Monday, November 3, 2014

First 5 Pages November Workshop - Harris-Brady

Name: Heather Harris-Brady
Genre: (Upper) Middle Grade Speculative Fiction
Title: The Time Between

When you're a girl who's almost thirteen you get used to a whole lot of freaky random "stuff". Stuff that, even if you're not a foster kid, you keep to yourself. This dead deer in my lap is one of those things.

I was about halfway home from school, ready to cross the road by the church, when I heard horns, skidding tires, and a sickening thud. The driver got out and checked the damage, as impatient moms in SUVs waited to turn into the church parking lot. I could see them through their tinted windows tapping their phones with glossy pointed fingernails as the deer jerked in spasms in the ditch.

She was just another carcass to them, an inconvenience if they noticed her at all. Someone needed to care and something about it stabbed the dark untouched area of my heart, the spot I only know is there by the way it changes the parts around it.

Her eyes, a glossy brown like mine, reflected my face back at me. We'd both been going somewhere, alone. I didn't know what to do so I sat down here with her, holding her head in my lap and stroking her long tan face with its delicate black nose and curling eyelashes.

Every now and then I got a whiff of the apples on the tree across the road, rich sweet and thick. It was an old twisted tree with branches every which way. A bit of stone fence ran along underneath it, as ancient as the tree and well on its way to becoming sand once again. It wandered off back toward the busy part of Sudham, with its tall brick storefronts slicing off toward the ocean.

I've never had a pet, not even a belly-up goldfish to flush down the toilet, and I wasn't sure what to do but she seemed glad I was there. Maybe I imagined that part, but it might be true, who knows. Finally, with a sigh and a shudder, her head dropped to the side and she went limp across my legs.

I stood up, stiff and cold from the ground. I saw two fawns, twins, watching me from deeper in the woods. Since it was late in October they were plenty big enough to take care of themselves. They needed to stay away from the road, so I picked the last of the apples and threw them into the trees. Then I walked toward them to scare them away.

But they didn't run. They stood there, waiting. I took some baby carrots out of my lunch sack and went past them. When I turned around they were there at my elbows, nudging my hand.
“Listen you two,” I said, holding out a couple carrots for each of them. “You're going to have to take care of each other now. Stay back in here and away from the road.”

They twitched their ears and their long white tails, checking for more carrots. Somehow the whole thing made me feel guilty and ashamed even though I hadn't done anything.

When I got home I found a wrapped box propped against the front door, with fancy ribbons on both the top and the bottom. A nice touch because I could peek without being obvious, you know?

On top of the tissue was a card: Have a magical birthday - Dad. Underneath was an honest-to-God magic wand. JUST like Harry Potter's. For real. Well, it was a wand anyway and duh, who would buy a regular wand? That would be the worst gift of all time.

Now my dad's been gone forever, since before I was born really. I know, without anyone telling me, that if he showed up he wouldn't be welcome. No big teary love-fests here. So I stuck the wand in my backpack and stashed the box behind the summer clothes in my closet. When I looked for the box after dinner it was gone.


Like it never was.

The wand was still in my backpack though - the backpack of a girl who hasn't had a good yearbook photo since second grade, on the eve of picture day.

I snuck into the bathroom and waved it around my general face area. I had no idea what words might turn bushy black hair and braces into something magically beautiful.

Whatever I said obviously wasn't the right choice, because nothing happened. At least not right away.

Overnight my hair twisted itself into dreads so tight I couldn't get a comb through it. And, yes, there were several new zits on my nose. At school the photographer adjusted the lights to take the glare off my oily face and braces while his assistant patted me on the head and pretended to fix my collar.

"Just smile," he said. "Don't worry, they don't call me the airbrush magician for nothing."

By Mrs. Dyson's class fourth hour things really started to go sideways.

Fertility rites!

The fact these words swooped across the chalkboard in loopy orange cursive didn't make them any less intimidating. Nor did the fact I got a text at lunch that my friend Aubrey, who won't be thirteen for another six months, started, leaving me the only one who hasn't.

“Unnnh-hunnmm!” Ms. Dyson said, rapping her fingers on the projector board. Her eyes narrowed to two dark bottomless slits. “Cindy, are you not interested in fertility rites?”

I could hear the giggling behind me and I knew that my ears were now fire-engine red as surely as I knew there was no good answer.

“I'm sorry,” I said, stretching my lips and cheeks so I could talk around my new braces without a spitty lisp. Ignoring my achy hip bones I sat up straighter even though it meant the chairback cut into my spine.

I didn't bother to look around. There were no friendly faces in World History or any other subject for that matter. All the friendly faces, including Aubrey, were at Sudham's other middle school across town.

