Monday, April 7, 2014

1st 5 Pages April Workshop - Litwin

Name: Laurie Litwin
Genre: Middle Grade Contemporary
Title: Bee Stadium

Harrison Templeton has a big fat head. But it's a good thing. When I slouch in my seat behind him in seventh period Language Arts, Mrs. Cooper can't see me. At least, I don't think she can.

Today I scrunch so low, my butt isn't even on the chair.

My right knee taps with each second - thirty minutes to go. I've been waiting for-freaking-ever for this day. Or eight months, which is practically forever. The first day of baseball practice.

We have a shot at making it all the way to the Little League World Series in Williamsport this year. That would be the most awesome thing ever. Well, not as awesome as A Rod showing up at my house. But still awesome.

I peer two inches to the right, around Harrison's watermelon head. His hair is sticking straight out on one side, like he battled with the hair gel and lost.

"Can anyone tell me from what point of view the Red Badge of Courage is written?" Mrs. Cooper asks, pacing in front of the white board wielding a dry erase marker like a bayonet.

I hate this book. I'd rather eat moldy broccoli than read this book.

I don’t understand why we can’t read something cool. Like The Boy Who Saved Baseball or The Wild Pitch. Now those were good books. Heck, I kind of even liked Holes. All this talk of themes and symbolism makes me want to poke my eye out with my number two pencil.

I duck out of her line of sight. She's been droning on the entire class period about the book. She's going to call on someone to read out loud soon. And it better not be me.

I hate reading out loud. I see the words, then they jumble up like a puzzle when I try to read them.

Drumming my fingers on the desk, I turn my head and look out the window. If I squint my eyes enough, I can just make out the baseball diamond on the other side of the big grassy field.

I can hear the ump yelling "Batter up!" in my mind.

“Jake?” Hearing my name shouted shakes me out of my thoughts.

“What?” My voice comes out high, like a girl. I push myself upright and shrug my shoulders. I have no idea what Mrs. Cooper just asked me.

To my right, Kyle Filbert, my arch enemy, snickers, his black hair flopping forward and covering one of his eyes like a pirate's eye patch. I shoot him a dirty look and ball my hand up into a tight fist under my desk. Sometimes I really want to punch the jerk in the face. But Mom would be super mad at me if I did.

“I asked you to read the first paragraph of chapter three out loud to the class,” she says slowly, lifting her eyebrows at me. Or, should I say, eyebrow. She has one thick brown eyebrow that crawls across the top of her eyes like a caterpillar.

She picks on me on purpose. I know it. Because I have a harder time reading aloud than the other kids. It’s not fair.

I sigh as loud as I can and then tap my hand on my leg, stalling. Praying for the bell to ring so I can get out of this nightmare.

"Henry ... uh ... wal ... k ... walked by ... him ... self into ... uh ... into the ... uh ... dark ... nessss ... darkness." My palms sweat more and more with each word I read.

I stop and take a deep breath, fiddling with the baseball hat in my lap. I have to keep it hidden under my desk because Mrs. Cooper won't let me wear it in class. Last week she kept it for a whole day when I forgot to take it off before I walked into the classroom.

The final bell rings as I open my mouth to continue.


“Saved by the bell, Mr. Evans.”

My shoulders slump forward and I drop my head, defeated.

She looks away from me and addresses the class. “Pick one of the major themes in The Red Badge of Courage and tell me how it relates to your own life – I want one typed page by Monday morning. And the practice spelling bee will be tomorrow. Don’t forget to study the word list I handed out last week.”

I stop, frozen in my seat, like I got sucked into a black hole.

The spelling bee?


I hate spelling. And I hate the spelling bee even more. We had to do one in class last year and I got my first word wrong. Tulip. The easiest word ever. Not to mention a total girl word. And I got it wrong. I spelled it "T-O-O-L-I-P." Everyone laughed at me. I wanted to hurl.

No way can I put myself through that kind of humiliation again.

