Sunday, October 18, 2015

1st 5 Pages October Workshop - Jacobs Revision 2

Name: Elisa Jacobs
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Title: A Better Shape


When 17 year-old Hannah Fischer tears her ACL, her promising soccer career is brought to a screeching halt with a loud pop. Sidelined from life as she knows it, Hannah's injury leaves her feeling bitter and isolated from everyone, including herself. 

So when Hannah meets Ryan Benson at physical therapy, she couldn’t care less. In fact, she can’t stand him. As Ryan tries to befriend her, Hannah assumes it’s because he feels sorry for her, and she blows him off. Hannah isn’t a charity case. But then Hannah learns about Ryan’s involvement in a tragic accident. He has lost even more than she has, and she can’t help but feel like she misjudged him. When Hannah gives Ryan a second chance, he helps her feel whole again, and even though she worries that they’re too broken to be together, she falls for him. 

But just as their bond begins to deepen, Ryan’s past comes back to haunt him, and he spirals into depression. When Hannah tries to help him, he reacts spitefully and lashes out at her. After his relapse, Ryan begs Hannah to forgive him, but Hannah is shaken, and must decide whether they’re better off together, or apart.


The sound was innocuous enough, like knuckles cracking or bubble wrap bursting, but it still managed to haunt me. Even though it had been almost a month since I tore my ACL, the sound of my ligament rupturing still echoed in my ears. I’d be eating lunch, or brushing my teeth, when all of a sudden: POP!


In a way, the sound was worse than the pain that followed. I was able to deal with the pain, and if it became unbearable, there were pills I could take. But there was nothing I could do to drown out the noise in my head. 


I blinked myself out of my daze. “Sorry, what did you say?” I shifted uncomfortably on Dr. Levy’s taupe couch. Everything in her office was beige except for the magenta orchid on her desk. I couldn't decide if the lack of color was calming or depressing.

Dr. Levy studied me as she adjusted her dark-rimmed glasses. “I was explaining the difference between talking about trauma and processing it.”

Right. My so-called traumatic experience. “What is there even left to process at this point? We’ve already rehashed what happened, and the story never changes.” The score was tied. I was about to kick the ball down field when a player from the opposing team ran into me. Hard. I heard a loud pop, and then I collapsed into a heap on the cold, spiky grass. “My body failed me. End of story.”

“It’s not about changing the story, Hannah, it’s about changing your emotional response to it.”

Even though I’d been seeing Dr. Levy for almost a month, I still didn’t understand how talking about my feelings was supposed to help my rehabilitation. Someone hadn’t bullied me, a 140-pound girl had tackled me.

Dr. Levy gazed down at her yellow notepad. “You mentioned that your body failed you. Do you feel like a failure, Hannah?”

I shrugged. It was kind of hard not to feel like a failure. Junior year was peak time for college recruitment. Some coaches had shown interest in me last year, and had wanted to see me play again. But now, not only was I out for the rest of the season, I was damaged goods. Nobody buys a bruised apple on purpose.

“You know, Hannah, it’s not uncommon for athletes to become depressed after experiencing a significant injury.”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “I’m not depressed. Not being able to play soccer has just been...” I paused, struggling to find the right words, “an adjustment.” I started playing soccer when I was five. My mom had initially signed me up for ballet lessons, but when it became clear that I couldn’t stand still long enough to plié, she exchanged my ballet slippers for cleats, and signed me up for youth soccer. After I scored my first goal, I was hooked.

Dr. Levy nodded. “Do you still feel like your friends don’t understand what you’re going through?”

I looked down at my leg, which was still purple and swollen. After my surgery, my two best friends, Em and Hayley, had jokingly called me the Bride of Frankenstein on account of the screws in my knee. At first, I laughed along with them, but then I burst into tears. Even though you can’t really feel them, having screws in your body is like having a permanent reminder that you broke and couldn’t put yourself back together again. “I guess,” I muttered, sinking into the couch.

Dr. Levy looked out the window and thought for a moment. “Would you ever consider participating in group therapy sessions? Some of my other clients have found them helpful.”

