Monday, May 23, 2016

1st 5 Pages May Workshop - Walters Rev 2

Name: Julie Walters
Title: Confessions of a High School Survivor: The Freshman Reinvention
Genre: Young Adult, contemporary

Pubic-Head, Jew-Fro, Big Brown One. If Jennifer Arnold knew how to make her classmates stop bullying her, stop breaking her with each nasty name and rumor, she’d do it. If only she were strong enough to believe in herself, but a lifetime of emotional abuse from home and bullying from school have left her hollow and splintered.

Just when she needs her most, Jennifer meets Becca. Beautiful, self-assured and fearless, Becca quickly becomes her new best friend. At overnight camp for the summer, Becca teaches Jennifer how to begin to find her inner strength, tackle her body image issues, and accentuate her outer beauty.

In the fall, when her friendship with Becca evolves into a secret romantic relationship, Jennifer grapples with understanding her sexuality and morals. Her Reinvention plan works though, and nearly all bullying at school ceases. Jennifer confronts her burgeoning fortitude when debating sharing her clandestine relationship with her best friends. If she can’t, she will be forced to hide what is quickly becoming the most life altering relationship she has ever known. However, her secret being divulged and resuscitating the now defunct abuse scares Jennifer into a claustrophobic silence and traps her in a cocoon of lies.

“Have a great summer, Pubic Head,” he yells at my back after I pass him on my way out of this god forsaken hellhole of a school.

“Yeah B.B.O. Maybe you’ll learn how to tame that Jew Fro,” sneers one of his cronies. Their gang of goons erupts with laughter. “Or just shave it off and save yourself from looking like my jock.”

They can’t see my beet-red face or smell the sweat that dampens me instantly or feel the tremors wracking my body. Nor can they see my desperate soul leaking out through the fresh wounds ripped open by their words, bleeding me dry.

This is what I know about life at fourteen: It Sucks. Capital S.

But the way I see it, I can continue spending my time wallowing in my misery, focusing on nothing except the epic Greek tragedy that is my life, or I can play an active role in my own reinvention and try to forge a new path. A path that leads to a life not filled with self-loathing or urgent wishes to be born into a different body or a different family in a different town in a different state where people aren’t assholes.

“Jen, anybody home?” Mara snaps her fingers in front of my face, eight days into summer break.

“Sorry. Lost in thought,” I mumble as I pick my cuticles bloody.

“Does it have anything to do with your nightmare last night?” Becca questions as she tosses her long, blond waves from her shoulders with a graceful shake of her head, her mesmerizing bright green eyes beckoning my atman to liberate itself.

Becca’s spent the past four days with me at Mara’s before we head off to overnight camp for the summer together. Eight non-parentally supervised weeks in the Poconos with Mara, my best-of-the-best friend since third grade and Becca, who has gone from stranger to confidant after barely one hundred hours together. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime and it’s my chance to do the impossible, to metamorphose. If I fail, if I can’t instigate a hiccup in the social disaster of my life, if I can’t get people to stop making fun of my hair, clothing, Jewish face, I know I won’t survive 9th grade.

When I first met Becca I felt shy, snatching quick glances before averting my eyes to the floor, not wanting to get caught gawking at her beauty. But her kind spirit ripples away from her in a fog-like wave, a constant blanket of warmth that makes me feel comfortable, less awkward. Accepted. We’ve become close in these past four days, and although she climbed into my bed last night when I woke up crying, wrapping her arms around me to soothe my desperation, I still couldn’t tell her about my last afternoon at school. Nor any of the miserable days prior, for that matter.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I mumble, walking toward Mara’s bathroom.

“Are people at school still being assholes, Jen?” Mara asks my back, but I ignore her as I close the bathroom door.

Walking out of Mara’s bathroom with my toiletries bag tucked under my arm, struggling to wrangle my massive helmet of frizzy hair into a ponytail, I see Mara and Becca sitting on the bed with my yearbook open between them. Their faces masks of horror. I abandon my hair as I rush to snatch the book from them, blood rushing to burn my cheeks.

“Please. Don’t,” I choke as I close the book with trembling hands, sweat beading along my forehead and above my lip instantly. I know it’s too late. I can tell by their expressions that they saw it. All of it.

