Sunday, June 7, 2015

First 5 Pages June Workshop - Simon

Margaret Simon
Middle Grade Fiction

Chapter One: Missing Egg     

I gather Sunshine from her nest by placing my cupped hands under her fluffy breast.  I gurgle to her in her own language then say, “Here you go, come to me.” 

Sunshine hops up and on to my shoulders.  She paces from one shoulder to the next, tangling my hair up in her feathers.  She gurgles and shifts.  I cradle her like a football, tucking her under my arm hoping to settle her nerves. 

When I check her roosting spot, it looks disturbed. Like someone or some thing was digging for her eggs.  No eggs.  A little shiver runs up my spine. Usually, she lays an egg each day, a light blue or pale green Easter egg. 

Sunshine’s a fully-feathered Americana hen, gold and white. According to Momma, chickens don’t like to be held.  She says, “Why you carry your chicken around like that all day, Blessen? Don’t you know chickens are born to roam, not be carried around like a baby doll?”  But Sunshine is special, an affectionate chicken, not typical of her breed, but this morning she’s twitchy.

“Sunshine, did you have a visitor last night?”

I put her down outside the coop and scatter some seed.  She settles into a focused peck, peck, peck, eating her breakfast.

Lurking under a gardenia bush near the coop, I spy a small black and white kitten.  He curves his back and hisses as Sunshine pecks near, but she just ignores him. Such little white paws could not have spread the straw so wildly. 

“Where’d you come from, little one? Where’s your momma?”

I walk over to him. Hold my hand out in offering, curling my fingers back and forth.  He comes to me and rubs against my leg.  When I pick him up, he grabs my arm and sinks his little teeth in.  I drop him back to the ground. He arches his back and pounces on Sunshine’s white tail feathers.  Sunshine turns her head then continues her pecking.  Her breakfast will not be interrupted by a pesky kitten.

Momma calls from the kitchen window.

“Blessen, come get some Frosted Flakes.  The bus’ll be here soon!”

“Little Tuxedo, I’ll get you some fresh milk,” I tell the pouncy kitten.  I’ll have to figure out the mystery of the missing eggs later.

The bus honks at the end of True Friend Road as I scurry, hauling my heavy backpack onto my back.  I bend over as I trot so I don’t fall over backwards.  Sixth grade books are not made for skinny wimpy kids.  It probably weighs twenty-five pounds. Momma says I need to eat more to grow some meat on my bones.  She calls me her little bird. 

I hear chuckles when I lumber into my seat, the first row right behind Miss Geraldine Lewis, our bus driver.  She’s sweet most of the time until the kids get rowdy, which happens on a regular basis.  I like to sit there, so I can see out and not smell that bus smell.  It makes me nauseous. 

Miss G. lets me control the radio.  This morning it cheers me up to hear Taylor Swift singing “Love Story.” 

Mandy Doucet gets on at the next stop and plops right next to me flipping her black slick hair right in my face.  She giggles and starts chattering without even taking a break.  Mandy got a haircut last week and now her bangs are too short to tuck behind her ears and too long to stay out of her eyes, so she is constantly flipping her head and running her hands through her thin hair.  It shines in the sun like a new pair of black shoes.  Mandy’s momma is white like my momma, but her daddy is Laotian, so Mandy’s bi-racial like me.  We sit together most days. She’s a talker.  I’m a listener.  This morning she won’t hush up about her new so-say boyfriend, Jaden Babineaux.

“Jaden texted me last night the sweetest thing you ever heard.  He says like maybe we could get together at break and kiss in the gym under the bleachers.  I texted him back and said, ‘no freaking way!’ That’s the way Misty Gondron got suspended, and my daddy would kill me if that happened.” 

I let Mandy rattle on while I look out the window at the cane fields passing by.  I think about my chicken, Blue, that I lost to a hawk last year.  Blue was my first-ever pet that I had to take total care of, and I failed.  I left the latch of the pen open.  She got out and must’ve looked too tempting for the hovering raptor.  I wonder if a hawk could’ve stolen Sunshine’s eggs.  But that doesn’t make any sense.  A hawk couldn’t get into the coop.  What coulda’ been scavenging around in Sunshine’s bed?

All day long I can’t get my mind off of Sunshine.  I draw sketches of her in different positions in my notebook.  This way it looks like I am taking notes in class.  My drawing skills are improving, I do believe, with all this practice time.

