Sunday, July 5, 2015

First 5 Pages July Workshop - Wheeler

Name:   Eric Wheeler
Genre:  Middle Grade
Title:  Olivia Boogieman

The cursive letters on the white board might as well taunt me as I mouth “Family day.” My family have a tendency to be scatterbrained and I hope they forgot about today even though I saw it this morning on our calendar written clearly in red ink, circled, underlined, and in hieroglyphics.  

My homeroom teacher, Miss Santiago, sits at her desk.  She wears a white turtleneck sweater, cute jeans with a bedazzled butt, and shiny, black, high heel shoes.  Oh, I wish I could dress like that, but my parents would never let me. All I’m allowed to wear are these well-worn flats that are bulging at the seams.
Because I’m early, there is nobody in the classroom besides Ms. Santiago and myself. She smiles but I break eye contact and I stare at the glossy, red apple on her desk, which is probably a gift from Tattletale Tessa Thompson.
When the starting bell rings it startles me because I’m pretending to work silently at my desk. The other kids file into the classroom, laughing and having a good time.  They make their ways to their desks and continue to talk with each other.
Now that we’re in fifth grade, the chairs with desks coming off to the side are getting too small for us. Gordon has already outgrown his desk and sits at the art supply table in an adult chair.
“Quite down students,” Ms. Santiago says. Once everyone takes their seats, she opens the door and the parents parade in. Most of the students brought their mothers but there are a few single dads shuffling in like clueless zombies. Gordon’s parents are the last to come through the door and I sigh with relief when I don’t see my family.  Maybe they did forget.
A woman with short brown hair, that matches her eyes, pulls up a seat next to me. “Hello, I’m Tessa’s mom.” She pushes her chair so uncomfortably close I smell the coffee on her breath. When she speaks, all I can see is her tongue stained white from the excessive cream.
“I’m Olivia Boogieman.” I scoot back to give myself room.
“What a peculiar surname.” Mrs. Thompson lifts her nose in the air as if she’s sniffing my pedigree.  If she wants to see peculiar, she should meet my family.
It’s like she wants to keep the conversation going because she keeps talking to me, leaning in closer with each word she speaks. “I’m a social worker. What do your parents do?”
“A, A, A,” I stammer. I feel the blush rise in my cheeks.

“Why don’t we get started?” Miss Santiago leans against her desk. I imagine the words “Family Day,” dancing behind her on the whiteboard.  The thought of my parents in my class made my stomach turn summersaults all morning.  My family is a bunch of monsters and I don’t mean they do awful things but they are literally monsters.  My mom is a mummy from ancient Egypt and my dad is a hairy, scary, howl-at-the-moon werewolf.  If that’s not bad enough my brother is a shape shifter, but not just a shape shifter but a troublemaker also, which makes living with him impossible.  To round out our family, my little sister is a skeleton. It’s too big of a burden for a normal girl like me.
“Olivia, are you with us,” Ms. Santiago snaps her fingers in front of my face. She’s my favorite teacher at Middlebury Middle School because this is her first year at the school. She’s young, fun and best of all; she’s never had my brother in any of her classes.
Tessa’s mom leans into her daughter, brushes back the hair away from her ear, and whispers. “It’s a shame when a child’s parents don’t care enough to come to family day.”
“Welcome to our annual family day,” Miss Santiago says as the door opens.  Daisy gasps, Emily weeps, and Mrs. Thompson covers Tessa’s eyes, which can mean only one thing, my parents are here.
“Sorry we’re late. I couldn’t find a thing to wear.” Mom lies.  The same dirty white rags she’s been wearing for centuries dangle from her zombie-like arms.  My father waves at me with his furry arm, he holds my sister’s boney fingers with his other hand.  I sink into my chair, why couldn’t I’ve been born invisible.
“It is very nice that you could join us.” Miss Santiago’s eyes dart from my parents to me probably wondering how I became part of this family. “If you’d like to stand next to your student we can begin again.”

My mom stands behind me while my dad flops on the ground and scratches the fur on his back with his rear leg. “Fleas,” he says to Mrs. Thompson, whose lips turn down into a frown.

