Sunday, May 8, 2016

1st 5 Pages May Workshop - Walters

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

The McDonalds jingle blares from Mara’s alarm clock as I sit up with a revelation, clarity like never before.

“Mar, I can’t live like this anymore. Something needs to change. need to change…something…about my situation…my life, I mean.” I wait, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes with the heels of my palms.

Nothing. Silence.



“Mar, are you up?” I glance down and realize she’s fallen back to sleep. “Uuuhhh.”

I grab my pillow and whack her not-so-gently on her face. When you wake up with a life-altering revelation, you don’t want to wait for your best friend of six years to get around to waking up to discuss it.

“Jeez-zus, Jen. What’s your problem,” Mara whines sleepily, haphazardly waving her arms in the air to prevent another whack to the face.

Mara and I don’t go to the same school and up until this year we haven’t spent the summers together either. But after two years of begging, my parents finally agreed to send me to the overnight camp Mara has been going to for years. Eight weeks together without any parents in sight. It’s almost too good to be true.

It doesn’t leave us much time to come up with a workable plan before getting on the camp bus at 9 a.m.

“Get up.” I push on her insistently, rocking her body back and forth.

Her hands slowly find her closed eyes and rub them awake as she begins to sit up. Her expression is mixed, a combination of kill, kill, kill mixed with mild concern. Impatiently, I dive right in.

“Mar, I can’t continue living like I have for the past three years. I need to change something. I need to do something to make the bullying stop. 9th grade needs to be different or I’ll…”

“Tell your parents to move to this neighborhood so you can go to my school,” she interrupts groggily.

“Yeah, that’ll happen…not. Try again.”

“Jen, your main problem is that you lack self-confidence, so people at school pick on you.  You need to believe in yourself more and care less about the nasty names. They’re just words.”

Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me. Who came up with that lie? Clearly someone who was never bullied.

“They’re like daggers, Mar. Each and every time someone calls me ‘Pubic Head,’ or ‘Jew Fro,’ or ‘Big Brown One,’ it feels like I’m being stabbed a thousand times.”

And what little self-confidence I have leaks out through those open wounds each and every day, bleeding me dry.

“GIRLS, LET’S GO,” Mara’s dad calls to us from the hall.

I grab Mara’s arm before she can get out of bed, clutching onto her like she is my only lifeline.

“Okay Jen, let’s brainstorm on the bus with Becca. She’ll know what to do. Come on. Let’s get going before my dad comes in here like some crazed lunatic.”

Becca is Mara’s best friend from camp. I’ve never met her so why would she care enough to help me? Besides, she doesn’t know anything about me.

Chapter 2:
The parking lot at the mall is buzzing with activity. The air, thick with bus exhaust, chokes the otherwise pleasant mid-June morning. Kids ranging in ages from seven to seventeen hug old friends hello after spending the school year apart. Parents assure their scared kids that camp will be a lot of fun if given a fair shake. And then there is me. I stand awkwardly between my parents, whom I have never consistently felt close with, and Mara’s family, who feel warmer today than usual. The bus doors can’t open quickly enough.

“Jennifer, give me your phone please,” my mom reminds me with her outstretched hand.

Camp is device-free, except for music, thank god! I’d die without my iPod.

“Let’s go!” Mara shouts as the bus door is thrown open.

I say a quick goodbye to my parents, thank Mara’s for allowing me to spend the night, and we run toward the gathering crowd.

“Wait for me,” my twelve-year-old sister, Shira, calls as she runs after us.

“Sit with Janey, Shira. You’re not sitting with me,” I yell over my shoulder.

Shira is also starting overnight camp this summer. Her best friend from school has been going for three years, but Janey is late, as usual.

“Just find a seat and save the one next to you for Janey,” I instruct as we board the bus.

We find an open row, and Mara drops our backpacks on the two seats across the aisle from ours, saving them for Becca. Our route will take us from the Plymouth Meeting Mall to the Oxford Valley Mall, driving east about thirty minutes. We’ll pick up the rest of the campers from our area, including Becca, and then drive three hours north into the Poconos to camp.

