Sunday, November 30, 2014

First 5 Pages December Workshop - Jellison

Name: Ashley Jellison
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Title: The Dare

"Watch out there, Brent; you might get burned." Meg Brooks tried tuning out the boys messing around behind her.

"Ha, no, I'm so hot I think the fire will get burned!" It was the last line from jock that sent Meg away from the basketball court. She had been trying to read To Kill a Mockingbird for English, but the entire basketball team had showed up. And the only thing they were good for was flirting to make other guys jealous. Other than that, zip. Each had a personality, and each was worse than the previous. All thirteen boys had failed at least once and a few were looking at failing their junior year, as well. It said something about Washington High School. If a minimum-grade limit was placed on sports, the school would not have many teams. Besides chess, that is.

 "Hey, Meggie! Where you going? Wait up!" Blond hair sailed through the air as the girl looked for the voice. Her eyes settled on a teenager about thirty feet away, next to the fountain.

 "I have to finish this book. The project is due tomorrow and I just starting reading it last night."

 Meg's best friend, Aria Sanders, sauntered up, smoothing down her almost-crossing-the-line skirt. "Oh, honey, you're not going to finish it. It's so boring. The only reason I know is because Mrs. Schel made us listen to the audio book."

 "Whatever, I have to try. I cannot fail a project. If I don't pull an A in the class, Dad's going to kill me. And I'm not so sure he didn't mean literally this time."

"Meg, you know--" The rest of Aria's words were cut off by an insistent ringing. She pulled out a bright green cell phone and pushed it to her ear.

 "Okay, I'm on my way," she said immediately.

 "Wait, where are you headed?" Meg demanded. "You only just arrived."

 "My mom wants me to meet Johnny for dinner. Besides, you have an entire book to read, remember?" she smirked at her friend and then walked off before Meg could speak, leaving the latter alone at the fountain with Harper Lee's novel.

It was a tradition for the "It" students of Washington to hang out after school on the campus for a few hours daily. That's where Meg found herself with Aria. Sometimes a few other girls joined them, but mainly it was the two girls, who also ruled the school.

 Meg was raised by a wealthy family. She was given everything she wanted, and more. Aria lived next door to her and had a similar childhood. The two girls bonded instantly over a love of material objects. Ever since the third grade, they had promised to be the top of the school, wherever they were. And it had happened.

 So maybe Meg had told a few white lies about the geeks. And Aria had spilled former friends' secrets. Sometimes, they even whispered about each other. But it was all in the name of popularity, so everything was great. Meg got to live a life fit for the Homecoming Queen. She was able to attend every party that was worth her time. And she could act like any kind of girl she wanted to around guys. But, probably one of her biggest accomplishments was doing all of the above without her parents suspecting a thing, as long as she had a reason for being out.

 Which, currently, Meg did not have. Looking at her watch, she cursed under her breath and sprinted towards the parking lot. Her little yellow Porsche sat in the second row, gleaming in the evening sun. Mr. Brooks had asked her to be home at six, which was, unfortunately, five minutes away. And she lived at least fifteen away from the school.

 With enough speeding and darting through traffic, Meg slid into her home only three minutes late. "I'm home!"

 "Honey, can you come in the kitchen for a moment?" Her step-mother's melodic voice floated through the large entrance hall.

Meg didn't even bother wasting her breath, just began the short trek through the mansion. An aroma made up of delicious spices grew stronger as she approached. Just when it didn't seem like it could get any stronger, Meg pushed open the door, letting it swing shut behind her.

 Mrs. Brooks was standing in the middle of the kitchen, wearing an apron and holding a spatula. On the stove sat a pan with freshly baked bread in it.

 "Surprise! I made your favorite, sweetheart!"

 "I thought we agreed that you wouldn't be calling me 'sweetheart' anymore."

The happiness slid from the older woman's face. "Right, uh--I'm sorry, Megan. Did you want any bread? I made it for you to have before dinner, if you want some."

"Thanks, but I don't want it. Lately you've been putting too much ginger in. I'll just have some cookies instead." The seventeen-year-old grabbed a pack of oatmeal raisin cookies from the pantry and left her step-mother staring behind her. As she climbed the stairs to her bedroom, she heard a reminder.

