Monday, March 3, 2014

1st 5 Pages March Workshop - Saunders

Name: Merriam Saunders
Genre: Middle Grade, Light Fantasy
Word Count: 45,000


I’m a total screw-up. That’s what most people think, anyway. Especially my math teacher, Mr. Widelot. And the kids formerly known as my friends. My dad, too. I think they’re right, but I wish they weren’t.

I sit on the sofa while Grandma’s folding the blue flower sheets she’d pulled out of the dryer. She piled the warm sheets next to me while I cut out comics from the Sunday paper and Dad and Pops watch football. I dig a little tunnel into the toasty pile. I’m not thinking about what I’m doing, I’m thinking about the comics, how I love to draw, and how maybe someday I could draw comics too. Then my mind wanders to what it would feel like to cut sheets instead of newspaper. Before I know what I’ve done, Dad screams at me.

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

I look down at my hands. Uh-oh.

“I didn’t mean to!” And I really hadn’t meant to. But I’d taken the scissors, and cut a hole in the blue-flowered sheets.

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

What could I say? I had no idea why. I just did. I do stuff like that all the time.

“Stupid. Stupid.” I hit myself on the head.

Dad takes a swig from a silver can and sets it on the glass coffee table in front of me. “You can’t do stuff like that, West. Use your brain.” He looks at me like he does a lot, like I’m the stupidest kid on the planet. “You’ll have to pay Grandma out of your allowance.” He glances at his watch.

I know what’s coming. Actually, what’s leaving. Him. Because of me.

I’m at Grandma’s house. Dad and I come here every Sunday on the weeks that I’m with him. Sometimes he stays all day and sometimes he drops me here and goes to see Cindy. Cindy is Dad’s girlfriend. Mom calls her my Nanny, but not in a nice way.

“Your mom will pick you up in an hour. You’re her problem now, buddy. Don’t forget anything at Grandma’s.” He leans over and tousles my curly brown hair. “See you next Sunday night.”

I follow him into the kitchen and watch him leave. He’s tall, so tall he has to duck through the doorway of Grandma’s old house. And strong. So strong when he slams the 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 on his way to see Cindy. The Evidence is what Mom calls his new Porsche—because she thinks it shows he can pay more child support.

Dad doesn’t actually call me a screw-up. He doesn’t have to. It’s what he’s thinking, because he thinks it all the time. Like most people.

Mom says it’s not my fault. I don’t pay attention very well. And I move – like all the time. And make noises, which mostly the girls hate. "Cut it out, West. You’re so annoying." I think they’re annoying for saying I’m annoying.

Also, I do stuff before I think about whether I should, like the stupid thing I did to Peter Madsen, which is how I lost most of my friends. And like cutting holes in Grandma’s sheets. Someone else’s Brain might have been like “Hey, Dude. Bad idea to cut a hole in your Grandma’s sheets.” And 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 like cutting holes in sheets.”

But I don’t have a Brain like that. Mine’s different. The part that stops you from doing stupid stuff, the same part that forces you to pay attention even when something is super terrifically boring (like math class)—that part of my Brain is on vacation in Hawaii most days. Or at a baseball game. Or canoeing on the Amazon. Wherever it is, it’s not in my head doing its job.


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

I’m sort of good at art. When it’s report card time, the only teacher that writes good stuff in the comment section is Ms. Blackhouse, the Art Teacher. “Westin is very creative. His drawings are imaginative and show a good use of color. He is very focused in class.” I wish she wouldn’t write that. Because it makes Dad say that if I can pay attention in Art class, I should be able to pay attention in Math, too. But, it’s easy to focus in Art class, because Brain likes it so much, he never wanders then. I like to draw funny creatures from my mind. It calms me. This is one of my favorites. It’s a Fire Monster:


But I left my drawing stuff at Mom’s, so I have nothing to do. Grandma doesn’t have any good colored pencils at her house. Or anything else to play with. She lives on the busiest street in Possum Grape, California and her neighbors are all old people.

Grandma is short, chubby and probably the nicest woman on the planet. I’m not that tall for twelve, just normal. But I already tower over Grandma. She loves to squeeze me into her chubby chest whenever she sees me, which is every other Sunday. I pretend I don’t like it, because I’m a boy and I’m not supposed to like hugs anymore, but really I do. She and Mom are where I get my hugs. Even though Grandma is so nice to me—she always gives me a bag full of homemade sugar cookies when I leave—she won’t talk to Mom when she picks me up. At all. I don’t get it. If I can still love my Mom and Dad both the same after the divorce, why can’t Grandma love them both too?

