Sunday, March 20, 2016

1st 5 Pages March Workshop - Sullivan Rev 2

Mary Sullivan

Young Adult

The Jade Quest

Claire has one goal: find her parents. They disappeared from her mom’s archaeology site in Belize.

Preston’s plans are less lofty. He wants to get high and snorkel until his fugitive father notices he’s gone.

This unlikely duo pair up when they meet on their flight to Central America. Preston figures helping a pretty girl on a mysterious quest is a worthier diversion from his family’s dysfunction, and Claire needs his ex-pat’s knowledge of the country. Before long, they discover Claire’s parents were hunting a jade mask stolen from the site.

They follow clues into an ancient Maya cave, to a dangerous antiquities smuggler, and through the rabbit hole of her parents’ personal lives. Nothing is what is seems, including Claire’s family story. The closer they get to the truth, the further Claire feels from her childhood. Preston can relate. The pair discover love and friendship are more enduring than any unearthed ghosts of the past.



It’s 3:45 p.m. and they’re expecting me to get off the school bus in fifteen minutes. When I don’t, the shelter will send an alert to Indiana law enforcement and school officials. It’s their legal responsibility. I’m officially a ward of the state.

But it won’t matter because by the time they figure out I’m really gone, I’ll just be another tourist or student or stranger in Belize.

I shove open the shade covering the tiny window at seat 8A. The sun is shining over the Caribbean, gleaming off waves rippling over the reef below. I peer into the water—would I even notice something floating on the surface from way up here?

My pulse rate instantly rises, so I dig my nails into the arm rest of the airline seat and smack the shade down. I need to stay calm. I should clear customs in half an hour.

After that, it doesn’t matter how many reports the shelter files. Once the paperwork’s in and they’ve covered their butts, it’ll be, “Whatever happened to that girl? The one whose parents disappeared? I hard she transferred.” Something like that.

Still, my parents’ situation is famous enough—or it was a couple of months ago—that getting through customs unnoticed might be difficult. The story was probably even bigger down here since this is where mom and dad went missing.

“You’re awake,” says the kid to my right.

I finally really look at him. Tall. Lean. He’s got a haircut that requires styling. Like a flat iron and product. And he’s got a Prada backpack. Prada backpack. On the way to a developing country. I give him a half nod and put my earbuds back in.

He’s staring. I feel it. I glance over and catch him watching me. His eyes are almost turquoise. I turn away quickly. Boys with highlights (I swear that’s what it looks like) don’t normally pay attention to me.

Which is fine.

What’s he doing on this flight anyway? It’s a school day.

The plane will be landing soon. If the school didn’t buy my excused absence story, they could have already alerted the shelter. What if passport control’s waiting for me? I’m all my family has left, and there’s no Plan B. At least that stupid freshmen yearbook photo plastered all over the news doesn’t even look like me.

“Are you by yourself?” he asks. “What are you down here for?”

This guy’s not taking a hint. I sigh. Fine, I’ll consider it a dress rehearsal. “Study abroad.” I try to shrug like it’s no big deal, but my shoulders jerk up awkwardly and my voice sounds half an octave higher.

“It’s the middle of the semester.”


“Weird time to study abroad.”

My chest feels hot. Why does he care? I’ve sat here minding my own business since I changed planes in Atlanta. I even thought he was cute, but that’s when he was asleep. And watching his movie. And silent.

I peek at the ocean again from under the shade. Just water and coral, as far as I can see.

“They” told me not to worry. Search and rescue’s on it, which I believed. I also thought the media coverage would help the cause. How often do little puddle jumper, three-seater airplanes go missing? “They” also said the charter service mom and dad hired out of Belize City had a great safety record and the pilot was top notch.

So you can imagine my surprise when “they” not only called off the search mission, but barely over a month later some a-hole judge declares them dead.

“What school are you going to?”

