Monday, October 13, 2014

First Five Pages Workshop - Smith Rev 1

Name: Laura Gross Smith
Genre: YA Contemporary
Title: Before the Time After

“Are you coming?” She asked, “Mars to Maia…is anyone in there?”
“Sorry,” I said, “Could you wait while I clean this up? Just where are we going again?”

Life is made up of a series of before and afters. Before I learned to paint with oils, I thought that acrylics were my only option. It is amazing how just a little bit of turpentine can change your life. It was a cold October Tuesday in my junior year when I met her.  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 unwrapping 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. Straight out of an 80’s movie.

“Um, sorry,” I had said, not quite sure what she wanted from me. At my old school in Boston I could disappear, no one bothered with me at all. But mom just needed to move to Vermont. It felt as if this school had fifty kids total, not the 1500 I was used to. “Am I in your way?” At that moment she 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 questioning. “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.
 “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 usually 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 in my house. Pamphlets for law schools have been mysteriously arriving in the mail.

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. 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.

The temple stared at me and I absentmindedly swirled the eggplant on my brush. “Oh Maia, Mars to Maia.” Why did she want me to go with her? Probably because there were only eight kids in the Junior class, give or take fifteen. Mom just had to move to the sticks. I just nodded my head, as she said, “Great, I’m parked 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 version of me after I met Blaze.

The rest of that day went by in a blur, chemistry, pre-calculous, and finally the 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. Hope you like classic rock, can’t help it, the only thing my parents did right was to introduce me to some really freaking good music. Brother’s in a band too. Hope you aren’t a Kelly Clarkson girl, you will definitely hate this ride.”
She spoke so fast I wasn’t sure if I was confident about her driving abilities, but was too scared to say a word. I still have no idea why I came, I could have stayed after and worked on the painting.
“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 far
couldn’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. Still wondering why I was there, why she wanted me to come along with her, I prayed for the ride to be over soon. ..


  1. Hi Laura--

    I definitely see progress here.Starting with dialogue can work for or against you, but I love that we now know Maia's name right away. I like that you started "in scene" but I think you need a bit more than just dialogue to flesh it out. Where are they? What are they doing? is the girl Blaze? If so, there's no need to obscure that information from the reader.

    Then when you go to have the internal thoughts about before and afters, can you come up with a transition that makes that flow better? Maybe the girl with Maia says something about before or after or Maia has some kind of internal thought connecting the two. Right now it feels a little disjointed. The same thing goes after Blaze says McDiarrhea. What the reader expects is for Maia to answers, so when she launches into an internal monologue without a transition it feels strange. Something like: Did she just invite me to leave campus for lunch? I never left campus during the school day...I wouldn't carry that train of thought through both of those paragraphs though, as it's a bit random for her to think all of that when her friend is waiting for a yes or no answer. I feel like maybe you're excited to share interesting backstory with the reader, but there are other places in your manuscript where some of that information would fit better.

    I still love Blaze. I love that she says "Mars to Maia" instead of Earth. I love basically everything about her, except I cringe at McDiarrhea, but maybe that's because I'm a nurse and have gotten way too close to too much diarrhea to ever want to eat at a place I called that *shudder* It fits Blaze's character though :)

    A tiny note on the song lyrics. Fair use of lyrics generally only allows for a sentence or so--maybe 7 words--before you have to get permission from the rights owner and pay for them. I can't say exactly how much you can use for free--that seems hotly debated by literary and creative lawyers--but you have more than you can get away with. Especially considering how Metallica feels about copyright violation, what with them being the ones who brought down Napster and all that. I love that song though.

    Good luck on your next revision!

  2. Adventure time! I am definitely hoping to read the rest of the story and find out what adventures Blaze and Maia have at McDonald's. I like that Blaze is introduced earlier and that makes the action start earlier - and I love "her cherry red mouth smacked pink bubble gum" - I can picture and hear that (gum smacking/cracking is a pet peeve of mine). I'm wondering why her mom needed to move to Vermont - was it a job transfer, or was her mom restless? It seems like Maia may be in search of something herself, and the painting has filled some void in her life that perhaps was there even before she moved. I remember very well the pressure to plan for the future at this age, so the law school pamphlets ring a bell. One thing - maybe it's just me and I'm not catching this, but "I became the version of me after I met Blaze" - I'm not sure what that means. The version of Maia who is telling the story? I assume this but it feels a bit awkward to me.

