Monday, March 17, 2014

1st 5 Pages March Workshop - Schafer Rev 2

Name: Jennifer Schafer
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary

My favorite family photo was snapped by a night nurse. She nearly cut off my dad’s head in her off-kilter focus. No matter. The absolute adoration on his face for the tufty-haired bundle in his arms transcends the two dimensional. I’ve felt nothing less in the seventeen years since, despite the woman who bore me and disappeared without the first glance.

Her absence made honorary membership in my best friend’s two-parent, five-child family quite natural. Hence, my presence as designated photographer at the Donohue family reunion, and the reason Zoe and I sit side by side this afternoon on her screened porch with my Canon EOS DSLR camera connected to her laptop.

“You’re a real pro, Bits,” Zoe says as she scrolls through the images. “I love this one of my grandparents.” She grins. “I can hear their laughter.”

“Thanks. I’ll pick a dozen or so for my AP portfolio. Your family won’t mind, will they?”

“Are you kidding? They love you.” She pauses and clicks. Several images overlap on the screen of a tall, lanky teen on a grass volleyball court. “And I’d say you have a thing for my cousin.” Her raised eyebrow dares me to contradict her.

“If you notice,” I reach for the touch pad, and she blocks me. “I took pictures of everyone at that game.”

“Um, hmm.” She continues to preview the photos.

A low rumble up the street diverts our attention. A large moving truck pulls in front of Zoe’s house and backs into the driveway across the street.

“Uh, oh.” Zoe reaches for my hand. “Let’s go inside.”

My dad lost his job five months ago. Twelve weeks of dead end interviews sapped his confidence, and he put our home up for sale. Today, the new family moves in.

“Bits, come on.” Zoe moves the laptop to the chair next to her. “Don’t be morbid.” She stands and tugs on my arm.

On my feet, I shake her off and move toward the half wall of the porch. My fingers itch for my camera. A crew of movers unload the new neighbor’s furniture. I frame the scene in my mind’s eye.

“I could totally use this for Photo.” I say more to myself than my friend.

I’m not a stalker. Really. I always ask permission before I take pictures of strangers. When I explain about my Advanced Placement Photo project on families, people are usually happy to help. Especially when I produce an Elizabeth Callahan, photographer business card and offer them access to the JPEGs.

Zoe disconnects my camera, snaps her laptop closed, and moves next to me. She holds her hands to frame the scene across the street, one eye squinted closed. “If you say so. All I see are a bunch of sweaty guys in baggy pants who need to shave.”

The small army of professionals empty the super-sized truck in about half an hour. A man and a woman arrive and work together with practiced communication to back a smaller moving truck into the drive. Each imagined photo I take captures the undercurrent of excitement in their conversation. They tease, they get it done.

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

The man 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.”

The dad swats the mom on the butt in passing. She laughs and pays him in kind. My heart makes a sudden and very violent U-turn. So stupid that something nonexistent, like the four molars I never grew, can hit a nerve. My mother’s absence sucks at my soul like a piece of space dust into a black hole. Right now I want nothing more than my own mom to partner with my dad. I bet I’d still live across the street.

“Earth to bits.” Zoe hangs my camera around my neck. “Are you going over there or what?”

A late model SUV parks in the street and a young teen girl appears from the passenger seat.

“Hands to self, children.” The girl 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 surprise. “Is that Chase Dobson?”

No way can I go over there now.

Chase Dobson, can’t catch me star running back. Straight no chaser, party every weekend. All about the chase, no girlfriend just an entourage wherever he and his teammates congregate.

“Where’s the Cro-Magnon Clan?” Zoe scans up and down the street. “You’d think they’d jump at the chance to show off their brute strength.”

“Football practice maybe?”

Zoe’s gaze sticks to Chase’s solid six foot frame as he loads clothing on hangers into his sister’s arms. Brooke waddles under her load into my—her house.

“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 your senior year eight blocks with your dad to a tiny apartment, too.”

“Not when your dad spends three solid months on the wrong end of every interview.” Zoe throws an arm over my shoulder. The scent of her strawberry lip gloss tickles my nose. “I just wondered what caused Mr. All-American’s change in scenery.”

“Not that you mind.” I give her a sly smile. “The view.”

She squeezes me close, the natural rose on her cheek spreads. “Hard not to appreciate a fine form, my friend. You’ve got to go over there. Now.”

She releases me toward the stairs, but I resist.

“I don’t know.” Chase Dobson? It’s one thing to follow him on the football field with my camera for the school newspaper, another entirely to invade his family, regardless of the photographic possibilities.

“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Zoe moves around to get in my face. Her voice gains volume, so much so I’m afraid she’ll blow our cover. “This is a perfect opportunity.” She flings one arm toward the boy voted least likely to notice my existence. “Look how human he acts without the rest of the team around.”

Chase gathers a closet full of clothes to his chest, but not before a large, black coat slips to 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.”

Mrs. Dobson appears out of the back of the moving van parked in the driveway and walks toward the SUV. “Sure, honey.”

“Thanks.” Chase strides after his sister.

His mom bends to pick up the letter jacket laying partially open on the ground. Crouched 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 escapes Mrs. Dobson’s throat. In unison, 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,” Zoe whispers from behind her hand. “I forgot.”

“Me too.”

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

Zoe hugs herself as she turns away.