I’ve seen pictures of Becca but they don’t capture her shocking beauty, her spirit rippling away from her in a fog-like wave. Her hair is long, blond and wavy, and her eyes are a brilliantly clear green. As she walks toward our row, her smile illuminates the bus as Mara waves madly to her.

She is intimidatingly, disarmingly gorgeous, but I quickly discover that she is not at all pretentious or full of herself as one might expect. At first, I feel shy and sit in rapt attention basking in the aura of her other-worldliness. I snatch quick glances in those first few minutes, but avert my eyes to the floor just as quickly, not wanting to get caught staring.

As the bus starts moving, Mara squishes me between her and the window as she makes room for Becca to squeeze in with us.

“Becs,” Mara starts after the introductions have been made and pleasantries exchanged, “Jen’s been bullied by some kids at school for the past few years and she wants to do something to change herself so it’ll stop. She wants to wipe the slate clean and start 9th grade as a new Jen.”

Becca looks at me with sadness; pity creasing her brow as she cocks her head gently to the side to further consider my wretchedness. ‘I don’t want your pity,’ I think as I burn under her gaze.

“The problem is that she doesn’t know what or how to change that will be enough to get the bullies off her back. What do you think?” Mara continues as Becca considers my outward flaws.

This is much more uncomfortable than I imagined when Mara suggested enlisting Becca’s help this morning. Becca doesn’t know me. All she has to base her ideas on is how I look, and the first impression she formed when we were introduced a few minutes ago. She utters as much as she shifts uncomfortably in her half-seat, but after a few minutes of Mara urging her to be honest about what she sees, Becca begins her assessment cautiously.

“Well…um…okay…if I’m being honest…can I be honest? I don’t want to hurt your feelings.” I take a deep breath, grab onto the seat with my hands shoved firmly under my thighs, and nod.

“Yeah, she wants this, Becs…she needs this so just go for it,” Mara coaxes.

“I don’t know you yet so this is purely based on what I’m seeing. We should have this conversation again in a few days, once I get to know you a bit better.”

I nod, both of us feeling uncomfortable with this conversation.


  1. Hi Julie — I love camp stories! I feel like camp is such an excellent setting because it allows the protagonists to have their own adventures, without the pesky intervention of parents or adults. You’ve set up the problem (Jen is being bullied) and you’ve also ended your first five pages with an intriguing relationship as well as an intriguing goal: self-reinvention. I’m dying to know what beautiful Becca is about to say to Jen on the bus. What does she say!? Tell me, put me out of my misery! The fact that I feel that way is important, because you’ve got me. I want to know more, which is the hallmark of an interesting opening.

    With that said, I wonder if you can do it in a less heavy-handed way. The opening feels a little, “sigh, I’m being bullied, this stinks” and I wonder if you can do it in a way that’s less obvious. Bullying is such a dark, insidious thing, the repercussions so all-consuming for its victims, that I feel like it needs to be introduced with a lighter touch.

    Maybe the first chapter could be more about setting up Jen’s character, and shining a light into how her life is totally miserable right now. Show us the things she’s getting bullied about. Tell us about more about her puffy hair, her too-big ears, her antique Sherlock Holmes lunch box that she loves, but her schoolmates think is totally lame — whatever it is she gets bullied about, I want to know. I like the details you included about the names they call her. Those are really good. More of that. You could up the stakes, and let us know that somehow, if things don’t change, next year will be even worse. That if Jen doesn’t change things over the summer, fast, then she’s totally screwed for high school.

    I’d recommend thinking of other ways to open the story than Jen and Mara waking up, just to avoid the cliche. Maybe they’re at Jen’s house, and Mara is helping her finish packing for camp. Maybe Mara finds Jen’s yearbook, and someone’s scrawled something something terrible, something completely awful in Jen’s yearbook. “Why didn’t you tell me?”, Mara insists. Something like that. Another thing that you could do, to avoid the ‘beginning with the character waking up’ scenario, is just to start on the bus and work in all the bullying facts in as you go.

