Sunday, October 4, 2015

1st 5 Pages October Workshop - Cushing

Name: Emily Cushing
Genre: Middle Grade Adventure

June 1st 

Whenever Mom and Dad point to the couch and say, “Sit down, we need to talk,” I’m like, Please, no. Because I know when I hear those six little words something terrible is coming.

Bad Things I’ve Learned at Sit Downs:

1. Grandma June died.

2. We weren’t going to Graceland over Christmas break to visit the house of Elvis Presley—the King of Swoon, Elvis the Pelvis, and one of only two rock stars on my list of “Top 50 Incredible Historical Figures I Would Have Loved to Meet.”

3. I wasn’t getting a metal detector for my birthday. How cool would that have been to explore the gully with Bandit (the stray dog we’ve adopted) searching for hidden treasures? Mom and Dad said it just wasn’t in the budget.

4. Aunt Lori and Uncle Rick were getting divorced. Super sad for my cousin Jake.

So tonight when my parents pointed to the couch and told me to sit down I was like, “I don’t think so.” I knew what they were up to and I refused to play that game. I figured if we weren’t sitting then we couldn’t have a Sit Down.

Guess what?

I was wrong.

You don’t have to actually be sitting to hear bad news. Even if you’re standing (and even if it’s in the kitchen—super far from the couch), they still tell you. And what they told me tonight was the worst news ever.

We are moving!

As in leaving Mrs. Thacker (the greatest art teacher ever), Bandit (our landlord in the city doesn’t allow pets), and all the new friends I’ve made this year.

This is hands-down the worst thing to ever happen to me (besides when Grandma June died, of course.) Let me illustrate with a best to worst list: 

BEST: Inheriting Grandma June’s Famous Americans book. Especially since I also inherited her obsession with historical figures. I completely flipped out when Grandpa Jim gave me the binder Grandma had made of facts, pictures, and stories of great Americans. 

GOOD: Yesterday, Mom and Dad gave me this new Snap Book journal for sixth grade graduation. On each page there’s room for me to create something amazing with stickers, journaling, and pictures from my brand new Snap Cam. 

Snap Cam:  a camera like those old fashioned-y ones that give you the picture right after you take it.  

PLEASANT: When I won the 5th grade drawing contest. It was fun to win, but not so fun to stand in front of the whole class and hold up my drawing for everyone to see.

BAD: Getting the measles and missing my own 5th birthday party.

TERRIBLE: Mrs. Anderson calling me Marge on the first day of 3rd grade and me not correcting her. I was Marge instead of Maggie that entire year.

HORRIFYING: The time I wet the bed at Taylor Nikolaus’s slumber party.  Except I was sleeping on a couch, not a bed. Wetting your friend’s couch=NOT COOL!


June 1st 

Grandpa Jim just hung a tire swing in our backyard, Jake and I have summer passes to Wild Waves Waterpark, and I have drama class with my two BFF’s in the fall. We can’t leave! Plus, I don’t want to return to my old school in the city with bullies like Harriet Nerdin. Every time I got on the bus in fifth grade she’d say, “Morning, moron.” 

One of the greatest days ever was last summer when we moved to Hollister—the best small town this side of the Mississippi—and Mom and Dad started the whole one-year experiment to see if they could get a commission for their sculpting. 

Commission: when an artist gets paid to sculpt. 
Super big deal for them. Super good move for me. But they still haven’t gotten a commission, which is cray-zy because their sculptures are cuh-razy good. So tonight during our Sit Down, they told me Dad had talked to his old boss at the accounting firm and they have a position opening up, but Dad would have to start on June 19th. Less than three weeks away. 


I needed to think, so I went to my room. That’s where I found Grandma’s Famous Americans binder sitting on my desk, opened to her famous quotes page. This quote by Maya Angelou caught my eye: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

I will never change my attitude about moving. So, instead of changing my attitude, I’m going to change the thing I don’t like—moving. 

I flipped through Grandma’s binder to see if I could find any more good ideas. That’s when I found him. The person who’s going to solve all of my problems:


The 411 on Butch:

Famous outlaw of the Wild West.

Went to prison for a year and a half for stealing a five-dollar horse. 

Held up banks and trains all over Utah, Idaho, and Colorado with his gang the Wild Bunch. 

Never killed a man.

Like Robin Hood—stole from the rich to give to the poor (better fact check this one).

Hid gold coins somewhere in Utah. 

Gave clues to his family leading them to where the coins might be, but they’ve never been found.

June 1st 

I’m going to find Butch Cassidy’s hidden gold coins! They’ve got to be worth millions, which means we’ll never have to leave Hollister. Ever.


Each summer my awesome, Hungarian, circus-performing Grandpa Jim takes my cousin Jake and me on a weeklong road trip in Blue Bessie, his beat-up old motorhome. We were supposed to leave in two days while Mom and Dad go to one final sculpting show in Cincinnati. 

This year Grandpa thought it would be fun to let fate decide where we go. He told me to write the names of all fifty states on slip of paper, we’ll put them in his hat, and pick one. 