  3. Hi Laura!

    I can see that you've cleaned up a lot of the 'telling' in the beginning, which is great, and we even get to know the main character's name. The jump from the dialogue at the beginning to the paragraph about before and after is jarring, though - it would be nice to see that smoothed out a little. The dialogue is a bit confusing, though - where are they? What's going on? We don't have a lot of context there. That second paragraph also feels a bit rushed; we get a whole lot of information in rapid-fire succession, and it's a bit too much all at once.

    Blaze is still a fantastic character as always, one that I would really like to get to know better, but her introduction this time around feels a little bit sudden. I liked the more gradual introduction we got the first time around. I do like her 'totally 80s' appearance, though.

    There are a couple of places where you use more words than you need to. "I had said," could be "I said", "She asked this while " could be "She asked while". Just something to keep an eye out for.

    Maia's passion for art is much more convincing this time around, we get a lot of extra internal dialogue in there that really shows us how much she's into it. Great details and specifics. I also love the line about law school pamphlets mysteriously turning up in the mail.

    I'm still not totally convinced that she would go along with Blaze for no real reason; it would be nice to have a bit of a stronger motivation there. Blaze is such an interesting character, I know I could find plenty of reasons to justify hanging out with her, even if I wasn't 100% confident in her driving.

    There are a lot of great improvements in here! Keep up the good work!

  4. Wow, just a few changes improved the tone and flow for me. Also felt more of a connection with the characters, especially Maia. I too have to question starting off with dialogue, when the paragraph below is so strong and seems it would be the perfect fit for the opening.
    There is a good flow between Maia and Blaze up until Blaze introduces herself. It seems to me she just blurts it out awkwardly. To me it would seem more natural if Blaze went through her tirade starting with how she makes art which wouldn't be such an abrupt cut from what they were already talking about. Move that into the school she wants to go to and what her parents think about it. Invite to lunch than as an after thought she introduces herself, and goes on a little bit more how she dislikes her real name than "Cool, see you after last bell." Something like that might strengthen the natural flow of the dialogue while reinforcing Blaze's stream of consciousness speaking.
    I am also curious how the girls hold themselves. Is Blaze fidgety or quick moving? Does Maia hunch over a lot or hide behind her bangs? Also wouldn't mind Maia observing herself a bit more.
    These pages are a lot stronger, characters are more defined and I can better feel the mood. You are well on your way.

  5. Hi Lauara,

    First, let me congratulate you on all of that work!

    You have grounded me in an opening scene right off the bat, and shown me two clear-cut characters that hold interest and begin to offer nuance. That's a really big step forward.

    I would recommend next that you focus on the central story question. What is our heroine's wound? Has she been burned by a best friend in the past? Has she forsaken all friendships? How is she in conflict with the idea of making a new friend? The more insight you give us into her as a person, into the complex desire and fear driving her interaction with her new friend, the more we will cheer for her, and care about what happens next. By this, I don't mean adding a lot of backstory. I mean peeling back another layer on this main character, and letting her show us the raw fear underneath--not drama, but HONESTY.

    Making this emotional connection with your character is crucial for creating a page-turner with contemporary stories. Let us inside, show us her hurt, and we will follow you.

    Once you get this deeper layer of internal dialogue in place, I recommend reading the passage aloud to streamline the voice a but. But honestly, I wouldn't fuss with the writing until you address the central story question.

    Great work! Keep it up. :)


  6. I have heard you should never start with someone talking, and you should probably clarify who "she" is.
    I do like that you've brought the intro down and are getting straight to the nitty gritty now. Good work!

  7. (I'm very sorry for my late arrival this week. My community is dealing with a death - the hayride and loss of an amazing young girl some of you may have heard of.)

    Your work:
    The tone, voice, and action are so different throughout this revision. Nicely done! I really like the part you included in the opening about painting. That grounded me, gave me something to chew on about the MC. I'm not so sure about opening with the dialog, though. I don't think you need it there.

    The piece flows much smoother. I know where I am and whose world I'm peeking into to. Still really enjoy Blaze. I think the only thing that could still be tweaked is a bit more about each character through movement and/or reactions. You have done a ton of work here already, which totally shows.