Monday, March 3, 2014

1st 5 Pages March Workshop - Schafer

Name: Jennifer Schafer
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary

Here’s the God-awful truth. All men, as in Homo sapiens, are not created equal.

If that were true, we would all have mothers who loved us from the moment of inception. We would all have two parents who loved each other. We would all have x number of siblings who we loved despite endearingly annoying habits.

We would also all actually be men, as in male, to be created exactly equal, and that would take care of the whole procreation thing. And God created Adam, and Adam, and they sat around in the garden of Eden full of multiple identical versions of grass, trees and birds. They stared at each other, really themselves, and thought, “Well, this is pretty boring. Same-o, same-o. How about a little variety.”

Which leads to me, who was not loved by the woman in whose womb I started life seventeen years ago, and my best friend Zoe whose mother loved her so much, went on to have four more just as lovable as the first.

Rationally, I can’t miss something I never had. However, that missing piece sure upsets my balance at moments of glaring disparity, notably holidays and school functions that revolve around parental cheerleading.

Or this morning, when I meet Dad at breakfast, disheveled, sleep deprived, and in his sweats instead of dressed and pressed for work. Only the giant mug of coffee between his hands speaks of normal.

“Good morning, baby girl.”

That’s normal, too. He’ll probably call me that when he’s eighty and I’m fifty. Except, the usual routine calls for me in the pajamas, not dressed and ready to meet the day head-on.

I drop my camera bag packed for camp just inside the entry to the kitchen and make a bee-line for the refrigerator. Dad has his coffee, I require orange juice.

“Are you feeling okay?” I retrieve the plastic jug of juice and move to the cupboard for a glass.

“I’ve been better.” His voice sounds rough and sad.

“Should I wait to leave, Dad? I don’t have to go today. Early arrival is completely optional.”

Though, Zoe might be a little perturbed if I backed out after I persuaded her to go early with me. It’s already nerdy to spend a month at an academic summer camp, she argued, why show up for the voluntary prep session? Then her two youngest brothers dog-piled her.

“No, Bits. No need to change your plans.” Dad forces his mouth into a semblance of a smile.

I sit across from him and jostle the antique wooden table. Ripples cross the surface of the brown liquid in his full cup. No steam, no morning bouquet of fresh roast.

“How long have you been sitting here?” I ignore my juice and focus on his tired face.

He glances at his watch, then out the sunny picture window to his left. “A while, I guess.”

“You didn’t overdo it, out with the guys last night, did you?”

At least, I assume he was with his friends when he called last night to say he was going out after work. He’s very hard to read this morning.

“No,” he runs the long fingers of one hand through his short, salt and pepper hair. “Was by myself.” His hand forms a fist at the top of his head and he lets out a soft snort. “Might have overdone it though.”

"Have you called in sick?”


The sudden, sarcastic, bark of a laugh surprises me.

“I lost my job yesterday.”

My stomach swallows my heart whole. “You were fired?”

“I’ve told you about my boss, right?” He leans into the table, his gray-blue eyes locked onto their likeness in my face.

I nod. “The one who should be fired for sexual harassment?”

“Bits,” he says in his normal, fatherly behave-yourself tone. “She’s my boss. Or she was.”

“Dad.” I can’t keep the plea out of my voice. No one, male or female, should get away with her management tactics.

“And you know I applied for a position in another department?”

“Yes.” At my suggestion.

"She recommended Karl for the job.”

“The football junkie in the office next to you?”

A gray, pained expression passes over Dad’s features. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It doesn’t matter?” I repeat in the same dead tone, with an added flavor of bitterness. “You know she refused to promote you because you wouldn’t—”

“I don’t know.” Dad cuts me off, a bit of color returns to his face. He leans back in his chair with an exhausted sigh. “And neither do you.”

“So, she fired you instead?” Thoughts flare in my brain, hot with anger. Why won’t he stand up for himself?

“Not exactly.” He hedges, one finger and thumb pressed at the bridge of his nose. “They gave me three months severance.”

“What does that even mean?” I breathe through my nose to cool my head.

“I have a little time to find something else.” He drops his hand to his lap, but squeezes his eyes shut a moment before he meets my gaze. The lines around his eyes deepen. “We’ll be okay.”

With my mental viewfinder, I see him through a mixed filter of my little-girl love and his middle-age.


I know he’s serious when he uses my given name.

“You know we’ll be okay, don’t you?”

“Yeah.” I force the corners of my mouth to rise. “We’ve always been okay.”

I love my dad, but I also know him. As contradictory as it sounds, he has the brains for degrees in both business and piano performance, but has the self-confidence of a shadow. He couldn’t sell water to a thirsty man. After fifteen years at the same company, how will he find another job?

If he had a wife, if I had a mom, she could help him carry the burden, even lessen the burden, aimed directly at me.

* * *

I thought it was hard to return from a month unplugged at camp to find Dad had put our early 1900’s brick two-story up for sale. It’s worse, another month later to watch the new family move in. Zoe thinks I’m a glutton for punishment, parked on the bottom step of her front porch across the street while a crew of movers unload the new neighbor’s furniture.

The new family looks perfect. The professionals leave in the super-sized truck and 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. A late model SUV parks in the street and a teenage girl appears from the passenger seat. The Dad swats Mom on the butt in passing. She laughs and pays him in kind.

“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.


