Monday, March 10, 2014

1st 5 Pages March Workshop - Schafer Rev 1

Name: Jennifer Schafer
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary

I thought it was hard to return from a month unplugged at summer camp to find Dad had put our early 1900’s brick two-story up for sale. It’s worse, a month later to watch the new family move in.

“Bits, you are a true glutton for punishment,” my best friend Zoe says, parked beside me on the bottom step of her front porch. Across the street, a crew of movers unload the new neighbor’s furniture.

The new family looks perfect. The professionals leave in the super-sized truck and the mom and dad work together with practiced communication to back a smaller moving truck into the drive. They tease, they get it done. There’s an intense knowledge of the other, an awareness of the other’s place in their little microcosm.

“They remind me of your parents,” I say.

Zoe focuses on the couple as the dad jumps out of the truck and gives his wife a feet-off-the-ground hug. “Yeah.” Her reply comes warm and smiley. “They kind of do.”

I’m glad the rest of Zoe’s family have other places to be. I love all seven Donahues, but right now I wish I had a mom to pair with my dad in my house across the street.

The dad swats the mom on the butt in passing. She laughs and pays him in kind. A late model SUV parks in the street and a young teen girl appears from the passenger seat.

“Hands to self, children.” The daughter comments with the inflection of an eye roll.

The driver of the SUV lifts the rear gate and calls to the girl. “Hey Brooke, come help me with these clothes.”

“Oh. My. God.” Zoe nearly chokes on her gum. “Is that Chase Dobson?”

Can’t Catch Me Chase Dobson, star running back of our high school’s state champion football team. Straight No Chaser, party every weekend. It’s All About the Chase, no girlfriend just an entourage wherever he and his teammates congregate.

“Where’s the Cro-Magnon Clan?” Zoe pops her gum. “You’d think they’d jump at the chance to show off their brute strength.”

“Football practice maybe?”

Zoe’s eyes stick to Chase’s solid six foot frame as he loads clothing on hangers into his sister’s arms. “What a weird thing to do, move your senior year. It can’t have been far. They’ve lived near the golf course as long as I can remember.”

“Weird to move eight blocks with your dad to a tiny apartment your senior year, too.”
“Oh, Bits.” Zoe throws an arm over my shoulder and minty breath across my nose. “It’s not weird when your dad loses his job and spends three solid months on the wrong end of every interview.” She gives me a squeeze and releases me. “What I meant was, I just wonder what changed for Mr. All-American over there for the change in scenery.”

“Not that you mind.” I give her a sly smile. “The change in scenery.”

She bumps her shoulder into mine, a flush deepens the natural rose on her cheeks. “Hard not to appreciate a fine form, my friend.”

Brooke waddles under her load into her house. Chase fills his arms but not before a large, black coat slips onto the ground.

“Hey, Mom.” He calls. “I dropped my coat. Can you grab it?” He leans his head to indicate the coat. “My hands are full.”

“Sure, honey.” Mrs. Dobson appears out of the back of the moving van parked in the driveway and walks toward the SUV. She bends to pick up the letter jacket laying partially open on the ground. Bent halfway, she hesitates, then lifts the coat as if it might bite her. She braces herself against the vehicle with the other hand and slowly collapses onto the bumper. The coat swings around, with the back toward me and Zoe. A sob catches in Mrs. Dobson’s throat. Zoe and I catch our breaths.

Stitched in two-inch high, all caps across the back of the wool and leather jacket is the name MITCHELL.

“Oh, my God. I forgot.” Zoe whispers from behind her hand.

“Me too.”

Across the street, Mr. Dobson trots toward his wife and folds her into his embrace.

“That’s awkward.” Zoe pulls her knees to her chest, hunched forward.

I can’t pull my eyes away from Chase’s parents and the silent conversation between them, in the way he ducks his head to look her in the eye, the way she grips his shirt at the small of his back, the gentle kiss he plants on her cheek, and the quiet way he releases the coat from her hand.

“Mom?” The daughter appears on the front porch. She spies them together next to the car. “Dad?”

The parents break apart, both wiping at their eyes. Mrs. Dobson trudges up the driveway, lays an arm over her daughter’s shoulder and they disappear into the house.

Chase steps onto the front porch of the house. “What’s next, Dad?”