“Dad, please stop,” I plead.
He climbs back on two feet; his claws scrape across the floor sending goose bumps up my arms. Mom scratches his belly and his leg moves.

“As I was saying, welcome…” Suddenly a loud cough interrupts Miss Santiago. It’s just a lone cough at first and then a full-fledged coughing fit echoes through the room. Daisy covers her pink, lip-gloss covered mouth and giggles and I don’t even need to see whom she’s laughing at while Dad continues to cough, hack, and finally spit up a wad of fur onto the floor causing a slimy hairball to splat onto Tessa’s black Mary Jane shoes.
“Gross.” Tessa gasps kicking back her foot, sending the hairball in my direction.
“Don’t worry, I got it.” Mom clutches the hairball, as it squishes between her fingers. She shoves the hairball deep into her knockoff Coach handbag.
Miss Santiago grabs the trashcan filled with wadded papers, a paper airplane, and a few pieces of gum stuck to the side of the liner. She carries it to Mom.
“Heaven’s no, I collect these.” Mom reaches into her purse and pulls out the hairball where she displays it like a trophy.
“I am pleased so many parents could be here today.” Miss Santiago places the trashcan next to her desk with a shudder. “You’ll follow your student throughout the day so you can get a sense of what a typical day at Middlebury Middle School is like.”

My school has a panther for a mascot, and is home to a large population of feral cats.  As my father raises his nose and sniffs the air, I grasp at his collar before I see the orange, black, and white calico pass the doorway. Dad jerks against my hold, drops to all four paws, and gives chase.
“No bad boy,” Mom scolds Dad as he races out the door with me attached to his collar. He drags me on the blacktop my knees scrape against the concrete. The cat jumps onto a picnic table and my dad runs under the bench chasing it across the playground. I hold tight as he drags me through the dew stained grass drenching me to the bone. The cat stretches its claws and digs into the bark of a nearby tree. It climbs the tree with no effort, while Dad stands at the base of the tree howling. I yank his collar but he digs his feet as he scratches the tree trunk. The cat smiles down at Dad with a big, white toothy grin, like that cat from Alice in Wonderland. “Cats don’t smile,” I mutter. The cat morphs into my brother, Vinnie. 


  1. Hi, Eric.

    Great setup in the first three paragraphs. The only minor detail I would add is “at home” to the last sentence in the first paragraph so the sentence reads “…even though I saw it at home this morning on our calendar…”

    I’m confused about why she was startled by the bell ringing when she was pretending to work silently. I could see if she was actually working, she would be startled. But if she’s only pretending, wouldn’t she be startled because her thoughts were interrupted?

    I laughed when I read the part about the 5th grade students getting too big for their desks. I am a 5th grade teacher and I see this happen every year.

    In the next paragraph, it should be “quiet” instead of “quite.”

    You don’t need a comma after hair in the sentence “A woman with short brown hair, that…”

    That’s gross about the cream-stained tongue but very effective! The smell of coffee breath is another great description.

    I think you need a tag line after Miss Santiago says, “Why don’t we get started.” Olivia’s attention is on Mrs. Thompson right now so you need something to pull her attention to Miss Santiago before Olivia observes her leaning against her desk.

    In that same paragraph, I suggest ending the sending at “…my brother is a shape shifter. Not just a shape shifter but a trouble maker too. He’s impossible to live with.” This to me is more effective than having it as one long sentence.

    Next paragraph, I suggest: “I sink into my chair. Why couldn’t I have been born invisible?”

    I think you have an opportunity to add some excitement and humor in the part about the hairball. That’s such a gross thing to witness, what is the reaction of other students? I can imagine some students screaming or running for the door. What about the parent’s reaction? Maybe even have Miss Santiago seem a little more flustered, like she’s trying to stay calm and keep it together but we get a sense that’s she grossed out by it too. Really play this up.

