Sunday, March 8, 2015

First 5 Pages March Workshop - Chao

Name: Gloria Chao
Genre: NA Multicultural Contemporary

I’m probably the only college senior who still sees her parents every Saturday, but I’d rather eat chicken feet than fight them. If you don’t have traditional Taiwanese parents, you don’t get to judge (and you probably don’t know how disgusting chicken feet really are).

“Mei!” my mom greets me as she frowns and pinches my sides. “Did you gain weight?”

I bat her tiny hand away easily. Even though she’s four foot ten and eighty pounds, she puts her hands on her hips and stares me down. Well, technically, she’s staring up at me, but her eyes say she’s the boss. My five-foot-three, one-hundred-fifty-pound frame will never be good enough for her. My genes come from my dad. Ahem, my five-foot-seven, two-hundred-fifty-pound dad. I will never be Asian-skinny. I personally like that I don’t look like a chopstick that will fall over when the wind blows, but apparently I’m in the minority.

My mom shakes a bony finger at me. “You need to be careful, Mei. How will you ever get a man?”

I turn to my dad for help, but his head is conveniently in the trunk. He emerges with a pink Chinatown bag and the usual cooler of homemade Chinese food.

My mom continues chattering. “I brought papaya, to make your breasts grow. They much too small. Like mosquito bites.” She pokes my breast. “And we brought all low-fat food since you’re getting chubby. I also pickled some vegetables. They’re in the old mayonnaise jar.”

My dad grunts and nods his head toward my mom. Translation: Your mother worked hard to cook you food so thank her now or I will get angry.

“Thanks, Mom,” I say robotically. “For the food,” I add quickly, worried she’ll think I’m thanking her for insulting my breasts, which, for the record, are twice as big as her double A’s.

“In Chinese,” my mom scolds. “If you don’t practice, you’ll forget.”

“My Chinese is fine, mom. Xie xie,” I add to avoid a fight. “Where do you want to go to lunch?” I ask my dad. He’s not one for words unless they are about food or basketball.

“Wherever you want.”

“How about Bertucci’s? I’m in the mood for some pizza.”

My dad shakes his head. “Mother doesn’t like non-Chinese food.”

“No, I like pizza,” my mom interjects.

“We’ll go to Chow Chow,” my dad concludes, naming the only Taiwanese restaurant in Massachusetts.

After we transfer the food to the communal refrigerator of my MIT dorm, we do our usual Chow Chow routine. Dad drops Mom and me off at the corner so we can get a table while he searches for elusive street parking. We’re longtime friends with the owner, Ling, because we’ve been going to their restaurant since I was a baby. The usual crowd waiting for a table is smushed into the narrow entrance of the restaurant. My mom pushes through mercilessly and the hostess immediately motions to the wait staff. Two waiters abandon their tasks to push three tables together to hold the massive amounts of food we will order. The other patrons glare daggers. I cover my face in shame and follow the hostess underneath red, ceiling lanterns to our extra-large corner table.

The mix of patrons is the usual: college students, families, and people my parent’s age. All Chinese, of course. The pungent smell of stinky tofu—yes, it’s actually called stinky tofu because it’s fermented, rotten tofu—wafts through the restaurant. It smells exactly how you would expect. What else is named stinky? Even poop doesn’t have its smell in its name.

“Yuck,” I mumble. Even after twenty-one years, I’ve never acclimated.

My mom sniffs and smiles. “Smells like home.”

“Smells like garbage.”

“It’s just like the chee-se,” she says, separating the word cheese into two syllables.

I shake my head. “Cheese doesn’t smell like this.”

“You’re right. Cheese is gross. This is so much better. And tastes delicious. Just try it. Once you eat it, you won’t think it smells bad anymore.”

“Okay. I’ll do that after you eat some poop,” I grumble inaudibly.

