Saturday, February 7, 2015

First 5 Pages February Workshop - Levy

Sheri S. Levy
YA (10-14)
Starting Over
Moving to the downstairs guest bedroom tested my endurance. Every time my breathing slowed, and my eyes lids drooped, my eight-week-old, Labrador’s squeaky yelps rushed adrenalin through my body like a broken fire-hydrant, and my eyes snapped open.
I swung my legs over the bed, paused, dreading what I’d find. Catching my breath, I hollered, “Colton. I’m coming.”
In the laundry room across the hall, I blinded us by flicking-on the overhead lights. I blinked and Colton ducked his head. “Hey, little guy. I’m sorry you’re lonesome on your first night.”
His wispy, black tail whipped back and forth as he strained to set his short, front legs at the top of the baby gate. Like a prize fighter he tried again, and again, until he lay on the floor, whining.
I climbed over the gate, sat, and cradled his plump body in a tight bear hug. He crawled up to my face and licked me with a silky tongue. I buried my face in his short, black fur coat, stroked his velvety-droopy ears, and whispered. “Are you going to be waking this often, every night?”
His warm, chocolate-brown eyes winked at me.
I surveyed the newspapers covering the floor and scrunched my nose. “I’m guessing, you want a clean room, again.” I wadded up the messy papers and spread new ones on the swirled beige and rust colored tile floor. “All done! Let’s go outside.”
Colton’s paws clung to my shoulders as I cuddled him down the porch stairs and placed him on the grass.
He tucked his neck into his chest, chin down, unsure of his new environment. But in a short second, he lifted his head, darted left and right, and ogled me over his shoulder. He sprinted back to me, pawed my leg, and I carried him inside.
I placed a handful of kibbles inside his crate, “Night-night. Ple-a-s-e go to sleep.”
His face lay in the opening of his crate, and he fought to keep his eyes open.
Back in bed, I compared this night to Sydney’s, my first service dog’s night. He came to me at six months old, already trained, and slept through the night.
But Colton was a blank slate. And-I’d be his first foster momma, and his only trainer until he moved on.
If I could get a little more sleep, it’d be an easier day tomorrowWhat I am I thinking? It’s already tomorrowI pictured chasing Colton in the hot, muggy summer air, teaching him new words, cleaning his messes, and then snuggling together. Before long, the sun leaked under my eyelids.
A quick glance at the clock, jolted me out of bed. The whiff of coffee told me my parents were up. Was Colton still sleeping? I tip-toed to the laundry room and peeked. Mom and Dad must have him.
As I entered the kitchen, Mom smiled. “Hi, sleepy head! Did you get any sleep last night?” My heart leaped to my throat. Neither parent had Colt.
I swallowed. “Nope!” I scanned the room. “Where is he?”
When Mom and Dad whispered a giggle, I gave them a curious look. Dad put his coffee cup down. “We heard you and Colton every time you got up, but we promised to stay put.”
I caught Mom’s gleaming eyes. “I know he’s your job, honey. But, I woke early and couldn’t wait to see him before I left for work. He’s yours from now on!”
“But where is he?”
Mom’s eyes bugged.
I frowned and my pulse raced. “I looked-in his room and didn’t see him.”
Playing follow the leader, I led us up the hallway and squatted in front of the crate. Under his gold blanket Colton hid, showing only the tip of his black nose.
I covered my mouth, silencing a laugh. After tiptoeing to the kitchen, I hugged each parent. “You guys are the best!”
Before I had finished my bowl of cereal, sharps howls erupted from the laundry room. I rolled my eyes and grinned. “Okay. I’m back on duty!”
#          #
Colton and I romped through the backyard. I wore out first, sat, leaned against a tree trunk, and threw miniature tennis balls from the shade. He chased them, chewed on each one, but wouldn’t bring any back. Excited to repeat this game, he bowed in front of me, whipped his pointy tail, locked eyes with me, and woofed, telling me, “Let’s do it again.”
Since I had to teach him not to bark, I trailed behind him, retrieving his balls, and tossing them before he made his demand. He was like a jet, zooming through the grass, never slowing down.
His ears raised at the clunk, clunk, of Mrs. Brown’s golf cart driving up the path to her paddocks next door. Colton stared toward the clatter, as I collapsed in the shade, and he slinked onto my lap. Snuggling, I whispered in his ear. “Mrs. Brown is bringing in the horses. You’ll get to meet her soon.”
He looked toward the hidden racket, lost interest, and chomped on a tree branch.
The simmering, sun crept higher overhead and the heavy humidity saved me from running for hours. Colton grew hot, enjoyed a quiet break, recharged, and then started all over again. But once he slumped in my lap and didn’t wake, I carried him to his crate, and he crumpled into a small heap.
“Whew. I thought you’d never wear out.” I went to my room to text, my once again best friend, Sarah, since we’d patched our friendship while on vacation.
Immediately she texted. “Hey. How’s Colton?”
“Call! Too much to text!”
My old cell phone chirped, and I told her in detail about last night. And ended with, “He’s full of energy, but he’s awfully cute.”
Sarah jabbered about Peyton’s texts and phone calls, her first time boyfriend from our beach trip.
I nodded, waiting for her to finish. “Do you want to go to the barn and see the horses? Colton’s down for a couple hours.”
“Okay. Meet you in ten.”
#          #
A grumbly, loud noise like a cement truck stirring rocks grew closer.
Sarah approached, yelling. “Hey. What’s that sound?”
“Sounds like a big diesel truck. Let’s get closer.” Hiding behind a large tree trunk, we spied the silver-gray, dually-truck pulling a white two-horse trailer with matching five gray-hearts interlocked along the sides. “That must be the new boarder. I forgot she was coming today. Let’s see what she’s like.”
The truck shifted, grinding its gears, as the driver slowed to turn onto Mrs. Brown’s drive. We hid closer.
Sarah’s voice screamed. “Do you know how old she is?”
“Mrs. Brown said she’s in the ninth grade.” As the commotion lessened, I whispered in Sarah’s ear, “And she’s supposed to be a really good rider.”
The engine turned off, and a tall, dark-skinned man leaped from the driver’s side. At the same time, a long-legged, skinny girl in black riding pants and shiny black boots stepped down from the front passenger door. The sun shined on her round, brown face, poofy bangs and ponytail, and flashed on her dressage whip, waving in the air as if it were a sword.
The girl’s raspy voice rang through the trees, “Dad, why’d you stop here? You’re too close to the barn. What the?--”
Sarah and I locked wide eyes. “Uh, oh. T. This doesn’t look good.”
I twisted a loose curl hanging on my neck. “You’re right about that.”