“Does it matter?” I snap, turning toward him. His skin is smooth and clear, his nose is straight, and I think he’d have dimples if he smiled. He looks air-brushed. I can’t turn away. His symmetry has me mesmerized. This gets on my nerves too.

“It doesn’t. I was just talking to you.”

I twist the cord of my iPod around my finger. “I’m not having the best day, okay?”

“Parents making you? Enrichment or other such bullshit?”


“Study abroad.”

“Uh, yeah.” I remove my earbuds. “Is that what you’re doing too?”

“No. I live here. With my dad. Mother summoned me state-side but now I remember why I chose to live with him.”


“He doesn’t know I’m coming back early, so I figure I’ve got five days to smoke a pound of ganja in peace before I’m subjected to his half-assed attempts at good parenting.”

“Oh.” I fold and unfold my hands. “Won’t your mom tell your dad that you left early?”

He smooths back an unseen stray hair. “Um, no. See, she wants me to do her dirty work and tell him she’s getting remarried. I don’t want the emotional backlash either, so I’m headed to the cayes.” He cracks his knuckles. “Snorkeling high is so intense. Like you’re inside an aquarium.”

This is now his second drug reference.

“So what school?” He asks again.

Here’s the thing: mom and dad came to Belize to check on her archaeology site, not to go around renting airplanes. They don’t do stuff like that. I tried explaining this. Their plane didn’t crash, it vanished. Kind of a big difference.

So what school am I allegedly going to? My mind is blank.

Then I remember the last time I was in Belize, a couple years ago. On our way to the airport, mom pointed at a building and said if she had to extend her archaeological fieldwork into the next school year, I could go there.

A flight attendant comes by with customs forms. As I reach for one, I smile at the kid next to me. It’s a triumphant smile. “I’m going to the International School. In Belmopan.”

After I lend him a pen, he finally stays quiet while we fill out our forms. The plane’s on its final descent. I put my tray table away and reopen the shade. The water’s closer now. It looks like we’re skating on it. From my side I can see Belize City, its urban sprawl hugging the coastline.

I press my shoulder blades against the seatback in anticipation of landing. The runway looks like it’s in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. I take a deep breath and almost smile. At least I’m finally doing something.

“Dude. No more than thirty days,” he whispers. With his head close to my face, I can smell his cologne. It’s subtle and nice and it annoys me that I like it.

I raise an eyebrow.

He points at my customs form, gripped between my fingers. I can’t believe he can read my tiny block letters. I’ve gottwo months written by the intended length of stay in Belize question. Big deal.

He leans over again. I can’t place the exact scent. “They only stamp you in for thirty days. They might give you shit about a visa if you say more.” He straightens up as the flight attendant walks by, as though she’s a librarian and we’re in the stacks instead of on a plane.

Panic seizes my throat, like someone’s gripping it. “Thirty days? But the semest—”

“Whatever. I don’t care why you’re really here, but I’m telling you: 30 days.”


  1. Okay, so, your pitch: I like the introductions to the characters - I think you've managed to do well with a couple of sentences. And you introduce the stakes really well too. My only issue is it seems a little...uncohesive? Do you know what I mean? Maybe try tying everything together a little more. Just to smooth it out!

    I like your revised pages too! Still got a great sense of setting. But I wonder if the introduction of the stakes for Claire could work better pushed up a bit.

    You could also trim some of you telling - because you SHOW she's panicking, you don't need to tell us that too.

    Overall, well done! I really enjoyed reading your pages!

    1. Great points. Pitches are so hard to nail for me! Thanks:)

  2. Hi Mary,

    I really like the start of the pitch. Right off the bat we know what Claire’s doing on the plane and her motivations. After that it kind of unraveled for me. My suggestion would be to reformulate your pitch to make sure you are including the MC’s choices – she can pick choice A or choice B, but then the consequences of Choice A or B are… etc. As it stands now, we don’t have that and the last paragraph is disjointed for me.

    I definitely agree with Kellie on cutting the telling – being first person present, you’ve done a good job showing us what Claire is seeing and feeling, putting us in her head. Great job on that.