 "Dinner is in five minutes. And Meg, you will be eating with us tonight."

 "Shove off, Dad," Meg mumbled. She had been very close to her father for most of her life after her mother asked for a divorce ten years ago. But when he had announced his engagement to his girlfriend of four years, Meg was less than pleased. She didn't want another woman in the house. Another female meant less money would go towards her. Her budget would be cut in half. And she would be expected to move all of her winter clothes out of the hall closet. She couldn't even begin to fathom where she would put them. But Mr. Brooks adamantly told his daughter that Val Gibson, soon to be Brooks, would be moving in. And it was final.

 Meg had since decided that she was going to do everything in her power to avoid the lady. She refused to call her anything but Valerie in her father's presence. And in her mind, the woman didn't even get that much; Meg just referred to her step-mom as 'the other woman', or 'the lady'. Someday, once her father opened his eyes, he would realize that Meg was unhappy and would kick his wife out. One could only hope.

 "Meg! Get down here now!"

 "George, it's okay! She'll come down in a second. Don't be so hard on her." Meg felt a flash of satisfaction at Valerie's words. Sure, the lady might not have moved out yet, but she did have a healthy disappointment in Meg so far. Nonetheless, Meg decided it was best not to push her father and she stepped onto the landing outside her room.


  1. First off, thanks for posting and participating.

    This is in need of a great deal of work (sorry) including a good critique group.

    You are telling too much. And what you're telling is rather generic, with a very unsympathetic main character.

    You start with dialogue (one of those 'rules' that can be broken but needs to be broken well) and then follow that line of dialogue with telling us what Meg is doing rather than showing.

    How did Meg try? Why did it fail? Was she REALLY trying all that hard? etc

    Then the second paragraph starts with a lame joke followed by a sentence that seems to be missing a word or two followed by a sentence that should have contractions to make it less formal sounding.

    Again, you're telling us what Meg does rather than show us. Telling isn't always bad, and is sometimes a better choice than showing. But you want to draw the reader in immediately and that's not happening here.

    One trick for dialogue is to read it out loud. Does it sound natural? Is it grammatically correct? If not, should it be (the answer is sometimes 'no'):

    "I have to finish this book. The project is due tomorrow and I just starting reading it last night."

    This is stilted and formal and 'starting' should be 'started.' This is also filler, and of zero interest. Is it important? Do we need to know about school assignments? Etc.

    Then you've got dialogue with the wrong 'tags':

    "Okay, I'm on my way," she said immediately.

    "Wait, where are you headed?" Meg demanded.

    Adverbs should be avoided like the plague (especially when used with 'said' though I know a lot of published books use it. It's a meme: Google 'Tom Swifty')

    And I know it feels as though you should break things up a little using words other than 'said' but readers prefer 'said.' Always safer to just use 'said' though 'whispered' can be used to indicate volume.

    As an overall point, this sample introduces us to people we don't like, doing things we don't care about...where's the hook? Where's the plot? What's the point? Is this the best place to start the story? Is there something that happens 2 pages from now that you should start with? Is there a better way to introduce the characters. Even unsympathetic characters can be likable, especially if they're your protagonist.

    Best of luck, I look forward to seeing where you take this.

    Also, I know I was harsh but only because I hope to help you become a better writer.

    My belief is that anyone who takes time out of their life to critique my writing is doing it to help me. Most of what I do is revise and edit and I know it's difficult to hear sometimes that what I think is perfect just isn't. And that happens all the time.

    Last week my agent rejected a picture book that I'd been working on for months. Didn't even reject it with a 'work on this, this, and that' but flat out said 'this doesn't work.' She also sent back a novel I've been working on revising for 11 months. This will be the THIRD time she's sent it back. My schedule for this week is going through the 1,078 comments she put into the document. Yes, an average of 3 a page. And that's after NINE months of editing. When I'm done, it might finally go out on submission. Through the entire process I've had beta readers ripping it apart, harshly. It's made it a FAR better book. That's all part of the process of being published. Welcome to the club, you'll be revising for the rest of your life if you keep writing. Learn to love it, learn to appreciate even the harshest criticism. It's offered with tremendous support and encouragement and with the hope that it'll make you a better writer. I know it's made me a better writer.