  1. Hi Sheri,

    Thanks so much for letting me read your opening! I really enjoyed reading about your MC’s relationship with her new puppy. You put a lot of great emotion on these pages, and I felt I got a clear picture of what the character cared about. Great stuff!

    I also felt like your descriptions of Colton were very thorough. I never had to wonder what he looked like or how he behaved. In fact, in general I found your writing to be crisp and clean, which was a treat.

    I do have three suggestions, and the first has to do with the main character herself. I felt like we got a much clearer picture of Colton than of her. For example, how old is she? At first, I was thinking she was older than she was, because she’s training service dogs, and I only realized I was wrong when she mentioned her parents. That said, the voice of the character struck me as upper middle grade, rather than YA, and I think your age rating (10-14) fits perfectly with that.

    My second concern was with the pacing. By the time I reached the fifth page, I really wanted a clearer idea of what this story is about. Is it about a girl’s relationship with her service dog? Is it about the new girl who moves into town? I just wasn’t quite clear on where things were going, and while I definitely don’t need to know everything up front, I do think things started a little slower than they needed do. I honestly think you could cut one of the scenes with your MC playing with Colton. You paint such a great picture of their relationship, and of her love for him, I’m not sure you needed both scenes to fully get that across. I definitely came away with a really clear picture of their bond from the first scene.

    Lastly, I wasn’t sure what your MC and Sarah meant when they said something looked like trouble at the end of the piece. Was there an issue with the truck? I just wasn’t a hundred percent sure what their concern was, and I think another line or two might help clarify.

    That’s about it! You really do paint a wonderful picture here of your MC’s love for Colton, and it was really sweet to read about. He sounds like such a fun puppy! Thanks again for letting me read. ☺

  2. The first thing that resonated for me was having to get up so often at night. I have a seven-month-old, and I can't tell you how often I beg for him to pleeeease go to sleep! My friends who've had dogs assure me that it's the same with puppies at first. :)

    When I first read the first paragraph, I thought the narrator was disabled ("tested my endurance"), and that was reinforced by the mention of service dog. Of course, someone who needed a service dog wouldn't usually be training them, so on the second read-through I think she's just tired, but I wanted to tell you about that double-take because if a small word-change can avoid confusion, so much the better!