  1. Clearly you are a good writer! I think with a little work this can be amazing. Honestly, as is, you don't really get to the meat of it right away, so I'D say the start is actually sitting on the stoop, watching the new family move in. I know we like to avoid flashbacks, but I'd say the conversation with her dad can be chopped up into flashes of memory and interspersed IF needed. I'd rather explore her feelings in this very different circumstance. Not many people actually see others move in their old house. This way we can also meet her friend and the boy you bring up in the end of this won't feel like another tick in a list you are getting out. It will feel a bit more included and natural. If you don't decide to do this, I'd definitely recommend cutting back on the first couple of paragraphs in which there is no scene yet, and cutting back on her deep seeded feelings of being unloved by her mother. Obviously it is important, but I think one mention at this point is enough. Anyway, I really do like your writing and your MC and hope I've been able to help!

  2. The voice in this is great. I think the all-men-not-created equal thing could be trimmed. It's got a nice snarky touch to it, but it goes on a little long. I also think you could shorten the scene with her dad or move it or thread it through when she's sitting on the stairs watching someone else (and not just anyone--but the school sports champ) move into her house. I think that would be a crazy compelling opening. If I picked up a book and the first line was the main character morbidly watching someone move into her house, I would definitely want to read more. I like the back and forth with the daughter and the dad and how he calls her Bits, I just think you could work that in a bit later. Great start! This sounds like a lot of fun.

  3. Hi Jennifer!

    I like the relationship you set up between Elizabeth and her dad--there's real concern there that's good to see. I think I agree that the conversation goes on long--it feels to me like your story starts with Chase moving into her old house, and I'm sure we'll have plenty of opportunities to see Elizabeth and her dad together throughout the book.

    I think, with all the anger at her mother, I'd like to see something a little more about why she's angry--if she left, I'd like to know about it specifically, or if Elizabeth doesn't know exactly what happened, I'd like to know about that, too. If it's just blind resentment, it's hard to connect with the character because she's keeping this thing from the reader that she clearly has strong feelings about.

  4. I like your writing style and I think your MC's voice is clear. I'm going to go with everyone else here that it felt like the story should begin with her on the front steps watching the new family move in. I think you can weave the details you presented in Chapt. 1 into that scene. I was not as grabbed by the first chapter, since it was more of her reaction to what's happened to her Dad rather than something that's happened to her (although I get it's related, just not directly enough for me to care). Also, left wondering whether Mom took off, or is still around and just unloving. I didn't necessarily need to know immediately, but just so you know it is what I'm wondering. And when you describe her watching the new family, you mention Mom and Dad, and I had to re-read as I wasn't sure if you meant her Mom and Dad or the new family's Mom/Dad. Could just be me. Easily fixable by saying "the" Mom & Dad, so I know it isn't hers. The only other question that came up for me was that if Chase is so popular, wouldn't she recognize his sister? Maybe not, but I wonder if when someone is that popular, his siblings, especially if they are in same high school, are known as well. This could be easily addressed (maybe she's a lot younger, keeps a low profile, went to a different school), but wanted to let you know I wondered about it. I'm intrigued and curious to see where the story goes.

  5. Okay, so there are some good things here. I actually love the description of the dad being at the table, and the only normal thing is the coffee cup between his hands.

    I, too, think that the story should start on Zoe's front step. I think all the stuff with the dad losing his job -- and her photography camp! You totally skipped over that, and I was anticipating it! -- and why she doesn't have a mother could be incorporated into the plot as it unfolds.

    Remember that we do NOT need to know everything about a character's past, their motivations, etc. right up front. In fact, we don't WANT to know all that stuff. Think of making a new friend--that's what we're doing when we read your book. We learn things about people gradually, and that's what needs to happen here.

    I'd actually like to see you SLOW DOWN, and really show me what Bits is seeing and feeling as the new family moves in. You can weave in how she's feeling about her dad too, while she's watching, AND her mom--because I am also interested to find out where she is.

    Hope this helps!

  6. Hi Jennifer,

    What a great premise -- watching the high school heart throb move into what was recently her home. The opening felt too much in the character's head for me -- though I liked the idea. Perhaps some of Bit's philosophy can be dripped in later -- or through dialogue with her friend Zoe? I liked the detail about her camera, so we know there's something she's passionate about. And, though I don't need to know why the mom's gone at the outset, I'm curious. Knowing the why would help the reader understand Bit's feelings.

    I loved the line 'My stomach swallows my heart whole.' and 'He couldn't sell water to a thirsty man.'

    I've just read the other readers' comments and think opening with the new family's moving day would be a great way to pull your readers into the story.

    - Peggy

  7. Thank you all!

    I look forward to the next round.


  8. Jen, this is really engaging! More, please!

  9. There's something lovely, humorous and fresh about your writing style. I'm with Bits (Elizabeth/baby girl) from the opening lines. She's got a wonderfully slanty and interesting POV. However, structurally, I don't feel like I am reading the kind of first page that'll make an agent/editor keep going. The material you've got here is rich, well-worded BUT in your First Five, you don't want the reader to feel like you are "writing in"--laying out elements of your story that you'll string together better later on. For your first revision, I'd try limiting the information you give AND being more selective. What is the main plot thread of the novel (does it have to do with football-god-next-door, sexual harassment in the workplace (that seems to be more a story about the Dad, not the teen, and so you could probably just say he lost his job and visit the details, surely a secondary plot at some level, later on), or another issue? Do you need the camp/packing scene or is this just a device to say that she was gone for the summer and returned to find the house sold? If so, you could probably start (as someone else suggested) with the watching-the-movers scene which feels strong, emotional, immediate.Try writing a 1-3 sentence summary of your story ("elevator pitch") to guide your first pages into setting up a solid draw for reader. Again, strong writing--looking forward to your revision!