Sunday, August 2, 2015

1st 5 Pages August Workshop - Hartley

Name: Erin Foster Hartley
Genre: YA Contemporary
Title: Skylar’s Kids

Portia’s pudgy five-year-old belly heaves under her t-shirt as she sizes me up. “I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” she says.

“I’m not a stranger. I live next door.” I point to my yard like that’ll help make my case. The grass needs mowing, which I’m sure my dad will ride my ass about when he gets home.

“Why do you have those things in your ears?” she asks.

“Because they’re cool.” I just went up a gauge on my plugs this morning, and they hurt like hell. I nod to the stuffed animal in her lap. “I like your unicorn.”

She frowns and picks at the tag hanging off its shabby gray leg. “You go to the big kids’ school.”

“That’s right. But even big kids can like unicorns.”

She doesn’t seem to question this. “I have better ones,” she says. “I’m not allowed to bring them outside. Aunt Peggy got me one with wings for my birthday.”

“That’s a Pegasus,” I tell her. “Do you know what the plural of Pegasus is?”

Her blond curls sway as she shakes her head.


She giggles at this. “Do you want to come in and play?”

I glance over my shoulder. Except for a cat walking down the sidewalk across the street, the block is empty. “Yeah, sure.”

The screen door creaks as she opens it, and it slaps shut behind us. “Portia?” a voice calls from the other side of the house. “Is that you?”

“Yeah, Mommy,” Portia shouts. “I’m going to play in my room with a friend now.”

“Alright, honey.”

I follow her up the stairs. The toes of her socks hang off her feet, and I watch as they flop and twist against the thick carpet. I imagine her tripping, me wiping blood from her lip, drying her tears. 

Her room is painted Pepto-Bismol pink. Toys and books are scattered everywhere. I nearly trip over a pile of crayons on the floor, grinding burnt sienna into the rug with the heel of my combat boot. A white wicker dresser stands under the room’s single window. Portia plops down next to a pile of stuffed animals in the corner and grabs the winged horse. “Her name is Penelope.”

I sit cross-legged next to her. “Can I see her?”

Portia hands Penelope over along with a tiny plastic comb. I brush the toy’s tail as she selects a tiger from the pile. “Grrr…” She pushes the tiger’s face up to Penelope. “I’m gonna eat you.”

“No, no!” I say in a silly falsetto. Then, in my regular voice, “Wait — what kind of sound does a Pegasus make?”

Portia whinnies with delight and jumps to her feet. She makes the tiger run along the edge of the dresser and jump to her bed. I get up and follow her.

“Your dad left early this morning,” I say as they circle the room, our animals trotting across every bare surface of furniture.

Portia stops suddenly and reverses course. “He works in an office.”

“I know that.” I kidnap Barbie from her Dreamhouse and make her ride Penelope across the windowsill. I notice the window is unlocked. “Is he coming home early, too?”

She shrugs and makes the tiger nip at Barbie’s bare leg. I decide not to press the issue and continue playing with Portia in silence until there’s a knock on the door.

“Would you girls — oh!” Mrs. Davidson’s face spasms with shock before spreading into a smile. “Edgar, I didn’t expect to see you here. How are you?”

“Fine, Mrs. Davidson. Portia was just showing me her Pegasus.”

“I see.” If this seems odd to her, she doesn’t show it. “How are your parents? I’ve been meaning to invite you all for dinner again, but I’ve been so busy with this deadline.”

We’ve had dinner with the Davidsons a grand total of one time, and that was a year and a half ago. My parents and them don’t exactly run in the same social circles, so I figure gestures like that are more about good-neighbor-karma points than wanting to be friends. Mrs. Davidson is some sort of writer, younger than my mother by at least ten years. Her long blond hair is twisted in a messy knot at the top of her head, and it occurs to me now that she’s kind of hot.

“They’re fine,” I say, glancing down at the toys in my hands. I must look ridiculous. I put Barbie and Penelope on the bed.

“That’s good.” Her eyes go distant for a second before refocusing. “I made some sandwiches if you want to come downstairs. They’re just jelly, since Portia’s allergic to peanuts.”

“Sounds great.”

We all go down to the kitchen. Portia and I sit at the huge center island with the marble top my mom wouldn’t shut up about the first time she saw it. Copper pots and pans hang from a metal rack overhead, and they clang together like chimes as Mrs. Davidson brings over our plates. The crusts have been cut off the bread, the sandwiches cut into neat little triangles. They’re almost too perfect to eat.