I sit next to the paper umbrella mounted in the corner. The Chinese calligraphy wallpaper makes me smile. This place feels almost as much like home as my parent’s kitchen. Add some plastic wrap over the furniture and it actually could be my parent’s kitchen.

“I’m going to go buy some bread,” my mom says.

I already know this is coming but can’t help protesting. “Seriously? Right now? Just do it later.”

“Save time.” She ambles across the street to the Chinese pastry shop to buy her lunch for the week, leaving me to bathe in the stinky tofu smell.

The waiters place our drinks on the table. We come so often we barely have to order. My dad’s plum smoothie is placed next to my mom’s sweet soy milk, and all three water glasses are placed in front of me with a raise of the eyebrow. If they didn’t use such tiny glasses, maybe I wouldn’t need so many. They leave without talking to me; they always wait for my parents. It’s funny how authentic Chinese restaurant waiters prefer Chinese people over even Chinese-American people. I may as well be white. Sometimes I wish I was.

I prop the menu up to fend off the other patron’s glares. Why do we have to rush in here when it takes twenty minutes to get all three of us seated? I stare at the menu even though I already know it by heart.

My mom leaves her ginormous bundle of bread at the front since we have to fill the table space with Chow Chow food. She begins talking before she even reaches her seat. “I need to talk to you before your dad arrives. Don’t get mad at me.”

“What now?”

My mom knocks down my menu-shield. “I have this friend and her son is interested in meeting you.”

“I’m not interested,” I respond immediately. Even though I know the effort is futile, I have to at least go down fighting.

“Just listen! He’s Taiwanese, and—”

 “Not interested.”

“—he went to Brown, got a masters at UPenn, and is now studying to be a doctor at Tufts.”

I laugh. “Brown and Tufts? I thought you only approved of Harvard or MIT.”

“Well, you’re getting old. I change my standards. You made me. Your eggs are getting cold.” My mom jabs a finger into my belly.

I squirm away. “Remember in high school when dating a boy was equivalent to murdering someone? Or not getting into a top-10 school? But the second I arrived at college, my eggs are suddenly shriveling up and I have to hurry and find a husband to make babies with?”

“Yes. You finally understand. Do you want your child to be born with Down Syndrome? You need to have one soon. And this boy is perfect. His family is very well off. The dad started two companies that went public. But you’d never know they’re rich. So humble and frugal.”

Ahhh there it is. The money. “Why is he so pathetic that he needs his mom to find him girls to date?”

“Well, he’s shy. He’s a good kid. It’s hard to meet people when you’re like that.”

I laugh again. “Right. I’m sure he’s not an anti-social nerd with poor hygiene. It’s because he’s just such a good person that he can’t meet anyone.” I have nothing against nerds. 


  1. Hi Gloria,

    First of all, even though I'm not Taiwanese, I get a lot of what you are saying, right down to the boiled chicken feet (which I happen to love, and haven't had in almost 15 years *sigh*).

    Second of all, I love the mother already. Oh, how many of us unmarried-egsg-getting-cold ladies recognize this mother! I think characters like that make the book. I like the light hearted humor, and I get it. So, that's great.

    Here comes the however part. However, I think you are starting at the wrong place. If this book has something to do with the romance Mei is being set up for by her mother with the mysterious Brown and Tufts guy, then I think you can start at the restaurant, maybe here: "My mom pushes through mercilessly and the hostess immediately motions to the wait staff." If the book is about something else, you might have to look at your manuscript and consider where do things begin to happen.

    And altogether there is too much food, and not enough action. I get that you are trying to establish relationships and characters, but I feel like it's okay to move at a faster pace, and maybe keep weaving the character sketches after you introduce some tension, and "holy cow, what's going to happen next" moments.

