Saturday, February 7, 2015

First 5 Pages February Workshop - Bradley

Name: Lisa Bradley
Genre: Young Adult Mystery
Title: Island Shadows

I’m carrying around three tickets to the Met in my sweater pocket. The Met is this big art museum in Manhattan. I bought the tickets thinking I’d surprise my parents for their anniversary. I’m three-hundred miles away now. And I’m still holding onto these tickets.

My sophomore year is finally over. I talked my parents into letting me spend the summer in Silver Head to help me “deal with things.” A part of me wanted to stay in the city, to stomp my feet and scream that they couldn’t do this to our family. But a larger part of me wanted to leave. Ever since Mom and Dad broke the news to me, the only thing I could think about was getting to Silver Head. Everything about this place reminds me of childhood.

Gramps and I are in the Oldsmobile '88 headed toward town for my morning shift at Cafferty’s General Grocer. For two weeks now, this has been our routine. The summer job isn’t the local library like I’d hoped, but Mike Cafferty pays me decent money for helping him and his sons at the store. The money’s going straight in my “Art School” fund. The fund’s a tad south of where I expected, and buying the Met tickets didn’t help, but picking up a few extra shifts should fix this.

I slide the tickets from my sweater pocket and stare at them. I trace the ticket faces with the underside of my thumb. The paper is softened and creased, the text nearly rubbed off in spots, like the tickets are ancient.

Three tickets.

“Maybe we’ll do some fishing later, Tess,” Gramps says. “Like old times.”

Gramps is serious about fishing. He and his buddy Cal won the Walleye tournament the last four years running.

“I’ll probably just draw,” I say, sliding the tickets back in my pocket.


I cut him off with a look. We used to vacation at Gran and Gramps’s cottage by the river every summer. For ten days my t-shirts smelled like peach juice, bug spray and diesel fuel.

I peek at Gramps from the corner of my eye. He’s moving his lips like he might say something else, but doesn’t. His blue eyes are glassier than I remember, and the freckled brown spots on his hands seem darker too.

I lean my head against the window glass, tracing the curvy line of the river with my eyes until I grow dizzy. Since I arrived, I can’t stop staring at the river. This shade of bluish-green doesn’t exist anywhere else I’ve ever been.

I’m reminiscing over our family trips in my head when a series of flashing lights on the highway causes Gramps to ease on the brakes. He comes to a stop beside a young-ish looking police officer standing in the road. The cop looks barely older than me.

Gramps lowers his window; a smell like burning leaves curls inside. “What’s all this, Officer?” he asks.

“Another fire,” the policeman says, leaning in toward the window. “Just making sure it’s contained. Keep your speed down for the next few miles.”

Gramps nods curtly, his face tight. He pushes the button and the window rolls up.

We pass by a ladder truck and a Fire & Rescue vehicle up ahead on the side of the highway, their lights spinning but no sirens.

“Forest fire,” Gramps says. “Probably already got it under control.”

I’m not sure what my face looks like, but Gramps must see something there. He smiles weakly, but his expression seems rolled up like the window, not his normal face.

Growing up in the city you’d think I’d be used to flashing lights, but for some reason this bothers me. Silver Head seems so untroubled. It’s hard to imagine anything bad ever happening here.

The police cruiser and firetruck lights continue to spin in the side-view mirror until I can’t see them anymore. I can’t pull my eyes away.

The Oldsmobile feels like its crawling toward town. We finally round the bend onto Main Street, passing by the welcome sign that says population two thousand five hundred.

Gramps pulls into a parking spot across from Cafferty’s General Store.

“Sorry you have to keep dropping me off,” I say.

Gramps waves his hand, like its no big deal. Town is too far a walk from the cottage. I passed my driver’s test earlier this year, but there’s only the Oldsmobile to share between me, Gran and Gramps.

After saying goodbye to Gramps, I cross the street and head toward Cafferty’s. The windows are wallpapered with yellowed ads and fliers hawking everything from housecleaning to charter fishing guides. Paint peels along the edges of the window frames. I swing open the front door and the familiar sound of bells rattle against the glass. Mike’s behind the front register counter. He looks up and smiles. Mike smiles at everyone.

“Mornin’, Tessa.”

I mumble hello and head to the staff office behind the register counter to drop off my backpack. These days, I carry my sketch pad and pencils everywhere, even though I haven’t drawn anything in weeks. It’s not like I haven’t tried, but I end up staring at a blank sheet of paper.