Ms. Fullilove announces a 4-H meeting over the intercom.  I told my new science teacher, Ms. Jemima Fullilove, about Sunshine, and she got me all signed up to be in the 4-H club at school.  In fourth grade I was in 4-H, and I grew sugarcane in the field by my house with my grandpaw, Pawpee.  Pawpee is gone to God now, so I need a new project.   I told Ms. Fullilove I’ll join her 4-H club on the condition that no one could buy and kill my new hen.  She said there are some competitions that don’t involve killing.

We gather in the library.  I try not to sit next to Mandy because I know she’ll talk to me the whole time, and I might miss vital info.  I sit in the back behind the computers.  Ronnie Thibodeaux sits next to me.  Ronnie is white with freckles and pimples.  He may be cute under all that, but I don’t see it.  His auburn hair is short in the back and long in the front, a weird new style with the boys.  They think they’re so cool when they can throw their heads to the side and toss their bangs.  To me, it looks stupid.

Ronnie pulls his chair close to mine and says, “Blessen, what you enterin’ this year? Da sugarcane competition?”

“Not this year” I answer.  In fourth grade when my Pawpee was alive, I won first place with my sugarcane.  Pawpee was a masterful farmer.  He taught me all about planting and growing sugarcane.  Wouldn’t feel right for me to compete without him.

“I’ve got a new show chicken.  She’s an Americana show, Easter egger.  You should see her beautiful eggs.  They are green and blue, soft colors like Easter eggs.”  Except for today.  Empty nest. Maybe she stopped laying eggs for some reason. What reason? Egg layin’ is what Sunshine does best.

“I’m showing my pig, Rooster, and my calf, Big Ben.”

I giggle at the names Ronnie chose for his pets. “Are you gonna sell ‘em?” I ask.

“I don’t know.  Depends on my daddy.  He might want the money, but he may hold out for next year.  We’ll see what the bids are.”


  1. Margaret, what a fun story! I love the setting and the animals. I really like your MC, who seems like a sweet animal lover. You have some great language, too. I particularly like the "say-so boyfriend."

    Just a few little things first. I wanted to know Dad's race in that line where you tell us Mom's race and Mandy's parents'. Might as well throw his in there, too, unless there's a reason not to. I think "freaking" is probably a bit strong for the age level here (I know MG publishers are really strict on swear language; a friend recently even had "poop" cut from her manuscript). I was curious about where they are, like what state. If you can find a way to slip that in, I think it would be helpful.

    Finally, I really like a slow start to a story, but I fear this might be a bit too slow. I wanted a better sense of the conflict. Is it that Sunshine isn't laying eggs? Can you give me a sense that this is foreshadowing a bigger problem?

    Overall, great job, and I look forward to reading more.

  2. I like the straight forward voice and your fun characters. The first line took me a couple reads. I didn't realize Sunshine was a name at first. I think you need some introductory line -- a bit more grounding in the setting. i.e. "Inside the chicken coop is dark and musty and Sunshine is twitchy" (that's not great but something to put us in the scene. Also hint at something amiss -- Sunshine was clucking-- feathers fluffed -- show us she's upset and he/she's trying to calm her.

    Which brings up the point that I'm still not sure the sex of your MC. The name Blessen can go either way to me.

    I love the kitten scene -- such a cat. Frosted Flakes --trademarked (nitpick, but that can be problematic)

    Overall, I feel like you need a bit more tension -- show us our upset chicken first -- also tension that Blesson doesn't have much time before school bus comes. I at first thought this was a lazy weekend morning. It could help if you set the scene with it being dark out still -- wakes up early to take care of chicken before school. I remember those early mornings growing up on farm.

    Love these line: I bend over as I trot so I don't fall over backwards. Sixth grade books are not made for skinny wimpy kids. -- that shows a lot of character and gives us age in a smooth way.

    I kind of wanted to hear the race of the MC's father.

    Then mention of Blue and the hawk adds some tension about Sunshine and her missing eggs and the possible dangers. I think you could pump that up a bit -- his worry for his chicken -- his prize chicken / show chicken.

    I too want a better idea of the stories conflict and how the missing egg falls into it all.

    I like the characters you've introduced and the setting. I think you could pump up the tension to pull the reader in a bit more, but overall a great start. I hope this helps.


  3. Margaret,

    Thank you for sharing this! What a great voice this story has. It's conversational and inviting, and I caught myself a couple of times forgetting that I was supposed to be reading to give notes.

    My biggest problem at this point is that I'm not sure what the story might be about yet. With such an engaging voice, it's a little less important to get to the conflict right away, but I'm concerned that the tension is so very low in this snippet. It might lose readers who are looking for something to grab them.