“How’s school going?” she asks, pouring us some soy milk. My glass is tiny — more like a double shot glass — with a drawing of a ladybug on it. “Are you in ninth grade this year?”

“Tenth.” I realize I’m staring at her cleavage and look away. “Mind if I use your restroom?”

“Of course,” she says, too wrapped up in recapping the milk to notice my perviness. “You remember where it is, don’t you? Just down the hall, first door on your left.”


A chemical flower scent hits me as I pass the bathroom, but I don’t go in. At the second door, I flip the light switch, and my eyes go immediately to the big wooden cabinet in the corner.

There they are. Just like before, when Mr. Davidson showed them off to my dad. The 12-gauge Winchester 1200 pump-action military shotgun. The 9mm Browning. And the star of the collection: the 9mm Uzi semiautomatic. My dad—a bleeding-heart liberal with a giant anti-NRA stick up his ass—was not impressed, but I was. I sucked up every detail and specification he rattled off like a sponge. The Uzi was the same kind of gun used by the Israeli Military. He’d had the hammer of the Browning altered so it wouldn’t pinch the web of skin between your thumb and forefinger (a design flaw that I bet hurts like a son-of-a-bitch). You could even attach a bayonet to the end of the Winchester for close combat. I could hardly believe it when he offered to take me out to the range someday to try them out. Of course, Dad shot that offer down and that was the end of it.

God, they’re beautiful.

The cabinet’s locked, no doubt. But where the keys are stashed is a mystery for another day.


  1. Hi, I'm glad to have the chance to read your work and I'm looking forward to hearing your feedback on mine. I've come up with a few initial thoughts while reading the excerpt.

    I really like the first line. I could easily picture the scene as I read it. It definitely sounds like something a small child would say in that situation. However, I had made the assumption that the MC was female (perhaps it was intentional) so I was surprised that a teen boy was in a little girl's room.

    I started to get a disturbing vibe from your MC from this sentence: I imagine her tripping, me wiping blood from her lip, drying her tears. It seemed odd to me, but I wasn't sure if I was misinterpreting the meaning. As I read farther, it becomes clear that Edgar is more than he seems. By the end of the passage, I was definitely uneasy about his intentions.

    I can't say that I like the MC, but maybe that is exactly what you want the reader to feel. If you want readers to feel any sympathy for him, you may want to consider adding in some vulnerability or explain his actions. Maybe this will unfold as the story progresses. I guess this is part of the difficulty of "judging" a story based on just the first few pages. :)

  2. Hi Erin, I have to agree with Melissa that there is something inherently creepy about Edgar at this stage. I'm seeing a teenage boy getting a young girl to invite him into her house/bedroom, perving at the mum's chest, the little girl's open bedroom window and her father's gun collection. I think the major problem is that we have no idea what is motivating Edgar - it could all be completely innocent or completely deviant but right now we just don't know and I think our minds these days just lead us to the worst possible conclusion. Perhaps a little less on the play and stuffed animals and a bit more on Edgar's motivation - he is obviously after the guns, but why? If he is looking at the little girl's bedroom window as a means of getting access to the gun cabinet I think you need to make that obvious.

  3. Erin, a great start to your manuscript. Your writing is excellent and I love your MC's voice. With the plugs and the combat boots, I was on the fence with the gender of your MC, but it became clear when Portia's mom used his name. I agree with the other comments that there's something almost frightening about your MC, but I sense that's the tone you're attempting to set. However, I also questioned his motivation because until the last 250 words or so, I really thought his intentions were to hurt this little girl. I'm a mom so I will say that immediately my hackles go up. If this isn't your intention, I would downplay his interaction with Portia and play up a little more that there's something inside the house that he really wants. Also, I want to address a few things that went through my head a s a parent. It might be because I live if a fairly large town, but I would never let my 5 year old outside unattended. Not only that, but if she told me she was bringing a friend inside the house, I would inspect who the friend is. It kills me to say this because I know you put a lot of thought and work into these pages and I suspect it's going to be hard to tweak if you take my concerns to heart. This is your manuscript and you have to go with your gut, but I'd consider tweaking it a bit so maybe the mom is gardening in the backyard and doesn't know that Portia is outside or that she's brought Edgar into her room. I'd also a little more internal thoughts on why he wants those guns. Does he just think they're cool and wants to steal them? If that's the case he's just a delinquent. But if his motivation is to get them because the kids at school are torturing him and he plans to shoot up the school, the drive behind him wanting them is going to that much different. What emotions are going through him? Anger or intrigue? And seeing as I don't think his motivation is to harm Portia, let's get into his brain a little more about why he's there. Hopefully this make sense. Feel free to send me a reply if you have questions. I'm really looking forward to your revision.