    Same thing with the next part about the cats. Add some suspense. For example: Olivia hears her dad growl deep in his throat. The hairs raise on his back. He sniffs the air. Oh no, Olivia thinks. She knows what’s about the happen. The cats! The feral cats that live around the school. Dad smells them. “No,” Mom orders. But it’s too late. Dad bolts. But not before Olivia grabs hold of his collar. “Bad boy!” Mom yells. Olivia hears the screams of her classmates and the clatter of falling desks as Dad races out the classroom door.

    Overall, this is a cute story idea. It’s a great twist on the whole monster idea. It has a lot of potential for humor and excitement. I would definitely read more.

  2. Hello, Eric!

    So this is super cute and fun and the humor was really great. Here are some of my thoughts:

    The hieroglyphics thing through me off at first but now that I know her mom is a mummy that’s actually adorable.

    I agree about the line with the starting bell—if she was only pretending to work, wasn’t she expecting the bell?

    Minor note about the desks: they actually use the same exactly desk-connected-to-chair desks up through middle and high school and even at many colleges. So the line that a fifth grader outgrew his felt a little unlikely to me. If a college football quarterback can squeeze into one, I think a fifth grade boy can… :) Easy fix though—you could just specify that these are the small, kiddie versions and the boy needs one of the “big kid” bigger desks.

    Nice description with the coffee breath/stained tongue.

    Is she stammering the letter A? Or “Uh”?

    Be careful with filter phrases (i.e.: “I feel the blush rise in my cheeks”). I wrote a post on filter phrases that you might find helpful:

    “It’s too big of a burden for a normal girl like me.” SO CUTE.

    The teacher calling her out for not paying attention followed by “she’s my favorite teacher” felt weird to me. Wouldn’t she be more focused on being embarrassed for being scolded in front of the class? Even if the teacher IS her favorite, I imagine she may not be at that moment.

    “I sink into my chair, why couldn’t I’ve been born invisible” would read better as “I sink into my chair—why couldn’t I have been born invisible?”

    While I think the whole monster family idea is adorable, and others will probably disagree with me on this, her dad felt like too much to me. Maybe this is because I read a lot of paranormal stuff, but to me, her father didn’t act like a werewolf at all—just like a dog. The crawling on all fours, fleas, itching, hacking up the hairball and giving chase to the cat are actions I usually attribute to an (unhealthy) dog, not a werewolf which are usually erm…more dignified, I guess. I get that this is supposed to be silly and funny, but it just felt over-the-top to me and sort of killed it for me. But again, this may very well be me because I like paranormal stuff and have read/seen many depictions of werewolves.

    That said, seeing other student reactions to her father/her family throughout the passage after her family arrives would be a great addition.

    When her father jerks against her hold to run after the cat, I’d like to see more focus on her immediately getting jerked forward/dragged around. Right now I thought he broke out of her grasp and it isn’t until a few lines later that I realize she’s being dragged out of the classroom.

    Overall I agree this story was really adorable and the twist on family day and her family was great. I definitely see this being a great fit with other fun MGs. :)

  3. Hi Eric,
    First, the premise and her name cracked me up. A normal girl having to live with a family of monsters? Fun! Lots of room for conflict and mayhem.

    Some great comments already.
    Love the hieroglyphics on the calendar. It was a curveball that made me want to know more.

    “The cursive letters on the white board might as well taunt me as I mouth “Family day.”” What about simplifying? The cursive letters on the white board taunted me. “Family day.” Or “The cursive letters on the white board stirred up a sand-storm of terror in my stomach. Family day. Or something that gives us a hint about her experience. The cursive letters on the white board sent more shivers up my back than a pack of howling werewolves. Family day. (Just suggestions. Maybe the werewolf reference is too blunt and ruins the surprise?)

    “My family have a tendency…” Should it be: “My family has”?

    If the teacher is sitting at her desk, how does Olivia know her butt is bedazzled? Would a 5th grader say bedazzled to describe jeans? I get that she’s longing to be normal, but she might prefer to dress like some stylish girl outside. Maybe she wished her mom dressed more like the teacher. Can she see the teacher’s shoes from under the desk?