  2. Hi Ashley! Hope some of my comments are helpful to you. You've got an intriguing concept here. Couple of things jumped out at me.

    I agree with Peter that this has a lot of telling. Right now it reads more of a narrative, and not from Meg's point of view. I never felt that I was inside of her head. For example, in the opening you say Meg tried to tune the boys out. Show us how. Does she roll her eyes and reread the same sentence for the third time? If you show us through her actions and thoughts, you don't need to say that she tried tuning them out, because you will have effectively shown us that she did. Then it makes the story pop and shows us who Meg is because we are seeing a specific action from her.

    I'm wondering about the opening. You start out with basketball players and 'To Kill a Mockingbird' but then move really swiftly out of that scene and onto other things. I understand that her needing to read is important to show that she needs to make good grades or else make her dad mad, but is there another way you can show this? You've also got a good deal of backstory she and Aria became friends, the whole set up with her dad and future step mom. If you can find a way to weave backstory in a little later, or bits at a time, I think it would help the pace of this not bog down.

    My biggest concern so far is that Meg seems to be your main character, and right now, she's not at all likeable to me. She's coming across entitled and snobby and uncaring toward anyone. I wonder about making a character so harsh, because a reader will have a hard time being empathetic and caring what happens to her. Especially for an opening, I'd try to give us something to care about in her, or at least a reason to care what happens. What's her goal other than to be the queen bee of school?

    Good luck with this!

  3. I agree with what's been suggested so far, so I'm going to give you some things to consider. What' is Meg's problem? If it's the almost step-mom, then start with that. Make Meg more sympathetic. Is the real reason she's upset because she doesn't want to share her dad rather than his money? Maybe show us how her life is changing - Dad used to spend evenings with Meg and now Val takes up his time. Show us a vulnerable side of Meg - she's in the "it" crowd, but doesn't feel like she's worthy? Or maybe secretly, she's bored with them. We need some inner thoughts that show Meg as something more than her spoiled actions. If we see a soft side to her, then her bratty actions might be forgivable. She's using them to hide her hurt. Just some thoughts since I don't know where you're headed with this. The main thing would be to let us in on the problem that will drive the story and let us see Meg in a way that we sympathize with her. Good luck on revisions! Stick with it - it's much better to hear these things now, rather than be wondering why you're not getting anywhere with an agent. Looking forward to seeing where you go with this!

  4. Yes, this needs work, that's why it's a workshop! Don't lose hope or faith in your writing, you'll get there. The title grabbed me because I'm thinking Pretty Little Liars (that could be one of your comp titles). Find a way to make Meg more likeable, she can be your antagonist but who is your protagonist? If she's the protagonist, then we, as readers, need to like her or at least feel sympathy toward her. Grammar needs fixing but I guess you know that by now. It takes practice to write well, and the more you write, the better your writing becomes. I second you should get beta readers or a critique group to help iron out problems. Agent Query dot com has forums with groups to join or ask on Twitter for readers. We've all been at this early stage, you can get there!!!

  5. I agree with all of the above, in particular about the likability of your MC. I think it's okay for the MC to be a jerk - in some ways your MC reminds me of Cher from Clueless. Cher was shallow and vain, but I still liked her, because I saw her softer side, that she cared about others. Your MC seems to have a really overbearing father, and she must be smart because she worries about school and has figured out how to get what she wants despite all the house rules. If we could get more of a sense of those characteristics, I think it might be easier to follow her around for a couple of hundred pages.

    I also stumbled a bit over the opening lines with the dialogue. It's hard to get a sense of who's talking and to whom when we're brand new in this world. I'm still not entirely clear what the basketball players were talking about, but it seemed not to matter to the story, so I let it go.

    I hope this is helpful. Best of luck! I can't wait to see your revisions!

  6. Part One

    Hi Ashley!

    I will get straight into and give my overall views at the end. These are just my opinions, but I enjoyed reading your submission!

    - 'Ha!' He smirked. 'Nope, I am so hot...' Don't be afraid to break up responses and give a little description of their features or how they are reacting with their facial expressions or body movements.

    - Also, why was she reading at the basketball court? Is there a specific reason she was there?

    - You make it sound like they inconvenienced her by showing up the basketball court to play basketball. So I am still confused as to why she was there reading. I would understand her frustration more if she were in the library studying and they showed up and were throwing things around and being obnoxious.