  1. Oh, I love your new opening! Grounds us a little in who she and her friend are, what's important to her, where she came from without too much backstory. I love that your opening sentence is about a photo, when clearly photography is important to her. I think this new opening works well.
    A couple of observations: I couldn't quite place what was happening with the couple backing the truck into the driveway. If wife is standing in driveway waving him in, maybe clarify?
    Next dialogue after that, you write "her reply" - wasn't sure if her was Mom or Zoe at first, so maybe write "Zoe's reply"
    Perhaps put the (wonderful) "So stupid that something..." sentence after the one that follows, to give us a context for what that something is. Because it is a wonderful sentiment.
    Hyphen: Can't-catch-me
    The "Weird to move your senior year..." sentence is worded awkwardly. Maybe "Hmm, you mean weird like moving eight blocks to a tiny apartment senior year is weird?" or something playful.
    Just small picky things - overall I really like it, I feel for her and I would read on. Nice work!

  2. I like the new opening. I was wondering if the opening might work better if her baby photo is her screen shot and we learn of the picture that way, so it's physically in the scene. It would show how fond she is of her dad and would be a natural lead-in to talking about it. Zoe could comment on what a cute baby she was, etc. And then launch into the stuff about the mom.

    I love the back and forth with Zoe and Bits. Since she's such a part of the Donahue family, when she asks if they'd mind her using the photos for her portfolio, it could show the closeness she shares with them if Zoe says something like, "Are you kidding? There's a reason you've been dubbed the sixth Donahue kid." Instead of "They love you." If you put little familiar things like that it could go a long way to showing how close she is with them. When I was young, I could stroll right into my best friend's house without knocking, help myself to food and was expected to help set the table for dinner--because I was part of the family. You know?

    I think the Chase scene reads more smoothly. I love the line about how human his behavior without the team around. I want to know more about the jacket! I want to know why they moved! Great job on the rewrite. I would definitely keep reading.

  3. Much, much better. The scene feels more organic and we get to know Bits through something important to her: photography. And I'm liking Bits more-and-more. She feels resourceful (adopting herself a family; making her own business card) and clearly has such love for her dad. This is beginning to click. That said, I think there's still some more tweaking to make this a stellar first-five. The description/dialogue about Zoe's and Chase's families still feels a bit heavy-handed. We don't need all this to see Bits is jealous of these groups and, as a YA ms, the marriage relationships between adults usually function as indirect or secondary plot elements so they should not take up so much page space right away. The key points that I think you establish well for the Dobson family are that they've just moved into Bits's old house; they've obviously suffered some grief; and Chase is a hot goon. The one difficulty here is that we're again moving away from BITS as the focus on the ms. Perhaps the fix would be to delve a bit into what BITS thinks of Chase. She and Chase have gone to the same school forever so they must have some relationship anchor, some memorable anecdote or an explanation of why Bits would/would not be attracted to him...? As a YA reader, I'd want to know that a lot more than about how his dad pats his mom on the butt. Also, the dramatic turn at the end of the chapter is VERY strong and so worthy of a close look. We get Dobson family grief as well as Zoe hugging herself and turning away. But what about our mc, BITS? What is her reaction? What will she do next? Is she steeling herself to cross the street or will she follow Zoe? Maybe capping the chapter with this information will tighten it and make readers even more driven to turn the page to follow her. Finally, REREADING this epic comment I have just written, I am worried it feels more critical than it should. Each revision you do gets stronger and it's so clear that you are working your material and that you have a build--a story planned in your mind. My suggestion to you, since I feel like you're really solid on your characters' backstory, would be to drive forward into the next few chapters and let the opening pages stand as-is until you've gone a good 100 pages or more and so you can return with a strong sense of how the novel is going to do a final hone-down for nonessential "bits" (heehee--pun there!). Keep up the good, hard work and thanks for sharing!

  4. I like the photography angle! I think this introduction to that aspect of Bits works a lot better than the mention of photography camp from the first version. It feels very organic, and I actually really like the way it plays with Bits as an observer. She doesn't take a photo of the Dobsons, but the whole thing feels subtly active when you know that Bits is creates while she. (That came out really confusingly, but mostly what I'm saying is that I think it works.)

    I agree with Stasia, though--you can make the whole thing if you focus more on Bits and less on Zoe, because right now it feels a little like the reader is watching Bits watch Zoe watch the Dobsons move in right when the big emotional hit comes.

    Great job, though! You've improved the scene so much. I'm super impressed!

  5. I apologize for posting so late in the day. I, too, like the rewrite and this new opening. This is an incredibly picky point -- and no one else mentioned it so feel free to ignore it! -- but would it work for you to simply say 'nurse' rather than 'night nurse' in the opening line? Is this detail important? It kind of distracted me and pulled focus, as it were, from the point of the sentence.

    I think Bits being there with her camera provides a nice springboard for watching the Dobson family move into her old house. I think the information about Bits and her dad moving out feels like an organic part of the story now. Bits and Zoe's friendship feels real to me, like they share history. The part while Bits is watching Zoe watching Chase felt a little removed and I would've liked to hear what Bits thinks of Chase. I still love the detail of Mitchell's coat falling and the Dobson mother's collapse.

    Looks like the start of a great story.

  6. Thank you, everyone. I appreciate your time and comments. This has been so very helpful.