    Because you’ve done really well on revisions, I’m going to pick and say that I’m not liking Preston (I’m assuming this is Preston on the plane, given the similarities in the pitch and the writing). Maybe it’s too many references to him getting high? I’m almost envisioning him on the plane, zoned out and close to laughing. It’s a little turn off for me, but that could just be my personal feelings. I’m not sure what he adds to the story, and without the pitch, a reader could get confused as to if he’s an important main character or just somebody thrown in in the opening scene to alleviate some tension/provide levity.

    But great job!

  3. I'm definitely going to cut out the telling parts and work on the pitch. Good tips! Regarding Preston: while I'm sad you're not liking him right here, I think it's worth the risk for the story. Him appearing the disaffected youth (at first) is important for his arc, and I also wanted to show him "fronting" a little (versus what we ultimately learn about his character). I just hope it's not too much to turn people off in the first five! Thanks for your comments!

  4. Hi Mary,
    Regarding the pitch: I agree with the others, the opening is good. I don't think there's a huge problem with the last two paragraphs. I think all the info is there and it just needs tightening up a bit. For instance, the sentence "This unlikely duo..." feels a little like hand holding, you don't really need to say that they're an unlikely duo as it comes across from your opening. The same with the sentence "Nothing is what it seems...", it can be cut because we get a sense of that from "The closer they get to the truth, the further Claire feels from her childhood."

    I also really like "the rabbit hole of her parents personal lives." Referencing Lewis Carroll immediately makes me think that Claire will be having an adventure somewhere alien to her, and that this is going to be a loss of childhood story.

    Others have commented on smoothing out the writing, so I don't think I need to go into it again. Regarding Preston: I wouldn't change him. For me, I'm totally turned off by a squeaky clean protagonist. Give me the flawed side kick or the complex bad guy any day. I don't like Preston, but he's realistic as a character. We've all met the kid whose outward bravado covers something more vulnerable. What you could do is give him a name in this first section, that way you're signalling that he's probably going to be around for a while.

    Good luck. Sarah

  5. Hi Mary,

    Okay. WELL DONE! You've got the information in the right places and it's flowing smoothly. For the pages, I've really only got two main concerns. The first is still that I don't buy the parents being declared dead in a month--and I also don't know that we need to know that now. It slows the reader, and you gain nothing from it for these initial pages. Let us wonder a little while longer about the mechanics of her escape. But do, in the meantime, talk to someone about how long that process can realistically take, who would need to initiate it, and so forth.

    My second concern is Preston. I still don't love him--and that's okay--I don't have to. But based on your pitch, it's going to be a dual POV story, no? In that case, I need something more from him, because at this point he is a cardboard character. The stereotypical asshat rich kid, throwing his potential away out of anger at his divorced, absent, or failed-at-parenting mom and dad. His arc and hers do have a nice symmetry given the diversity of their goals--she desperate to find her parents and he eager to escape his--but I'd love to see more depth to him. More passion. Something to give the reader something that says, hey, I'd like to keep reading about this guy for 300+ pages. I'll go anywhere with your MC--she's awesome. But Preston is going to be a challenge.

    As far as the writing goes, I think you're spot on. Just tighten things up a little bit. Read it aloud and you'll hear where you can squeeze a few words out here and there.

    With respect to the pitch, I'd focus more on the thriller aspect of the story than on the romance, and I would suggest not departing from the main story for an entire paragraph to focus on Preston. My personal choice would be to do something like, "She travels to Belize and, with the help of Preston, a disaffected ex-pat she meets along the way, follows a trail of clues into an ancient Maya cave and a dangerous antiquities smuggler, and falls through the rabbit hole of her parents’ personal lives. Nothing is what is seems, including Claire’s family story. The closer she and Preston come to to the truth, the further Claire feels from the childhood she thought she knew. As the son of a deeply dysfunctional family himself, Preston can relate. The pair discover love and friendship are more enduring than any unearthed ghosts of the past.