Cafferty’s is pretty typical, though about a quarter of the size of a regular grocery store. It sells milk, meat, fruits and vegetables. I head toward my area in the gift shop, a cramped space off to one side with a wide opening facing the main part of the store. This corner holds a treasure chest of shiny things for tourists to buy: miniature lighthouses, dream catchers, sun towels, things like this. The candy aisle’s pretty popular too.

Every morning, except weekends, I sit at the gift shop counter ringing up Tootsie Pops and bouncy balls to frazzled parents whose children pull at the hems of their shorts. I used to be one of those kids. Five years ago, when I was eleven, we stopped coming to the river. Right around the time Mom quit painting and took a job at a bank in mid-town.


Crap. I look down at the register. I’ve jammed it up again. Paper is choking out of the receipt slot. The machine starts beeping. Mike puts down the cardboard box he’s hauling and jogs over.

I smile weakly at a woman and twin toddler boys staring at me from the opposite side of counter. The boys are already sucking on their Tootsie Pops.

"Sorry,” Mike mutters to the mother. “Technology. I don’t know why I let my teenagers talk me into upgrading this thing.”

Bells rattle on the front door and Mike’s youngest teenager, Ryan, who’s about my age, strides in the store. Ryan’s sandy-colored hair is a few shades darker this morning, probably still damp from his morning laps. Mike calls Ryan over to deal with the paper jam. Ryan strides over, sliding in between me and Mike behind the counter where it’s already cramped. I catch the familiar not unpleasant whiff of spice mixed with something stringent, probably chlorine. Same scent as every morning, not that I notice.


  1. Hi Lisa!

    I enjoyed reading your pages. Tessa's voice is easy to read and relatable, and the cynicism that so often characterizes a modern first-person like this is explained and justified right away. Her staring at the tickets really earned my sympathy.

    Useful explanatory information is threaded throughout, so I get a good sense of where she is and why. The town seems pretty generic "small town," such as the peeling paint and "nothing bad happens," but that's how I might remember it through the filter of nostalgia, too. It is different in that it has a river, and lots of fishing, so if you needed to drop hints at any future unique qualities, you could do it there. Maybe a new flier that Tess notices? You wouldn't need to change it as it is, but you could put more there if you were looking for a place.

    Since you mentioned it was a mystery, I'm hopeful that "another fire" has a strong tie to the plot. It's a great, inconsequential thing to happen at the beginning, which could have much larger implications.

    I also love the introduction of a possible romantic interest ("not that I notice" -- classic!). I would definitely keep reading past this point. :)

  2. I'm definitely intrigued by this, and I'm really enjoying Tessa's voice. I love the tickets she's carrying and the cash-register incident. They really build sympathy for your MC. Like Abigail, I'm hoping that the fire is significant to the story.

    I can't think of much to critique, except that I think perhaps you might experiment with cutting the first three paragraphs and re-inserting them (or the information in them) a bit later on. As is, the first three paras are a lot of exposition and I think leaving readers wondering about the significance of the tickets a little longer might be fun :)

    1. Thank you. Quick follow-up, when you suggest leaving the info. about her parents out (or more opaque a bit longer), how long were you thinking? I have played around with this for awhile. Originally, I kept it very opaque for the first 2 chapters and an editor told me that when she did find out what happened between Tess's parents she was "disappointed." She expected them to be dead or something. I may have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. Curious what your thoughts are. Thanks!

    2. Oh, I wasn't thinking long at all. More like right after she slides the tickets back in her pocket, or somewhere in the first five pages.

  3. Hi Lisa -

    Well, you got me! I'm buying this book. Especially if the mystery's a good one! I love the elegant simplicity and authenticity of your writing. I especially loved the stroking of the tickets. Beautiful.

    The only thing I can think to say is that I am an impatient reader and would like one more hint about the mystery ahead - if the fire is related, maybe just one more line about what she notices... just something that pulls me into the plot as well as the character. For example, The Hunger Games, first paragraph "This is the day of the reaping."

    I know mysteries don't really work the same, but if you could throw me a bone, I'll be telling all my friends to buy your book! haha

    Honestly, I think this is wonderfully well written. Congratulations!

  4. Enjoyed your voice. You pulled me into the story right away. I can visually see the small town and have a sense of Tess's unhappiness.

    I also felt the story started at stroking the tickets. That showed a wonderful emotional pull. Then add the other information. My favorite line is: His expression seems rolled up like the window. Great description.

    I think this is very polished and would love to learn more about the mystery!!

