Sunday, March 8, 2015

First 5 Pages March Workshop - Pagel-Hogan

Name: Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan
Genre: Middle Grade Contemporary
Title: Dare Club

I gripped the tree branch with all of my strength, but I couldn’t hold on much longer. 
“Hang on, Tony!” cried my best friend Inky. 
I closed my eyes. My arms pulled out of my shoulder sockets. I gritted my teeth as the rough bark scratched my palms. 
“I’m slipping!” I gasped. “I can’t hold on much longer!”
“I’ve almost got it!” Inky said. “Just one more second!”
I tried to hold on as his hand whipped around the page. He glanced at me, then back at his sketchbook, then back at me, then back to the sketchbook.
“Argh!” I cried. My fingers were numb, I couldn’t hold the branch any longer. I fell, and hit the ground almost instantly. I had only been dangling about a foot in the air. We were in the woods behind Inky’s house working on his new comic book story. I was helping Inky out and holding on to the branch so he could realistically draw a character in his new comic dangling in midair over a cliff. 
Inky was sitting on a log still sketching like crazy in his sketchbook that never left his side. Inky only drew with ink pens, never pencils, so his fingers and hands were always covered in black ink. He read somewhere that real artists never erased mistakes, they just worked them into their drawing. 
I flexed my numb fingers and grimaced as they itched and tingled. The rough bark had scratched off the day-old scabs I had gotten from falling - instead of stepping- out of my mom’s van. I brushed the constellation of bright red blood dots off my palms onto my shorts. My mom wouldn’t notice a little more blood. She told me once I kept the stain remover company in business all by myself. 
“Did you get it?” I asked Inky. 
He leaned back so I could see the page over his shoulder. 

I saw a guy hanging from a tree branch, a serious look of determination in his eye, the muscles in his arms bulging.
“Wow, who is that guy?” I asked.
“That’s you!” Inky grinned. “At least, it’s based on you.” 
“No way, dude.”
Once again Inky’s skills blew my mind. The guy on the paper did not look like some clumsy, scabby kid. The guy on the paper looked strong and brave. And cool. If I looked like the guy on the paper I would have no trouble starting middle school in two weeks. 
“What did I do wrong?” Inky held the sketchbook out at arm’s length and squinted at it through his glasses. 
“Nothing, as usual. It’s amazing,” I patted his shoulder. “I just wish I looked like that in real life.” 
Inky was the best artist in our elementary school. I was sure he was going to be the best artist in sixth grade, maybe even the entire middle school. But he was so shy about his drawings, I was the only one who knew how good he really was. Sometimes I felt like I was Robin to his Batman, keeping his talent a secret. If Robin was a total klutz, that is. 
 The scab on my elbow itched and reminded me of my plan. 
“Only two more weeks,” I reminded Inky. 
“That’s plenty of time,” Inky said.   
I hoped it was. It had to be. Only two more weeks and I could start middle school scab-free and get rid of that stupid nickname from elementary school. 
Trying not to get scabs ruined the summer. I wanted to climb trees. I wanted to use my new skateboard. I wanted to backflip off the diving board and play flashlight tag in the dark and even camp out with Inky in his backyard. But every one of those was sure to end up with klutzy me earning a brand new reddish-brown bumpy, itchy scab.
I looked at my palms again. They stung. Would these heal in two weeks? Even though I had stopped doing anything fun, or basically stopped, I still got scabs. When one got better, I tripped, or fell, or bumped into something and a whole new scab started. Not a great look for the start of middle school.
“Are you almost done?” I said.  

“Almost,” Inky said without looking up. 
It was late in the afternoon and even in the cool of the woods sweat rolled down my back. I was ready to head back to the air conditioning. I wished there was a breeze. But the woods were completely still. As soon as I noticed that, I realized there was something different about the woods. There was no sound at all. No birds, no insects. 
I shifted from foot to foot and stared into the trees. The woods weren’t a really big forest or wilderness but once you’re a little ways in you can’t see any houses. Basically it was a large area of trees and bushes but there was a ravine with a creek winding along the bottom. Down there were some cool boulders that were fun to climb on, but you had to be really careful about poison ivy. And no matter how careful I was, I usually ended up with a new set of scrapes, bruises and a really itchy rash. Whenever Inky and I played in his woods we usually went to a small clearing with some fallen logs. Other kids went there, too, because once we found the cold black ashes of a campfire and a bunch of crushed, empty beer cans there. We didn’t tell Inky’s mom about that. 
We were alone in the clearing, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone or something was nearby. 
And then I heard a sound that filled my stomach with piranhas. 
“Oh no,” I said. “Hide!”
I shoved Inky backward off the log and dragged him behind the trunk of a giant tree.  
“Tony!” Inky said. “Watch out!”
I scanned the woods. I couldn’t see them but I could hear them.
“You bent the page,” he said. Typical Inky. He wasn’t worried about the coming danger, but if anything happened to his sketchbook the world would end.