Little does he know, fate isn’t going to decide where we go. 

I am. 

But first, I needed to enlist Jake to help me search for the gold and steer Grandpa in the right direction. I thought it might be a little tricky since Jake and I got in a little fight last Sunday when he freaked out over a stupid board game. He rolled the dice and one fell off the table. He said the number counted (which happened to be the exact number he needed to win.) Riiiight. That should totally count.

But before the game started, we had decided the number only counted if both dice landed on the table. We argued and he got super mad and tipped over the whole board. I feel bad he’s started having “anger bursts” (that’s what Mom calls them), but it’s not my fault his parents divorced and his dad moved to Florida.

So I was nervous about letting him in on my plan. I didn’t want him freaking out again for no reason. But I need him. 

With his photographic memory, he’ll be able to remember important details that I might miss or forget. Plus, he’s not afraid to ask a stranger a question or stand up for himself or somebody else. 

Me? I’ve never once stood up for someone else. Or myself, for that matter. 


  1. Hello Emily

    I'm probably as anxious for feedback as you are. So I thought would get the ball rolling here. I know it's tough to have people look at only the first few pages, when many of their questions would be answered if they could just read a bit more...yet that is often a luxurious gift it seems. I hope you can see that my comments are made with the best intentions with the goal of helping you focus on questions that other readers may share.

    First off, I believe the overall concept of an adventure to find hidden treasure is appealing. There are some fun aspects of the narrator voice and some interesting characters introduced (ex. Grandpa Jim).

    I am guessing that your concept is to present the story in a 'journal entry' type format? With that, I have a few questions. The age of the main character (as well as their name and gender) is unclear from this reading. It would be nice to have an idea up front of who we are following here. And with the age, if the character is young (8yrs old perhaps) their writing may not be all that great. If they are older, lets say 12, I'm not sure some of the concepts work. For example, the premise of traveling from Mississippi to Utah to find lost treasure is something that a younger kid (6-9) would absolutely come up with. Add a few years and I'm not so sure they would themselves think this was all that plausible? But then it's fiction, and you can do what you want with it, it just has to fit the world you are placing them in. So at this point I can't tell if it is reasonable or not.

    This first section is made of three major lists. Again, I believe they are journal entries, from the date (June 1, which happens to be the same for them all and is a bit confusing that they are all on the same day). Nevertheless, my feeling is that some of them could be better presented as a narrative. Jumping into a list right after the first sentence makes it difficult to get a handle on the character, story, style etc. The content of the lists are interesting and fun, but may benefit from re-structuring.

    One specific suggestion with the voice can be looked at when you write the section on the parents art being 'cray-zy'. At first it comes off as a misspelling, especially since you then use three different spellings in succession. I can see what you are going for here with the voice and may suggest you just use a few different words with the same style of phonetic emphasis. Such as: "which is cray-zy because their sculptures are uh-mazing." Or something to that effect?

    When you use 'The 411" it makes me question the voice and age of the character again. I'm not sure many kids know what that means. It doesn't seem to be as commonly used today as it was a few years ago and strikes me as a bit tween/teen. The character feels younger.

    I hope this is helpful.


  2. Hello, Emily!

    Thank you so much for sharing your work with us on First Five Pages.

    Let me say, as a contemporary middle grade author, you have a great sense of middle grade voice and humor. I was immediately engaged by your main character's winning attitude, and lines like "You don’t have to actually be sitting to hear bad news." are quintessentially middle grade.

    That said, there are some places where your authorial voice sneaks through. Spots where it sounds more like a grownup speaking, with references that are a bit dated for this audience. But that is just something to keep in mind as you revise, and quite common as you work into the middle grade voice.

    Outside of the voice, I understand your main character's central problem: moving. But I am not yet emotionally engaged with Maggie's plight. Why is moving so upsetting? Why wouldn't there be a small amount of adventure? Why is the family moving, and has Maggie experienced moving before (to fear it so specifically)?

    These questions highlight my central concern at this point: what is the point of this story? That may sound harsh at first, but never fear! You likely already HAVE your story's heart in place, you're just not showing it to us yet. But I need you to look at this opening and give me a more specific worldview for your character. Show me why I care about her. Tell me how her story is different from every other "I don't want to move" story out there--because in middle grade, there are a ton!

    In terms of format, I find the lists charming, but I do miss seeing active scenes. I expected to segue into action after "You don’t have to actually be sitting to hear bad news. Even if you’re standing (and even if it’s in the kitchen—super far from the couch), they still tell you. And what they told me tonight was the worst news ever."

    Instead, we remained in a telling voice. Give us some active scenes so that we can settle into this world and your character's point of view. That should help us connect with the story, and why this story matters as well.

    Best of luck with your revisions!

