Sunday, July 5, 2015

First 5 Pages July Workshop - Murphy

Julie Murphy
Young Adult
I Hate My Life

I hate my life and I hate myself for cutting. Mom would be so mad if she found out.
Lexie held the razor blade tightly in her left hand and looked at her soft inner thigh. She made a tentative scratch. No blood came and she pressed deeper until the scratch began to bleed. Sighing with relief, Lexie closed her eyes and relaxed with the pain. She sat on the toilet absently rubbing the cut. Five minutes later, she wadded up the bloody toilet paper, checked the cut once more and flushed the paper down the toilet. This was the deepest cut she had made in two months.

Settling on the bright green and purple bedspread, Lexie randomly typed in numbers on her iPhone and pressed Send. She looked around the detritus (a favorite new word from English class) of the room she shared with her sister, Angel. Scattered crayons, random papers, and Angelina Ballerina books littered the desktop. Lexie shuddered as she looked at the open door of the closet: cluttered shoes and sweaters and dresses never hung up. She crinkled her nose and sniffed.   It smelled like dolls and baby powder.

She looked for her drawings from art class but realized they were buried under Angel’s books. Sighing, she gave up the hunt for another day.

She sat cross-legged, as still as a Buddha, and mentally reviewed the newest reason why she hated her life: Kelsey, her best friend, had not returned her calls or texts since Friday. I’ll bet Kelsey hates me; I have no friends; I have no one. I feel so alone.

Lexie walked to the dresser, opened the third drawer, and reached under her underwear to grasp a parquet box. She lifted its lid and picked up the old newspaper article on top. It was dated March 3, the day after her birthday. The front-page headline read: Baby Girl Abandoned at Local Hospital. Lexie unfolded the creased paper. She slid her fingers over the page, pausing over the crinkles to smooth them out. She mouthed the words memorized from so many years of reading the article:

Baby Girl Abandoned at Local Hospital

Hospital officials report that a baby girl less than thirty minutes old was left at the emergency room door of the Winston County Hospital. The infant weighed seven pounds eight ounces. She was wrapped in a tattered Virginia tee shirt. “Although the umbilical cord was still attached,” a hospital spokesperson, Marie Lucas, reported, “the baby is healthy and doing well.”

Local police are asking citizens to help find a car seen speeding from the parking lot. It was identified as an old dark colored car missing a taillight and the right rear passenger window. Officials are also asking the mother to come forward, stating that she will not be prosecuted for abandoning the baby.

Lexie whispered, “What kind of mother abandons her newborn baby like that? She must have been a monster.” That baby girl was her, Alexis Suzette Wren, who had been placed in foster care two days later.

Mom’s voice intruded, “Alexis, supper is almost ready. Come set the table.”

“Why do I have to set the table? Her majesty, Princess Angelina, never sets the table,” mumbling, walking into the kitchen.

“What did you say?” asked her mother in that sharp voice Lexie hated so much.

“Nothing.” She grabbed four plates.

She stopped at the high chair to greet Damon, her adopted baby brother. “Hi, Bubba,” she cooed at the two-year-old who looked back at her with solemn black eyes. She rubbed his thick wavy hair, then patted down her own bushy dark hair.

Damon burst into a chorus of gibberish, gestured to Lexie while she placed the plates and silverware on the table. She handed him a spoon and he began to bang on the tray of his high chair. The kitten darted from under the table and ran into the other room. She grinned at the laughing baby. “Baby Bro, when will you learn to speak English so we can understand you?”

“The people at the orphanage spoke only Haitian Creole to him, so it may take him more than two months to learn English.” Mom laughed. “By the way, I have a doctor’s appointment for him on Wednesday. I need you to watch Angel for me when you get home from school. It’s so hard to take her with us. Get the blue bowl for the corn, please.” Oh, sure, Princess Angel gets to stay home and I have to play with her.

Lexie stood on tiptoes to reach the bowl. She dropped to her feet, slammed the cabinet door, and banged the bowl on the granite counter top. She winced at the loud noise and glanced toward her mother. She quickly poured the corn and placed the bowl on the table.

