Monday, November 3, 2014

First 5 Pages November Workshop - Minsky

Name:  Connie Minsky
Genre:  Young Adult Contemporary

I’ve never seen a dead body, but I knew the one I was staring at was lifeless. Sam, my boyfriend, and I, entered the Presidio through the gate at the end of Broadway Street. The Presidio is federally owned land in the middle of our city, San Francisco. It’s a national park consisting of acres of land filled with native plants, trees and walking paths leading through wooded areas. We went there almost every weekend morning with our dogs.

We stood on the cement road surrounded on both sides by grassy areas with tall trees. No cars entered that road, which led to the main road with traffic and then onto a dirt path leading into the woods. To the right, peeking between the trees was a beautiful view of the San Francisco Bay with Alcatraz in the distance.

There was a leash law in the park, but Sam and I often disobeyed it. Most people were equally rebellious. Many dogs ran unleashed. It was when I took Miles off the leash and glanced up that I noticed the body. I tugged at Sam’s jacket and nodded toward its direction. It was to our right, not too far down and slumped against a tree. Her head hung low with long blond hair covering her face. It was the hair that made me think she was a girl. She wore dark colored clothes, and there was a dark backpack next to her.

I was equally frightened and curious. I found it odd that she would be so close to the pedestrian road where she would easily be seen. There were many trees and the grassy area extended far down where she could have been hidden. I thought if I were going to commit a crime and kill someone I wouldn’t do it out in the open. I would have gone further into the woods.

She definitely wasn’t sleeping. There was something eerie about the way the body leaned against the tree with its head dangling forward. There was a silence surrounding her that whispered death. It was Sunday morning, and the late July fog was thick, which added to the already sinister scene. Wisps of white ghosts lingered about as the foghorn blared in the distance. It was a bit windy and chilly. We stood there staring when I finally broke the silence. 

“Let’s go down and check it out. Maybe she’s still alive.”

I took about one step when Sam grabbed my arm. “Lexi, you’re not going down there. Get Miles back on the leash before he reaches her.”

Sam’s dog sat obediently by his side. I called Miles, and he immediately returned. I did as Sam said and put his leash on. “Where’s your reporter’s curiosity?” I asked. My curiosity often got the best of me. I was worse than a cat.

We were on the staff for the school newspaper since our sophomore year. I wrote articles about school events and interviewed people like the principal, visiting guests, teachers and students. I wanted to do serious stuff like news reporting, and since I was entering my senior year I was hoping I would finally get the position but I didn’t. Lisa Chen got it.

Lisa began working on the paper since her freshman year so she had more experience than I did. Sam wrote opinion pieces, but his passion was photography. He took all the photos for the sport teams and other events. As an elective we both signed up for the journalism class starting in the fall. Mr. Stone taught the class as well being the advisor for the newspaper.

Sam looked at me. “My instincts are telling me to not mess with anything. There could be important evidence down there. I’m calling 911. We’re staying here with the dogs until the police arrive. It’s probably a murder scene.”

He was acting uncommonly serious. While we waited, Sam took photos. He always brought his camera wherever we went. I called it his fifth limb. He took good pictures. He snapped away. At one point he zoomed in on her. We still couldn’t see her face, but what we did see made us look away from the camera and stare at one another. Blood. Her blond hair had some strands streaked with blood. We could also see some drops on her jacket. Dried, caked, dull red blood.

Ten minutes later two police officers, a woman in plain clothes and paramedics arrived. By then we weren’t alone. Several people gathered around us wanting to know what happened. Sam pointed to the direction of the body when one of the officers asked about it. The woman introduced herself as Detective Rosales and flashed her badge. She asked us to wait once we told her we had found the body.

I watched as they all made their way down the slope to the girl. The police and the detective put on light colored purple gloves and knelt down next to the body while the paramedics stood there with the gurney they wheeled along. We could see them talking to one another, but we couldn’t hear the words. While all this was taking place an official looking man walked through the gate and joined the crew by the body. They were all quite chatty. I noticed how they surveyed the area surrounding the girl. They even examined the tree. The dogs were getting restless, so we walked over to the other side permitting them to do their business. When we returned the detective walked up to us. She was still wearing the gloves.

Detective Rosales was a tall, slender, pretty woman. She had a confident walk and when she spoke, her voice was strong and serious. I was a bit intimidated. She seemed tough. She looked at Sam. 

“Did you make the call?”

“You didn’t notice anything or anyone? Just walking through and spotted the body?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Sam responded.

“Did you go down there? Touch anything?”

“No, we stayed here.”

“Good. How old are you?”

“We’re seventeen,” Sam said.

“And your name?” She looked at Sam.

“Sam Taylor.”

She looked at me. “And you?”

“Alexis Chase.”

“Do you live around here?”

“Yes,” I answered. “About a ten-minute walk.”

“Thanks for calling it in. I’m sure it was scary for you to see.” She then asked for our phone numbers, our home, not cell numbers.

“Do you know what happened?” I hesitantly asked.

“Appears to be a suicide.”

