Sunday, October 5, 2014

First Five Pages October Workshop - Smith

Name: Laura Gross Smith
Genre: Young Adult
Title: Before The Time After


Life is made up of a series of before and afters. Before I learned to ride a bike I was confined to a small radius around my house. After I learned, with help from a very patient dad, I had the ability to explore beyond my neighborhood. I gained freedom. So maybe this is just a story about before and afters, maybe it’s more. Maybe if I can just get it all down on paper I can understand just what happened that autumn. Maybe I can figure out who I became.

I live in a small town in Vermont and attend Rossiter High School. As I write this I am a senior, but this all started back in sophomore year. This was before I had a steady boyfriend, before I learned Geometry and before I became someone else. Now I know everyone changes in high school. It takes a lot of getting used to. For the first time I was at a larger school, with city kids as well. Typical kids you see in the movies. You got your stoners, your geeks, jocks of course and yes, the dreaded cheerleaders. I was stuck somewhere in the middle. I spent my time hanging out in the art room playing with oil paints. I tended to stay clear of most of the other kids, I don’t know why; I just wanted to be left alone with my canvas, feeling the cool paints beneath my fingers. I get sucked into a picture and lose myself, which is a great skill when you are in high school. The pressure was on to figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life. Me, I know, but that doesn’t mean that the parents are pleased with my choice. The words starving artist has always been a mantra recited frequently by my dad, who I see rather infrequently, but more about that later.

So at lunch I always grab my brown bag and hike it to Mr. Taylor’s art classroom. He’s a typical art teacher, messy hair, black jeans and button down shirt, slightly frayed at the edges. Maybe he’s not typical, but what do I know, he’s my first. Freshman year for some reason I signed up for art, dipped my brush in the first jar of cerulean blue tempera paint, and I have never been the same since. See what I mean about before and afters. Before I was lost, without any idea of what I wanted to do when I graduated and after I am an artist. The moment the brush touched the paint, altered my life forever.

It was a cold October Tuesday in my junior year when I happened to wander into the art room early to finish up a large canvas I was working on. It was an abstract of a Mayan Temple I had just seen in a picture for my World History class with Dr. Jarvis. I was grabbing my paints when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around, startled to see a tall blond girl dressed all in black, except for pink high top Converse sneakers. She had bright fluorescent green highlights and an overabundance of eyeliner. Her cherry red mouth smacked pink bubble gum.

“Um, sorry,” I said, not quite sure what she wanted from me. I never had a cool kid pay attention to me before, although I really never did anything to initiate any type of communication myself. “Am I in your way?” She at that moment smiled this goofy grin at me.
“Is that yours?” She asked this while pointing to the bright gold and purple blotches that smeared the canvas.
“Uh, yes,” I stammered, not sure where she was going with this. “Mr. Taylor wanted me to try painting a larger canvas.”
“It’s really freakin’ cool,” she said, “”how’d you get that shade?”
She pointed to a particularly tough shade of eggplant that took me an hour to get just right. I, of course ended up running out of it, and pulling out my already thin hair trying to duplicate it the second time, in a larger quantity.
“It took me a while, but it’s a great color. Reminds me of the sky just before the sun starts to come up. It took forever to get it right.” I turned a bit, blushing, not quite sure what she wanted from me. I wasn’t used to other kids coming up to me, and she was not a junior.

“My name’s Blaze,” she said, “although my parents didn’t actually name me that when I was born. They called me Jennifer Marie. Talk about boring. Where can you get with a name like Jennifer Marie except a Country Club? I think they wanted me to become a debutante, or tennis pro, but shit on them; here I am making sculpture from rusty metal car parts. They almost died when I told them I wanted to go to Boston College of Fine Arts, said I would end up in a trailer, with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth and a screaming kid on my hip. I told my dad to fu, I mean screw himself. Sorry, trying to watch my language. I have a college interview coming up in three weeks.” She spoke so fast I had to really pay attention to her words. I was still amazed that she was talking to me. “You want to go for McDiarrhea when we get out of this hellhole?”

I just nodded my head, as she said, “Great, I’ll meet you out back, I’ll drive.” And that was that, she turned on her heel, so to speak and all I saw was a green striped ponytail heading out the door. I became the me after I met Blaze.

The rest of that day went by in a blur, science, algebra, and finally the final bell rang. I made my way to the rear of the school, near the parking lot and scanned the crowd for a shot of green. I spotted her after a few minutes and made my way over to a 1973 Ford Mustang in mustard yellow. The bumper hung down a bit in the front, and she caught my stare.

“Deer tried to run me over,” she said, “get in.” I wasn’t sure if I was confident about her driving abilities, but was too scared to say a word. She had talked to me and I wasn’t going to do a thing to screw that up. “When do you have to be home?” she asked me as she turned the radio on, and I jumped as Metallica blared through the speakers. "So close, no matter how farcouldn’t be much more from the heart forever trusting who we are and nothing else matters." She reached for the dial and turned it down. I still had to shout to be heard over the song. “Five o’clock,” I yelled. Metallica droned on, "Trust I seek and I find in you every day for us something else new open mind for a different view and nothing else matters."