    My primary suggestion would be to raise the stakes a little. If the missing egg is important, consider having your MC let us know that it's important. Right now we're finding out a lot of stuff, but I'm not sure why any of it is important at this point. Obviously, from your writing, this isn't a dramatic moment, so you don't need to make it one, but increasing the tension some will definitely help hook readers a little more.

    I find myself questioning whether you might be starting the story too early. After the five pages, I'm not sure what the story is about—which may not necessarily be a problem, but could be since this is aimed at an MG audience. It's something to consider.

    Just a small note, but I'm not entirely sure "gurgle" is the best word to describe how to make chicken noises. When I think of "gurgle" I think of the sound a water fountain makes.

    Thank you again for sharing this. I can't wait to see your revisions. And I absolutely adore this voice.

  4. Hi Margaret!

    You've created such a sweet voice and setting. I'm loving the whole egg deal. Just a few notes:

    I like the opening sentence. It brings the reader into your MC’s here and now. The part about talking in Sunshine’s language isn’t as clear as I believe it should be. It might be that my gut instinct is to expect Sunshine to react (gurgle/whatever - although, gurgle doesn't seem to fit for me) and then have the MC react to that in a silly sort of MGish way. This would give us a peek at your MC as well as the relationship between the two.

    If the missing egg is a big deal - which I'm pretty sure it might be later on - I'd up the tension and urgency about it being missing. I'd like to 'feel' more that this is not the norm for your MC as well as for Sunshine. You already have the next tension builder in Mom's call about breakfast, so you're good there. I'm also curious about how important Sunshine is to your MC. I guess what I'm saying is that I'm unsure who your MC is at this point. The reader doesn't need much to relate to her, just something more specific MGers could site in their own lives. (Ex: like your MC being annoyed that Mom is always rushing her or something similiar. Just an idea...)

    Once Mandy gets on the bus, there are a multitude of ways you could amp up the tension and conflict. It's a great visual, having all those MGers on a bus with one girl all chatty, etc... Play with it and have fun. And ooh, you could add a ton of inner tension and angst by using your MC's past pet failure with Blue. That has to make her think she might be failing Sunshine. You could even add a bit of mystery.

    A couple nit picky things: "Sixth grade books are not made for skinny wimpy kids. It probably weighs twenty-five pounds." It is technically referring to the backpack which is two sentences before this. 'It' should modify the books, so go with 'They probably weight...'

    'That bus smell' ... Give the reader what the smell is. MGers like something silly. You could have fun with it and color up the scene.

    Overall, you have a wonderful start. I just think you need to define the story a little: what it's about, so the reader will have a clue where it might be going. After that, you'll be golden. Looking forward to reading your revision!

  5. Hi! Great story. I happen to love birds, so I think it's sweet that Blessin has such a nice relationship with her chicken. :D The use of "gurgle" twice threw me off, especially in describing chicken sounds. But I think what was bothering me about the flow was that you describe things well, and you have the voice, but you're missing Blessin's emotional responses/inner dialogue that would punctuate what's happening and give us a clue how we're supposed to feel about it. So she finds the egg missing. how does she feel about that? Ask yourself that question at each point and make sure it's clear to us what she's thinking and how she's feeling about what's happening.

    I wonder about the sixth graders "kissing under the bleachers" My daughter is graduating sixth grade tomorrow and I don't think most of them are there quite yet, nor is that usually a subject in MG. Just a note.

    What is Blessin's goal at this point? I think having that clear in your mind as you revise will help guide the thoughts that are missing.

    Looking forward to reading the revision!!!

  6. Hello Margaret! First of all, I love this voice. Blessen sounds like she’s grown up in a farm town without sounding like a bad country-bumpkin stereotype, and it’s great. Also, you’ve managed to make a chicken sound like a sweet and natural pet to me, which is no small feat given I’m an uptight Seattlite.

    I’m going to second the sentiment that the stakes could be a little clearer. It sounds like the big conflict is going to be showing Sunshine in the 4-H competition, but you could definitely propel the story forward if, say, this wasn’t the first day an egg had gone missing… but the third in a row. Or if there were more signs of a disturbance than the messy hay and missing egg. Something that makes us worry about what could happen to Sunshine while Blessen’s at school.

    One smaller note – I’m guessing from the sugarcane that this is set in the Louisiana-ish region, but it might be good to mention where they’re at so we can build the right mental image sooner.

    Thanks for sharing, and good luck with revisions!