    With a query, or cover copy : ), it's usually better to get what's unique in the story out front, so since Preston's story--and his actions--are the least interesting thing on the page, minimize them and Claire's bravery, unique family situation, and the cool Maya stuff out there sooner.

    Best of luck with this. I have no doubt that you'll find a publisher for it!

    All best,


  6. Hi!

    Once again - love it! Love your MC and love the setup and the promise of the ancient Mayan mystery.

    Pitch: I think it reads great, except I would agree with Martina that I was surprised to see Preston as a POV. Is this correct? If not do as she says and take out the second paragraph about him as it gives him the same level of importance as your MC.

    Story: I am intrigued by Preston, though not trusting of him in that he does drugs and seems like potential trouble. I do like that he helps her on the custom's form. I think something that may help make him more 3-dimensional and relatable would be her catching notice of something he's hiding -- a piece of jewelry? a note? -- that can let her turn the tables on him and make us wonder what he's hiding (it can be internal like feelings he doesn't want to admit it's up to his arc, etc.). Something along those lines might help.

    Good luck!! Can't wait to see this on the shelf someday!!

  7. Hi Mary,

    Great job. Your opening is fully engaging and flows smoothly. You use first person and dialogue to reveal quite a lot about the characters.

    The only thing I don't care for is that Preston so openly makes the references to drugs. That will make it harder for me to like him later on when he deserves to be likeable. But maybe he's just boasting to impress her.

    You've done a really nice job with this opening scene. Engaging MC and setup.

    Keep up the good writing.


  8. Nice improvements in these opening pages! I do think the paragraph right after he asks her which school might need to be cut, though--it doesn't seem connected to the lines directly before or after, and I'm not sure it actually adds anything.

    Apart from that, these pages flow. With respect to the being declared dead thing, I wonder if Claire's skepticism could be the voice of the reader. When I read that, I did think it was odd, but it led me to think something really fishy was happening. So if you did want to keep it in, I think you could make it work by simply saying how baffling it was, how she's tried to talk to the family lawyer or whomever did it, but they won't see her, or somesuch. To do that, you must know how the process actually works, of course, but the great thing about thrillers is that things don't go by the book, and that's when we know there's something nefarious afoot.

    With regard to the query or copy, you've really got the set up of a great thriller, but the query ends by focusing on romance. I think you must focus more on one or the other, and I would suggest focusing on the thriller aspects (and on Claire). Most YA has some romance, and you can hint, but for a thriller query (heck, even in a romantic one), you must focus on conflict and stakes. What does she lose if she doesn't succeed? What is she risking? Is there a ticking clock? You want to add a sense of urgency and danger (both are promised in those opening pages as well as the title, so I assume they're in there). The final sentence should be about the thing she has to accomplish, or else __________.

    Best of luck with this! You're well on your way!

  9. I love the directness of your opening but the “fugitive father” in Preston’s tag line threw me. It’s confusing since the father being a fugitive isn’t the relevant characteristic here, at least in the context of the pitch and the introduction of this character. Isn’t Preston the one who’s hiding?

    “Nothing is what it seems”: I would avoid clichés, especially in a query or synopsis. Any lines that don’t provide concrete details by painting a picture, explaining a character, or establishing stakes are wasted words in a query.

    In general, the opening is very compelling as the stakes are clear right away. The first encounter between Claire and Preston establishes them as allies but also gives us a heads-up that she’s antagonistic and suspicious (“What’s he doing on this flight anyway? It’s a school day.”)

    If Preston really calls his mom “Mother” and says things like “summoned me stateside” (i.e.: if that’s really his voice), then it might help to put in one detail that explains his strange combination of characteristics. (Upper crust? Spoiled? But with a serious pot habit and snorkeling hobby?)

    Another question that came up for me: If she’s living in a shelter, how did she afford a plane ticket? Did she have a secret stash of money?

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