“Suicide?” Sam repeated.

“Sadly, yes. We found a note in her backpack.”

I wanted to ask about the blood, but I didn’t. “How old was she?” I asked.

“According to her driver’s license she was twenty-three,” Detective Rosales replied.

“Oh.” Suddenly I felt sick to my stomach. She was young and took her own life. I found it disturbing. I never considered suicide. I immediately thought someone killed her and that was bad enough, but suicide hit me harder. It was her choice.

“We’ll investigate, but for now, that’s what we’re seeing. Thanks for your help, and if we have any other questions we’ll call.”

“Okay,” Sam said for the both of us.

We watched as the dead girl was placed on the gurney, completely covered and wheeled back up. The detective carried her backpack. She thanked us again and handed Sam her business card telling him if we can think of anything to call her. They all walked out the gate. The crowd dispersed, and we found ourselves alone once again.


  1. Hi Connie,

    Welcome to the workshop! Here are some comments for you:

    The opening paragraph has a tiny feeling of an info dump. I understand wanting to make sure that the reader knows what the Presidio is, but could you incorporate the information more naturally throughout elsewhere?

    I feel distanced from the narrator. For example, “I was equally frightened and curious. I found it odd that she would be so close to the pedestrian road where she would easily be seen.” I’d prefer to experience these sentiments as the narrator does, rather than be told by her that she’s feeling this way. On that same note, a lot of the action here feels narrated rather than experienced.

    There are two paragraphs of info regarding the school newspaper, Lisa Chen, etc., that slowed the pacing for me and distracted from the finding of the body. Can the info be worked in later in another way?

    “My instincts are telling me to not mess with anything. There could be important evidence down there. I’m calling 911. We’re staying here with the dogs until the police arrive. It’s probably a murder scene.”
    Sam’s dialog feels stilted here.

    I hope this helps,


  2. Hi Connie! It's great to have you here. I'll jot my thoughts down as I read.

    I like your opening sentence; it's catchy. But after that, the remainder of the initial paragraph and the next few contain lots of details the reader doesn't need to know just yet. Keep going with what's happening now. Pull me into the scene so I can see, smell, taste, and feel all that your MC is experiencing, not what she already knows - aka the leash law, where the cars are made to park, etc...

    I'm not getting a lot of emotion or urgency from this character. She's just seen a dead body. You need to up the anxiety and tension in this piece. Cutting out some of the unnecessary details (at least for now) will help with that. Also, the words chosen "Let's go check it out" seems a bit to frivolous to me. I think they'd be freaking out a little more, or maybe even the dog could react.

    I can see why you felt it was important to include how this MC wants to write more serious pieces for the school paper, but I don't think this is where you want to give the reader that info. This is a very serious scene. It could be very eerie/creepy/dangerous, too. The reader doesn't know yet. Go with that action/reaction and I think the rest could come in the next scene/chapter.

    You have loads to work with here, so Kudos for creating a scene full of possibles. Looking forward to reading your revision.


  3. Hi Connie - thanks for sharing! Once when I was the editor of my high school newspaper I skipped school to cover a fire in our town, so I can relate to your character. This is young adult, which is the most brutal market going in my opinion. If you're going to make it you've got to be ruthless with your writing. I would like to see what would change if you went through and cut everything that isn't happening right that second, including extra description about the Presidio, leash laws, etc.

    What's this girl really thinking? If she's the reporter she believes she is then I would bet it's something like this: Judge me all you like, but as soon as I saw the body I knew it was my big chance.

    Reporters are a twisted breed, and as someone with a journalism degree (who worked as a city reporter) I say that with all due love and respect. I'm assuming she's going to go on and try to solve this crime using evidence in the friend's photos. Maybe she's not, and is grossed enough to give up news?

  4. Hi Connie--thanks so much for letting us read your work! :D

    I noticed that all the comments are sort of reiterating the same issues--a distance from the narrator and the scene, a lack of visceral reactions and appropriate emotions, an introduction of too much backstory--and I do agree with those points. But rather than chime in with more of the same, I thought I'd offer a few tips on how to fix it. Feel free to ignore my ideas. Take only what resonates with you! :)

    One thing that I think will take this scene to a whole different level is to follow the old adage: Show don't tell.

    So, for example, in this part: "I was equally frightened and curious."

    Rather than tell me what she felt, can you show it to be? What does it FEEL like to be both frightened and curious? Are her hands trembling? Is her heart lodged in her throat? Is her breakfast churning in her stomach, but despite the nausea, she finds her feet keep inching closer to the corpse--and her fingers keep itching for her phone so she can start writing out all the details she sees?

    If you can give us very specific physical reactions, it will not only draw the reader more deeply into the scene, but also raise the tension. Plus, what she feels and how she reacts will help show us WHO our MC is. :)

    Another thing to try is to remove some of the filter words. Filter words are things like, "I watched" or "I could see" (more on filter words here:, and they ultimately distance the reader from the story. Sometimes you need them, but oftentimes they can be removed.