We made our way down route 5; my hands clutched the seats, my knuckles were probably white. She drove like a crazy woman. Wondering why I was there, why she chose me to come along with her, I prayed for the ride to be over soon. ..


  1. I'm digging the first line, and even the feel of the whole paragraph. It for sure encapsulated that high school feeling of everything changing, and becoming mature enough to notice it. The thing that didn't hit, was the whole bike analogy when it seems that her passion is painting, if you set that up in the beginning (going from finger-paint-numbers to multia-media abstract expressionism or whatever) that could be stronger. Also you point out that she has a patient dad, then later it seems she has issues with him. Is she as confused about her relationship with her Father as I am?

    "It takes a lot of getting used to. For the first time I was at a larger school, with city kids as well. Typical kids you see in the movies. You got your stoners, your geeks, jocks of course and yes, the dreaded cheerleaders. I was stuck somewhere in the middle." This all felt really choppy, and took me a couple passes to get though. I get that she's not lame but not cool either, and that she hates cheerleaders. Beyond her appreciation for painting the character falls flat for me. We don't even get her name, or smallest description. If you're starting her nondescript a reason - I could be down, or I'd be interested if the main protagonist is there simply for Blaze to interact with, but otherwise I really could use something to help me visualize her.

    I can already tell I enjoy Blaze. Love her stream-of-consciousness talking. She immediately comes to life for me. I like that the main character is just hopping on the Blaze ride and seeing where it takes her without much thought. "I wasn’t sure if I was confident about her driving abilities, but was too scared to say a word" This was only time I really felt the main character had thoughts about Blaze, beyond her being cool. I want to know why she was scared of Blaze. Is she afraid of all the cool kids? Have other popular kids treated her poorly in the past? Or is it just her aversion to being around other people? If so, then why does she choose to be social now? I'll follow Blaze, she sounds fun, but I need to know more about the main character if I'm to follow her.

  2. Hi Laura! I'll add my thoughts...

    I really love the feel of the first paragraph. It feels like the opening monologue to a movie, where we get the character trying to make sense of her life after some catastrophic event. I want to know what happened that autumn. You have my attention.

    The second paragraph is where things start to get heavy on the exposition. In one paragraph, you tell us where she lives, where she goes to school, what high school is like, where she fits in, how she spends most of her time, how she identifies herself, what she wants to do for a living and how her father feels about it. That's a lot of information for one paragraph, and I would have liked to discover most of that for myself rather than have it told to me. Also, the mention of Geometry in the second line has me wondering if that was a throwaway line, or if I should actually be expecting Geometry to be central to the plot. The line about her dad also seems to directly contradict the line in the first paragraph about her dad being a patient man. Just things to watch out for.

    Your main character doesn't seem to have any sense of insight or self-awareness - she doesn't know why she avoids other kids, she doubts if her impressions of her art teacher are correct, and she doesn't know why she signed up for art class. Is this going to be something that the character grapples with throughout the story? I'd be interested to see how that develops.

    The main character falls a little flat for me. She tells us over and over again that she's passionate about painting, but her matter-of-fact tone makes it hard to believe. It just sounds like she's repeating the words. Even if she is outwardly shy, it would be nice to see something come alive in her when she's looking at her half-finished canvas.

    I really like Blaze's character - her physical description is excellent, and from the first time she's mentioned she's full of life and energy, and she's fun to read. Even with her 'out-there' personality, she's instantly identifiable. I think everyone went to school with someone just like her, and I feel like she's someone I can root for in this story. I've having to suspend my disbelief a little bit that she would immediately mention her near-identical plans for art school and her parental struggles immediately upon meeting the main character - it seems more likely that they would initially bond over the artwork and the college stuff would come out later, as they get to talking.

    I love the repeated motif of 'before and after', you've really kept it consistent throughout the chapter and it makes sense whenever you mention it, it never feels forced.

    Even Blaze's car seems perfect for her personality. She's already very well-defined, and these details really help. I really hope that she'll be sticking around for the long run, because she seems like your main character's best chance at getting out of her shell!

    Awesome work, Laura!

  3. Well, you definitely left me wondering what was going to happen next! I think the first three paragraphs were a little too much background upfront, so maybe if you start more in the thick of it, around "it was a cold October Tuesday" so we're brought right into the meeting between Blaze and the main character (her name?) and then add the background a bit at a time as you go on, maybe even after these opening pages. I am wondering why - if this main character has an aversion to practically all of the other kids - why she would go along with Blaze, who seems to be her opposite? Opposites may attract, and this may be the key here, but it's not very clear. The main character seems to have her own mind and likes to be by herself, so I'm just not sure I'm buying that she would hang out with Blaze (or anyone). Even she is wondering this at the end, why she was there, why Blaze chose her (is this key, too, that she feels like Blaze 'chose' her? it seems like it might be), and when the ride would be over - maybe if we had even a smallish clue as to why she would be attracted to spending an afternoon with a wild strange girl it would feel like a better 'fit.' I'm looking forward to reading the revision and discovering why she chooses to go with Blaze - who seems like she is probably good for her, in one way or another!