I jerked my head back, a little insulted. In movies, group therapy sessions always seemed to take place in mental institutions or rehab facilities. “Uh...who else would be in the group?”

“Teenagers struggling with various issues, like depression or anxiety.”

I pictured myself sitting in a circle with the types of kids you see on the covers of those “Troubled Teen” pamphlets. I frowned. “I already told you that I’m not depressed, and now you want me share my feelings with a bunch of cutters, addicts, and anorexics?”

She gave me a tight-lipped smile. “Group therapy can be beneficial for people who feel isolated. But you don’t have to go if you don’t want to. It was just a thought.”

I already had my own sob story to contend with. I didn’t need to hear a bunch of strangers tell theirs. One was more than enough.


“So how’d it go?” my mom asked as she drove me home after my appointment.

I shrugged as I watched the palm trees flash by my window. “Fine,” I said curtly. It was unlike me to be short with my mom, but I was tired of talking. Talking about my feelings had become so exhausting, I sometimes found myself wishing that I had torn a ligament in my jaw instead of my knee.

But my mom wasn't getting the hint. “Did you and Dr. Levy talk about anything in particular?”

I exhaled loudly. "I don't know. Not really. We talked about group therapy, but I'm not going."

She eyed me sideways, like I was a bear who had wandered into her backyard and she wasn’t sure if she should wave her arms and yell, or keep perfectly still. "Are you sure you don't want to at least try it?"

I clenched my fists. “I’m not going to group therapy. There’s no way I’m hanging out with a bunch of kleptomaniacs and glue sniffers. I’m not one of those people. I was going to play college sports! I’m not some girl who eats her feelings and hides donuts under the bathroom sink.”

My mom frowned, as if to say, “don’t use that tone of voice with me.” “I’m sure plenty of perfectly normal teenagers go to group therapy.”

“I’m already seeing Dr. Levy one-on-one,” I said, raising my voice, “what more do you want from me?” My mom booked my first appointment with Dr. Levy after I compared the sound of my ACL tearing to a funeral bell. I wasn’t suicidal or anything, but we had just read For Whom the Bell Tolls in English, and it seemed like an apt analogy. I tried explaining this to my mom, but she didn’t believe me because 48 hours after my “For Whom the ACL Tears” speech, I was sitting in the waiting room at Dr. Levy’s office.

She let out a sigh. “It was just a suggestion, Hannah. No one's making you go to group therapy."

I flushed, embarrassed at my outburst. “I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean to yell.” I shifted my gaze downward. “It’s just that these stupid crutches are driving me crazy. But once I start physical therapy on Monday, I’m sure I’ll feel better.” I wasn’t sure who I was lying to: my mom or myself. Starting physical therapy wouldn’t make a difference. Come Monday, I’d still be on crutches, and I’d still be sidelined from life as I knew it. Surgery may have fixed my torn ACL, but I still felt like I was in pieces. I was a scrap of a person.

She gave me a tired smile. “It’s okay, honey. I know it hasn’t been easy.”

I tried to smile back, but I couldn’t - I was too worn out. If there’s one thing that’s more exhausting than talking about your feelings, it’s faking a smile.


  1. This is Erin posting for Saba

    Let me start with a short note about your pitch: it needs more concrete information. I understand that you meant to keep things slightly intriguing for effect, but right now it’s a little too vague. What did Ryan do to need physical therapy, for example? And why does he need a second chance? All of these allusions to his past aren’t enough to make me want to read about him, specifically. In contrast, you did a nice job mentioning that Hannah was a soccer player who tore her ACL — this allows me to paint a picture of her in my head, in a way in which I can’t paint a similar picture of Ryan.

    Your opening line could be tighter. How about just keeping it at “The sound was innocuous enough.” — it’ll pique your readers’ interest and make them want to read on.

    Try to avoid using cliched phrases like “I crossed my arms across my chest” and “I shrugged” — take the opportunity to use more dynamic, specific language and body cues to really bring out Hannah’s personality.