    I hope this is helpful,

    -Lyuda Mayorska

  2. Hello Gloria,
    My good friend is from Taiwan and I've been very lucky to visit Taipei for her wedding. I'm also lucky she hasn't made me eat chicken feet even though she has served them at CNY.
    While the dialogue between mother and daughter felt very real to me, the discussion about where to eat seemed fake. It seemed to me like the parents would just say "let's go to chow chow's" and the daughter would propose bertucci's knowing it's futile and the parents would either ignore or laugh or chastise "they always make your special favorite X!" to give us more clues of the habitual nature of this family.

    You don't have any trouble creating believable characters, so we need to think about plot and pacing. Why start the story here? Why are we hearing about this particular weekend when most of it is the same as every other weekend? I think that we need a clue a little earlier on that while many of these things (the weight comments, the food, the choice of dining) are same as usual, something else is different about this weekend. Then we get a sense of the familiar and the new, a great feeling when starting a new book.
    I personally liked the food mentioned and the smells (ah, stinky tofu. Quite the sensory memory from the streets of Taipei). Just tell me why I need to hear about THIS weekend sooner.

  3. I realized I forgot to write this but LOVE your title!

  4. HI Gloria.

    Cheryl here. I'm a participant also. These first pages are always so difficult.

    I like your characters: Mom, Mei, and even Dad though by his absence his characterization comes through.

    I'm thinking less at the restaurant and more about the match-making especially if this is where your story is going. Obviously this isn't the first time Mom has tried this! The opening lines between mother and daughter are informative and present a good picture of each and how they are alike and different.

    Since you want to draw readers into the story, I would change this " If you don’t have traditional Taiwanese parents, you don’t get to judge ." Explain this for your many readers who are not familiar with Taiwanese customs.

    I like that you are writing a multicultural story. Anxious to see where you are going with this.

  5. Gloria, welcome to the workshop!

    This opening is packed full of voice, which is awesome. Mom is a feisty little thing...I like her already (despite the fact that she nit picks...she's doing that out of love!). And I have a feeling Dad will be a fun character to watch as the story unfolds.

    This story gives us a glimpse into a different culture, which is great. You have cool details here that pull us into the story.

    I made a few notes for you:

    The opening paragraph is lots of fun! The feet thing made me smile.

    My main concern was the lack of story conflict being introduced, or even a glimpse of it. By the end of the opening pages, I wondered what the story would be about. Is it her quest to find love? Is it her feelings of not fitting in? We don't need *all* of the story conflict, but a clearer glimpse would be helpful. Give us a breadcrumb early that we can cling to and follow. If the breadcrumb is already there, make it stand out more.

    I'd also caution you against the long sequences of dialog about food. Make sure each line is needed. Food may be an important part of the plot, but unless a specific line of dialog is necessary, cut it. I found myself losing interest during the food dialog, and mentally cutting throwaway lines.

    A picky note---"glared daggers" is a bit of a cliche. I know you can think of something unique! You may even think of something that fits the food/restaurant setting. Kabobs? Swords? I don't know.

    You have the beginnings of a fun, multi-cultural story, with a protagonist who's relatable. You've packed a lot of voice into the opening, which is perfect. Great job! I'm looking forward to reading the revision!