“Very well,” she said after giving me a long stare. She turned around to tap the homecoming sign over the chalkboard. It said Homecoming — A Cinderella Story in swirly script over a football and a glass slipper, then Go Sudham Flames! In front of my eyes the banner wording changed to a bizarre whirl of symbols.

The next time I blinked it was gone.


Like the gift box.

I looked around out of the corner of my eye. No one seemed to notice anything but then they probably wouldn't notice an elephant sitting in the corner since they're all using the phones hidden in their laps.

“As I was saying, fertility rites go back to the dawn of man. We're all participating in one right now even if we call it by another name. Fall has always been a time of giving thanks to mother Earth for the harvest, the fruits of the land and labor. These fertility rites grew into different forms of worship, first with the pagan gods and goddesses and then they assimilated into the religions we know today. Who can tell me about Halloween?”

This softball lob to the duller tools in the World History drawer brought the predictable answers: pumpkins, costumes, scary things, skeletons. Yadda yadda yadda.

“Yes, all those things you know today have roots back in the Middle Ages or earlier,” Ms. Dyson said, walking back over toward my desk. “This is also the transition time as the season moves toward winter, from light into darkness.


  1. Hi Heather,

    Here are some comments on your first five pages. I hope they're helpful.

    I would definitely keep reading after the mention of the deer, but I wasn't sure about the opening line. Are all 13 yo girls accustomed to freaky random stuff? This implies that just because they're 13 they'd have a regular amount of random stuff in their lives, which maybe they do, but freaky? Just something that stopped me.

    Not sure of the time of year. She mentions the road is cold, so winter?

    Do car horns blare the whole time she’s sitting? Do adults get out of their cars? Are her clothes bloody?

    By the time we get to the mention of Mrs. Dyson’s class, I’m not sure where it’s headed and it seems to be rambling a little. We've gone from the road with the deer to her house with the gift and to school (to picture day and class), but nothing seems to be tying the flow together for me.

    By “started” I assume you mean Aubrey's period, but I had to read the sentence twice to make sure I just hadn’t missed a word. Why is this intimidating for Cindy? I didn't understand why she'd be intimidated by this.

    Is it the homecoming sign that disappears, or the banner wording?

    Hope this helps!

  2. Hi Heather,

    Thanks for sharing your work with us!

    I was able to follow your story easily, and I started to get a feel for your character, who is interesting in her tough, brave demeanor.

    My biggest feedback at this stage would be to slow down and show us some scenes. Much of this selection is written in summary, with time moving very quickly. The moment with the deer is close to being a scene, but it seems to happen in a vacuum. Where are the other adults? The driver? Or is the point that she's alone? This scene builds a tremendous amount of characterization, but it doesn't seem to launch us into the character's life.

    She mentions being a foster child, so I expected that to play into what I read thereafter. Is she new to the foster system? Is this a change that has just occurred? Ideally, you want to let us in on the character's life when the status quo has been interrupted, and lead us quite quickly into the inciting moment that really launches your story, and your character's quest to return to a normal state.

    I would examine where your inciting moment is. Something in these opening scenes should set up what is about to happen, and give us some idea of the central story question. While I enjoyed much of what you wrote, I could not say exactly what this story is about. Not yet. If it is about magical things happening in the real world, then make sure you maximize your unique point of view, as that is a competitive market and your magical world will need to stand out.

    Best of luck! I am curious to know more about Cindy.

  3. Hi Heather,

    I enjoyed reading these pages! The first paragraph immediately intrigued me, and I wanted to know more – which is great! And your descriptions are wonderful. I can visualize the deer, the country road, the package, and the classroom. I’d like a better sense of Cindy – since the wand is changing her appearance, I’d like to know what she looked like before.

    There are a few areas where you could provide more context. For example, regarding the wand – she doesn’t seem shocked. A little bit more context would help the reader understand her reaction. Do people believe in magic? Does she? Does she know her father is a wizard? Also, since she’s a foster kid, where does she live? How is she treated? And from the first paragraph – why does she need to get used to freaky stuff?

    As much as I loved the descriptions with the deer, I didn’t see where they connected with the rest of the story. And where are all of the impatient moms? Are they honking? Driving around her? (I do think many moms would be very sad about the deer - by the way, so this did not ring true to me) You take up a lot of valuable first five pages real estate with this scene, so make sure it’s important to the story or consider shortening/cutting it.

    I was also confused by this paragraph:

    “The fact these words swooped across the chalkboard in loopy orange cursive didn't make them any less intimidating. Nor did the fact I got a text at lunch that my friend Aubrey, who won't be thirteen for another six months, started, leaving me the only one who hasn't.”

    Aubrey started what? And what hasn’t Cindy started?

    Good luck revising – I think you’re off to a strong start!