Mara pats the bed next to her indicating that I should sit with them. “Jen, why didn’t you show this to me? Did you show this to a teacher, your advisor, anyone? This needs to stop.”

Flaying my cuticle from my pinky with my central incisors, I whisper, “No. Whatever. It doesn’t matter.”

Becca reaches across Mara to hold my quivering hand, saving my cuticles from further massacre. “It matter, Jen. How long has this been going on?”

“Feels like forever,” Mara croaks.

“Don’t we need to leave for the bus soon? Let’s grab a muffin on our way out.” But my diversion tactic falls on deaf ears.

Becca slides off of the bed and moves to sit next to me, wrapping an arm around my shoulder and pulling me against her side, her temple resting on my head.

“I’d like to help you Jen, but you need to bring me up to speed. I won’t judge you,” Becca starts but I cut her off.

“I don’t want your pity, Becca.”

“I wouldn’t dare. Just talk to me. When did this start?”

But I can’t. I can’t force my vocal chords to produce sound or my lips to form the words.

“Listen, we’re already friends and we’re about to spend eight weeks together, inseparably if you ask me. I’m not gonna let this go so you might as well save us both and tell me now.”

“You can trust her,” Mara encourages.

Trusting Mara’s endorsement implicitly, I take a deep breath before sliding from the precipice’s edge.

“5th grade but it didn’t go grade-wide viral until 6th. Now it’s of epidemic proportion. I’ve asked them to stop, but…” My voice trails off as my stomach clenches and threatens to explode even though it’s empty.

“They call you Pubic Head? Jew Fro? And those pictures. How could someone draw that in your yearbook?” Becca asks, her voice thick with incredulity. She squeezes my hand, forcing me to look at her exquisite face as my eyes fill with liquid despair.

“It’s my fault,” I offer as I attempt to reign in my emotions, to force them back into the tightly lidded compartment of my heart. “I mean look at me. I’m a mess. My hair, my face, my clothes. I make it easy.”

“Bullshit, Jen. They don’t have the right,” Becca states with the bravado of a politician.

We sit in silence for a few moments before Becca suggests the very thing I want desperately. “Jen, how about if I help you with a makeover. We have all summer to perfect it before the start of 9th grade.”

“Yes! That’s exactly what I want but don’t know how to accomplish, transmogrification. Steal their ammo like a summer thief.” I feel almost giddy with excitement, but the feeling is fleeting. “But how?”

“Makeovers are kind of my thing. We’ll start with your hair and eyebrows. Those are quick fixes but they’re invaluable life-long lessons. Then we’ll talk fashion. You’re hiding under way too much clothing. And you’ve got to stop mauling your fingers.”

I nod, extricating my thumb nail from between my teeth.

“Also, we need to work on your nonexistent self-esteem.” Mara adds sympathetically. “It’s paralyzing your potential and you’re too amazing for this shit.”

“First thing’s first. Let’s fix your appearance. It’ll take, like, an hour. Then we can move on to the tough stuff, digging through your issues, the causes and workable resolutions. That’s the real project for the summer, but it’s where I excel.” Becca says as I bite my lip and I turn away.

I know she’s right but I also understand how traumatic it will be to expose my psyche for examination. Mara smiles, but there’s guilt clouding her eyes. Or is it jealousy? Or something else?