Mom chopped the carrots with such force that ends flew off the cutting board. She grabbed them and threw them in the sink. Not looking up, she said, “Ask Kelsey to come here. She can stay for dinner, and I’ll rent you a movie.  And she can sleep over.” Mom added the carrots to the salad and pushed back a strand of blonde hair off her round freckled face. “I haven’t seen her all weekend. Anything the matter?”

“I don’t want her to see my messy room. I hate having Angel in my room.”

Mom’s blue eyes flashed as she let out a sigh. “Lexie, give me a break. We’ve talked about this a million times. The people at the orphanage thought it best for Damon to have a room close to ours. Taking Angel’s room was best because it’s next to ours and you have the other bath. Turning the bonus room into a bedroom for you will take time and money.”

The beat of Damon’s spoon on the tray matched the throb of Lexie’s headache. Her voice droned – yada, yada, yada, and Lexie tuned her mother out.

At dinner, Angel babbled about being a princess and riding her new Princess bike with her friend, Amanda. Lexie grimaced thinking of those two blonde, blue-eyed girls in their matching pink outfits riding their matching Princess bikes. Lexie must have groaned out loud. Dad’s voice rumbled, “Are you okay?”

She smiled weakly into her dad’s big blue eyes, “Yes, Dad, I’m fine.”

"Sweetie, you’ve been quiet all weekend. Where’s Kelsey? She usually comes over.” Dad scratched the top of his bald head with one hand and shoved the last of a chocolate chip cookie in his mouth with his other.

“Kelsey has something else to do,” Lexie lied.

Her issues with Kelsey started on Wednesday at the church supper. Lexie filled her plate with fried chicken and mashed potatoes and grabbed a bowl of banana pudding. Rushing to the back of the fellowship hall, she arrived just in time to see Logan and Kelsey claim the only empty seats at the table.

“Sorry, Lexie,” Kelsey mouthed.

“Let’s go to the last table.”

“We’re here. See you in class.”

Lexie stomped to the nearest table and ate so fast she didn’t remember chewing. After she cooled off, she decided to forgive Kelsey and saved her and Logan seats at the meeting. Logan sat between Kelsey and Lexie; Kelsey talked to Logan, not her. Fuming, Lexie silently vowed to herself she would never save Kelsey a place again.


  1. Hello,

    I’m not thrilled with the title. It almost seems too teen angst.

    The beginning throws me off. It starts in first person and then switches to third person in the third sentence. I’m not sure if the first two sentences are supposed to be in quotation marks.

    Other than the POV in the first paragraph, it is written well and shows the emotion well.

    I don’t know what a detritus is, will your readers know? I don’t know. Maybe my vocabulary is too limited. I had to pull away from your story to look up the word.

    Second paragraph is written well. I didn’t know that dolls had a smell.
    In the paragraph about sitting cross-legged again goes from third to first. It really throws me off.

    Why is there a blank space for the date on the newspaper? I like how she slides her finger over the page to smooth out the crinkles.

    Maybe instead of say an old dark colored car missing a taillight and the right rear passenger window, use the make or model of the car instead of the word car. Or at least say a coupe or a sedan.

    I like how the baby brother doesn’t speak English yet.

    Why does she hate Angel so much? My assumption is Angel is a biological child and Lexie holds a grudge. Am I right? My concern is that we are not seeing Angel act in a way to deserve the hatred from Lexie so I’m feeling that Lexie is being petty. Maybe she is letting her emotion for the how she feels about Kelsey to rub off on Angel.

    I can see why she is angry at Kelsey because she seems like a bitch the way she talks to Lexie. I’m assuming that Lexie likes Logan but Kelsey is moving in on her crush.

    You write really well and I wish I wrote like you.

  2. Hi, Julie.

    I love the tension you set in the first paragraph. You immediately draw the readers in. Like Eric wrote, I’m thrown by the change in POV. Have you thought about making this all in first person? Given the intense topic of cutting, I think it would make your story that much more powerful and personal.

    I agree with Eric’s comments. Here are a few more:

    I understand that she's checking her phone to see if she's received calls or texts from Kelsey but why is she randomly typing in numbers on her IPhone and pressing send? I’m confused. What is the purpose?