  6. Welcome to First Five, Gloria! I read through your pages in seconds--Mei and her mother are such vivid characters! That said, the comments above all point to the one real difficulty with these pages: Plot. You've got character and voice nailed but you need to strengthen that final 1/3 of the equation. This is not to say that plot should not be in the service of character but, as I reread your pages here, I realize that we are getting a gorgeously written bit of wallpaper but we don't have a complete MEI. WHAT does MEI want? WHY is she really tolerating all these Saturday meals? WHAT secret is she hiding from Mom & Dad? IS she really okay being soft, small-breasted, round (not to suggest that anything is wrong with that but I have yet to meet the woman who is truly content with her body at all levels (myself included) so, in terms of NA, this feels kind of pat). So, despite it being lovely, the characterizations here feel a little bit incomplete and Mom is a little bit of Taiwanese trope (maybe the family money is lost, maybe she's got a secret that's making her drive her daughter toward marriage beyond mere TRADITION?) Anyhow, I think the answer to enriching these characters is, in fact, plot. I'd begin with a stronger lead PP. Yours is cute, funny, but not GRIPPING. Try reading p. 1 of Marie Lu's THE YOUNG ELITES and, holy wow, you'll see what I mean. Also, check out Stephen King's ON WRITING: A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT (mostly the 2nd half of the book), for seriously helpful plotting gems like: “There's an old rule of theater that goes, 'If there's a gun on the mantel in Act I, it must go off in Act III.' The reverse is also true.” We need the Act I gun on the mantle here in AMERICAN PANDA. I realize this is an epic comment but I'm going to give you one more piece of advice: LET GO. Don't hold back the secrets you plan to reveal in Ch. 2/the middle/ the big reveal at the end. Give us a BIG ONE. Now. The less you hold back--the more you dump right onto that page--the greater the risks you set for your MC right from sentence #1--the more dynamic, more un-put-downable your ms will be for agents, editors, readers. And, don't worry. You'll think up more great stuff for the middle and the end. You've made a fabulous start. Dig in. Don't hold back. And I can't wait to see your amazing Rev. 1 next week! All best, Stasia

  7. Hi Gloria
    This may sound like schmooze-ville but the comments from the mentors above are worth their weight in gold. I know they are helpful to me and I sense you will feel the same way.

    Your story is my favorite. I am in love with Mei and her Mother already. I graduated from USC and at one time had Korean roomies and the stuff we had to endure with their parents is still fresh in my mind :)

    I love the food part. I think its hysterical that their whole visit revolves around food and doing the same thing over and over. Its so TRUE! I would just say listen to the mentors... that's what they're here for! All I can add is I thoroughly enjoyed it and know it can only get better and better and I can't wait to read more.

  8. Hi Gloria
    This may sound like schmooze-ville but the comments from the mentors above are worth their weight in gold. I know they are helpful to me and I sense you will feel the same way.

    Your story is my favorite. I am in love with Mei and her Mother already. I graduated from USC and at one time had Korean roomies and the stuff we had to endure with their parents is still fresh in my mind :)

    I love the food part. I think its hysterical that their whole visit revolves around food and doing the same thing over and over. Its so TRUE! I would just say listen to the mentors... that's what they're here for! All I can add is I thoroughly enjoyed it and know it can only get better and better and I can't wait to read more.

  9. Gloria,
    I also love the title. I was drawn in with your opening paragraph. I love the narrator's voice. She's self aware but not so much so where I feel like there's not room for her to grow. I love the humor in this. The relationship between Mei and her mother is great. Reminds me of my relationship with my mother at that age. I do agree that you may want to go from the first paragraph right into the restaurant. Or just start us off at the restaurant.

    Also, to add dramatic tension something should happen that is out of their usual routine. The father, as always, drops them off at the restaurant and goes to find a parking space. Soon after the mother and Mei are seated, the mother runs across the street to get bread. When she returns she tells Mei that she has to talk to her before the father gets there. I think you would heighten the tension if you have the mother send the father to get bread and Mei finds this strange, or you have something happen out of the ordinary so Mei is suspicious. I also think that maybe this should be the first time the mother has tried to set her up with someone. If until this point, dating has been the "equivalent to murdering someone... or not getting into a top-10 school," and now the mother is telling her that her eggs are shriveling up, then we should feel Mei's shock and dismay. Also, I want a little more context regarding the father. Why does the mother have to tell Mei about the boy before the father comes back? Would the father disapprove?

    I think you have great characters and are wonderful at setting us in scene. However, with what you have here, I do think that some of what I suggested above, and what the other mentors have also suggested, will help build tension. Remember, we want to worry for Mei. Right now, it feels like the same routine she always goes through.

    Again, I do want to emphasis that I love the voice and I think you have so much to work with here. I look forward to reading your revision.

  10. Thank you everyone for taking the time to read, and for your comments. I appreciate your help!