Sunday, February 7, 2016

1st 5 Pages February Workshop - Billings

Name: Chelsea Billings
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary

Chapter 1
June- Summer after Freshman Year
Waiting for Bus to Camp Limbo

So here I am, sitting in a Safeway parking lot early in the morning, waiting for a bus to a leadership camp sponsored by a school that doesn’t feel like my own. I’m not sure what I’m doing here. I’m not sure of much of anything anymore. Up until about a week ago, I thought I had it figured out. Things didn’t work out at Green Valley, but at least I had Dean and Rusty. But then there was that horrible day with Dean… I still don’t want to think about it. It’s too humiliating.

People have told me that, considering everything that happened last year- the covered area before school, the lunch table, homecoming- god, homecoming- and especially that last day in the principal’s office- they can’t believe I haven’t cried a single tear. They’ve said things like “It’s okay to cry” and “It’s okay to feel it”. What they don’t understand is that I’m not going to cry, because there’s nothing to cry about, and there’s nothing to feel. I’m fine. It’s fine. Everything is fine. I have told so many people that over the course of the past year (even Rene- as if she has any idea what I went through last year), and I don’t know why no one believes me. It’s like everyone is waiting for me to crack or something. Which isn’t going to happen, because I’m fine. I transferred schools. So what? People change schools all the time. Sure, it’s usually because their family moves or something, not because they want to leave, but who cares? It’s the same outcome, and it doesn’t matter. None of it matters. I’ve moved on. I had moved on before I even left, and I’m not looking back, because I don’t need to. I’m fine.

Chapter 2
June- Summer after Freshman Year
Waiting for Bus to Camp Limbo

So here I sit, about to board a bus to a camp 4 ½ hours away in the middle of a forest, where I don’t know anyone and am the only student from my school. Why am I going on this trip, you may ask? Old Me would have thrived on this kind of adventure. Old Me was the class president, and loved to be in front of crowds and give speeches and plan dances and do random things without caring what anyone else thought. Old Me also seized any opportunity to make new friends, and came away from any summer camp situation with a list of phone numbers and screen names of people to keep in touch with throughout the school year. That’s who I used to be, and I want to be that person again. That’s why in the spring, I signed up to take leadership in the fall. And when I was selected as a candidate to go on this trip over the summer, I decided to go, despite the fact that every other camp I’ve ever gone to, I had at least one friend with me. Whatever, though. I don’t need anyone else. I’m fine on my own. Going on this trip also means missing swimming for a week, which, up until last week, would have been hard for me to wrap my mind around, but I can’t imagine facing Dean now. And to think that just last week, we had planned to talk on the phone while I was away at camp… yeah, that definitely won’t be happening now.

Even though, sitting here right now, I couldn’t possibly feel more different than Old Me, maybe if I do the things Old Me used to do, eventually I’ll start to feel more like her, and eventually I’ll start to feel whole again.

I just want to feel whole again.

Chapter 3
Flashback- Spring of 8th Grade
Johnson Elementary

One year ago, I graduated eighth grade. Most people might think “graduated” is a bit fancy of a word for being promoted from middle school to high school. But they didn’t go to Johnson.

Johnson Elementary is not your typical school. For one thing, it holds students grades kindergarten through eighth. That’s 70 percent of a person’s schooling. There are two teachers and approximately sixty students in each grade. In a school that small, by the time you get to eighth grade, you can’t help but feel like family.

Johnson Elementary is the main feature in the town of Johnson, population 114. There is one street that runs through the town, on which there is a café. This café is officially called the “Johnson Café”, but more commonly known as simply “The Café”, and it is the primary date destination for Johnson middle schoolers. Beginning in grade four, Johnson Elementary students have the privilege of walking across the school parking lot to order fries and pizza rolls through a window in the back of The Café. This is a rite of passage countdown-worthy to many.

Except for the handful of local businesses in its immediate vicinity, Johnson Elementary sits smack dab in the middle of miles and miles of beautiful farmland. On the 10-mile drive off the freeway, you know you’re getting close to Johnson when you pass the black and white striped cows grazing nonchalantly in the field, referred to by most Johnson kids as “Oreo cows”. For most months of the year, there is an ever-present sound of a distant lawn mower and/or farm equipment that can be heard through the windows of Johnson. Every March, the Johnson Parent Group puts on a carnival, Johnson’s biggest fundraising event. During the carnival, the whole school is filled with booths, including a dunk tank where you can dunk Mr. John Edison, the white-haired principal. No matter what the occasion, Mr. Edison always dresses in slacks and a button-up shirt and tie.

Time seems to be in abundance in Johnson, and it also seems to move more slowly than it does everywhere else in the world. Days are measured by big, round clocks that stop at precisely three minutes to every hour, stay frozen for exactly one minute, and then jump ahead two minutes to make up for the minute that was lost, with a loud “TIIIIICK”. I first noticed the clocks in fourth grade. In sixth grade, I attempted to take the clock in my classroom off the wall and hang it on the wall on the other side of the classroom as a good-hearted practical joke, just to see if anyone would notice. As the quiet, well-behaved student who would be the last one anyone would expect to do such a thing, I was nothing short of horrified to discover that the clock was wired into the wall and not hanging on a nail as I had expected. Then I had to explain to my teacher when she came back to the classroom why the clock was on the table and there was a hole in the wall where it had been with a bunch of wires coming out of it. And it was because of some boys in my class that the clock was disconnected and I wasn’t still standing on a chair holding it in my hands, with it hanging out of the wall. I was panicked about what her reaction might be, but she had just responded with a look of disbelief and said, “Vanessa did this?” and then doubled over in laughter.