    Melanie Conklin
    Permanent Mentor

  3. Hi Emily,

    I love the title of your MS. There's no guessing what it's about and immediately I want to know how they are going to get the gold. The first sentence is great. I think everyone can relate to that scenario. Your main character is strong, too. I get a good sense of her personality and that she likes lists. However, I think these lists could be spread out a little more throughout the first chapter or couple of chapters. I want to get to know her, which I do through the first 2 lists, but I feel like the info is being dumped on me all at once and I found myself skipping over some of the items on the lists to see where the story was going. Yeah, I'm one of those impatient readers. ;) I went back and read the list again to see what I missed. I do like her. And I do want to get to know your character, but maybe a little slower, ya know. Especially in these first five pages, where I want to get hooked.

    When you began talking about Butch Cassidy, I was excited. I did feel the plan was jumped into a little quick, though. For me, I didn't feel a strong enough emotional response that would lead her to make such an elaborate plan.

    As for the setting, I didn't really get a clear picture of one, so I wasn't transported into her world. The date stamp of June 1st is helpful and gives me a sense of a timeline I'll be following throughout the book. For me, it didn't seem necessary to show a date again unless it changed.

    I hope I am helpful, and great job. Your character voice is fantastic.


  4. Hi Emily!

    I think you nailed the voice here. I immediately get a sense of who the MC is and that she's funny and full of pluck, and I like her right from the get-go. You've done a really good job making her sound authentic and sympathetic. I feel like I'm rooting for her from the beginning.

    I'm also a big sucker for lists - I think they're perfect for MG and will definitely resonate with the audience. But I agree with what Melanie said about having more active scenes interspersed with the lists - I'd love to see a description of the sit-down between the MC and her parents. Were there tears? Was there yelling?

    I'm also a big fan of the journal format, but I was a little confused by the fact that there were so many entries with the same date. I could totally see a 12 year-old making multiple entries in her diary in a single day because she's getting all these ideas and she's excited about them, but I'm not sure if that's what you were going for.

    But overall I love the premise and the voice - both leave me wanting more! And you have some really terrific lines here (i.e. "Little does he know, fate isn’t going to decide where we go. I am.") which hook the reader early on. Great job!


  5. This is a cool story, Emily. Maggie is an energetic, engaging character. I think this premise has a lot of potential. That said, here are the things that make me feel like you're not at a perfect, submission-ready "First Five" yet:
    1. Title. It feels like a boy book so I was surprised when it turned out MC is a girl and loves drama and cookbooks. Not wrong to be sexist, of course, but from a marketing perspective it gives me pause.
    2. Lists (heehee, get it?) These are a great device, fun and entertaining but there are too many and it feels like you're using them as a crutch for exposition.
    3. "Oldie stuff." From Elvis to old recipes to metal detection to Butch Cassidy, this kid is super old-school, especially for a kid who, up to this year, has lived in a big city, right? She just feels VERY COUNTRY, as if her whole city life never happened. So, if she's gonna be country, old-school we need a BIG reason why she is like this.
    4. You've buried the plot--the getting money to avoid moving back--at the end of the chapter as kind of an afterthought. While you've got the brisk, breezy voice of a middle grade novel, the pacing feels a bit authorly and expositional. I'd try cutting back on the lists and moving the plot right to the FIRST page somehow.
    Finally, I LOVE that her parents are sculptors (can't wait to see where that goes" and I LOVE the "sit down" joke. More more more of that, please, because it is awesome and fresh and delightful.
    Can't wait to read D2!

  6. Hi Emily!

    Great title! I can already picture a fun cover to go with it!

    I think I'm probably just echoing what Melanie already said, but I found these pages to be a bit confusing. It could be the style that is causing the disconnect too. It seems like there are just several pages of this and this and this, and it doesn't let us get to know the character at all. We know she is moving and that she spends time with her Grandpa.

    Also, the timeline threw me. I wasn't sure what was happening or what had happened and I couldn't get a feel for where we were in the story.

    I'd love to see more of her thoughts and feelings and not just lists of them. I didn't even know the MC's name until halfway through the pages, and it was just sort of added in there. She feels young to me voice wise, but this is MG so if you are aiming for the younger side of it, then I think your voice fits good.

    Maybe use the lists as your chapter starts and then you can go into the actual story fro them, or have the chapter in the MC's POV as it happens, and have the list as her recap at the end?

    As it is, its not clear what the setup is or what her goal is going to be. You've given us a LOT of information here and I'd like to see you slow down and draw us in to the main problem (her moving I'd expect, and the fact that she needs to find this gold to stay) before you add onto that.

    Can't wait to read it again.

  7. What a great voice and character! Very engaging and fun to read. I really like the way Maggie flips the Maya Angelou quote around. Though that (and her earlier refusal to sit down) does give me the impression that she’s pretty strong-minded, which contradicts the revelation that she’s never stood up for herself. That could be an interesting dichotomy — spunky inside, difficulty outside — if that’s what you’re going for, but at the moment I’m not entirely sure how to peg Maggie.

    Also, I’d like to know her name a little earlier. Maybe in the opening: “Sit down, Maggie, we need to talk.”

    One last thing about the character: she feels younger to me than sixth grade.

    I like the idea of a treasure hunt, and the characters feel alive already – not only Maggie, but also (just through Maggie’s descriptions) her cousin and grandpa.