    I liked the description of the narrator's relationship with Sarah -- on-again/off-again, and totally casual. It did make me wish I knew the narrator's name, though.

    Overall I thought there was a good balance of explanation, action, and dialogue. I am rooting for Colton to sleep at night and looking forward to finding out what "doesn't look good."

  3. Hi Sheri,

    I think Chelsea's comments are spot-on. In this opening I've got a very clear picture of her bond with her dog (and like Chelsea I think that her love for Colton comes through enough in the first scene... we don't necessarily need the mention of them playing fetch). So far the novel reads like an upper MG, not a straight-up YA, partially because of the emphasis on animals, and partly because of the voice of the MC.

    There are a lot of great descriptions here. I feel like I had a very vivid picture of each scene, especially regarding Colton and the setting. I loved all the little details that made me feel like I was right there (whiff of coffee, etc). At the moment though, I don't have as strong a handle on your MC beyond the fact that she likes animals. I'd like a little more of her personality to shine through earlier on. Is she introverted? Extroverted? Easily stressed out, or is this simply an unusual situation with the new dog? High strung? Easy-going? Friendly? Snarky? Etc... It would be nice to get a sense of more of this earlier on.

    Overall I think this opening is a little quiet. I'm not yet seeing the underlying tension, or getting a sense of the plot of the story. Some tension is hinted at in the very last lines, when the new girl shows up, but I think that incident (or a scene like it that serves to hint at the deeper plot) could move up earlier for pacing purposes.

    There were a few instances in the dialogue where I was confused as to who was speaking. At times, the subject of the action tags immediately adjacent to the dialogue was not the subject speaking. A couple examples of what I mean:

    --I caught Mom’s gleaming eyes. “I know he’s your job, honey. But, I woke early and couldn’t wait to see him before I left for work. He’s yours from now on!” --
    (In the tag, the MC is the subject, but then it is not the MC that is talking. Maybe rephrase to "Mom's eyes gleamed.")

    --Sarah and I locked wide eyes. “Uh, oh. T. This doesn’t look good.” --
    (Here the subject is plural: Sarah and I = we ... so it's unclear who is speaking, especially since we don't yet know the MC's name/nickname)

    Other than that and tightening up the pacing a bit, I can't think of much more to crit at the moment! I did notice a bit of a tendency to overuse commas, but puncuation is not my strong suit so you should probably get a second opinion there!

    I loved the hint of trouble at the end of the piece. I'd expand on this so the reader gets a clear picture of exactly what is the problem. Are the MC and Sarah going to be asked to help with the truck? Is there something about the girl they don't like?
    Just a thought, but if the MC was worried that the boarder might be trouble (or conversely if she was hoping for a new BFF) then showing us some of the MC's introspection regarding this in either the middle-of-the-night scene, or at breakfast/dog playtime would build the tension nicely.

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  5. Hi Sheri –

    First, let me say you've made me miss my little schnauzer so badly, I might end up with a new puppy by the end of the month! You really capture both their charm and the effort it takes to raise a puppy! Also, while I agree this sounded very MG to me, I do love the MC’s voice. Sweet and authentic. Well done!

    I agreed with all the comments above (most importantly, I’d like to know what the stakes are for this character right away – what is this book about?). I don’t want to be repetitive, so I'll add just a few, additional thoughts (mostly things I’m conscious of because I’m working on them too!).

    I thought the book was going to be about training a service dog, which is really hard work, and tough because you get attached and have to let it go. A line or two about that (or maybe why she’s training a service dog) would not go amiss.

    By the end, I was guessing the book is about this new girl? I’m thinking if you cut the scene with her going up to check the cage and the scene outside, that would bring the new girl forward enough to satisfy your readers.

    Maybe we could get more of a sense of the MC if she commented on her best friend’s new boyfriend? She seems really into her animals and really not into her BF’s boyf. Is that the case? It would be a place to add color to her personality if you added a line or two here.

    I recently bought the book "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers." It's brilliant and I highly recommend.