  4. Hi Laura--

    Thanks for sharing your writing. I'm torn on the beginning, because although I really love the first line, my preference as a reader is usually for books that begin in scene. I want to see things happening, not be told stuff. I wonder if that line might be better incorporated as a tagline or part of your book jacket copy, or kept but directly tied to a before/after that can lead into a scene, like before/after she met Blaze? Then you could repeat the before and after idea throughout the story at critical moments.

    This beginning mentions she's a senior now, but also mentions freshman, sophomore, and junior year and I got a little confused as to what happened when. The main action we're given is part of her junior year, specifically when she meets Blaze. I would consider starting either in present day or with Blaze, and incorporating only the necessary backstory in throughout your book. There are a lot of things in the first few paragraphs (like where she lives and her high school name) that you could show us, rather than tell.

    I would definitely fit in a way for us to know your MC's name somewhere in these pages--the sooner the better. It could come out easily when she's meeting Blaze. I found it curious that she immediately assumes Blaze is "cool", as the character read to me like someone else who probably exists on the fringes of high school society.

    While on the topic of Blaze, I really liked her even though I'm always a little suspicious of modern-day teens listening to music that was popular in the 80s and 90s. Maybe she has her reasons, or maybe this story is historical? There's mention of a 1973 car, the stereotypical groups feel a little like something out of a John Hughes movie, and there's no mention of cell phones. Hmm...

    I'm definitely intrigued by these pages, particularly by Blaze who really came alive for me ("Deer tried to hit my car" is one of the best things I've ever heard a character say :D). Right now I don't know where the story is going except for something drastic happens to the MC in autumn, but is this a straight contemp? a problem book? a time travel story? an urban fantasy? I can't wait to read a revision and hopefully find out more.

  5. Whoops "Deer tried to run me over." (I had to stop mid-comment to clean up 8 piles of cat vomit #GlamorousLife) But you knew what I meant :)

  6. Hi Laura,

    Bare with me as I'll be jotting my thoughts down as I read.

    Your opening line definitely gave me pause. Then your last line of the first paragraph made me wonder what this is all about - tells me that she's somehow lost as to who she currently is. The remainder of the paragraph (the whole bike analogy) is full-on telling. In my opinion if you incorporate those next thoughts within action the opening would pack more of a punch. The character doesn't have to be doing anything dramatic. It could be simply shifting in a chair or on her bed, while she writes this. But some action that clues us into who she is and draws the reader into her here and now to stare showing her 'before and afters'. Or just shorten the paragraph and use a variation of the bike analogy in one of the next paragraphs. Yeah, I think that could work.

    The next few paragraphs are the same - telling and backstory. Although some of it totally intrigued me about who this character is, I still think weaving these thoughts within direct action of her world would be more effective. I also think it would give you the opportunity to show her react to her current work (the after), while she's mentally comparing it to her previous experiences (the before).

    I hear an insecure, soft voice in your MC. It's clear and real. I really like that. And Blaze is a great contrast, out there and in your face. The idea of her being 'me' (her changed self) just from meeting/chatting with Blaze is a great concept. I can see this theme playing out throughout your story. I hope my thoughts help you and I look forward to reading your revision! Best of luck.

  7. Hello Laura!

    Thanks for sharing your work. What I enjoyed most about this selection was the voice. You have moments where I really felt the raw, unadorned bitterness of a teen who's not what she wants to be...combined with all of the doubt and uncertainty of still being a teen, and knowing that you aren't supposed to have such strong views on life--or at least, that your views will be discounted by adults.

    What I would challenge you to do is write a scene that shows your character making a big choice. Leave the exposition and get to the action much sooner, otherwise this YA voice can read as "telling." I'm not a huge fan of comparing telling with showing, but the reality is that your reader will only wait so long for something to HAPPEN. And that happening needs to have clarity, focus, and power behind it. We need to get to know your character in the midst of this circumstance, the circumstance that launches your story at large.

    Now, if that circumstance is meeting the girl (be careful that she does not read as a common trope of Manic Pixie Dream Girl), then we need to feel all of the conflict and implications behind meeting this girl and making the choice to associate with her. If your character has just left rehab, she would not want to associate with a user. If she's just gotten suspended from school, she wouldn't want to cut class again. Give us a circumstance and a choice that helps us immediately get to know your character through her actions.

    I hope this is useful for you! If you explore, I think you'll find there is more for this character to say and do.

    My best,