“Shh!” I whispered. “Sorry!”

“And you made me owe me another apology for making me wreck my drawing,” he frowned.

“Sorry sorry,” I whispered. Then I clamped my hand over his mouth and pointed. He followed my finger with his eyes just as a group of kids came down the trail. His eyes widened. They were kids we knew, from elementary school, but they were the last kids I wanted to see on summer vacation. 

It was Gunther and his gang.  

Gunther had a chipped tooth and his own smartphone. He had a group of cronies who followed him around like the mosquitos in the summer and were just as irritating. They were always whispering to each other and shoving people out of the way. Seeing Gunther and his gang of bodyguards was not how I planned to end my summer. I hoped he had been abducted by aliens or recruited for science experiments at the bottom of the ocean. 
I knew when sixth grade started I’d have to face him but I didn’t expect to face him here. 

We flattened our backs against the tree and I held my breath as they neared the clearing. 


  1. Hi Erin,

    I guess we'll be workshop buddies!

    I teach the fifth grade, so I'm always on the look out for great middle grade. I love the title, and I think it promises exactly the kind of novel kids love to read. Dare Club? Sign me up. I also like your voice. It's easy to follow, and I understand the events as they unfold. I have no trouble picturing these two boys and the events as you describe them. I know that sometimes we are expected to begin the story in the midst of action, but I think you found the perfect balance between setting the scene and not boring the reader.

    Things to consider:

    "I was helping Inky out and holding on to the branch so he could realistically draw a character in his new comic dangling in midair over a cliff."
    "Inky was sitting on a log still sketching like crazy in his sketchbook that never left his side."
    "The rough bark had scratched off the day-old scabs I had gotten from falling - instead of stepping- out of my mom’s van."

    Those sentences are not bad, but I read them twice. And I don't think you want the reader trying to decipher the meaning. I think writing should be tighter here. In the last one, I'm pretty sure you can safely cut out "instead of stepping".

    In these two sentences, "reminded" is repeated, and it makes it sound a little awkward:
    " The scab on my elbow itched and reminded me of my plan.
    “Only two more weeks,” I reminded Inky."

    I think you have a typo in this one:
    "“And you made me owe me another apology for making me wreck my drawing,” he frowned."

    Lastly, I wanted to mention that you are using the word "itch" quite a bit, and it might be a good idea to tone that down. I'm not sure if it bothers anyone else (I get that you are trying to make a point here), but I thought I'd mention it, because it did stand out to me.

    Hope it was helpful. Look forward to a productive month of March,

    -Lyuda Mayorska

  2. oops, I see I called you Erin, because Erin posted the comment. Sorry, Elizabeth!


  3. Hi Elizabeth! It's great to have you here. Love MG! I like the energy you've created in this piece. MGers are totally sucked in by action; most of them anyway.

    Here's a few things I noted as I read to hopefully help you tighten this up: Be careful about repeating your descriptive action in the dialog. (Example: lines 3 & 4) Choose to focus one or the other on another detail you want your reader to know, one that's important to the story. The insert about the notebook/sketchbook was somewhat confusing. At one point, I thought Tony was something Inky drew. (I know, weird.) Just make what's really happening a little clearer. I'm thinking the notebook isn't as important to Inky as Tony, so he'd probably drop it or whatever. But...if it is that important to him then give the reader a clue as to why.

    Capitalize on MG humor - you have a fabulous example at the opening when you mention that Tony is only a foot off the ground. You could really make that hilarious for a young reader.

    Mention details that are necessary in the opening pages. Some details such as why Inky doesn't erase mistakes can wait a little bit.

    Reread the character details/motives for actions you include - ex: If Tony kept the stain remover companies in business then his mom would probably notice his numerous stains - thus she'd notice the blood. If you want to imply his stains are too many for Mom to even notice anymore then say that.

    I really liked the voice you inserted when Tony sees Inky's drawing of him as bold and strong instead of scrawny and scared. This is good and tells me a lot about Tony - makes me like him. Nice way to end!

    Looking forward to your revision. Best of luck!

    1. Excellent advice. Great insight about things like the stain remover comment and repetitive dialogue. Thank you!

  4. Hi Elizabeth!

    I like the MG voice you've created and the characters. You pick great phrases that pain the picture well. I did feel the beginning dragged just a bit toward the end, and would have preferred to get to the gang at the end sooner. I think the other two commenters already pointed out everything else.