  4. Hi Heather. I really liked the description of the girl holding the deer. "Her eyes, a glossy brown like mine, reflected my face back at me." created a very touching image for me. The beginning line about a lot of "freaky random stuff" needed some detail. What stuff? I didn't see a connection with the beginning of the story and the direction it took. It appeared to just be running around. When the girl mentions foster care, I think it would have been good to play on that. Give the reader more detail about her life.

  5. Hi Heather,

    I really enjoy the pops of voice in this piece. I think you have something really nice to build on there and the descriptions are fun and fascinating. You do a good job of staying in an active voice and you have a lot of interesting scenarios going on in these first few pages.

    The main issue I had with this section was that the narrative flow was a bit dodgy. You start with an interesting paragraph about the deer in her lap, then backup to when it happened, then jump back to her being with the deer again without showing us the emotional decision to go into the road to sit with the deer (a powerful missed opportunity), jump to description of the wall and where it leads, then she goes to talk to other deers, then has a present from a long lost dad (with zero emotional or mental reaction to that happening) that she either believes is magic or jokes about being magic, then the box disappears and she doesn't seem to react to that happening either. There is a lot of jumping around without a good flow to the story. Show us her discovering the box and how she feels about reading her dad's name on it. Does this happen a lot? Was she expecting it even? Show us her making the decision to hide it and why she does that. Then her reaction when the box goes missing. Does she honestly believe it disappeared (I really don't understand if magic is real in this world or not and if the character knows what she thinks, then I should by now, too) or does she wonder if someone found it and stole it?

    Some of the voice moments are fantastic! The initial line about the deer in her lap and the line about the goldfish are two the come to mind. Other parts, like the description of the stone wall just seem dull in comparison. Try to bring a little more consistency in the voice throughout.

    Getting us in a little closer to her thoughts and feelings about things, plus refining your narration will solve a lot of issues.

    Good luck! I'm excited to see where you go with this!

  6. Hi Heather! I've never read middle school books so I will try my best as I have no idea how they go.

    "Someone needed to care and something about it stabbed the dark untouched area of my heart, the spot I only know is there by the way it changes the parts around it." This preceding sentence sounds weird to me.

    Also how can she smell the apples on the tree if they're across the road. That sounds unrealistic.

    "It wandered off back toward the busy part of Sudham, with its tall brick storefronts slicing off toward the ocean." What wandered off?

    I feel like you should get into more details about the girl. We don't really know much about her.

    I think you kind of rush into things. You talk about the girl with the deer. Then she goes to school. I really have no idea where you're going with this story.

    But the way you started off in the beginning paragraph grabbed my interest.

    I hoped this helped :) Good Luck!

  7. Hi Heather, I really enjoyed your pages. You have a unique voice and I fell immediately in love with your character. I feel you’re off to a great start here. But I almost feel as if this could become several chapters; that each scene in your early character and plot development deserves more detail and description.

    Right away I’m hooked by your character as a foster kid. But I want to more about that. You give us hints along the way, but nothing we can latch on to emotionally. Where does Cindy live? Who with? Why? For how long? Is this her first foster family? Are they good to her?

    Then we have the scene with the deer. Brilliant. Almost. Again, I want to see more of the scene. Where are we? In the suburbs? If it’s densely populated, how could a deer and her babes have gotten there? If it’s country, how does Cindy walk home? Are there sidewalks there? Or is she on a path next to a park. I see the tight scene with the deer in her lap very clearly, but when I pull the camera back, the scene goes out of focus for me.

    Then we have the discovery of the package. Cool! But what does it have to do with the deer? I was half expecting the baby deer to follow her home. Great idea. What I would have given to be 13 and have a deer for a pet! But we then skip to a wand. Are these two elements tied together? They must be. You have the room to explore these plot lines so they link up more elegantly.

    Then the box disappears? That’s crazy! Did someone take it? Was it spirited away by magic? Cindy has little reaction so I don’t know what to think.

    Then we’re in school. And the homecoming sign goes poof. Why? Again, no reaction from any of the characters. Did they not see it? Did Cindy maybe cause it, but not know it herself? Can you give us a hint of that with a thought or look or comment?

    And then we have the middle school angst caused by zits and unruly hair and periods that just won’t come. So I’m guessing this is going to be a coming of age story and that her magical powers are coming with her inevitable step into puberty. That’s great. But what does it have to do with the deer.

    All to say, I think you’ve got the makings of several chapters here. So take your time. Flesh each scene out in the lovely natural voice you’ve already mastered. And this will make a wonderful tale. But to start, what is your central conflict or problem? That’s what we need to see in these first pages.

    As I said, I’m already hooked. Can’t wait to see it develop!