    So rather than: "I watched as they all made their way down the slope to the girl." You could simply say, "They all made their way down the slope."

    One more tip that might help bring this scene up a notch is to try to use stronger words. Rather than saying, "They made their way down the slope," can you use a verb that shows us exactly HOW they made their way down? Perhaps they clambered over roots and scree...or maybe they sauntered, seemingly unhurried--as if they encountered this sort of thing all the time.

    Show us exactly what's happening. :)

    Or, another example: "Detective Rosales was a tall, slender, pretty woman." This is vague, and I can't actually imagine it. Are there stronger adjectives you could use to really plant this image in my mind? For example, "Detective Rosales towered over me, almost hulking in her height were it not for her model-thin bones and softly angled, tan face."

    Obviously these are all just examples and suggestions, but hopefully something in there resonates!

    I can't wait to see what you have for us next week!

  5. Hi Connie- Thanks for submitting! You have an interesting setup here and the reporter main character is a compelling angle for her to not want to just leave this "suicide" alone.

    Here are some thoughts for you to consider while editing going forward: Dead body on the first page always tells me it's a mystery/suspense/thriller. This makes the distance from your main character that other comments have mentioned an even bigger problem because these genres depend on your reader being caught up in the fear or thrill or puzzle of the moment. In order to create that connection, you need to bring the reader closer to the character.

    The first thing I would recommend to fix this problem is to show not tell. This is something newer writers hear ALL THE TIME, but it's absolutely true. Don't tell me you think it's a girl, let the description of the long hair and small frame speak for itself. Call her a girl to begin with (unless there is actually doubt, people assign gender pretty quick). Don't tell us that Sam is uncommonly serious, show us your main character noticing him having a hard time looking at the body and him missing an opportunity for a joke. (side note: not sure him being uncommonly serious is even noteworthy. They are standing in front of a dead body. Of course he wouldn't react normally).

    The other thing to work on is to bring out the things people actually notice when they're afraid. Unless she is a sociopath, she should experience fear when finding her first dead body. Even the detective mentions that this must've been scary for her, but we don't see that at all. We should. It is a normal human reaction. What does fear do to a person? Her heart beat might race, she might have a cold sweat, she might feel an urge to run but reporter fascination could also draw her closer. Is there a smell? Does the blood make her feel nauseous? All of those in-the-moment details will bring your reader into the scene with her.

    Hope this helps and good luck! Looking forward to see what you have next week!

  6. I found the opening of the story quite catchy. It was very easy to follow. But I found there to be details that weren't quite necessary. There wasn't a lot of info dump.

    I think you could work on making the reader connect with the characters since we don't know a lot about them. You just jumped in to what was happening. But we don't know the main character that well.

    "I’ve never seen a dead body, but I knew the one I was staring at was lifeless." This was a good opening line. But then the main character says the following...

    "She definitely wasn’t sleeping."

    This was a weird change since it was already assumed that the girl was dead. I think you should also try to make it more suspenseful. Make the main character feel more nervous. Or she's just a brave girl?

    I hope this helped. Good luck!

  7. Hi Connie, I see a YA noir in your future! But to get there, I think your story would be strengthened by stripping it back. There’s a lot of information in these opening pages that we really don’t need. You could put us in the Presidio simply by showing us a view of Alcatraz. We don’t need all the other exposition. In fact, I think the story should start here:

    There was something eerie about the way the body leaned against the tree with its head dangling forward that told me she wasn’t sleeping. There was a silence surrounding her that whispered death. It was Sunday morning, and the late July fog was thick, which added to the already sinister scene. Wisps of white ghosts lingered about as the foghorn blared in the distance. It was a bit windy and chilly. We stood there staring when I finally broke the silence.

    “Let’s go down and check it out. Maybe she’s still alive.”

    All the rest is just build up to get you where you need to be. You can give us some of those details later.

    I’d also like to see interaction with Detective Rosales right away. Would she really have left those kids hanging and inspect the body first? Would they really have stuck around with no one talking to them? I think that connection is more powerful right up front that all the exposition about the school paper. That can come later. Especially the line about Lisa Chen getting the job. That may be important to your plot, but it isn’t yet.

    Again, I think you need to strip these pages back to the bare essentials, then build out from there. I’d love to hear a noir voice: simple sentences, punchy descriptions, fast action. Just the facts mam. That would work well with your mystery/thriller set up.

    But the main issue for me in these pages is I don’t yet know what the story conflict or problem is. There are no obvious stakes. We have a dead girl. Possibly a suicide. Young, wearing a backpack. Great. But what about it? Will Alexis and Sam disagree with Rosales? Is there some reason to think suicide isn’t the answer? Will they solve the crime? Will they disagree with each other? What does Lisa have to do with it?

    In YA, we need to see your story conflict right away, not the Presidio. We need to see it on the first page, not the fifth.

    I’m sure you know where you’re going with this, even if we don’t yet. So go, girl! You can do it!

    PS Also, anytime you use the words “feel” or “thought” in a sentence, you’re telling. Strike it and show us how s/he fells/thinks through active descriptions.