    Also, this is a minor quibble, but I was a little confused when they go to the mall parking lot. As I read, I thought — wait, aren’t they going to camp? Why are they at the mall? I eventually figure it out, but I did have to read it a few times. Oh, and one last thing — I have to say, I thought this was middle grade until I saw that you had it categorized as YA. IMO, the voice feels a little younger than YA.

    I’m really looking forward to reading the revisions — and maybe eventually finding out what Becca says to Jen! :)

    1. Thank you Kate! I love the yearbook idea. That could work. Thank you for the suggestion!

  2. I think Jen and Mara sound really young. I also think it is way too early for Mara to be bringing up the let's change Jen speech as Jen just meets Beca. If I were Jen, I would have been furious at my friend. To me, it is a bad first impression. Maybe Mara and Jen can be talking about it and Beca can over hear and offer to help. If you still want to introduce this on the bus then maybe have Mara explain why Beca is apt to help. Does she like doing make overs, does she have amazing fashion sense, or is she just a nice person who is eager to help?
    I am also a little unclear as to how Mara and Jen know each other. They don't go to school together, they don't live in the same town, and don't spend summers together.

    I also think Jen is being mean to Shira. Yell may not be the best word to say there. You want your audience to like Jen straight away and being mean to a younger sibling instantly may be a bit of a turn off.

    However, I love the description of Beca. I think it is perfect and I can completely picture her. I would be intrigued to see where this goes because you are quite clearly setting up the potential relationship without being too obvious.

    I can't wait to see the revisions.


  3. "When you wake up with a life-altering revelation, you don’t want to wait for your best friend of six years to get around to waking up to discuss it."
    The thought that comes to my mind is -Is the thought of changing something in one's life a life altering revelation? And that's because a person being bullied will already be looking for ways and means to change her situation every time she has that horrid experience. I think a peep into how bullying is affecting her life and how exactly she wants to change would also help here - does she want to change herself or the situation she is in?

    There are small details that need to either be explained or thought out.
    1.If Mara and Jen aren't school mates but are still best friends, is it because their families know each other well?
    2. Jen is staying overnight at Mara's, the latter's parents take them to the mall but Jen's parents are there too (to see off their younger daughter) - this is all a bit confusing at first.
    3. I'd replace the 'mall' with some other word (pickup point?) because you're kind of thrown off when you are expecting them to go to a camp but they end up at a mall.
    4. Will a girl who is being bullied be mean to her younger sister? I really don't know, but it is worth exploring.
    5. Throwing Jen's problem into Becca's face soon as they get introduced seems like an awkward situation for anyone to deal with. Maybe there could be a build up to it. Also, if I were Jen, I'd be jealous of Becca when Mara says she's her best friend from camp, specially after the description of Becca as she enters the bus.
    6. "Jen’s been bullied by some kids at school for the past few years and she wants to do something to change herself so it’ll stop." I'm not sure kids converse like this, in such long sentences. And it sounds very matter-of-fact.
    7. Maybe it's just me, but I wasn't comfortable reading the entire excerpt in present tense. Could it be that the choice of tense also puts restrictions on the way the other elements of the story are described?

    Finally, the 'voice' of the friends, their language and actions would place them more in the middle grade scenario rather than 9th grade. So if this is YA, the language and the dialogues would have to be lifted a notch higher.

    All said and done, the plot seems intriguing and wants me to know more about Jen and her conflict. So it's a great start! Look forward to see how you take it forward.

    All the best!

  4. Hi Julie,
    What a great title! You set the premise up before I even started reading your work.

    The start of Chapter 2 is strong. The description provides a strong visual. The same with Becca. She's the one character I feel like I know right from the start.

    After several readings, I found myself asking some questions about the characters, which is both good and bad.
    I'm not sure I quite have a handle on the type of people Jen and Mara are. You tell the reader they are best friends but go on to say they don't go to the same school or spend much time together. Their interaction comes off as one-sided with Mara being quite frank, if not harsh, with her friend who she already knows to be sensitive. She doesn't seem like best friend material.