  1. Hello, Chelsea!

    Great start here. You definitely have a great command of voice and language, and you've clearly thought a lot about the details of your world, which is excellent groundwork for building your story. I especially like the last paragraph about the clock. It's particularly unique and leaves me with a clear idea of your protagonist and her old school.

    One thing that sort of struck me oddly, though, is the structure of the story. It seemed strange to me that the chapters were only a few paragraphs each. Maybe you've set it up that way intentionally for thematic or artistic reasons, so it could very well be the right approach (it's hard to tell with only the first 5 pages). But generally speaking, readers expect YA to have longer chapters with a feeling of a beginning, middle, and end to each one. Again, if you're keeping them short intentionally, then that's fine--just wanted to call it out in case you weren't. Another thing I would take another look at is your scene order. Everything in this passage is narrative and almost all of it is backstory. There's no forward action beyond the protagonist sitting in a parking lot. Again, generally speaking, it's a good idea to start with your protagonist moving through their world so we can experience what they are experiencing and we can bond with them in the process. Then you can reveal her past drama/trauma gradually during lulls in the forward action. Readers tend to care more about a character's wounds after they get to know the character by seeing them interact with others and the world around them. Not sure why that's the case, but it seems to be true 90% of the time. Which isn't to say you can't lead with narrative backstory and have it work. There are no set-in-stone "rules" to story structure that you absolutely have to follow all of the time. But it's harder to pull off leading with backstory well, so writers don't generally do it unless they have a reason. And if you have a reason, go for it! I'm not trying to tell you that you have to do it just one way. But I personally, as a reader, tend to shy away from books with mostly exposition/backstory openings, because I need to be intrigued by a character's current self before I'm interested in who they used to be. Hope that makes sense! Good luck with revisions! Can't wait to see your next round!

  2. Chapter one:

    This is an evocative beginning. Nice mix of telling and hiding. But I don’t know your character’s name, or whether or not they are a boy or a girl. Just drop their name in there somewhere.

    ‘God’ should be capitalized.

    Chapter two:

    I think your narrator is female, though I’m not 100% sure. And now we’re kind of just talking. You need a little action here, which is hard for books in journal form.

    Chapter three:

    Tell us about the town later. I need to know about your faceless narrator first. Her theories are time are pretty neat, but the clock story kind of took me out of the story.

    Vanessa! Her name is Vanessa! We need to know this before the end of page five.

    In fact, we need to know a lot more than her name before we start out. Chapter one is exciting, leaving me wanting more. But I want to get to know Vanessa first, rather than her town. And you throw a lot of names as us early on, but they won’t mean anything to us until we get their stories (I know, I know, only five pages).

  3. I'm going to focus on two things because they're big:
    1) This entire excerpt is telling. Unless you're doing a diary or letters, your main character cannot speak to the reader about who she is and how she feels. All of this needs to be shown. I honestly think you need to rewrite this entire first chapter to show us how she's feeling as she waits for the bus. Also, we need other people and some action so we can see it. It can't all be internal thought. And I agree with the comment above. First chapters are usually in the 10 page range. Obviously, you can make them as short or long as you want, but they need to be a complete scene and they need to establish both what your main character needs and what's wrong with her current life.
    2) The backstory chapter might work if it was also shown and if it's a recurring part of the novel (for example, every third chapter is from 8th grade). But if you're doing this to give us her backstory, it's a flat no. You have to weave backstory into thoughts and actions. It's not easy, but unfortunately, you cannot just dump it all into a chapter.

    Good luck with the revisions!

  4. I love the first chapter, but it did seem strange to have it that short. Really strange.

    You have an excellent setting, very real and easily imaginable. I love the small town feel. the Safeway parking lot is good, but I'm left wondering: is it hot or cold? Wet or dry? Is she sitting on the concrete or a bench?

    The character is also realistic, her loneliness and isolation is well done. I'd like a better description of her- short hair, tall and lanky, etc.

    Life is full of down-times of internal musings, but I think it does need some action, especially for this age.

    Overall, yes, I'd keep reading. Well done.

  5. It sounds like your Vanessa is having a rough time. The "Old me" signed up for the leadership camp while the "New me" had to go. Not sure what happened to make her change schools. Your character is not very self aware if everyone tells her it is okay to cry yet she dismisses them with an, "I'm fine." I get that she is going to reconcile the un-named discord. I especially like the clock reference and look for other ways to demonstrate how your character will respond to any given situation. Thanks.

  6. Hi!
    Thanks for sharing your pages. The MC's voice comes through, and I get a melancholy feeling from reading these first pages. Her loneliness and isolation with beginning a new school is understandable, and nice job of hinting at a conflict with Dean. At this point, we're not sure what happened, but it sounds like it could be bad. And that's good -- it creates tension and brings up questions. I think having lots of questions in the beginning is good, because it keeps me, as a reader, wanting more. I want to see where this story is going.

    Good luck with this!

  7. Hi Chelsea!

    I really like your use of comparison of your character's "Old Me" to tell how she is different now. I got drawn in by the descriptions of the town's traditions ("Oreo cows" is awesome), and culture, but if most of the story isn't set there I'm a little confused why it's being described in more detail than your main character and why she has switched schools and is going to summer camp without her friends.

    I'm not sure if I'm just not reading the part about the school class sizes in relation to the population of the town, but the math doesn't seem to add up there (if there were 60 students per grade with 8 grades in the school that would be 480 students, and then there are only 114 total people in town?)

    I know this has been mentioned already, but there isn't any showing in this opening. Maybe there would be more action in starting the story at the camp and then flashing back as the story goes on. Just a suggestion. Happy revising! Good luck!