I pull my baseball hat free from my belt loop and shape the bill between my palms, putting the spelling bee out of my mind. If I concentrate hard enough, I can hear the baseball field calling my name.

Batting seventh ... Number 11 ... Jake Evans.

I bolt outta my seat my seat and head for the door. I'm two steps from freedom when Mrs. Cooper shouts my name.


I stop so fast my sneaker squeaks on the floor. My momentum propels me forward and I have to flap my arms like a bird so I don't fall on my face.

When I turn and look at Mrs. Cooper, she's holding a sheet of paper in front of her. Taking tiny steps, I shuffle my way to where she's standing and take the paper from her. There's a red D at the top of the page.

My stomach drops into the basement as I stare at the glaring red letter.

I stuff it in my backpack, groaning.

Mom's going to murder me and feed my insides to the ducks at the duck pond downtown.

"I understand today's the first day of baseball practice," she says, putting one hand on her hip and jutting her chin out to the side, toward the baseball field.

"Uh, yeah." I take a step backward toward the door. I wanna jet outta here so bad.

"You're very close to failing my class. If your grade falls any lower, you won't be able to play baseball."

My breath gets caught in my throat and I croak, "Huh?" I try to swallow, but it's like there's a huge wad of bubble yum stuck there. "No way," I squeak.

My face burns hotter and hotter the longer I stand here.

She stares at me so hard I'm surprised I don't combust. I ball my hands into tight fists, fighting the urge to flee.

"A failing grade means no baseball," she repeats, saying the words super slow, like I'm hard of hearing. I can hear her fine, I just don't like what she's saying.

"Is there anything I can do. Extra credit, or something." My voice rises. I probably sound like a girl.

She pauses, thinking. The caterpillar above her eyes wiggles a little as she considers my question.

"I'll tell you what. If you place in the top three in the classroom spelling bee next week you'll advance to the school spelling bee.


  1. Hi Laurie--first of all, a topic close to my heart. I have a dyslexic son and two others with a hearty dose of dyslexic tendencies. So, books on the subject are always a welcome treat. This one is off to a good start, but here are the places where I want to give you some direction.

    *The beginning feels like it's weighted down a bit in backstory. Let the issues at hand unfold as the problems arise in the classroom. Your readers are smart and they will follow you and enjoy it more if the information is coming at them live.

    *There are small bits and phrases that seem repetitive to me. For example...

    "She's going to call on someone to read out loud soon. And it better not be me.

    I hate reading out loud. I see the words, then they jumble up like a puzzle when I try to read them."

    It's obvious that he hates to read out loud. For flow, you should be able to just push forward. You told us what the smart reader needs to know. And then to also hit my first comment, instead of just saying that the words are jumbled when he reads them--have them be jumbled in live time. As he's reading, then make the comment that it's not only hard, but the letters are moving on the poor kid.

    *Then lastly, I think when you mentioned the jumbled wording, you were shooting for some kind of reading disability. There is a difference between being a poor oral reader and having a reading issue or dyslexia. If the MC's reading aloud is indicative of ALL of his reading, you have to have a really good plan for showing how he compensated all this time and was able to fly under the radar. (And you might do this--but I'm thinning about it so I thought I'd share) If the MC reads that poorly across the board, most likely his writing ability is impacted too. It will effect ever subject that he has in school. As a seventh grader, it is very hard to have hid that and gotten so far, particularly without ever failing before. Compensations absolutely do happen, but you need to show that to make it believable. I don't know where you're going with this, but make sure you have those issues thought through because it will lend credibility to your writing.