    The dialogue between the girls comes off as a bit forced. Try not to make the characters say too much at once. Let the scene unfold naturally and the dialogue will flow better.

    Some of the action is a bit disjointed. The jumps left me confused and needing to re-read the previous sequence.
    -Mara puts her backpack on the seat across to save it for Becca. Then 3 paragraphs later, she's sitting with them. No explanation for why.
    -Becca just shows up on the bus.

    Other places I was confused.
    -"It doesn't leave us much time..." What doesn't?
    -"never consistently close" is an awkward way to describe a parent/child relationship. Maybe that's what you're going for but she doesn't seem particularly warmed up to Mara's family either. Jen is coming off as a bit of a cold fish.
    -Mara's comment to Becca about Jen's problem is odd and the wording doesn't make sense. Having just met, this puts both parties in a truly awkward situation. While that sets up your end line, it's the only resolution so it comes off as predictable.

    I would consider moving the line about Becca's approach to the beginning of the paragraph. It would be a better introduction for her into the scene. The way it reads now she just shows up on the bus.

    Finally, I would consider this middle grade rather than YA. The language and characters seem far too immature in terms of voice. Perhaps consider an audience change.

    Best of luck.

  5. Dear Julie,
    In Confessions of a High School Survivor: The Freshman Reinvention, you pull us right into a humorous exchange between two best friends on the eve of getting to go off to camp together--finally! But we learn that Jen is bullied and needs her best friend Mara’s help to stop it. I believe this will be the theme of your story—bullying, which is very topical and a needed story for so many kids.

    Having Jen tell her friend Mara that she’s bullied and that it hurts—“They’re like daggers, Mar. Each and every time someone calls me ‘Pubic Head,’ or ‘Jew Fro,’ or ‘Big Brown One,’ it feels like I’m being stabbed a thousand times” –while vivid and disturbing, dilutes the empathy we feel for Jen, not to mention any action or tension.

    There’s so much you do very well, or I wouldn’t suggest what I’m about to. I think this important story is starting in the wrong place and I want you to consider shifting your approach.

    Julie, could you show Jen getting called these nasty names?
    I know you can do it craft-wise. It may be tough emotionally, but I can almost guarantee you that this will be MUCH stronger. Let the reader be a fly on the wall when Jen and Mara are already on the bus, or already at camp. Let us watch them joke and be excited to be together, happy to be off on their own. Then when one or more other kids bully Jen and call her even one of these names, you can make us feel how Jen feels. Horrified and crushed. Talk about tension! This is the ultimate thing we can do as writers. Not tell the reader how a character feels, but make them feel it themselves. Nothing can make us empathize more deeply with Jen than to experience that emotion with her. We’ll root for her to change everything. And thank goodness she has Mara! I think this may also address some of the other issues raised.

    The fact that Jen whacks sleeping Mara in the face suggests you may be willing to lighten this heavy scene with some humor. Please do! A little bit sprinkled throughout can lighten this difficult subject.

    If Becca still makes it into the first five pages (and she is intriguing!), again, show us that she’s not stand-offish or pretentious. We want to make up our own minds. Maybe she helps Jen out when she’s attacked, although ultimately of course, Jen will have to save herself.

    Does this make sense? Writing is so often throwing BIG chunks out and then digging deeper. The proverbial tapping into a vein! It’s your call, but I’d LOVE to see you show us these intelligent and intriguing characters and let us explore this important theme first-hand. If you can re-draft a scene for next time, then we can work from there and aim to end the month with powerful first five pages. Or you can choose to address some of the issues raised with what you have which can still strengthen your ms.

    Good luck!

    1. Thank you Ann. Yes, this makes perfect sense. I have combined your ideas with a few others and will submit a total rewrite on Sunday. I started it with something I hope works, and it offers a glimpse into Jen's experiences at school. I added a new humorous bit too, because I have removed the pillow whack. I am very excited for you to read the new version! Thank you again for your help. This is an amazing process and I am privileged and honored to be working with you.