    - She seems to hate sports. She talks about the jocks in a negative way. And then you mention he chess team. And then you mention she didn’t do her project on time. I am still getting mixed feelings about your main character. I do not know her. Is she a snob? Is she a nerd who knows about the chess team?

    - Weird thing of mine…when authors introduce characters for the first time (unless they are being called out by a friend, teacher, whoever) when they list out the first and last name…it makes me cringe a little. Perhaps just use the first name, and introduce us to the last name in a class setting.

    - ‘Wait, where are you headed?’ Meg demanded. ‘You only just arrived.’ Her last response bothers me…how does she know she just arrived? Haven’t they been at school…and now she’s studying? Which makes me wonder what time of day this is…maybe mention in the gym section (if there are windows) how the light was coming in or something.

    - ‘…leaving the latter alone at the fountain with Harper Lee's novel.’ Take out ‘the latter’, it does not fit.

    - Then you skip into telling us the back story of their relationship and how they are the ‘It’ girls. It seems a little odd throwing that in there at this point. If you want to throw in a history of their relationship, maybe throw in a little story she remembers while she’s by the fountain of something they did. Then talk about her parents never knowing all their dirty little deeds, and then she looks down at her watch (would she be wearing a watch? Everyone looks at their phones) and curses and runs off.

  7. Part 2

    - ‘…left her stepmother staring behind her.’ This is an awkward way to say what I know you are saying. Rethink the wording here.

    - When her father yells at her about dinner, I really thought it was the stepmother. You didn’t really introduce him. Maybe say a booming deep voice echoed down the hallway ‘You are…’ and then she can respond to her dad.

    - Also, ‘shove off’ – I don’t know if that’s what kids are using these days (I feel weird saying that, as I am 26 and often referred to by my family as a kid still) but that might be a bit much.

    - Girlfriend of four years… I imagine she would have already moved in, by today’s standards. I would make this sooner. Because you think after seeing your parent date someone for four years you might think marriage is the next step. Make it smaller. 6 months – that’s shocking enough to make a young girl not be so happy.

    - I am thrown by your change in voice/perspective. It sounds like we are reading the main characters thoughts, but then sometimes we are reading your thoughts as the author. (ex when you say Mr. Brooks adamantly told his daughter). And if their relationship was so close, wouldn’t he sit her down and talk to her about it first? But if it’s still from her perspective…maybe she did take it in a harsh way. Pick your perspective.

    - She is in her room right, all brooding and stuff? Can you describe the room? And what is she doing in the room? I imagine plush carpet and a giant canopy bed she throws herself on as she is furiously tweeting about how she hates her stepmother or asking the world where to put all her clothes that she has to move from the hall closet.

    - Okay at the end, stepmother sends like a normal nice lady and Meg is just a snobby teenager. It really does make it hard to like her.

    Overall notes:
    - Description. Description. Description. Your world that you are creating needs description. Think of all your sense. Touch, taste, smell, hear and see. The house, the school, is it a fountain or a water fountain she is standing by? And when did that come up?
    - Your main character…do you want us to hate her? Because honestly, right now I do.
    - Describe your characters reactions. Rolling eyes, tossing hair, smirking, etc.
    - Avoid saying age – describe their appearance and how they react to moments (physically), so we can see your characters. Hair color, eye color, make up, wrinkles, clothing, posture, movements, etc. AVOID the girl, teenager or the old woman. Think of other ways to say colors. Golden hair or something.
    - I am completely unclear what the problem (besides Meg being a snob) or plot is of your story. Fix that. You want to draw them in.
    - And speaking of draw them in…you can draw folks in with conflict, action or a crazy event or some huge news/gossip. The craziest thing of this was that she was almost late. Create something.

    Thank you for posting your work and allowing us to read your submission. Keep on working on it!

  8. Ashley, welcome to the first five pages!

    First, I love the title of your book. It hints at something dark that's about to happen. Good job.

    The opening lines actually confused me. I had to read the dialog more than once to see who was speaking. Perhaps you could start with some sort of action or other thought, and then work in the dialog. Sometimes it's tough to know who's who until we get in a little further. And it helps to either say "Meg said" or have Meg doing some sort of action and then have her dialog right next to it. That way it's clear who's speaking. Also, a line like "the girl looked for the voice" left me wondering if Meg was "the girl?" So clarity would be helpful.