    This is a great start and if you ever need more info on the subject--I'd be more than happy to help you out. I'm confident you've got this--excited to see where you go with it next. :o)

  2. I think this is a great beginning that does a good job of establishing important facts about the MC and what is important to him. There are a few places that you could tighten up the prose so as not to repeat yourself or state the obvious. For example, the line “I have no idea what Mrs. C just asked me” is, in my opinion, not needed as we already know that based on the lines before. Also, “I stare at the glaring red letter” seems unnecessary.
    Other than that, all I can really offer are a few nitpicky detail-oriented comments.
    - I was a bit confused about the time line, since he says there are 30 minutes left in class, but it really seems like only 5 or 10 max.
    - For me the age of the MC was unclear. He feels younger, too young to be reading The Red Badge of Courage which sounds like a high school level book. But then, I’ve never read the book, so I can’t say for sure, just going on the war theme.
    - I thought Little League Teams were community organizations run by volunteers (at least they are here in Canada, maybe it is different in the US). Just wondering how the teacher has the power to kick him off the team. Perhaps state that the team is a school team (or this might be made clear later in the novel anyways). If it isn’t a school team, it might be that his mom won’t let him do after school teams if he is failing.
    - Finally the beginning felt suspiciously like this might be an issues book with the obvious indicators of a learning disability. I wonder if that part could be made a little more subtle. I hear agents shy away from issues books and so you wouldn’t want to raise red flags in the first few pages.
    Overall a good start and I would keep reading to find out more.

  3. I think this sounds like a great start to a story. I can picture boys who love baseball getting right into it. Who wouldn’t rather be outside on the diamond than stuck in class reading a book they’re not interested in?

    Like a previous commenter, I wondered why the MC hadn’t been diagnosed yet, since he has an obvious learning disability. That said, my son wasn’t diagnosed until 8th grade.

    Great job with the humor. I particularly liked Harrison’s hair sticking straight out, like he battled with hair gel and lost, and the broccoli comment.

    I think you can tighten your dialogue tags. I’ve been playing with using either action or dialogue but not both combined. For example: Ms. Cooper asks, pacing in front . . . could easily be Mrs. Cooper paces in front . . . etc. Something to consider.

    Sometimes you use repetition when you don’t need to. For example, when he shrugs his shoulders, we know that means he doesn’t understand. So you could cut the “I have no idea what Mrs. Cooper just asked me”. And ducks could be in the pond, you don’t need to call it a duck pond; it would be assumed.

    I think the unibrow should crawl on her forehead, not her eyes, but I’m likely picky. You created a funny image of the teacher, however. I could picture her.

    To answer the above poster, I’ll point out that in the US, to play school sports, a student has to have passing grades.

  4. Laurie! I love it. The voice is assured, and I think you have the "boy voice" down. Rhythm is so important in fiction, and I think your prose flows very nicely. Nothing jumped out at me with a red flag, only two small points.

    "I bolt outta my seat..."

    Do you really want to spell words phonetically within the actual narrative? I think it's ok if it's an internal thought, as we see later with the same word. But I don't know about it in the flow of the prose.

    Also, the sentence: Drumming my fingers on the desk, I turn my head...

    How about" I drum my fingers on the desk. I turn my head and look out the window.

    Other than that, I really like this. I'll be curious to see what others have to say. Nice job,


  5. Hi Laurie, So glad to see you in the workshop! I have read through everyone else’s comments and I agree with their thoughts and suggestions. I too especially was wondering Jake’s age (did someone say 8th grade? If so, I do think Jake appears younger than that); if he is dyslexic or not (if it’s just a reading out loud issue because he said he read other books and enjoyed them; if he is dyslexic could he have listened to audio books?); agree with the Little League versus school team—I know you need grades to play on school teams but outside teams?

