Sunday, March 6, 2016

1st 5 Pages March Workshop - Barnes

Name:  Joel Barnes
Genre:  Middle Grade Fantasy
Title:  The Zipper

At five fifteen on Monday morning Kelly Thomas crawled out of bed.  Had she known what would happen to her in the next twenty minutes, she probably would have locked all the doors, jumped back into bed and pulled the covers over her head.
But she didn’t know.
She stood in the kitchen draining a glass of orange juice, pausing between gulps only long enough to check her text messages.  Peeling a banana, she walked across the tile floor and looked outside through the glass patio door into a jumble of dark shapes and shadows.  Good, still no sign of the sun.
Pouring another glass of juice, she smiled, knowing that if she messaged her friends saying she was getting up this early during summer vacation they’d reply that she was crazy.  After all, fourteen-year-olds were supposed to sleep as late as possible. 
She had to admit to a little craziness—about nature photography.  It ran in her blood.  She was hooked on the central Florida ecosystem and its allure at the break of dawn, a nature photographer’s prime shooting time.  This morning the chance of capturing that mystical allure on her camera called her out of bed and into the woods before the sun came up.
Five twenty—she’d better get going.  After stuffing a pack of watermelon bubble gum into one back pocket of her khaki shorts and her sunglasses into the other, she picked up her camera from the kitchen counter and slung it around her neck.  She pulled a black Marlins baseball cap over her still uncombed hair, adjusted the bill and stepped out the back door.
The pre-dawn blackness quickly swallowed her.  The night loomed dark and scary, far scarier than she’d expected.  A few widely scattered stars dotted the dark sky; the sliver of a quarter moon hung low in the horizon.   Menacing silhouettes—trees, bushes, a chain link fence—closed in around her.
A shiver of fright shot through her stomach.  Kelly hesitated, glancing back at the house where a faint light glowed through the kitchen window.  Why did I ever leave my bedroom?   Then she imagined that the early-dawn pictures would be to-die-for, and she hurried away from the house. 
Kelly’s pencil-thin shadow stretched out beside her as she covered the hundred feet of patchy grass separating the shadowy house from a white storage barn.  Her ears found the sounds of the night—the shrill chirping of crickets, the eerie screech of a wood owl, the distant croaking of a frog—creepy.  She passed the storage barn, and her feet met the narrow path leading into the dense woods that surrounded the house.
She had traveled this same path hundreds of times, but never before alone in the dark.  Her heart raced as a canopy of leaves closed over her and the sky faded from view.  She wished she had her flashlight.
Her fears multiplied as she ventured deeper into the thick darkness.  Dried leaves crunched beneath each tentative step.  Low hanging branches whipped across her face, stinging her cheeks.  She wrinkled her nose at the pungent odor of decaying leaves.
She reached a temporary break in the tunnel of darkness when the path curved into a small grove of short trees.  When her gaze shifted upward to welcome the glimmer of moonlight that penetrated onto the path, her sneakers caught on the rough edges of an exposed root.  Her hands shot out as she tumbled onto the path.
She kicked the root in frustration.  Could she go on, this scared, with the woods ahead looming so dark?   She pictured herself asleep in her bedroom, safe and comfortable.  No time for a pity party.  You’re not leaving empty-handed.  Suck it up and you’ll get some awesome shots.
Hands shaking, Kelly fumbled with her camera.  To capture the scenes in the first light of dawn, she had no choice but to keep moving.  She resolved not to back down—neither fear, nor darkness would stop her.
She walked on.  Her fears walked with her as the path twisted beneath a canopy of interlacing limbs.  When her gaze darted toward the dense undergrowth on both sides of the path, her mind envisioned a dreaded something silently stalking beside her.  Without warning, it could explode onto the path, all dagger-sharp teeth and flesh-slashing claws, craving her quivering flesh.
To her relief, the unnamed something never materialized and a couple hundred yards into the woods, she reached her destination—a dense clump of short bushes. 
Ahead of her, on the other side of the bushes, stretched a sizable clearing filled with low-growing grasses, the grazing grounds of the white-tailed deer.  She sank onto her knees and tucked herself in tightly behind the bushes, making certain she had an unobstructed view of the clearing.  Settled in, she shoved a wad of watermelon gum into her mouth and readied her camera.
Then she waited in the silence of the clearing and the darkness of the woods for dawn to arrive.
Soon Kelly noticed a tiny red glimmer hanging just over the tree-tops.  Its jagged edges gradually expanded until the sun’s first light began to penetrate the woods, sending shimmering rays reflecting off the gathered dew.  The sunlight revealed six or seven white-tailed deer grazing in the clearing.  Kelly quaked with excitement and her fingers shook as she raised the camera to snap her first photograph.
First she zoomed in on a large buck with light brown fur, surprised at the size of its antlers.  Next her focus shifted to a doe. Beautiful.  She was careful to capture the white patches of fur on its throat and underbelly.  A thrill shot through her when a fawn scrambled up on spindly legs from its hiding place in the grass.  She focused her camera on its huge, soft eyes and the white spots that dotted the reddish brown fur.
The buck shattered the tranquility of the moment when it whipped its head around and snorted, shaking its antlers and stomping its hooves.  Then, raising its pointed tail, the white underside flashing in the dim light, it bolted into the woods and out of sight, the rest of the herd streaking close behind.  She snapped frantically, realizing she’d probably get nothing for her trouble but blurry backsides.  Great!  Her prime-time photo op had just evaporated like the morning mist.
Kelly lowered her camera, her hopes of capturing any more deer dashed.  As she began previewing her pictures, a rustling in the foliage caught her attention.  She peered across the clearing in the direction of the noise.  Tree limbs were bending and then splintering with loud snaps and with cracks that sounded like rifle shots.
A blast of wind surged across the clearing.  A split second later a huge shape exploded out of the trees.  Kelly gasped as an immense creature materialized near the edge of the clearing, shaking the ground and stealing her breath.             
Kelly found herself staring at a beast that stood taller than a house and stretched out half as long.  The behemoth crouched on two powerful legs as thick as tree trunks.  Her gaze locked in on the huge teeth and the flesh-ripping claws.  Her shocked mind reeled in disbelief, reluctant to accept what her eyes clearly saw.  Across the clearing stood a T. rex.  As in tyrannosaurus rex. The most feared predator to ever walk the earth.


