Sunday, February 7, 2016

1st 5 Pages February Workshop - Clark

Name:  Mari Clark
Genre:  YA Mystery

When I’m on my board waiting to catch a wave, I don’t care how buoyancy counteracts gravity to keep me afloat. If I launch myself into the air for a jump shot, I’m not concerned with the mechanics of lift. And three weeks ago if I’d been a passenger on Flight #111, I wouldn’t have spent my last seconds wondering which one of Newton’s three laws of motion was responsible for plummeting my plane into the Atlantic. 

If I ever plunge to my death, I’m hoping my final wipeout is aboard my custom-made Firewire—because that’s how I want to go out. My father, on the other hand, will probably be calculating pitch angles and contemplating g-forces on his deathbed.

My dad’s a good guy. His ability to solve complex electromagnetic wave problems is the reason he’s here. The strange anomalies on this island are a career opportunity for him and good luck for me—he’s letting me tag along to surf.

“Come on, Travis. The ocean will still be there the other side of the airport.” My father drops a hand on my shoulder and turns me away from the water.

An orange-vested worker directs us inside the terminal and that’s when the emptiness hits me. The line at immigration? We breeze through. The shops and kiosks? Half of them are shuttered. The only movement is a lone baggage carousel snaking around, readying itself to spit out luggage. 

Despite the doomsday feeling, I’m not worried.  Lack of tourists is expected after a psycho billionaire builds a weird-ass machine that causes a plane to crash. 

Finally, an official-looking suit hurries up with two others trailing behind. The Minister of the Interior and his entourage has arrived. “Apologies, Dr. Hutchinson. Last minute political shenanigans,” he says, pumping my father’s hand. 

One of the two men shadowing comes over and picks up my duffle, and the other one grabs my father’s laptop case and carryon. The two men are much younger, maybe not even that much older than me. I offer up a fist-bump to the one closest. “Thanks, dude, but I can manage.”

The guy flashes a crooked-tooth grin. “No worries.” He mimes throwing a ball into a basket. 

Okay, I get it. For a sixteen-year-old, I’m tall. And unlike the rest of my family, sports are my thing. “Yep,” I say. “I play b-ball. You play? Who’s your favorite? Don’t say LeBron.”

The guy shakes his head no to my first question and answers “Jeremy Lin” to my second. Only, it sounds like “Jar-uh-me Lean.” 

I love this accent. Back home, girls would be all over this. More importantly, Jess would be on it. I wonder if I’ll pick it up while I’m here. “He’s great. Actually, I’m more into football and soccer. Which probably sounds funny to you guys since they’re the same thing to you, right? By the way, I’m Travis.” 

“Nigel,” he says, sticking out his hand. The other guy introduces himself as Alastair. 

Cool. British names to go with Caribbean accents. “Uh, excuse me a minute,” I say, spotting a sign for the men’s room.

As soon as I enter the empty bathroom, I take out my cellphone with a slight nagging of guilt. I’d been lectured ad nauseam by mom about international roaming rates and the importance of limiting my texting, streaming and downloading. 

I text Jess anyway:  This place as happening as Griffith Park Zoo. Or Dodger Stadium postseason.

Jess answers right away:  Wha? Where r u?

I shake my head, amused. Jess doesn’t always get my SoCal references. Good thing she’s so damn adorable.

I text: Ocean looks amazing. Epic waves. Can’t wait to surf. 

I don’t mention that a plane’s wreckage lies scattered among the waves like a museum installation piece or an abstract sculpture of carnage, even though the only reason I know about such artistic things is because of Jess. She talked me into going to an exhibit at Boston’s Institute of Contemptuous Art last month. Okay, Contemporary Art. In my head, it’s still contemptuous art. As payback, I dragged her to a Redsox game.

Jess:  Send me pic of beach so I can drool.

Me:  Only if u send me one of u so I can drool. 

Hesitating a moment before adding Lol, I hit send. 

I rub my fingers over the fake tattoo on my wrist. Jess drew that last night after she showed up at my house while I was packing. I’d spent the better part of our flight here trying to decipher its meaning, figuring if I stare at it long enough it’ll tell me whether we can take this relationship past the friend zone.

After our bags arrive, we breeze through customs and exit the terminal, heading for the deserted parking lot. Nigel piles our bags in the back of a black SUV while Alastair takes the driver’s seat. It’s weird seeing the steering wheel on the right side. 