Mr. Dobson turns the coat wrong side out, shapes it over the hanger, and tosses it into the back of the car.

“Dad? What are you do—”

The loud engine of a pizza delivery truck cuts off Chase. The driver meets Mr. Dobson at the bumper of the SUV. Chase trots down the drive and receives the pizzas while his dad fishes in a back pocket for his wallet.

My stomach growls in response to the scent of warm bread and spiced tomatoes. Zoe and I both jump when her phone erupts with Darth Vader’s Imperial March.

“Not sure they heard that two blocks over,” I say.

She ignores me and answers her phone. “Hey, Dad.” Her tone belies the obvious distress we just witnessed.

Chase and his Dad now realize they have an audience. I duck from Chase’s shocked stare and review recent texts on my own phone.

Zoe stands and walks up the porch stairs as she answers her dad’s questions. “Five-thirty. Yeah, I guess. She said Rachel’s appointment should end in time. No, they’re at the Robinson’s. I’m supposed to grill hamburgers. Uh, huh. Okay. You too. Bye.”

Only when the pizza truck backfires and accelerates down the block do I raise my head. Across the street, Chase glances over his shoulder before he follows his dad inside the house.

“Okay.” Zoe finishes a text and slides her phone into her back pocket. “So, I gotta go make dinner. You want to stay?”

“No thanks.” I stand and brush dust from my seat. “That’s all right. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“You’re sure?” Zoe’s forehead crinkles. “You look like you need a dose of Donahue madness.”

“I’m sure.” Today, Mrs. Donahue’s customary greeting, a quick kiss on the forehead that marks the recipient as treasured, will only make me miss more the mother I have never known.

My best friend gives me a hug, releases me, then returns to place a peck at my temple before she disappears into her house. Dishes clunk on the counter and the sound of silverware clinks through the open window. I force myself to breathe in through my nose and out my mouth to keep my heart in my chest.

I should go home, march the eight blocks in the warm afternoon sunshine. My legs itch to run. Eight blocks isn’t far. I balked at Zoe’s invitation to join her family for dinner, yet an inexplicable desire to observe Chase and his family pins me in place.


  1. Wow. You clearly put some thought into this revision. And it's so clear that you know your characters (even their backstories) very well. I think you're closer to a starting point here but there are a couple of hiccups in this draft all the same. I'm going to paint in broad strokes here because I still kind of feel like you're writing your way into the plot. This is a good way to get started--and a way lots of authors use--but it still needs revision to get to full-fledged, brilliant novel opening. The main problem that I see right now is that the main character (Bits) is predominantly an observer in this chapter, not the main actor. She watches and describes the move of another family (dealing with loss of someone named "Mitchell"?), opts out of dinner with her best friends family, and stays to further observe Chase. What I still don't know is why I should care about Bits. What does she WANT in life? What is her main problem (not her living situation but her ACTIONABLE problem)? Is her mom dead? Missing? Estranged? Why is it so important that we observe the tenderness between Chase's parents in terms of how it relates to Bits? On a subtler level, sometimes I feel a disconnect between what Bits is describing about people versus what she is interpreting (e.g., Chase sounds like a partying jerk but he is totally polite to his sister and there helping with the move; Zoe's family sounds great but her phone chat (not sure this is a good device here) with her dad sounds a bit sullen). You've got a lot of solid material here, but I'm still feeling like the action is missing. What is the plot (one sentence) of your story? My advice would be to try writing an action scene related to your plot (e.g., (and I'm just making this up) Bits sneaking out of the house to hook up with Chase; Zoe and Bits going secretly online to email Bits's mother...). I recognize that contemporary YA leaves a little bit more leeway for character exploration and literary elements but readers still want story first. Try reading something by Miranda Kenneally or Robin LaFevers to get a good sense of how to blend character development with a strong early plot hook. Good luck with your next revision!

  2. Stasia did such a great job, I don't have much more to add but that I agree with what she says. I think starting here is better than the old start, but it is still a bit jerky in places and reads like a play-by-play of what's happening across the street. Maybe you could back the beginning up even a few minutes as the two friends sit on the porch, give us some dialogue about why we should care about them, and then the moving truck pulls up. So it is a natural shift of the focus from them to the new family, but we now care about the characters. Also, there were a couple of sentences: the one where she says "I'm glad all seven Donahues had somewhere to be, but I wish my mom were here..." or something like that - I didn't understand how the two thoughts connected. The "her eyes stuck" descriptor - maybe her gaze stuck? Since eyes can't actually stick - some people don't mind that, others do. Great next step, eager to read where you go with it.