    You provide great description of Lexie’s room and we get a good sense of that Angel is young based on her things scattered about the room. Where exactly is Lexie looking for her drawings? Is she scanning the floor of the bedroom? Did she get up off her bed? I think that action could be made more clear. And why is she looking for her drawings? Does she want to do something with them? What’s the purpose?
    I like the description of how she sat cross-legged still as still as a Buddha. That’s a good visual. But I think you could add more to help the transition of when she walks to the dresser. For example, she tossed the phone on her bed and uncurled her legs.

    When the family is sitting at dinner, I would just say, “Lexie groaned out loud.” Then “Are you okay?” Dad asked. The word “rumbled” doesn’t quite fit there for me. And when he says, “She usually comes over.” I think that statement could be made stronger somehow. Something like, “Where’s Kelsey? You two are usually attached at the hip.”

    Who is Logan? Boy or girl? Lexie’s friend? Kelsey’s boyfriend? Why would Kelsey choose to sit next to Logan instead of Lexie?

    I’m unclear who is talking in the next two lines of dialogue. It sounds like Kelsey and Logan but they’re already at the table so that doesn’t make sense.

    If you choose to keep your story in third person, I would consider changing the last paragraph to Lexie’s thoughts so the readers can connect with her more. We know from the fact that both parents asked at dinner where Kelsey was that she is an important person in Lexie’s life. So I assume then that this scene at the church supper is a big deal. Why? Make the readers feel the hurt and betrayal that Lexie is feeling right now.

    Overall, great set up. You give the readers a good glimpse into Lexie’s life. I’m curious to read more to find out what leads her to start cutting.

  3. I remember seeing this before and was intrigued by it. I think there has been improvement, but overall, I think you need to slow down and get in your character's head a bit more.

    This self-harm is a very serious subject, and the opening feels more like a shock tactic rather than a real moment. I think you have to stay in this space with her a while longer.

    What is she thinking? What is going on in her head? The next thing the reader finds is a very mundane dinner conversation with no real emotional impact. And the dialogue needs work. Are some of these thoughts internal? You'd need italics there, although I don't know if you can do this in Blogger formatting.

    I was also thrown by the switch in tense.

    “I hate my life and I hate myself for cutting” is a powerful opening line. But the one that comes after: “Mom would be so mad if she found out,” just doesn't ring true, to my ear. Would Mom really be mad? Or would she be concerned and freaked out?

    I don't know a lot about cutting, but would she also wince at the pain a little? I know it's supposed to bring a sense of relief, but isn't there also the physical sensation of the cut?

    It also feels very moment by moment: Lexie did this, Lexie did that. Perhaps try to get a better flow and rhythm going. Look at Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak or Winter Girls for some inspiration.

    Can you have her read from the newspaper article in chapter two? We have a whole novel to get to know her, and there's no need to rush the story with everything about her.

    Well, Julie, I think you have an interesting subject here, but to truly have it jump off the page, we need to connect with Lexie right away. That does happen with your first sentence, but all that is forgotten when we get to the next few scenes.

    So, to summarize. Maybe stay in the bathroom a bit longer. What's it look like in there? Cold, white tiles, the drip of the faucet, the smell of one of those sickly sweet deodorizers. Paint this picture for your reader. Have her environment match her mood and desperation.

    Maybe that is your first chapter. It can be as short as two pages long. And then maybe jump into the kitchen at the opening of the next one.

    I hope this helps.

    Best to you, and good luck!