Flying past green sugarcane fields, I spot a sign for Soup Bowl and my heart flip-flops. According to Surfline, my go-to guide, Soup Bowl is unpredictable. Sometimes you get decent sets. Sometimes you get close-out waves. But it’s a notorious spot I’d been wanting to surf forever. 

The Minister says something to Nigel, who turns and hands the local island newspaper with the headline “Devil’s Playground” splattered across the front. 

My father skims the newspaper article, while I subtly read over his shoulder. I catch a few key words and phrases—Satan’s sinkhole, baffling billionaire, mysterious magnetic machine—before my father folds the paper and passes it back to the Minister. 

We fly by half-built houses and colorful shacks. We pass a rum shack, a stone church, a cemetery, a chicken farm, and a Rastafarian sitting alongside the highway. The dude’s only a couple of feet back from the asphalt, leaning against a Coca-Cola sign and waving at cars—stoned out of his mind or friendly. Either way, I’m digging this. Occasionally, my nose is assaulted by the burned-toast smell of sugar cane fields on fire. I recognize the aroma from our Hawaiian vacation a few years back. 

A few minutes later, the Minister announces, “We’re here.” 

Awesome. We’ve arrived at the psycho billionaire’s home. I lean forward, anxious to see the mansion and former laboratory of Peter Knightsbridge, which unfortunately got sucked into a big hole in the ground along with him and the weird-ass machine he was building. 

My father notices my excitement. “I’ve never seen you so enthused about a reception,” he observes.

“Reception?” I repeat, like an idiot.

“Weren’t you listening?” He takes off his glasses and frowns.

No, not really “Uh, sure.” I’d been too distracted by the Soup Bowl sign, picturing myself riding some epic waves. “Is, uh, this reception going to be at Mr. Knightsbridge’s house?”

He shakes his head in exasperation. “No, this is the home of Ian Van Stiles.” My father finishes wiping the lenses and looks at me like I’m supposed to know who that is.

 “I’m not sure that name sounds familiar,” I slowly say the words, gauging my father’s reaction as to how pissed he is I wasn’t paying attention.

“He’s one of the wealthiest men on the island.” When I continue looking puzzled, he adds, “And he’s funding the investigation."

“Sorry. I’m drawing a blank.”

My father shakes his head again and finishes with an eye-roll. “The Minister mentioned he has an attractive daughter about your age.”

“Oh, yeah?” Things are looking up.


  1. I love your opening paragraph. It not only sets up tension and suspense, but gives us a good idea of who Travis and his father are. I’d like to know where they are going. Somewhere foreign, across the Atlantic, and where the surfing is good. I assume this is the imaginary Aurora Island, but I’m having difficulty picturing a location that meets all those criteria. Later, we find they’re in the Caribbean, but they wouldn’t fly over the Atlantic on a flight from Boston, would they? At any rate, mention the name of the island somewhere.

    Upon rereading the paragraph, I realize they’re not actually crashing, he’s just worried about the possibility. You might want to make that clearer.

    The paragraph that starts ‘Come on, Travis’ is missing a word.

    The ‘psycho billionaire’ line smacks of plot set up. Maybe give us a hint, but not the whole thing, just yet.
    Did Travis bring his surf board? It’s not mentioned when the people are helping with the luggage.

    The guy bringing up basketball seems to come out of nowhere. I’d think tall people would get tired of that. Perhaps if Travis were wearing a basketball jersey that could start the conversation and segue into Travis thinking about his height. The whole interaction seems kind of a forced way for Travis to become friends with Alastair.

    Okay, so he’s from Boston. I assume he’s originally from California. Is there any resentment about the move?
    Travis says he’s anxious to see Mr. Knightsbridge’s house and assumes the reception is going to be there, but he also says that the house was sucked into a hole in the ground in the same sentence. Maybe you meant just the lab was sucked up, but it’s unclear. And don’t use the phrase ‘psycho billionaire’ more than once.

    All in all, this is a strong beginning. You’ve got us interested in the mysterious goings on without revealing too much. You’ve given us a good picture of Travis and his father almost immediately. Be careful not to fall into the tropes of the careless teenager who only wants to have fun and only pays attention where girls are involved, or the mysterious billionaire holed up on an island with his death ray machine.

  2. Hi Brian,

    Thank you so much for your insightful feedback, and I'm already thinking about revisions with your comments in mind.