    Some of the dialog seems a bit old for YA. Like "you only just arrived" might work better as "you just got here." Know what I mean? You don't need to use funky slang or anything, but teens generally speak in a relaxed way.

    I do feel that there was too much backstory too soon. For instance, the basketball players and their grades didn't seem to be relevant to the opening. Also, the backstory about the two girls and their climb to the top seems out of place. Perhaps that could be worked in a bit later, or shown through action.

    Unfortunately, Meg doesn't seem like a likable character. We need to have someone who we want to root for. Meg and her friend climbed on others on their way up the popularity chain, and Meg pushed away the stepmother's bread. If the character is unlikable, we should at least feel some sort of empathy for them. Is her confidence an act? Is she really insecure about something? Let's see some of that, or at least have a "save the cat" moment early on so that we like her and want to read about her story.

    These pages are written nicely, but I'd suggest adding conflict to the opening or a hint at trouble. We need to see that Meg, a character who we feel for, will have some sort of story problem. So far we don't see that. Sure, we see conflict with her and her dad and stepmom, but we're not seeing a story problem yet. The sooner you can get to that the better.

    Keep at this, though. You have a nice style to your writing and these pages can definitely be tightened up. I'm sure Meg has some qualities that make her likable in your head, so all you have to do is transfer them to the page.

    You can do it! Good luck with the next revision!

  9. Hi Ashley-

    I’m going to offer a few ideas on issues others have already pointed out. First of all, my understanding is that contemporary YA is hot right now so you’ve chosen a good genre! (Let’s hope – it’s my genre too!) You’ve given yourself quite a challenge though because your protagonist is an unsympathetic character. But that’s okay. You can work with Meg. (My own MC steals jewels from old ladies!) Having Meg be so unsympathetic certainly leaves lots of opportunity for growth and change and conflict. The character Meg from A Wrinkle in Time is not particularly sympathetic yet she has become one of the most beloved heroines in YA lit and her book won a Newbery Award. And what made her so beloved to readers? Her overwhelming love for her little brother. And that love is evident from the beginning of the novel, and her brother is very sympathetic. So I believe you need to show us a side of your Meg that isn’t coming out in this draft. Shows us what she cares about, and show us what she wants more than anything. Is it her father’s love and attention? Maybe he used to go to all her soccer games and now he spends the time with his new wife. The thing she wants, whatever it is, has to be something she can connect to emotionally. It can’t be JUST money, though money could be part of the equation. But money on its own is cold. But again, you can work with it. Scarlett O’Hara wanted money so badly she married her sister’s fiancĂ© to get it. But she married him to pay the taxes on the land she loved more than anything so there was an emotional connection.

    Best of luck with your revisions. Looking forward to reading!

  10. Hi Ashley! Welcome to First Five! You've gotten a lot of detailed feedback here so, first, I want to tell you to be sure to interpret it in the context of what you know about the character and the story that we don't--we're only looking at 5 pages. That said, this doesn't feel like an opening chapter to me. Here are 2 issues that I wouldn't address yet but you should eventually: 1-Things like characters' last names, the color of cars, and financial status should be sprinkled through a story in natural places--at the start, it just feels like a resume. 2-The comments above also point to Meg as unlikeable but I suspect this might remedy itself if you focus on the following writing exercises instead. EXERCISE 1: Write a scene in which Meg is in the thick of whatever crisis you feel is central to the book -- a car crash, the father's wedding, the "dare" referenced in the title -- get to the meat of the story. EXERCISE 2: Write a scene in which Meg spends a lot of money but never mentions her family wealth. EXERCISE 3: Write a scene in which Meg does something very nice for someone or saves the day in some way. EXERCISE 4: Rewrite the opening incorporating elements from the exercises (e.g. She is leaving school, gives someone a ride, gets a speeding ticket, stops to console herself buy buying XXX) so we are set up PLOT-WISE, see Meg's rich side and also get a sense that she has compassion. KEEP WRITING. I can tell that you are "writing in" to a story, getting the feel for your characters and setting, warming up. The story is in there--just keep writing it out! Good luck with your revisions! - Stasia