  1. Wow, I had no idea this book was going to be so complex. Bullying, sexual awakening, complex friendships, high school...! The pitch starts out very strong. But, by paragraph 3, it peters out a bit, as if you don't have a clear grasp on the end of the story yet. That's fine. It means the pitch-writing exercise is working to show you where your plotting needs more work. So, I'm going to leave the pitch comments at that.
    On to the first five...(1) Not sure I love starting with a line of dialogue from nameless (insignificant?) character. Wondering if a stronger opening might be to have this from JEN's POV (i.e., I keep my shoulders, my gaze, pointed toward the exit, pretend I don't hear the words "Jew Fro...ETC" hammering my back...") Or maybe give us a touch more of the setting--school, make it feel dark, oppressive in a more specific way than calling it a "hell-hole"??? It's generally dicey to start with dialogue anyway so experimenting with another choice might be helpful. (2) I am confused by the new structure, which appears to switch from the day she leaves school, to a moment with Mara, to a reflection of her meeting Becca to a flashback about Becca???? This structure results in a lot of "info-dumping" - using flashback as a way to convince readers to trust Becca b/c Mara says so and to know everything about Becca's plan. (3) I am still unconvinced about the whole four-day sleepover before leaving for camp. As a mom of four, I don't think I'd be cool with that without an excellent reason. Which brings us to point #(4) I feel like there's a layer of plot missing. I get that Jen wants to transform and Becca is both her guru and her ultimate romantic interest. BUT this is partly a thematic or internal character arc. We need to know specifically what Jen wants at each point in the story and what positive attributes she has (e.g., is she good at crafts, drama? does she want to win a particular prize at camp or does she have to, say, help with the housework there b/c her family can't really afford this place? besides NOT being bullied, does Jen AFFIRMATIVELY WANT anything different when she gets back to school--a role in student government, part in a play, chance to be on the school paper? PLOT & CHARACTER are critically intertwined in a good story. Specific plot and setting elements enable a writer to SHOW emotions, development, etc., in a character or characters without simply TELLING them, "she was worried" or "guilt clouding her eyes." I think you might have great success trying a couple of plotting exercises to build the skeleton on which to hang these cool characters. Keep up the good work!

  2. I REALLY like what you’re doing here. The concept is perfect and very relevant.

    I want to you to think about slowing down and savouring defining moments for your characters. A lot of important information is given perhaps too closely together.

    The bullying in the first sentences leads me to anticipate that Jennifer will have to recover from this on her way home and then I’m jarred when Mara snaps her fingers at Jen. These are two different scenes, and they don’t mesh together. Explore the bullying and then have her doing things in her life that the reader can get to know Jennifer through. In your pitch you say she’s abused, so perhaps show that; her coming home to an empty fridge or a berating parent. You want the reader to empathize with Jennifer and ultimately root for her.

    Also your pitch should not mention meeting Becca, if you start your story with them as friends. Also I’m unsure as to who Mara is.

    As I said, I love this concept and Jennifer's character. She seems to be complex and representative of so many important things. Continue to revise until your work is clear with motives, causes and effects. Great job!

    ~Sue Miller

  3. Dear Julie,

    Your hard work is fully evident and now your opening five pages clearly establish your main character, her allies, her problem, and the stakes. We are shown much more than in earlier drafts. And I love the addition of the question raised in the last lines. How does Mara feel about Becca and Jen’s new bond? Hmmm. Trouble may lie ahead.

    My only very minor comment is that Jen decides in the opening paragraphs that she needs to reinvent herself. Which seems to kind of “steal the thunder” of Becca and Mara suggesting a makeover later. Maybe if it’s a little more vague-- she knows something has got to change but doesn’t know what or how. (Btw, the addition of her saying that if she can’t get people to stop making fun of her, “I know I won’t survive 9th grade,” is a sobering indication of the stakes.) Then when Becca and Mara come up with their plan, we’ll see it as a hopeful solution.

    But this is a nitpick. Your opening pages have come a long way. Furthermore, you showed courage and professionalism to come at your whole opening in a new way. We all get attached to our writing, but change in early drafts is usually our friend. Excellent work. Good luck with this important story.


  4. Julie,
    Your ptich has some very strong elements. I worry that you are providing too much detail and giving away too much of your story. Try to scale it back and tease more.

    This revision has added a great deal of depth to the characters and the storyline. Jen is shaping up to be a complex character.

    That said, I can't help but feel that you're rushing the story and not letting it develop. There are a number of jumps between characters and relationships that I don't feel are believable. Becca's impact on Jen has gone from 0-50 in one paragraph. Kids who are bullied aren't that trusting, being far too jaded by people's impressions and harshness to allow them in.

    Having read your previous revisions I knew what was coming but feel you are asking the reader to buy into the makeover too quickly.

    I feel like the 3rd, 4th and 5th paragraphs are a strong way to build your MC and the empathy a story like this requires. They are great openers.

    This story is more complex than earlier revisions alluded to. How exciting to tell a story that explores issues that are so relevant to today's teens.

    Best of luck with the story.