    I have one question regarding the island. It's supposed to be Barbados, but I didn't want to name it, purposefully keeping it vague to allow more artistic license to "play" with facts. I lived in Barbados for two years, and most people are surprised to learn (I was!) that it's located between the Atlantic and the Caribbean. So, maybe I should take out any mention of the Atlantic (or Caribbean) to avoid confusion? Does knowing this island is Barbados change your mind about naming it?

    Anyway, thanks again!

  3. Mari, this is your story and your universe. If this is Barbados, call it Barbados. If this is a fictional island based on Barbados, you can do whatever you like. Have you read CAT'S CRADLE or ANANSI BOYS? Both authors create Caribbean islands, giving them latitude to make the location suit the plot. It's up to you how you'd like to proceed. If the plot works as Barbados, go for it. If you need to change things to suit the plot, make something up. Either way, the mentioning of the Atlantic is a tiny point.

    At any rate, I enjoyed your opening and wish you a lot of luck with publishing!

  4. Hi! Thanks for your patience while I had a busy day yesterday. I loved reading through this. What a great start.

    Wow! What a great opening! I am hooked.

    Your call here, but it might work to follow up with one quick line about how your MC is glad to be on solid ground to solidify the crash happened apart from him. I know it says that, but I still for some reason linked your character to having been on the plane on the first read of those lines. The line can be funny/in character voice and does not need to go into lengthy explanation, only to make it clear he was not a part of the crash. Then follow it right away with the, if "If I ever plunge to my death..."

    The line “ the reason he’s here.” Can you replace “here” with a specific? Like “this island” or the name of the island or country. You don’t need to explain further, but we don’t know where “here” is yet. Additionally later when referring to “back home” where is home? I see SoCal and Boston are both referenced. If he's lived multiple places keep it simple in these first pages.

    Nice personification with the baggage carousel. You’re doing a great job of pointing out what’s different and what is making this day unlike the usual. The way you drop in the line about the psycho billionaire worked for me. It gives context and shows voice. I think this is just the right pacing—any later for an explanation on the plane crash and readers might get impatient. You’re giving just enough as the story goes.

    The phrase “hurries up” caused me to re-read a few times; maybe adding “hurries ahead of me” or “hurries through the line” to give a little more direction of where the person is hurrying into/out of.

    The line “We fly by half-built houses” though it’s an expression for driving fast, since the scene already deals with having flown and a plane crash, I would change 'fly' to not confuse readers. ‘Zoom by’, perhaps. Nice use of senses in describing the surroundings.

    This is a great few opening pages. One thing I’m a little unclear on is why your MC is with Dad on this trip. Is this standard? From the casual tone, thinking yes. Maybe one line to indicate if this is typical to travel on business with him and for how long.

    1. Hi Stephanie!

      Thanks so much for your feedback. You've given me some great suggestions. Brian had mentioned, too, that it almost sounded like my MC was on the plane in those opening lines, so that's a great suggestion about adding a line.

      I'm trying to figure out how (or what) to name my island, but it seems like it creates confusion for the reader if I don't. When I re-read the paragraphs you pointed out, it seems so obvious now that I need to be more specific to avoid confusion. Great observations.

      Thanks again for taking time to do this!

    2. There comes a point when we authors know too much about our story to be objective, so readers are so crucial! One thing to consider is patterns in feedback. A few of us seem to have the same sticking points--the intro plane crash, his "home" and the island. Many of the other points are more individual and will always vary based on people's own perceptions. So I always add in that overall this is YOUR book, so don't feel pressure to change based on every comment, but those patterns will point to greater needs.

      It makes sense what you said in a later comment about him moving across the country, but those explanations might be served best after you've introduced the current scene and why he's there, and what he feels about being there. It's a tough balance, but I think you almost have it. Really nice writing! :)