    One thing is mentions is “proportion”, meaning focusing too much on what interests you without remembering your reader - important to keep the "story" moving. (in other words, like the others, I’d skip the ball-playing scene)

    Apparently, we don’t need to tell the reader our character’s every move (I’m guilty!): “I wore out first, sat, leaned against a tree trunk, and threw miniature tennis balls from the shade.” You could just say: “Worn out, I slumped against a tree and threw tennis balls from the shade.”

    Adjectives... You can leave some things to the reader’s imagination: if it is a muggy summer day, to me that implies "hot." And commas: might want to take a look – they occasionally appear where the aren’t needed: “simmering, sun.”

    Hope this helps! I must admit I’m secretly hoping for those cuts because I’m dying to know what the deal is with the new girl! And I’m deeply in love with Colt.

  6. Thank you everyone! Great comments! Now back to work!!

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  8. Who doesn't love a story about a girl and her dog? (Just read Edith Cohn's MG mystery Spirit's Key and loved it!) Yes, you have clearly trained puppies and capture it really well. I love the service dog angle and hope this is integral to the plot.
    In your opening para. I had the impression this "pattern of not sleeping" had been going on for quite a while. When later you say this is Colton's first night I was pulled out the story and thought, "hey wait a minute?" There are a few more instances where transitions seem clunky or things aren't as clear as they need to be that also can pull the reader out of the story. For example, when your MC takes Colton outside to do his business it seems natural to tell us a detail or two about the setting (is it hot/cold, pitch black or lit by streetlights)? You tell us it's hot and muggy later, but I wanted to know when she first stepped outside.
    I also think the writing can be crisper by removing some analogies. The first line gets tighter if you take out "fire hydrant" reference. Also, later you describe Colt as "a jet." This pulled me out of the story as I then pictured a large airplane and this is not a fluffy playful pup in the grass. Only use these types of analogies if the thought you are trying to convey is made more clear by the use of the analogy. Hope this helps. I look forward to seeing where this story is going!

  9. I have a question? When we do a rewrite are the words suppose to stay at 1250?

    1. I don't know officially, but I would assume so. However, I'm planning to cut some of the existing 1250 so I also assume I could add new words to get up to 1250 again. :)

  10. Hi Sheri,

    Because everyone has already given you a lot of great feedback, and I'm dealing with deadlines, I'm going to keep this brief. Please feel free to ignore anything that doesn't resonate with you (especially since I write for an older audience and am more familiar with upper YA than MG/lower YA).

    First off, I like your main character and how she's excited to train the puppy and that she wants to do a good job. But I didn't get a good sense of how old she is. Plus I was confused that she was going to be the one responsible for training the dog. I'm not a dog owner, but I do know that training a dog isn't easy. So I find it odd that she's doing this without any help from adults, especially since her first dog was pretty much trained when her family got him. It's not a big deal, but it was something that caught my attention.

    I thought your descriptions and actions were well written. My more pressing concern over what I mentioned was the pacing. I'll admit I kind of got bore pretty quickly, mostly because I can't relate to anything that is happening. In the first five pages, you have three different scenes. Now in theory that might sound like you're moving the pace along quickly, but I found the story seemed to jump around from one scene to the next. I didn't feel grounded in the story.

    Instead of the first scene, I would like to have seen you develop the second one more and blend it into the third scene, so I don't feel like I'm jumping all over the place. Move the first scene later in the book. I didn't feel like it was the right place to start to get your readers hooked into the story.

    Again, these are just my impressions from what I read. It's still your story and only you know what it's about. So only you know what's best for it. :)

  11. See, I’m late to the party and all the good comments have already been made. Thank you for sharing your work. I am a cat person, but you may turn me into a dog person.

    I LOVE a good dog story, like WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS or OLD YELLER. You have universal appeal going for you. The affection you’ve set up between girl and pooch is endearing. Your writing flows very nicely. My issues echo the other comments. The opening feels too “play by play.” It needs more dynamics. I do not have a clear impression of your MC, and I need to if I am going to go on a quest with her through the story.

    I would concentrate on more conflict and tension in this opening to give us a sense of your MC’s stakes. I was also not clear about what was happening at the end of your pages when you change the scene.

    And here's the age old question: Have you started your story in the right place?

    You label this YA, but give an age range more middle grade. So far this does feel very middle grade to me.

    I’m looking forward to spending more time with Colton.