  4. I'm currently rereading via audio Sway by Kat Spears which has an anti-hero named Jesse Alderman. I got the same vibe from Edgar as I get from Sway, the apathetic but smooth young guy. He might not be Mr. Suave but he can still find a way to get what he wants. I didn't think that the interaction was particularly weird but I did think it was a girl for the duration of that conversation so there's that. I don't know how but I think it needs to be established at the beginning the gender of your character. I know that we only get five pages but I don't have a clue where this is going. Is he a thief? A killer? The interaction might also have gone on for a little too long since it got across essentially the same point. I agree about the mom not questioning the friend, she could have at least taken a peek. I'm insanely curious as to where this book is headed and what exactly is Skylar's Kids.

  5. The description and detail here is really good. I like the beginning sentence, as it held my attention. The MC seems cynical, based of his interest in the guns and the mention of finding the key. By the tone of the story, I can tell Edgar is up to no good.
    I wasn't sure what he was planning exactly. First he took note of the unlocked window, and then the guns. I wasn't sure if he wanted to hurt Portia or come back in through the window and steal the guns? If your intention was to keep Edgar's motive a mystery, you've done a good job. If not, I suggest giving a little more insight as to what he's planning.

  6. Hi Erin,

    I love how visually you write – I could picture everything so clearly. I agree with the comments so far, your MC seemed a bit creepy. I also agree with Wendy, if my child brought a new friend into the house, I would definitely want to meet the friend. I also thought the mother’s reaction was a bit off. If a tenth grade boy wanted to hang out with my 5 year old daughter, alarms would be going off. I would not invite him for lunch – neighbor or no – I would send him on his way, look him up, call his mother. If he is not creepy, but just there to see the guns, I’d try to find another way to get him there that doesn’t involve the little girl.

    I really like the twist when he goes into the bedroom – his voice and demeanor changed immediately – and I saw why he wanted to be there. Now of course, I want to know why he is so fascinated by these guns. In terms of revising, I’d suggest doing some character sheets (We have some on the AYAP blog, under writing), and writing a diary entry as your MC – from the morning of your story. How he is feeling, what he’s doing, etc., as Wendy suggested, get inside his head. Those two techniques always help me. If he wants to join the army, then he is coming off as too creepy. Without knowing what comes next it is hard for me to say – but I’d keep that in mind as you revise.

    Good luck and I can’t wait to see where you go next week!

  7. Hi Erin, I am so glad to have you as part of the workshop. Thank you for letting us into your book world!

    A lot of my critique will be similar to what others have said, especially Wendy and Erin. That said, this has very strong writing and good character development in this short span of pages. I like your subtle references to his parents—his mom liking the neighbor’s countertop, for example—great way to show us and not tell: to draw a portrait of the differences in these two families. Nicely done. I actually like that there is a strong payoff at the end of this set of pages. It’s entirely unexpected and it makes me rethink what this story is going to be about and who Edgar is. The trick here is ensuring the reader continues to get that payoff. I don’t think it’s a problem in your writing or even in the pacing to ensure readers continue to this point. I agree your biggest issue is negotiating the line between “too creepy” and “mysterious” in Edgar’s interactions with Portia.

    I think Wendy’s suggestions are terrific as a way to handle Portia being outside alone. I’m not a mom and I was shocked at the thought of the mom not going to see this “friend”. That’s too unrealistic and I do think needs to be changed. Also, if Edgar is the next door neighbor and the mom knows him right away, even the 5yo has likely seen him and knows who he is.

  8. I think if you take away the “stranger” part and maybe even give him an excuse for coming by—bringing them mail (maybe that he stole to have an excuse to come into the house)—you can still achieve what you need to here. The essential part is him getting inside the house to see the guns and if he’s manipulating that to happen, the creepiness with Portia doesn’t have to be the focus. If you want him to be a little “off” that’s fine. And playing with her unicorns to get what he wants accomplishes that without the “stranger danger” element.

    I agree that I’d love to get into his head more. Have him looking for ways to get to what he’s in the house for—you don’t have to give away what he want but more tension will build if we know he wants *something* and is sitting here playing with unicorns and eating jelly sandwiches to get it.

    You have so much to work with and I think the changes needed are less an overhaul and more slight adjustments that dig deeper and will bring all of this to the next level. Excited to read next week!