea of a lonely kid wanting to get his friends back--middle school is a time of social upheaval for so many kids that I think the idea of him trying to solve his social problems with magic as a bargaining chip is a great one.

    To me, this is the most interesting thing you've got with West right now, and I'd like to think about this earlier. His family stuff can wait, because that doesn't seem to be what he's actively trying to solve. His active goal is to get his friends back. So I'd cut a little family drama (not too much, because I love those details, too), and add a little about his situation with other kids in the fist couple of paragraphs.

    Such a great job! Good luck with future revisions!!!

  6. Hi Merriam,

    I'm sorry to be posting my comments so late in the day. I think the revisions work great. I love the 'calling me like lightning to a flagpole' line -- it captures West's voice and does a great job setting the tone for the story as well as giving us his motivation. I also like how the former friends are brought into the story right away along with West's wonderfully unconvincing 'Whatever.'

    Missing word here? (it) could be a while.

    I, too, found West wondering what its like to cut sheets instead of comics less satisfying than what you had in the previous version. I think it worked better when it was action then consequences.

    Dad's dialogue does a great job showing us his relationship with West as well as hinting at past mistakes -- on West's part. I still love the 'Actually what's leaving' and the 'Evidence' lines -- as well as the new description of the grandmother with the 'TV-coma glaze to her eyes' -- so fresh.

    You've got the start of a wonderful story here. Best wishes.