  5. Enjoyed your voice. You pulled me into the story right away. I can visually see the small town and have a sense of Tess's unhappiness.

    I also felt the story started at stroking the tickets. That showed a wonderful emotional pull. Then add the other information. My favorite line is: His expression seems rolled up like the window. Great description.

    I think this is very polished and would love to learn more about the mystery!!

    1. Thank you. I like this idea of playing with the order of the beginning paragraphs. Good stuff!

  6. Hi Lisa,

    You've got a great story here with some great writing and hints at danger and angst to come! :-)

    I agree with re-ordering the opening. Begin with Tessa pulling out/stroking the tickets. It shows more emotion and more sadness over the breaking up of her family. I'm assuming the parents are divorcing? I think you can make that more clear with some more well-placed details of Tessa's thoughts/reactions/dialogue. Maybe something her grandfather says?

    A few comments that are easily fixable but which I think will add more emotion and foreshadowing.

    This is small but in the first paragraph don't say "The Met is this big art museum in Manhattan". That's the author telling the reader. If you delete it, conveying this info to the reader can be done more on the sly, perhaps something like: "I bought the tickets to the art museum, thinking I'd surprise my parents . . . etc."

    The second paragraph beginning with my sophomore year being over, talking to her parents about spending the summer at Silver Head, etc feels like it's jumping around in time. We have the tickets and then back-story and I'm not grounded in where Tessa is right now. I want to get into her head as quickly as possible. You want to convey back-story throughout. Begin with a specific action and emotion, the rest can be woven in later.

    "Everything about this place reminds me of childhood." Like what? Give us a couple of specific that brings emotion right into it as well as lets the reader "see" the place and "see" Tessa's thoughts and feelings.

    End of 3rd paragraph: Met tickets are only $25 dollars so I don't see how she has to work a few extra shifts to make up the difference. It's small, but made me stop and you don't want your reader stopping. :-)

    8th paragraph Tessa mentions that she's going to draw. This stopped me because at this point we don't know that Tessa is an artist. Maybe just add "draw in my sketchbook" or "draw the wildflowers" or some such to ground us a bit more.

    Why does she cut off her grandfather with a look? This didn't make sense to me because we don't know their personalities or relationships yet. It seemed a bit rude to me, but it might not be. They might have certain teasing looks they give each other. We just don't know them well enough, but something like this can be a tad jarring.

    End of that same paragraph is great. Super details that ground us in the setting and Tessa's life! Just give us more throughout!

    Next paragraph, "Since I arrived". This made me wonder how long she's been there. Did she just arrive that day? The time frame of these pages is confusing to me. How can she stare at the river all the time--even when shes' at her grandfather's house, at work, on the highway? I'm not picturing this place or the lay of the land. You don't need to stop the story and give us whole paragraphs on setting, but a few extra words or a sentence here ore there will help your reader *see* it all better.

    When she's reminiscing over previous family trips, what is Tessa thinking about, what is she remembering? Give us at least one specific detail.

    Great line about Gramps face being rolled up like the window. I think you can cut the phrase “not his normal face.” It’s implied.

    I like the description of the store!

    Close to the end there’s a line where someone says, “Tess”. I’m not sure who says this because Mike is actually (per the next paragraph) hauling a box and has to jog over to talk to her.

    Last paragraph the word “strides” is used twice.

    Just musing here, but have you tried writing these 5 pages in past tense instead of present tense? It might be a good exercise to see if the timing and Tessa’s back-story might flow more smoothly in a different tense. Rewriting just a few pages can give you a feel for it without rewriting the entire book.

    Can’t wait to see what you do with this in the next few days! Good luck!

    1. Thanks, Kimberley. You've given me some great concrete feedback to chew on. Your suggestion of writing in past is interesting. This MS was originally in past/3rd and I converted it to 1st/present some time ago and I felt like the story really popped for me. However, I didn't try 1st/past, and as you suggest, the exercise on 5 pgs alone may shed some interesting light. Thank you.