    “Maybe they did forget.” You could put this in its own paragraph and shorten it to “Maybe they forgot” to give it even more punch.

    The social worker interaction (I agree with all the great description comments!), what if before she sits down beside Olivia, she could whisper to her daughter, “Is that the one you mentioned?” Oh, and when the social worker asks what her parents do, Olivia could say her mom is a stay-home-mummy and her dad works at night. :-)

    “‘I’m Olivia Boogieman.’ I scoot back to give myself room.” I might have Olivia do the action first, and I’m not sure she’d say her name. Maybe after she scoots away the social worker says, “Olivia Boogieman, right? What an odd surname.” Then the reader would know this lady has been talking about Olivia behind the scenes.
    The sniffing her pedigree comment was a great line that clued me into Olivia’s character/where she comes from!

    What if instead of having Olivia tell us about her family, you stop at the comment that they’re monsters, building even more mystery, and then the reader experiences them walking into the classroom? You could put the awesome line “It’s too big of a burden for a normal girl like me.” by itself in a paragraph after the word monsters.
    I think the surprise about the brother could be even more fun if we didn’t know he was a shape shifter and we see him smile and shift back into a boy.

    The dad scratching his back with his leg is quite a flexible feat. What about having him scratch his neck, maybe even with his Nike-clad foot? I’d agree with Ava that the dad comes off more like an absent-minded or comic-relief and dog-like than a werewolf. Maybe you could add in something about how her dad was a rebel or not the sharpest fang in the pack or doesn’t fit in with the rest of his relatives? (Just a suggestion.) Up above you mention that he’s scary, but he doesn’t come across as scary. Or make it more subtle, like dad looks like a hairy person in a long-sleeved shirt and Nikes, but then throws a hairball and barks at the cat? One question, though. Werewolves typically have an excellent sense of smell, so I wondered how come the dad didn’t recognize the scent of his son? Or was he chasing the son because the son was in trouble?

    “I sink into my chair, why couldn’t I’ve been born invisible.” You could split this into two sentences: I sink into my chair.
    (New paragraph) Why couldn’t I have been born invisible?

    “No bad boy,” I think you need a comma after no? Having mom scold him makes dad even less dignified.

    Love that the cat is her grinning brother! Great “showing” with that little scene that he’s a shape shifter and a trouble maker.

    Love this concept! It makes a really fun story!

  4. I agree with a lot of the comments people have already posted!

    I think you do a great job of capturing the middle grade voice and staying consistent throughout, while at the same time making Olivia’s voice clear.

    I think it’s a bit of an unfair cliché to say that the single days are all clueless zombies.

    Great details on the characters, like Tessa’s mom pushing her chair too close and her coffee breath.

    That’s a crazy family! And very interesting haha.

    So it seems that people like Olivia’s family aren’t unheard of, but at the same time they’re the only ones? Since everyone else around appears to be normal.

    Really wonderful characterizations.

    Why doesn’t Olivia let go of her dad’s collar? Also, doesn’t he care at all that he’s dragging his daughter along, or is he really so simple minded as to chase a cat like that? I don’t think even an actual dog who is cat obsessed would keep going if someone was hanging on to its collar.

    Also, Olivia would get more than some scratched knees. Blacktop cuts you up like no other. She’d have road burn all over the place. Also, she doesn’t react much to this. No fear, no pain, no frustration.

    I completely agree that this is adorable and entertaining!

  5. I love the feeling the first paragraph sets forward—anxiety, worry, which is great to show something is already amiss. I think your first line has room to be really dynamic and memorable. The cursive letters read Family Day and (may as well) taunt her. Can you personify this more and set a visual for the taunt? I think you could play around with this and it could be really fun. Especially if your story has humor, you can show that immediately. Another thought is you could set ‘hieroglyphics’ apart as its own line to distinguish it as noteworthy. Like: “Also, in hieroglyphics.” That to me says something is different about this family’s calendar.