  5. Hi Mari! I'm thrilled to be mentoring this piece--I'm a huge fan of mysteries. I think you've got some great mystery elements set up here in the opening: crashed plane, mysterious rich guy, freaky machine, semi-deserted island, dad/scientist sent to investigate. That said, I feel your opening pages could use some tightening. There's almost too much presented here (quite a bit in the "tell" mode (versus showing us), e.g., Jess drew a tattoo on him AND they went to an art museum). I felt like I was sorting through a lot of details that I might not need--and not just in a technical, "red herring" way. For example, do we need to know that the security guard likes Jeremy Lin? Do we need to know that Travis likes football and soccer as well as surfing (btw, Red Sox is two words)? It's clear you've done amazing research work to build this story but too much in the opening feels like exposition, info-dumping. I want to get closer to Travis (and maybe a clearer sense of the deal with his dad) in these pages--things like the Soup Bowl, the orange vest on the airport tech, etc., take me away from getting to know my protagonist and weaken the tension you build in the very early lines. Also, in those lines it seems like Travis knows a lot about physics & stuff. That intrigues me--a surfer/science geek. Maybe explore that a bit more and bring in the other sports, etc., only if they are needed for your story. Go through line-by-line and cut things you only use to set up dialogue (e.g., the whole security detail interaction). Then, take some of the lovely Caribbean description, the Soup Bowl stuff, etc., and save them for later pages--kind of sprinkle them in. I know this sounds like a lot to ask but the goal here is to get editor/agent to read on and I feel like, with some tightening, this could be a very gripping mystery opening. Good luck and happy revising! - Stasia

    1. Hi Stasia!

      Thanks for giving me feedback! I've been "playing around" with this ms for a while, and it's a balance to know how much to include, how soon. You've definitely pointed out some areas where I could "tighten" up things a bit.

      Obviously, I need to be more clear on where Travis is from: This is actually an important plot point. In the next few pages, the reader learns that Travis was moved across the country -- from Huntington Beach, CA to Boston, MA -- in the middle of his jr. year of high school against his will (Because, duh, he's a surfer) and he has to leave all his friends behind and start anew. Later, it's revealed he was a jr. championship surfer but suffered several concussions. His mom pulled the plug on his competitive surfing, but his dad sympathizes with his "need" to surf. I guess I'm trying to say both Boston and SoCal are big parts of his life, and both play a role in the story. I need to figure out a way to make this more clear up front without telling vs. showing, as you pointed out.

      Great comments. I'm anxious to get started revising. Thanks again so much !

  6. Hi Mari!
    This opening really caught me. The first two paragraphs say so much about the main character. I would totally keep reading this story. I think you have really great elements that set up a great mystery! I really like your visuals of the island and the smells associated with it.

    The one thing that really stopped the flow for me was the confusion of not only where they are, but where they came from. As Stephanie mentions, you have references to SoCal and Boston, but I'm not sure where his "back home" actually is. It was too distracting for me to have to keep rereading to try and figure it out.

    Immediately when I read the word "emptiness" in the 5th paragraph I thought of emotions and didn't take it literally. Maybe there is a way to reword that so that we know you're talking about the airport.

    Lastly, I'm skeptical about anyone including Travis's mother letting him accompany his father to such a dangerous place. Maybe this can be set up a bit more in the beginning.

    Can't wait to see where your next revisions take you!

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  8. Hi Mari!

    I really like your beginning! I'm finding it very easy to picture Travis and what kind of guy he is. I was a bit confused by the very first paragraph- I also thought that they had crashed. I think it would be helpful if that was a bit clearer. I also think it might be helpful if where "home" is was clearer.

    I am confused about why they are there. I realize you may well WANT the reader to be unclear about that in these first pages, and if that was your intention, I think it's fine the way it is. However, as I read through the pages I find myself picturing them on an island but with a lot of questions about why they're there and what's happening in the bigger context of the story.

    I love the thoughts and mentions about Jess! It makes your character seem very real and relatable. Very YA!

    I think with some careful decisions about exactly what information is most important to have in these first pages, you will be spot on. Thanks for sharing with us and I hope this is helpful!


    1. Hi Chelsea (and Amanda)!

      Thanks for your comments. It's funny now after reading the feedback from our author, mentors, and fellow participants how some things (that upon re-reading) seem so obvious now. Why didn't I pick up on that while I was writing/ revising? But this is great. I can re-work this and make it better. Which is the goal, right? Thanks again!

  9. I loved your first five pages. I expected to be able to keep reading because it feels like a finished book rather than a manuscript. I'm taking note on how you offer the perspective of being in the moment. You answered my "I wonder" moments as I was reading, keeping pace. I especially appreciate your patience, not rushing. Details were appropriate to demonstrate a sense of place. I enjoyed the texting and reflection piece. I'm a high school teacher and I can see the language. They would say, "I got you Travis," and keep on reading. Thanks.