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  8. Hi Lisa! Welcome to First Five! ISLAND SHADOWS is intriguing! I feel myself drawn into your story and want to know more about Tess. These are good things! However, to me, these pages feel a bit expositional. A few comments above, someone pointed out the "The Met is..." which is a fairly straightforward example of telling instead of showing. (And perhaps the better place to introduce the tix is with your line about the worn-ness of the tickets themselves and just maybe put Metropolitan Museum so readers know without any exposition). However, my comment is broader. I went back through the text and found many paragraphs and critical lines beginning with "I" ("I'm carrying...I slide...I cut...I peek...I lean"). When you use "I," you are showing a certain self-awareness on the part of the narrator, kind of play-by-playing their moments, that seem to weaken your more visceral, emotionally powerful moments (e.g. instead of "I peek at Gramps..." perhaps you could just jump in to "Gramps is..." and tell us b/c readers know that narrator is looking at Gramps) and all those I verbs feel a bit deliberate. Now, this could be a stylistic narrative choice but for me, right now, it feels like the author's hand over the character. My instinct for your first revision would be to try searching for those I's and I-then-verb moments and see if you really need them or if you can cull them out and cut straight the moment of the story. Try reading a bit of WINGER in which Andrew Smith does an impressive job of blending "I" with a very free-flowing, unencumbered yet complex narrative. Mystery-wise, I feel the build from the fire and, clearly, there's some other kind of familial issue/mystery at play. Maybe stir the pot a little and give us a few more hints about this before the lollipops and broken cash register--unless they're super-important to the plot. This is a strong first draft that I think you can really heat up with revision. I am excited to see what you do! Happy Writing!

    1. Thank you so much for the feedback. Great advice. Can't wait to dig in...

  9. Hi Lisa! Wow, this story really grabbed me! Your writing is crisp and lovely, and you do a great job of blending tension with emotion. Tessa’s relationship with her grandfather was really sweet and relatable, and her heartache over her parents’ breakup is something I could feel. On top of that, there were so many lines that made me sit up and pay attention—things like “but his expression seems rolled up like the window” and “a smell like burning leaves curls inside.”

    I think you do a great job of balancing information with forward-moving action. As the story moves forward, we get hints of Tessa’s past, her relationship with her family, her feelings about her current situation. Great job! Outside of the opening paragraphs (which people have already mentioned, and I will get into in a minute), I never once felt like there was too much of one thing—your backstory, dialogue and descriptions blend together perfectly.

    While I found myself sucked into the story the entire time, the fire really caught my attention. There’s this wonderful tension (perhaps foreshadowing?) that runs through that scene, and I found myself excited to read on to find out what was going to happen. Building tension without giving anything away is really hard to do, and you nailed it here.

    In terms of suggestions, my first thought is one that people have already articulated—I think your story begins with “I slide the tickets from my sweater pocket and stare at them.” I LOVE this paragraph, and the single sentence paragraph after it. As for your concerns about mentioning the divorce too late (I read through the comments here before writing this), I think you could definitely provide that information in the first chapter, just not right away. I love the idea of seeing the tickets, feeling the emotion that goes behind them, and then having the divorce info given to us just a little further down. You could even have Gramps notice Tessa holding onto the tickets and ask about them, and then have her put them back in her pocket and reflect briefly on when she bought them (I'm a sucker for giving info through dialogue.) Or, if you just wanted to re-order things a bit, something like this might work:

    I slide the tickets from my sweater pocket and stare at them. The paper is softened and creased, the text nearly rubbed off in spots, like the tickets are ancient. I trace the ticket faces with the underside of my thumb.

    Three tickets.

    “Maybe we’ll do some fishing later, Tess,” Gramps says, looking over at me. His blue eyes are glassier than I remember, and the freckled brown spots on his hands seem darker too. “Like old times.”

    “I’ll probably just draw,” I say, sliding the tickets back in my pocket.

    Gramps and I are in the Oldsmobile '88 headed toward town for my morning shift at Cafferty’s General Grocer….

    * * *

    Obviously, my version is a bit choppy since I’m cutting and pasting, but I wanted to give an example of starting the story a little later, without losing the great tension and emotion you’ve got in here.

    Beyond the opening, my issues here were very small. I found myself wanting “housecleaning” to read “housecleaning supplies,” and I wanted a short description of Mike (since we get such beautiful descriptions of everything else). I would also be careful of telling us things that you're already showing--for example, she mentions feeling reminiscent about childhood, the cabin, but there are enough really great examples of this that I didn't think we necessarily needed to be told.

    Other than those small things. I think this is excellent. I loved the hints about Tessa’s interest in Ryan, and the way you wove her interest in art throughout. So much of what she does come back to art (working to pay for art school, wanting to draw instead of fish, buying her parents museum tickets, and referencing her mother’s passion for art), and it gave me such a strong feel for the character, what she cares about, and how much she loves her family. Really beautiful opening!

    1. Thank you for reading, Chelsea. Knowing what is working really well is as helpful as what needs revision. You've given me so much to work with. Thanks, Chelsea!