She and Pops are sitting on the sofa watching TV, like they do every Sunday afternoon. Football is over, so they’re onto some old movie where people are kissing all the time. Gross. And so, so boring. Mom will be here in thirty painfully crawling minutes. I’m throwing a tennis ball against the door to the basement, biding my time. Catch. Ba-dump. Catch.

“Westin Scott! Stop throwing balls in the house,” Pops yells.

I sigh. I tap my fingers against my thigh, staring at the old basement door. It’s all scratched under the knob from where Jessup used to claw at it. But Jessup died last year. The oldest dog in the world. I’m not supposed to go into the basement, but before I realize what I’ve done, I’m already on the stairs. Not even aware of it until I hear the errrt stair creak under my foot.

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.


  1. You set up family dynamics quite well. I thought the paragraph after "Still Sunday" was great because you tell us how many beers the dad's had without directly telling us and how much his gran loves him, all while letting us know he's an artist. I like the little details about the car and the girlfriend being called the nanny, but I wonder if they'd be better played coming directly from the mom. I also love the Brain stuff. I think the voice is good--he sounds like a kid. A lot of sentences start with "and" so you might want to trim some of those. I found all the ands a little distracting. I'm intrigued and would definitely read more--I want to know what's down in the basement. Great start.

  2. Hi, Merriam!

    First of all, let me say that I really enjoyed reading your pages! The voice is compelling, and easy to fall right into. I would definitely follow Westin Scott on an adventure.

    The things that stood out to me for revision are:

    1. the paragraph at the opening about the laundry has some shifts in tense that confused me and made it more difficult to slip right into the pages. the later writing is very smooth, so maybe give that a fresh pass to let the voice flow more cleanly.

    2. Driving force: what does Westin Scott want? I learn a lot about his troubles, but I'd also like to know what he wants, quite soon in the story, so that I can anticipate how he'll go about getting it. This will also add more gravity to his choice to go down into the basement, which I understand is an impulse (I have an 8yo with ADD issues), but that impulse should come from a deep wanting in the character. He has a wound: his attention issues. He must have an equally compelling WANT. Many characters spell this out for us, if you look at openings of your favorite books for examples.

    3. Backstory: your backstory details are EXCELLENT. All unique and full of voice. But I would be careful that you're not cataloguing the kid's whole life in one opening scene. Is he really thinking ALL of these things right now? Or should some of the details (about the father's car and Nanny) be saved for when they are more relevant to the scene? The back story bits add richness, and if your character is truly thinking them, we should see them. But that is perhaps one area you can save space in your opening for establishing your character's driving desires.

    4. Father's characterization. I feel like he's a bit out of central casting for "bad father." Are there some more unique habits or details he could have that would show his specific character more clearly? Unique traits? Habits? Trinkets he keeps on his body that he values over his kid? I think delving into his person a bit more will eliminate the odor of cliche in both his depiction and dialogue.

    5. Genre: I notice that you have light fantasy as your genre. Even if this fantasy element enters a contemporary setting, there should be some flavor of fantasy in the opening somewhere. His perceptions of his grandmother's house, his characterization of other people...BREADCRUMBS is an excellent example of this in MG. Anne Ursu creates a magical setting that forebodes real magic in the story. I think it's essential if we aren't entering directly into the fantasy action. I'm curious to know where the story goes from a plot standpoint, as your writing is well on it's way.

    6. A small detail: I would also title the opening scene "SUNDAY". That way, "STILL SUNDAY" is an even more effective punchline. It made me laugh. I like that. Let your humor shine!

    Thanks for sharing and best of luck!


  3. Hi Merriam!

    I love the idea of this impulsive kid as a MC for a contemporary fantasy. He feels like the kind of kid who would go on an adventure on a whim, which I get the feeling his trip to the basement will be. I would like to see some hint that there are magical happenings going on faster, though--somewhere in the first couple of paragraphs. Just a hint that Grandma's house is the sort of place where magical basement adventures might happen.

    I love the details in the backstory too, but I'd also liked to see them a little more spread out. You've got a whole book to let us get to know West. You don't need to tell us everything in the first pages.

    I also noticed a couple tense issues in the second paragraph--just something to be aware of and clean up.

  4. Hi Merriam,

    I really like the way you show us West acting without conscious thought -- rather than telling us his diagnosis. I loved the line 'that part of my Brain is on vacation...' When he thinks about his 'former friends', perhaps let us know how he feels about this? Of if he has some grand plan to make things right -- or has already tried and failed.

    I loved the tone of the piece and great lines and phrases like '...the errt stair creak' and 'the Evidence' -- they really bring the moments to life in a fresh way. I definitely want to know what's in the basement.