    2. Yay, Julie!! You've got lots to work with and lots of good input. I'm totally looking forward to reading your revision!

  6. Wow. Great topic. Camp set-up. Lots of material to start honing! That said, and per the comments above (which have covered much of it), you've fallen into a couple of first-draft traps and you just need to dig out of them.
    1. SHOW, DON'T TELL. "I'm being bullied." "Becca is gorgeous." This feels more like reporting than storytelling.
    2. CHARACTER FIRST. Even if bullying is the core of your story, readers need to CARE about Jen first so that they feel bad that she's a victim of bullying. Give readers a great Jen and don't worry so much about dropping the Big Issue in so quickly. Related to this character issue, Jen seems like a bubbly, gregarious, huge personality--not attributes you often see attributed to someone suffering from intense bullying. Even though she's with bestie, Mara, I think you need to show readers how deeply her bullying situation has affected her (even before they know she's being bullied)--is she anxious? twitchy? maybe she pulls a beanie over her "big hair"?
    3. WAKE UP. RIDE THE BUS. The morning opening and the getting-on-the-bus are two heavily used tropes in kidlit. And, the sleepover may be unnecessarily complicated (why does she have to sleep over at Mara's since her parents are obviously near enough to drop sis off--and they'll be together all summer?), making it feel mostly like a vehicle for some info-dumping (besties, why camp, etc.). I'd search hard for a more unique and organic opening setting.
    You've got a lovely, light touch with your writing and a good sense of fun. Can't wait to see your revision! All best and happy writing. - Stasia

    1. Thank you Stasia. I see what you mean and have reworked the telling to be more showing. I rewrote the entire submission with your ideas, Ann's and the attendees to come up with something that doesn't start with a wake up, or on the bus, though I kept the sleepover but it works ore naturally now. I think I tweaked Jen's personality and reactions to better demonstrate her broken soul too. I am excited for you to read the rewrite and read your feedback. Thank you for your time. This is an honor to work with everyone in this group and I know my ms will be much better for it!

  7. Hey Julie –

    Bravo for tackling a subject as relevant as bullying. As an educator I am on the front lines of this disturbing reality that our students must content with all too often.

    I agree with previous comments that have given you many plates to spin. Here are my thoughts:

    I’m feeling a tonal disconnect with a victim of bullying who opens with an upbeat goal and acts very assertive from the get go. You have potential for a deep and multi-layered character here. Bullying is such a complex issue – imbalance of power, feeling of threat-perceived or real, repetition of aggression – it leaves scars. You might want to search some PSAs on bullying, or check out the website (and I’m sure there are many others) to mine gold for Jen’s layers. How does a victim of bullying present? You’ve almost given us a “here’s what I want you to know” list up front about Jen’s past and worries. Feather in the experiences as we get to know her so we can have a discovery process about her depth of character – scars – fears. I loved the line “…leaks out through those open wounds each and every day, bleeding me dry.” That’s when I felt like I began to know her.

    You have such a fabulous kicky title. I’d like to see the same level of snap, crackle, pop in your lead line.

    There was a comment about seeing the bullying – agree – also maybe you can show us some victim type behavior. I agree you should avoid the waking up or on the bus opening. I do love the bus exhaust sensory imagery – maybe you can open with arrival at camp and Jen has allowed herself to get shuffled toward the back of the crowd and gets blasted with fumes.

    I once worked with a student who had been bullied and had a physical quirk of rubbing a pinkie finger that was crooked from a bully bending it back until it broke. Maybe Jen can have a physical reminder that eventually serves as our entre to her past bullying experiences.

    The voice does feel young. If Jen has been repeatedly bullied, won’t it be hard for her to shed that victim shell and change her life? As much as she wants it, teen insecurity and search for sense of self might be even more illusive for her. I’m not saying to make her an annoying victim, but a glimpse into what breaking out of her pattern will cost her could be fascinating. Her character presents tons of interesting possibilities for self-talk.

    I’m excited to see where you go with the story. I just love the concept of Jen having the oomph to reinvent herself after what she’s experienced. Happy revising.