    Although Hannah’s response to her therapist’s suggestion to try group therapy (and her overall situation) is realistic, it doesn’t make her a very likable person, or even a unique and interesting person to read about. I’m all for unlikeable characters, don’t get me wrong, but it has to be done with nuance — and you don’t want to introduce your protagonist negatively, especially if you don’t make them vulnerable enough on the page in order to counter their unlikeability. So they key here is to bring out her emotions more, to make your readers sympathize with her more. Hannah’s in a terrible place, but her physical cues are that of a petulant child, instead of a genuinely demoralized young teen. So I encourage you to dig deeper with how you choose to bring out her despair, because unless you get that right, you run the risk of alienating your readers.

    And a minor note: try not to use adverbs to modify the word “said” — instead, insert a physical cue, or make your dialogue reflect the tone you’re going for (in terms of word use, word order, cadence, etc).

    Of course, my views are super subjective, so I wouldn’t take anything I say here as Gospel necessarily. Another agent, even at my own agency, could feel entirely differently about this sample. But you’re already on the right track, just by virtue of putting your work out there — keep workshopping this (and your future) projects, and I have no doubt that you will continue to improve your writing craft.

    I hope this helped!

    My best,

  2. Hi Elisa,

    Your pitch: You have the structure down, and the events build. But I feel as though the pitch needs more tension. Reread it and ask yourself questions such as What did she or he feel when this happened? How did she or he react outwardly that contradicts what he/she feels internally? That might help you deep it a bit more. Also, the information you've included about Ryan seems flat - one-dimensional. As a reader, there's not much about him that grabs me. Add something about him that makes him unique and unique to the story. From your last lines, I have a feeling there's way more to him than you've shared.

    Revision II: Overall you've done a nice job cleaning up this opening. Here's a few nit-picky things.

    This is probably just me and I didn't mention it during your other revisions, but for some reason using the word 'pop' bugs me. I don't know if it simply takes me out of the flow of reading or if it's that I want more as a reader. She's haunted by that sound and any sound that comes close to resembling it. I feel like that should be shown. Let the reader experience it. And through that haunting comes her fears, which are .... ??? There's opportunity here to get deeper into her fears. That sound haunting her is just the icing of what's really troubling her. Give the reader a little more of her vulnerability. I think that will help her be more likable as well. I know you want her to come off a bit standoffish about the whole ordeal, but the reader still needs a reason to care about her to keep reading. Try exploring the under side of her complacency and show that to the reader. It could be the smallest detail. Just something that pricks readers' hearts, and then you'll be golden. The idea of her not liking to 'fake a smile' is good. It's an idea/theme you could use throughout the opening of the piece by showing, which she finally comes out and states internally. It's something most teens have done and will relate to.

    Thanks so much for sharing your work with us. All My Best.....

  3. Hi Elisa,

    Pitch: I like the first line. I feel like it goes well with the beginning of your book. I'm wondering if one way to help us to get to know Ryan better is if you briefly mention one or two things he does to befriend her--especially if they will show his personality or something that would make the reader like him. I think you could tell what the accident was and what he lost--it would make him more intriguing to have that information. In the last paragraph, you could even allude to the thing that comes back to haunt him..."his past comes back to haunt in the form of..." Other than that, I think it sounds good.

    Revision: With each of your revisions I've thought the same thing--you have a really strong voice and your writing is really smooth and easy to read.

    I read SA Larsen's comments and I agree with her. I think if you could throw in one small detail to prick the readers' heart, it would be great. I don't have much more to say except that I think you've done a great job!


  4. Hi Elisa,
    I like the first and third paragraphs of your query. Both are very strong I felt. The second paragraph could be tighter. Maybe by getting rid of some of the redundancies, like: "So when Hannah meets Ryan Benson at physical therapy, she couldn’t care less. In fact, she can’t stand him" I feel like you could get rid of couldn't care less, and just use she can't stand him...sounds stronger to me. And also "As Ryan tries to befriend her, Hannah assumes it’s because he feels sorry for her, and she blows him off. Hannah isn’t a charity case" You already mentioned he feels sorry for her, so I think you could get rid of the charity case part.

    Your revision sounds great. I didn't pause once during reading. Very smooth and clear. Great job!