    - Peggy

  5. I think this is interesting, and if you controlled it in just the right way, could be successful. But I think you'd really need to CONTROL it, and make sure that any extra words are cut. Because of the nature of the Brain -- and the rambly narrator -- this could get exhausting for readers to read. So that's what I mean by making sure you have used just the right words and nothing more, and that you ultimately remain into control of the narration. Does that make sense? I hope so!

    There are a couple of things I would suggest:
    Only use words that count. For example, you've got "I’m at Grandma’s house." <<Uh, yeah. We've established that. I don't know why you're telling me too. Or again. Is this part of the character, or...? I would suggest that these types of things aren't allowed to become part of the character. It'll stilt the flow of the plot, I think.

    Same with this: "I’m sort of good at art." <<This feels like telling, and I'd rather see the magnificence on the fridge. Does West think his art is good? That's the really telling part -- whether he sees the goodness in it, or is he picking it apart? You know, us creative types tend to do that... Ha!

    I'm sort of surprised West doesn't have art stuff with him all the time. Like in a backpack or something.

    I'm not sure I like him commenting on what other people think. It's what HE THINKS other people think, right? I think that should be really apparent. Like when he says his dad thinks he's a screw-up. He doesn't KNOW that's what his dad is thinking -- unless this is the magical realism part of it... -- so I think you should be really clear about WHY he thinks the things he does. I mean, he's cognitive of what his brain is doing (he thinks it would be fun to cut sheets instead of comics; he knows his brain doesn't work right, that it goes on vacation), so I think he can give us reasons why he thinks what he does -- and how it makes him feel. If his dad is rolling his eyes or saying things like, "You're her problem now," how does that make West feel?

    Hope this helps!

  6. Hello Merrium! I LOVE that you're writing about an impulsive, very busy kid. <3 I'm a former special ed teacher and these kids need more books reflecting their struggles and reminding them about the fabulous parts of who they are.

    The first thing that came to mind when I was reading about cutting the sheet, was that you gave a very appropriate response. "I don't know." And that's what a lot of impulsive folks say. But I also think you did a great job of showing the impulsivity. I even wanted you to stay there in that moment for just a little longer. Spend a little time describing the impulse without explaining it. It's a multi sensory moment in my opinion and a unique perspective. A good example of this is in Sharon Draper's OUT OF MY MIND. The MC is in a wheelchair and communication for her is very difficult. When emotions overwhelm her she has these fits. I'm not sure she completely knows why she loses control, but the description of it brings us intimately into her world. If you can do that, it will be a strength in your writing.

    For the rest of your writing sample, you would be well served by spreading out your backstory and using more dialogue/action as the vehicle for the backstory you are injecting.

    You should also tighten your word choice--I say this as a very wordy soul myself. I rarely have to add anything, instead I have to go through with a hacksaw and tighten my thoughts and words. A lot. The more you do it, the more you will begin to do it automatically. Flex that muscle often.

    Here is a small example of how you can bring your backstory into the present dialogue and action...

    You wrote: Grandma is short, chubby and probably the nicest woman on the planet. I’m not that tall for twelve, just normal. But I already tower over Grandma. She loves to squeeze me into her chubby chest whenever she sees me, which is every other Sunday. I pretend I don’t like it, because I’m a boy and I’m not supposed to like hugs anymore, but really I do. She and Mom are where I get my hugs. Even though Grandma is so nice to me—she always gives me a bag full of homemade sugar cookies when I leave—she won’t talk to Mom when she picks me up. At all. I don’t get it. If I can still love my Mom and Dad both the same after the divorce, why can’t Grandma love them both too?


    Grandma is short, chubby and probably the nicest woman on the planet. Maybe the strongest, too.

    "Stop squeezing me so tight." I gasp.

    "Twelve year old boys are meant to be squeezed," Grandma says, pulling me tighter to her chubby chest. Every other Sunday when I come to visit, I'm more and more grateful that I'm taller than her. At least now my nose is only squished into her silver curls, but since they smell like my favorite sugar cookies, there's no way I'm going to tell her to stop. Besides, once the commercial is over, she'll rush back to the couch next to Dad...


    Please don't think I'm telling you to write it THAT way--I simply find it very helpful when people give me an example of what they are asking me to do.

    This is definitely a project worth working on. Be sure to read other books in MG light fantasy and books like OUT OF MY MIND to help you to see what works and how to do it. Being super well read in your area will be like taking a master class. Good luck--can't wait to read more.

  7. Merriam,

    I am so drawn into Westin's world! I get a very clear idea of his behavior and how he feels about it. I love the sheet cutting scene because it played just like I imagine Westin's brain experienced it.

    I agree that a slight suggestion of magic early on will help ramp up the anticipation when Westin descends those stairs.

    Keep it up.