  5. Hi Julie,
    Your 1st 5 pages are a lot more stronger now and I really like the way it begins. I could immediately connect with what Jen was going through, how serious this is for her. And I could feel empathy, which is great! So I think this revision is doing a lot more for me from a reader's point of view.

    At the same time, it does feel a bit fast paced. Are 4 days enough for a troubled girl to open up to a total stranger, even though she's her best friend's friend? I'm not sure. I liked it better when Jen meets Becca in the camp. Maybe the whole yearbook scene could be played out in the camp? Because now, it also feels odd that she'd carry her yearbook to Mara's house for a sleepover. And I agree with most of the points Stasia makes - you should try and address them to take this to the next level.

    The pitch makes it very clear that there's a relationship brewing between Jen and Becca. So I'd suggest building this up real slow - bring out the nuances bit by bit so when it is revealed, it feels natural. BTW, I like this angle of the plot too - didn't see it coming! It makes Jen's situation real complex and makes me wonder how things would turn out for her later. I also like the fact that Becca realizes this thing is way beyond Jen's physical makeover. Else it would have rung rather hollow.

    The pitch itself is great but it could be a bit terse as others have suggested.

    Again, great revision and great overall improvement from the first draft. I'm rooting for Jen all the way!


  6. Hello Julie,

    I knew it! I definitely felt the romantic vibes between Jen and Becca in the previous two versions, and I meant to comment on it and ask whether it was intentional or not, but for whatever reason I never added that to my week's comments. I REALLY like that that is what you're going for. Bullying, sexual exploration and discovery, self-growth. All of these things sound like very worthwhile subject matters to pursue.

    I think, though, that the start of this story would really benefit from an extreme slowing down. A slowing down of the emotions, the relationship growth, all of it. Give us the tiniest hints in the first few chapters that there MAY be a romance blooming between Becca and Jen. I would focus more on the bullying to begin with, and what that struggle must be like for Jen. Learning to like herself again, with the help of Mara, and her new friend, Becca. Because you can't fully love another until you love yourself, right? I also agree with the comment that an unfortunate side effect of being bullied is emotional reticence, so I think it would be uncharacteristic for Jen to jump right into trusting Becca with her entire heart, right away. Let Becca earn Jen's trust. It might take time.

    I also think that if the romance blooms unexpectedly, a number of chapters in -- and takes the reader *somewhat* by surprise (but not completely, because you've peppered the first bit of the book with hints), I think it will be a delightful twist. Because it would take both Becca and Jen by surprise, wouldn't it? My guess is neither of them expected to fall in love with the other. Let their relationship grow naturally as they bond at camp over trying to help Jen "reinvent" herself.

    I've had a great time reading your story, Julie, and I hope it makes it out into the world! Good luck to you and Jen! :)

  7. Hey Julie,

    It’s exciting to see your work evolving week to week. Congrats on your perseverance and dedication. I feel I know the characters on a deeper level as they become more real with each new brushstroke you add.

    The complexity and relevance of issues in your pitch is very powerful.

    I’m still not convinced your story begins at the most dynamic place for the depth of passion and layers of challenge for the MC you’ve outlined in the pitch. The first five paragraphs feel closer to a set up than the beginning of a story, and the jump to the present scene is a bit jarring to me. I find myself wanting more of a discovery process to get to know the situation and characters.

    Jen’s proclamation of reinventing herself still feels very self-assured for a person who has been a victim of bullying for the length of times she has. I applaud the layer you’ve added of Jen feeling that she invites the bullying.

    Jen’s journey is the draw for me in this story. Instead of being told specifics, I want to experience them with a “real time” feel along with her, especially when it comes to Becca and all the doubts and wonderings Jen would have about her unique circumstances.

    You have a story here worth telling. May it blossom in your talented hands.


  8. Hi

    So in your pitch you call he Jennifer, I would recommend using Jen as that is what she is called most of the time.

    I think this is a different start but maybe it should involve a flashback? I think the transition from the last day of school to Mara's is too big. It needs to be smoothed out more.

    I agree with Leslie in that she is too aware of her issues. Would someone who is bullied really believe that they have the self worth to fix their issues? It should probably be forced upon her or something like that.

    I feel like you have grown a lot and this story is just getting stronger. Good luck.