  4. You’ve definitely got a sympathetic character setup here! Lots of wonderful emotion and writing. I feel for Lexie. I get that she feels alone and different in her family and with others. I’m thinking if you went for a gentler title it might draw more people in? A marketing friend took me through an exercise where went through the resolution of my book and drew my title from there.
    Lots of great suggestions already. I liked the idea of her staying in the bathroom longer, and have her description of the setting match her internal state. Maybe there’s something cheerful like rubber ducks everywhere, but you could have her at odds with them or describe them in a negative manner?
    I liked the suggestion to switch to first person. That might sound overwhelming, went through it myself, but once I got through the pain of switching the book, I loved the results. (I’m wondering if you wrote her first-person thoughts in italics, but the reformatting for this workshop got rid of them?)
    Maybe instead of “sighing with relief,” (when you define the action by adding “with and a label,” I learned it’s seen as telling), try adding a visceral reaction. You have the relief written in there, but maybe pull the reader deeper by letting them experience the tension easing from her body as blood flows from the cut? Does she feel shame as she stares at the cut afterward? Does she cry? I believe that’s a common emotion that goes along with cutting. I liked the suggestion to add in more about the pain.
    “This was the deepest cut she had made in two months.” That might be fine set off in its own paragraph for emphasis.
    I like that her room doesn’t fit her personality. Maybe you could her at odds with the setting even more to show her irritation? Shove the too bright green and purple bedspread aside before she sits or throw a dark blanket over it? She could wade through/trip over the crayons etc to get to the bed or closet. It might be good for the reader to know Lexie feels her little sister invaded her space recently rather than this is the way things always were? Does she have one tiny part of her room that she’s kept the way she likes, perhaps it’s a neat island in the midst of the cluttered ocean of toys? Then you could have a blow up moment at some point where her island gets destroyed in a toy tsunami. 
    Re: detritus. I think it shows she’s a deep thinker, but when I used detritus in a recent competition submission, some of the judges marked it as a word many YA readers might not know. If you want to keep it, perhaps define it by messy detritus?
    Maybe to instill reader curiosity, have her pull out the article and read the title, but get interrupted (hear her sister at the door perhaps) and shove the article back in the drawer for later? The reader would feel the importance and be interested and be waiting to know more.
    “ ‘…sets the table,’ mumbling, walking into the kitchen.” Missing a word?
    “…sharp voice Lexie hated so much.” If you took out “Lexie hated so much,” the reader might feel more sympathy on Lexie’s behalf.
    “Oh, sure, Princess Angel gets to stay home and I have to play with her.” That could be in its own paragraph to let the reader pause and feel with Lexie.
    “quickly poured” could tighten with word dumped.
    Instead of the dialog tag “Lexie lied,” you could pull out more emotion by having Lexie wondering what Kelsey is doing. And for all she knows, Kelsey did have something else to do. So, you could have her say something about Kelsey just texted to say she was busy. Then the reader knows Lexie is lying.
    Have you ever considered starting with the issue with Kelsey at church? Showing that happen and having the reader feel Lexie’s isolation and awkwardness? After that, Lexie comes home and cuts herself then goes to her room and has an interaction with mom? (Perhaps it couldn’t be dinner, but it could be making school lunches or something.)
    Great start with giving us a character we care about!

  5. E.S. mentioned that your readers may not know what detritus means. I also didn’t. However, since Lexie seems to be into learning new words and even tells us she learned it from English class, I think it would fit in her narration to say something like, (a new word she learned in English class meaning waste).

    I agree with E.S.’s evaluation of Lexie’s dislike for Angel.

    Like Melanie mentioned, I’m also not sure what the purpose of typing in random numbers and sending them is.

    I agree that you’ve done a wonderful job of setting up tension straight from the beginning, but also agree with Ronald’s evaluation of the cutting issue. The thought at the beginning suggests Lexie hates that she cuts herself, but when we’re actually in the scene, she does it, seems to enjoy it, and then moves on without thinking about it.

    I also think you expand on the tension well with the interactions between Lexie and her mother. Also with Lexie and Angel, although as E.S. mentioned I think this relationship/dynamic can be handled a bit better by showing instead of telling.

    I agree with Ronald’s suggestion to move the newspaper article further into the story. The fact that she’d adopted is the important part right now.

    Lastly, I think Jennifer’s suggestion of starting with the issue with Kelsey and then having Lexie come home and cut is an interesting one worth exploring!

    For my comments:

    Watch filters. Here are a couple examples:
    ‘as she looked at the open door of the closet’ could just be ‘Lexie shuddered at the topen door of the closet’
    ‘but realized they were buried under’ – don’t need ‘realized’ just say ‘but they were buried under Angel’s books’

    Why does she give up the hunt for another day? She’s already found them. Do you mean to say that she gives up on wanting to get them because it takes too much effort?

    ‘I’ll bet Kelsey hates me… I feel so alone’ – So I’m wondering if these bits of first person are supposed to be thoughts? I’d suggest putting them in italics.

    ‘That baby girl was her’ – I think this is implied.