    Hope this was helpful!

  5. Hi Elizabeth. Cheryl here, a workshop participant.

    I like the dialogue between the two characters, although as others have said, there is some repetition.

    Wondering if the paragraph about why they're in the woods shouldn't come first to ground the reader before Tony speaks. Believe that would give the reader more insight.

    Also, alluding to the gang sooner rather than later would hike up the tension of the scene. Maybe the woods are the gang's territory?

    Hope some of this helps.


    1. Yes, Cheryl you're totally right. On a later read I found so many repetitive lines I was cringing. I don't know how you all managed to get through it! Hoping my next post will be stronger.

  6. Hi Elizabeth,

    Welcome to First Five Pages! I love middle grade, and you’ve done a great job with the voice – which is so hard to nail. I also love the beginning – we expect a big action scene, but Tony is only a foot off the ground – great! I do think you can really tighten the beginning though. Read it out loud a few times, and look for unnecessary and repetitive words, and look for places where you can simplify.

    I love the insecurity about middle school – and Tony’s fears about being a klutz and all of his scabs – but if he is such a klutz I’d like to see it. We are told all about it, but we never see him fall or trip, even though they are in the woods. It would be more powerful if instead of an old itchy scab reminding him of his plan, a brand new cut did. He could fall or something – and then panic. Hear the taunts of the kids in his head as he hits the ground.

    I love the last lines about Gunther being abducted by aliens or in a science experiment – great!

    Good luck on this revision – I look forward to reading next week!

    1. Thanks Erin. Poor Tony, he's about to have a lot more accidents. LOL. Hopefully just the right amount of accidents.

  7. Hi Elizabeth
    What is Tony's nick name???? I'm dying to find out. Unless its in there and I can't find it after reading it 3 times :) Maybe consider adding this at the end of .... 'Only two more weeks and I could start middle school scab-free and get rid of that stupid nickname from elementary school'

    Why does Tony think - 'I knew when sixth grade started I’d have to face him but I didn’t expect to face him here' ?

    1. Thanks Sarah, I've been thinking about your comment for a few days now. I have an idea and I'm going to try it out and see if it works.

  8. Elizabeth,
    I love the voice. I think you do a great job of creating suspense in the opening.
    I really like that we don’t know why he’s hanging from this branch, but we are worried for him. Very worried. When we find out that he’s doing this because he is helping his friend who is an artist, it’s unexpected and I love it.
    I do think you can keep the suspense going a little longer after we find out that he is trying to hold on so his friend can sketch him. Slow the action down a little before he falls to the ground. And let him fall before we know that it was only a foot that he fell.
    I think if he falls and Inky reacts big, “Are you okay!” Or something that makes us worry that he could be hurt and then we find out that he only fell a foot, it would add even more to this dramatic moment and would make the tale even funnier.

    It will also tell us even more about these characters, who seem to me to live in a world that is a lot of their own creation and imaginations. I think these are great middle grade characters. I am worried and rooting for them already.

    One minor thing--- when he tells us “My arms pulled out of my shoulder sockets,” I think it would work better if he said, “My arms feel like they are being pulled from my shoulder sockets.” I may be wrong, but if they were actually pulled from their sockets, he probably would not be able to hold on another second. He would be very hurt.

    Also, I need a little bit more about the scabs. I love that this kid doesn’t do anything that may cause scabs because he doesn’t want to be teased when they start school again. Since kids get scabs all the time, what is it about his scabs that make him so worried? How bad are they that the kids tease him about them? Also, when he says that scabs are “not a great look for a middle schooler” I don’t know why he thinks this. Some kids may think it’s tough to have scabs. What is it about this look that he is worried about? And where are the scabs that the other kids would see them? I know he is worried about them being on his hands, but in the past, when he gets hurt are they on his face and other exposed parts? If they are on his knees, wouldn’t his pants cover them?

    I am only focusing so much on this point because it takes a lot of space in these opening pages, and really understanding what this kid feels about them and how he looks and is treated because of them gives me more insight into his character.

    I love the suspense that you create before Gunther and his gang are in view. I also love the description of Gunther, “Gunther had a chipped tooth and his own smartphone.” Great line. It’s simple but it tells us so much.

    The word “cronies,” doesn’t sound true to this voice. Everything else is very much in a middle schooler’s voice and point of view, a smart and creative middle schooler, but “cronies” sounds too much like word an older adult would use.

    Over all, I think this is a great start. I’m hooked. I want to read more.

    I look forward to your revision.



    1. Thank you Patricia! Great critique! Will be revising with your comments in mind.