    Can you work in a detail on her parents won’t let her wear those clothes? Impractical? Immodest? Too expensive? Even one or two words of detail we can learn more about this family. And, how does she feel in those worn flats? A detail like tucking her feet under her desk, making sure no one notices the bulging seams could visually show her as self-consciousness, if that’s an emotion you’re going for.

    I’m not sure the paragraph about being early in the classroom adds anything. The tattletale Tessa line might be able to be shown in a more engaging way once Tessa comes to the class and we can see this in action. Same with startling by the bell. I would suggest moving straight to the kids coming into the room to keep the pace moving.

    How does your character feel about everyone laughing and talking? An observation like “everyone seems to have friends but me” can show us she feels like an outcast (or whatever fits here). I love this idea of the desks being too small. Can you show this? Maybe Gordon starts to sit in a “kid” seat but his knee whacks the side of the desk and he moves to the art table. You can accomplish this in one or two lines, and it shows the visual.

    Note typo: quiet, not “quite.” Is Gordon a close friend? Why does she focus on him

    Great line: If she wants to see peculiar, she should meet my family. With the mention of Family Day on the board, how does she imagine those words dancing—in a fun way? A menacing way? How does it make her feel?

    I’m wondering if the social worker line can be cut (which reads a little odd) and have Tessa’s mom directly question where Oliva’s parents are. This forces Olivia to act—does she lie? Does ignore her, or cause a distraction? Then the line where she says “it’s shame” could follow, creating a more logical cause and effect. That could then be a good place for Olivia’s internal thoughts on her family. If someone has questioned why her parents aren’t there, it’s more of a natural trigger for Olivia to then go into exposition about her family.

    Another great line: I sink into my chair, why couldn’t I’ve been born invisible. This connects an emotion to what’s happening so we experience the story with Olivia.
    The pacing picks up once you have her parents in the room and we see them interacting in the scene.

    I also would like to see what the class reaction is to the hairball (besides Tessa’s mom, because she’s going to care more about what kids her own age think than another adult). I also agree that Dad seems more like a dog than a werewolf. I suppose this being MG you want to tame down the visciousness of a werewolf, but I think a happy medium exists; there’s a lot of werewolf lore to choose from, and you can shape it to fit your story.

    While I like the twist that the cat is actually her shape-shifting brother, wouldn’t her family recognize his form? Many of the paranormals I’ve read, the people who know a shifter can identify their eyes or markings, even if they shift into different creatures. Something to consider.

  6. Hi Eric,

    My first thought when I read this is it funny and well written. It reminded me of The Adams Family from years ago. Olivia’s voice is strong and her issues with her family are obvious from the beginning.

    The descriptions are good. I could see feel how mortified that she is when her family arrives. It sounds like this is her first family day; however, her brother has been through this school. Olivia observes that the desks are too small since “we’re in fifth grade.” Gordon’ desk is already too big for him. These children and families should already know Olivia Boogieman and her family. I love that name by the way.

    This is picky but I don’t like a teacher snapping her fingers at a student. If I were Olivia, I would not like that teacher anymore. She would become my used to be favorite teacher.

    If the students already know Olivia’s family, there might not be much reaction to her family walking in. However, if no one knows them, I would expect pandemonium in the classroom and some reaction from Ms. Santiago.

    Also picky but be consistent with either Ms. or Miss Santiago.

    I like the scene of chasing the cat but wonder how she’s not bruised and battered being dragged like that.


  7. I'm a little confused by your world. Olivia acts like she is embarrassed by her family and I expect everyone else to be embarrassed or shocked by them, but that does not happen. There is one sentence with some gasping and weeping, but that's really it. Are monsters normal in this world? Is Olivia normal? You really need to show these things so we understand how bad this is for Olivia. Otherwise, it sounds like it's in her head.

    A couple small things:

    "I’m pretending to work silently at my desk" > this doesn't mesh with her staring at the blackboard and teacher's butt and apple. If she's working as soon as she sits down and then sneaking small glances, you need to start off that way, and she needs to be doing this when the bell startles her.

    Watch the amount of telling you are doing, especially when introducing her own family in her head. This would be stronger if you showed it as part of people's reactions.

    Good luck!