    There are a lot of sentences in general starting with ‘she’ but in the paragraph beginning ‘Lexie stood on tiptoes’ there are three in a row.

    Why would turning the bonus room into a bedroom take money? As for time, why is it more complicated than moving a bed from one room to another? Can’t take more than an hour.

    It’s a little unclear what Kelsey means by “We’re here” in the table scene. Is she saying they already set down and she doesn’t feel like moving?

    You have a great set up for a lot of tension and difficult emotion!

  6. Hello,

    You've got some great suggestions already and I agree with many of them, especially about the title and the bit about Angel. As we don’t see her mother asking anything unreasonable and we don’t see Angel doing anything that deserves her ire, it just makes Lexie look immature.

    Some other thoughts:

    The first line, like the title, sounds really angsty to me and is kind of an immediate turn-off. It also makes me wonder how nuanced the representation of a cutting teen is going to be—I’d worry that it’d be more focused on stereotypes (I cut because I hate everything) rather than a layered, respectful representation, as we’re seeing cliché teen angst from the first line.

    I’m not sure if you have any CPs or betas who dealt with cutting or self-harm, but I definitely think it’s important to get feedback from people who have actually experienced whatever you’re representing. This can help really avoid any harmful or inaccurate representation.

    Many have mentioned "detritus," here are my thoughts: to me, it doesn't sound like a word a teen would use, even if she did just learn it in English. IMO, it draws too much attention to itself.

    Why would she randomly type numbers into her phone then actually send it? Someone else mentioned being confused by this and I agree. Even if she was PRETENDING to text (rather than actually texting), which I don't know why she'd bother doing at home given that I think she was alone in the room, why would she send the random numbers?

    I like the baby powder description, but what do dolls smell like?

    Be careful with filter phrases like “realized." Kalyn mentioned this a bit, and if you'd like more information, I wrote a post about filter phrases a while back:

    To be honest, a lot of this to me is reading a little…patronizing. The paragraph about “the newest reason why she hated her life” feels flippant—like Lexie’s very real emotions are being discounted.

    Be careful with your sentence beginnings—I noticed sometimes there’s a bit of repetition that started to get a little monotonous. For example: “She dropped to her feet…She winced at the loud noise…She quickly poured the corn.” Super easy fix: just go through and vary up sentence starts when you notice many of the same in a paragraph. :)

    Overall I think you've got the potential for a powerful story here, you just have to be careful. Self-harm is pretty sensitive subject matter and you want to do all you can to make sure you're respectful and thoughtful about it.

  7. Julie, welcome to the workshop! Thanks for allowing us to take a peek at your opening pages.

    This is an interesting opening, with plenty of meat. The opening with the cutting caught my attention right away. I'd recommend adjusting that opening though, to make it even more dramatic. I mean, this is dramatic stuff, so let's build on that. You may want to open with something along the lines of "Lexie held the sharp blade above her inner thigh." She hates herself for cutting? Let's "feel" that. Let's experience that. And after she cuts herself, let's feel the pain. I know it's a release for her, but let's actually experience the feeling of that sliced skin. And yes, it's a release, but how does she feel after that? Does she feel ashamed? Sad? Fearful?

    "Show" that she hates herself, don't tell us :)

    Which brings me to another point. Yes, her mom would be mad if she found out. Let's expand on that as well. What if Lexie hears mom clanging in the kitchen, spoons against bowls, and then that noise stops. Then she hears footsteps down the hall. She pauses before the blade sinks into her skin. Mom's footsteps pause outside the bathroom door, and then she does what this particular mom would do. Does she knock? Does she pause and then move on? That would create plenty of conflict in this opening.

    I'd ditch the flashback with Kelsey in the opening. It's way too soon. We barely know Lexie, and now we're hearing about her with the guy and an event that we know nothing about. Let's get to know Lexie first. Let's sympathize with her. Later, when it matters more, you can insert important events with Kelsey. Right now we know that there's a rift, and I think that's enough for the opening.

    One other small thing. No need to mention the color of each character's eyes. Unless it's the love interest! We want to know the color of dreamy eyes!

    This promises to be a dramatic story with events that will resonate with plenty of girl readers. I look forward to the revision!