    I think the biggest issue is likely just tightening up what you have here. If you tighten the actual language I think the plot/story will tighten right along with it. You sometimes say the same thing a couple of ways and if you go at this with a chainsaw and whack away the extra, it will increase pacing, feel less like backstory, and read more smoothly. I love the end with his lack of interest in English class and his definite interest in baseball coming head to head and it might be great to get there a bit sooner. But you might find when you tighten, that happens naturally. Some examples: “I hate this book. I’d rather eat moldy broccoli than read this book.” You can drop line 1. Line 2 clearly tells us he hates the book. “I stop, frozen in my seat, like I got sucked into a black hole” could just be “I’m frozen in my seat, like a I got sucked into a black hole.”///“I hate spelling. I hate spelling BEES even more. Last year I got the easiest, girliest word ever: Tulip. Course I spelled it T-O-O-L-I-P. Everyone laughed. I wanted to hurl.” When you spell out tulip wrong, there’s no need to say he got it wrong. That’s clear. Also: you could cut “arch enemy” from where it is and in the next sentence instead of “I shoot him” it could be “I shoot my arch enemy”. Make everything do double duty and you will cut down on the slight feeling of repetitiveness that’s here.

    These are just some examples but if you do it from start to finish, which you can and should think of doing, I think it’ll make a world of difference.

  6. You start in a great way (though you might even consider condensing that: Harrison Templeton has a big fat head. Thankfully I sit directly behind him. When I slouch, Mrs. Cooper, my seventh-period Language Arts teacher, can’t see a hair on my entirely proportionally sized head.)

    There is a distinct voice and great humor in here—watermelon head, caterpillar, pirate’s eye patch. I think if you keep the level of Jake a bit more on par with that, he’ll sound older (if that’s your goal). Just keep an eye on the consistency surrounding him so he feels the right age and tone. Some of that is more sophisticated but then you have lesser lines that make him seem younger.

    One thing I’d suggest is figuring out what’s the most important thing you want us to know right away. Is it his learning disability? Is it is his love of baseball? Is it a know-it-all girl who reads the book and sounds like a songbird and he’s going to be paired up with her (of course that’s not here, but just giving you the idea that you should start the beginning with the key part of your story.

    As for the reading and the baseball, they are both in here and perhaps are battling for supremecy….I think that’s why it’s feeling a bit backstory-ish (but not horribly so at all). If one is the primary focus and the other we get a snippet of with more to come later, that could help you focus the pages a bit more and drop what might be weighing it down. (This is more an emotional thing—right now he’s equally split on telling us he can’t read well and loves baseball—if his focus is on one, it might work better. Maybe not—something to play with.)

    One thought I had was it could be fun if he delves into a true imagining of himself on the baseball field. You could start where you do and then have him on the field and then have the teacher jar him out of it. It might be better if all his “batter up” and longing to be on the field are bundled in one place and then it’s like “earth to Jake” and he has to confront reading out loud. I’m not sure if it’d work, but just something to play with.

    Good luck!!

  7. You do a wonderful job setting up the stakes: Jake is horrible at spelling though he must win the bee to attain his true love- baseball.
    I thought the voice was young, more chapter book than middle grade with the exception of the Red Badge of Courage. I read that other commenters asked about him going so long without being diagnosed and an easy fix to both points is if you lowered the target readers and picked a different, younger book. Just a suggestion, of course.

    1. (That should be target age, sorry. It froze up on me when I went back to clarify.)
      I love the line "the caterpillar above her eye wiggles..."
      To be perfectly honest, I felt, whoa, baseball overload. Which could have been your intention to let the reader understand that this kid lives and breathes baseball. Since no one else has commented about it, it's probably just me and you should disregard this. Haha.

  8. Hello Laurie! I enjoyed reading these pages, and though I've strayed from the realm of middle grade in recent years, this makes me want to go back.

    A clear-cut conflict with sharply defined stakes is a huge priority for the beginning of any novel, and here you've nailed it. Jake's love of baseball, dread of reading, and humorous internal narration help quickly set the scene for a conflict that sends his world rocking on its heels. The first line is strong as well - something about the sentence "Harrison Templeton has a big fat head" is irresistible.

    One thing that stuck out to me was the voice. You seem to pepper a steady "boy voice" with other, more complicated phrases like "fighting the urge to flee". Some of these don't feel like phrases that Jake would use.

    Other than that, though, this is a beginning brimming with promise. I'll be looking forward to seeing your revisions!