  1. Hi Joel,
    I enjoyed your writing style, it has the kind of clarity that I really like. I love your protagonist. As a nature lover myself, I can get on board with a girl this driven to capture it. In my initial read through I didn't notice any glaring grammar problems (although my background is in academia so the fine detail of writing is something I'm in the process of learning).

    My strongest feeling about your opening is that I would have chosen a different moment to begin. The first paragraph feels more like a blurb than the opening of a novel, and following the protagonist as she eats breakfast and thinks about texting her friends didn't grab me. If it were me, I'd fast forward to her already in the clearing waiting for the sun to come up. You can still talk about how her friends will think she's crazy, how she's afraid but her love of nature made her push through the fear and include those cool details (love the gum part), but if she's already there it will be more immediate.

    I also wondered whether she might need a more pressing motivation. Perhaps she needs to get a great shot for a photography competition or to complete her portfolio?

    For me, I'd love some more description of the T-rex! And just for the sake of accuracy, in taxonomy genus names (i.e. Tyrannosaurus) are always capitalised and species names (i.e. rex) are always lower case.

    Hope this is useful, Sarah

  2. Hi Joel!

    I want to preface my comments by saying I don't read MG, so I don't want to comment on the voice because I could be totally wrong. But I like how you are able to be descriptive in the scene but not be wordy. I can picture the nature and the deer very clearly in my mind. And right from the first paragraph we already get a very clear picture that the MC is going to get into trouble - great in my opinion because that makes me want to read more and find out why.

    Things I want to comment on:
    Em dashes - you have a lot right in the first few hundred words. Used right they can up tension in writing but you want to be careful not to overuse them, as too many will just make writing seem broken and chunky, not flow.

    -I'm wondering if there's a better way to start the scene. Like I said, the first paragraph is witty but then it goes to the MC in the kitchen, checking text messages. Maybe right away state that she's seen something from the window, something not normal, and runs with her camera to check it out?

    -The T Rex - I'm a fiend for all the Jurassic Park movies, so yes! But I think it kind of came out of nowhere. I started the paragraph with beast and thought I'd get a, well, beast and not a dinosaur. So, going back into possibly changing how the scene starts, you could drop hints that it's a big lizard creature she's spotted - hints of the scaled hide showing from the bushes ahead, etc.

    Hope this is useful! :)

  3. I enjoyed this a lot! I don't read a lot of MG, but I really liked this.

    I thought the opening was good. BUT. There was a little too much description of every little thing she does before leaving. You could probably afford to skim over the breakfast/texting stuff. Not every little detail needs to be explained.