  5. Hi, Elisa!

    Great revision! It's getting stronger every time I read it. :-)

    For the pitch, I agree with everyone's comments about where to both condense and expand. I think Alicia's right about combining/cutting the "can't stand him" and "charity case" sentences. I also agree with Saba that Ryan isn't fleshed out enough. Something that I think would help ratchet up the tension in the pitch is showing the conflict within Hannah over her feelings for Ryan. There has to be more to her resistance to Ryan's friendship overtures than she's just bitter and isolated from everyone. What does he do that's off-putting? Is he recovering faster from a similar injury and she's jealous? Does he push her harder than she thinks she can handle and it pisses her off? Does he come off as smug and arrogant at first before you get to know him? And then there's the flip side--what about him does she find attractive? Is it his good looks? His sensitivity and willingness to help others at the therapy clinic? Is it something he says to her the first day that puts a crack in her resistance to him? If you can highlight in just a sentence or two the inner conflict she feels over getting to know him, the middle part of your pitch would be stronger, I think.

    As for the revision, I think it's very strong in terms of structure. I do think if the group therapy session is not the inciting incident, you may not want to focus on it so much during the first five pages of the novel. Other than character info/backstory, it's the only thing talked about in the forward action of the story. You could lengthen either the conversation with the therapist or with Hannah's mother, introducing other aspects of Hannah's life and diluting the focus on the group therapy session.

    After reading through Saba's comments, I can see what she means about Hannah seeming a bit petulant. Hannah does seem to be reacting negatively with no balance of positivity or humor to make us sympathize more with her. All we have is the general stranger-in-distress sympathy for Hannah. We don't have the friend-in-distress sympathy. I think this will build over time as we see Hannah do a few good, selfless deeds, or say things that are particularly insightful or funny or surprising, but it wouldn't hurt to showcase some of that right off the bat. Basically, what I'm suggesting is adding a Save the Cat moment for Hannah somewhere in the first five pages. It can be very, very simple--maybe an interaction with a younger sibling where she puts her own damage on the shelf to make him/her feel better about something; or maybe in the part where she bursts into tears about her friends' Frankenstein comment, you could expand that a bit to say that she wants to burst into tears but sucks it up until she gets home to keep from ruining Em's bday party. Something like that. (If you're not familiar with the Save the Cat methodology, check out

    Anyhoo, these are all just little nudges here and there, because overall, this is strong writing. You're great at painting the picture. Add a little contrasting color, a little bit of light to balance the shadow, and I think you'll really have winner! <3

  6. Hi Elisa. Your work on this is really coming together. Sometimes a small adjustment can have a big impact. The two short scenes play well together and the characters are distinct. After reading your pitch, it seem the group therapy aspect will set up a major aspect of your story and you set it up well here.

    My own query pitch is muddled from various revisions so I'm certainly no expert. But it does seem that you have a lot of summary and can use more enticement.

    Have you wrote a 1-2 page synopsis yet? I found that very helpful for my story and when I paring it with a query, you can see what to leave out of the pitch.

    Good luck with this. There is absolutely an audience out there for this story.

  7. Hi Elisa,

    Your pitch seems just a bit . . . I don’t want to say bland, but I don’t have a clear idea of what is at stake or why to care. Actually, reading your pitch helped me a lot, because I did the same thing in mine, and now I know what Saba meant in her comments. :)

    I like your new first sentence a lot.

    For some reason, it still seems to me in the first paragraphs that the “pop” followed by pain is something that is recurring. I think that could be fixed just by saying, “The sound was worse than the pain that HAD followed.”

    Your writing is very smooth. My one concern with this opening is that it seems like too much exposition. You have a sentence or a question from Dr. Levy, and then a reflection from Hannah, and this repeats several times. I think it’s well written; but somehow the setting and structure of these pages are not super compelling. I still think you should start with the ACL tearing, in present-day scene, not past summary. :) I think you could do a good job with the sensory details to bring that scene to life (I like your image of the spiky grass), and I think there’s drama potential there that could get us to relate quickly with Hannah: the tied score, Hannah pushing towards victory, the sudden, crushing blow that is worse than the defeat. We could see what she lost by seeing firsthand her love of the game and her skill.

    Your writing is very strong, and I hope to see it in print before too long!