  3. Hi Jennifer,

    The story feels like it's opening in the right place now. I did wonder if a teenager looking at a house that was recently her home would describe it as "early 1900 brick two-story" rather than 'home/house'?

    There were a few places where I thought the dialogue could be made a bit more natural -- the lack of contractions in one of Zoe's first comments jumped out at me. Also, Zoe's "it's not weird" line felt more like an info dump than dialogue. Perhaps save some of the information about Bits' dad and his job search to drip in later? The other section of dialogue that hit an off note was after Bits says "No thanks" etc she then says "That's all right." -- which doesn't seem to relate to anything.

    I'm not sure the "an intense knowledge" description of the Donahue parents works -- that seems a hard thing for Bits to glean about their relationship while watching them from across the street.

    I thought you did a good job folding in information -- like the fact there are seven Donahues, that Bits doesn't have a mom, that Chase is good looking and hangs out with a bunch of meatheads.

    Suggest a small change here: "Brooke waddles under her load into (her) the house." It seemed too soon for Bits to think 'her house' with regard to Brooke -- unless making a conscious effort.

    Typo: Need a comma instead of a period here: "Hey, Mom(.)," (H)he calls.

    Good job using the dropped coat to show us the 'perfect' Dobson family has its own scars and losses to cope with.

    Great line: "...breathe in through my nose and out my mouth to keep my heart in my chest."

    I want to know what happens next.

  4. I like that it starts with the new family moving in now. I kept tripping over the very first sentence. Instead of 1900s brick, it might make it more significant to say something like the only home I've ever known, or something like that, something a bit more emotional than the architectural aspects of the house. I really liked that you're seeing the jock from school in his family situation with his parents. When the girls wonder about the cro-magnon clan (which I love by the way) perhaps you should have one of them point out the difference in Chase's persona when he's with his family vs. the jocks. I loved the fallen jacket and the mystery/sadness surrounding it.

    I think the biggest question I had after reading this is why exactly Bits is feeling the absence of a mother she's never known so acutely in this moment. Is it because her father is a mess and she wants someone to lean on or figure things out? I feel like the mother stuff is a little forced right now. I thought it was good to mention Mrs. Donahue and her standard kiss, because it gives a small detail that tells us lots about the family. But, I think the mention of Bits' own mother needs to be smoother. I think this is a good step in the right direction. I can't wait to read the next revision.

  5. Hi Jennifer!

    Stasia gave you some really great advice, so I'm not going to repeat any of it except that I agree with her.

    I feel like I have a much different picture of Bits based on this opener than the last--there's some conflict there that I'm finding really interesting, like the idea that she's looking at this family with envy even as they're mourning what I'm assuming is the loss of a son. I don't know how sympathetic that makes her, but it's interesting.

  6. Hi! Sorry I'm late to comment. I think your revision is great! I do think you're starting in a better place. You need to watch out for too much info dump in the dialogue between the two BFFs. They already know each other's situations. You have to hint, just like you do with the jacket! Nice. I think you might get a little bogged down in details too. Maybe too much play by play about the people she's watching as opposed to focusing on your MC. Hard in this situation, I know. But try focusing more on her own internal dialogue and feelings - for instance her stomach's reaction to the pizza. Great detail!

    Too many "Chase"s in this paragraph. It got confusing. Eliminate at least one sentence I think: Can’t Catch Me Chase Dobson, star running back of our high school’s state champion football team. Straight No Chaser, party every weekend. It’s All About the Chase, no girlfriend just an entourage wherever he and his teammates congregate.

    Do a pass for lingo that doesn't fit teen perspective. Things like "a flush deepens the natural rose on her cheeks" may or may not show your MC's personality. These spots are the perfect opportunity to showcase her unique voice. How she describes things, etc. The line about her mom for another example. It could be more like, "Still, I wish it was still our house. It would be if I had a mom." IDK that's too cliche, you can do better!

    But overall I really like it!