    When she gets into the woods, your description was really good! I got the chilly, creepy feel of the early morning woods.

    And her feelings at the seeing the deer! You captured that wonder mixed with frustration SO well. Though maybe try showing more why she's so desperate to capture the perfect photo?

    I thought the voice and tone were great.

    The T-Rex did sort of come out of nowhere, but I'm wondering if that was deliberate or not!

    Overall, I really liked this! Interesting beginning!

  4. I think this concept is so interesting and fun! T-Rex alive in Central Florida? A young teen on an amazing adventure? Sounds great!

    I actually sort of liked the main character gulping down breakfast and texting in the morning--it made her feel young and excited. (I'm in the minority on this one, but it sort of framed her day and showed us how "normal" life was before the T-Rex!)

    However, I also need to know more about her motivation/urgency to capture this photo. She's very afraid, she regrets going out there, yet she pushes on. She also wakes very early, and as she's so her parents know she's doing this? She never mentions them, but I think she has to because I wondered if she was sneaking out or do they work early or is she gulping down breakfast so they don't wake up? I don't think a kid can go out in the dark alone without mentioning the parentals.

    Some of the description of her in the woods was a little long for me, yet I think it would be worth it if during that time we got a stronger sense of the MC, her motivations, and if she has ever had any experience with fantastical events happening to her before this. I agree that a dinosaur was unexpected...perhaps so unexpected that I wondered if there was a reason this was happening to this particular character. (Or maybe there's a world-building opportunity here too.)

    Otherwise, it's fun and I'd love to see where it goes:)

  5. I loved the initial paragraph. I think it could be tightened to add impact, but with some streamlining, it will be sharp and magnetic.

    I think the brief description of her with her phone is great for orienting us to her age and developmental status.

    I got a little puzzled about her immediate fear in the woods and regret about going out--maybe if you said before she leaves the house that this is her first time, it would be less abrupt.

    In terms of the writing, I agree it's clean and straightforward, and I think it could be even more so with judicious trimming (for example, the "quivering flesh" seemed unnecessary).

    And the t-rex! Ha! That really did come out of nowhere. But I suspect that was the point, and it gets us off to a fantastic start!

  6. Hey Joel, thanks for posting your pages. You are definitely a writer. Your words have good rhythm and pacing, which can be really tough to teach. That is a great tool to have.

    I believe your story really starts with this paragraph:

    The pre-dawn blackness quickly swallowed her.(Kelly) The night loomed dark and scary, far scarier than she’d expected. A few widely scattered stars dotted the dark sky; the sliver of a quarter moon hung low in the horizon. Menacing silhouettes—trees, bushes, a chain link fence—closed in around her.

    The stuff up front--especially her getting out of bed--is a rather overused opening. Also, the next few paragraphs feel as telling instead of showing. You can work in that Kelly is a photographer in the paragraph I suggested you open with.

    You paint a really nice picture when she is in the woods. The descriptive details are great, and I really felt myself there in the woods. And the surprise of the T. Rex. Fantastic.

    I suggest you take a hard look at your first few paragraphs and see if you really need them. It's really not that engaging, and I wouldn't want an agent to overlook the great writing that follows because of a lackluster opening.

    Anyway, great job. I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes.

  7. Joel, I'm also wondering why your protagonist is fourteen yet you are calling this middle grade. Middle grade is usually 8 to 12. Can she be younger? Even thirteen might still be okay for MG. My latest book has a thirteen-year-old heroine because it is more of an upper middle grade book.

  8. Thanks, Ron. That's a great idea for the first paragraph. I'll see what I can do with it.

  9. Hi Joel,

    Thanks for sharing your work! I'm sorry I'm so late reading this week.

    I share Ronald's question about your protagonist's age, not only because MG typically stars younger characters, but because your protagonist reads as younger. Like 12, maybe. If there isn't a reason why you need her to be 14, I'd consider dropping that age down just to remove one quick reason for rejection.

    That said, your writing is smooth and easy to follow. I like the build in suspense and the general tone--it was a nice read!

    The only question I'd have regards the current view of the world. Our girl seems quite isolated, as though she is the last person on earth. Obviously, that's typical for waking up in the middle of the night, but I'd like to gain a little more sense of her family and overall world if possible. That said, it's perfectly okay to center closely on the protagonist in this opening scene, it just doesn't raise quite as many story questions to keep us interested in reading.

    My best,