Sunday, May 8, 2016

May 1st 5 Pages Workshop - Narayanan

Name: Priya Narayanan
Genre: Middle Grade - Slice of Life, Humor
Title: The Promise

Once upon a time, I made a promise.
Now, I’m not one to make promises since more often than not, I end up breaking them. It is as though promises were invented only to be broken; definitely the invention of a sadist mind! You goad someone into believing you, rely upon you for something of great importance and then 
You simply break the promise along with the person’s heart. NOT a good idea.
And then, there was this other idea fed into my innocent mind (presumably to scare me) that if I ever broke a promise I’d end up being turned into an owl. This, of course, displays overconfidence as well as a serious lack of imagination on part of the elders. Did they really think I cared about being turned into an owl, or for that matter, any other bird or animal? Au contraire my friend, I find that to be a reason worthy enough to break a promise! Imagine what fun it would be to turn your head 360 degrees like a poltergeist and stare into the bewildered eyes of relatives. 
No, that is definitely not the reason for my desisting from promises. Then what could it be, you ask?
Yes, guilt spelt in capital letters! I know it is an embarrassing trait, but I am prone to acute pangs of guilt. And I guess I have to live with it until I find a magic potion to stifle that feeling within me forever. Until then, call me an escapist if you must, but I choose not to make a promise at all. 
But wait . . . hasn’t someone somewhere said ‘Never say Never’?
So one day, when I was at my vulnerable best, Amma* approached me with an idea and within minutes, she had extracted a promise from me! Now, let me give you a piece of advice. You want to make a promise? Go ahead . . . but hey, make sure you know to whom you’re making it out to. 
Your friend? Cool. 
Your girlfriend? Umm . . . fine; although that one’s best avoided.
Your best friend? Red Alert! You shouldn’t have done that mister. But then, one always learns
from mistakes. 
Your mother? NEVER!! 
Never ever make a promise to your mother. That is something you can never break, no matter what and how many other things you end up breaking in the process.
To get back to the reality of that abject moment in my life - I made a promise, and I made it to my mother. I promised her that I would not watch TV for the next five days. 
Can you imagine! What was I thinking? 
Well, that’s precisely the point. I wasn’t thinking anything. Early one morning, when all I wanted was to sleep, sleep and sleep some more, Amma ambled into my room like and angel and left like the devil that had extracted her pound of flesh. Here’s a transcript of what transpired that day:
“Shamit . . .”
“Mmmm . . .”
“Shamit . . . wake up dear, it’s nine o’clock.”
“Mmmmmmmm . . .”
“SHAMIT! Wake up!! Everyone’s already at the breakfast table. I hope you remember we’ve planned to visit the temple after that?”
“Five minutes Maaaa . . . and in any case, I’m not interested in the temple. You go ahead without me, okay? And wake me up after you’re back.”
“Oh, so that’s the way it’s going to be . . . huh? Well, you can sleep through the afternoon, right until evening for all I care. Just promise me that you’ll not watch TV for five days starting today. SHAMIT . . . can you hear me? Are you going to make that promise or do I drag you out of bed?” Amma’s voice started off as a whisper and gathered enough decibels along the way to help her achieve the glass-shattering level that only divas at the opera are blessed with.
What do you think was more important at that moment for someone who’d watched TV until four o’clock the previous night (or early morning if you please)? Sleep or a darned promise? So you know what I chose. 
“Mmmm . . . okay Ma, I’ll do whatever you want; just leave me alone okay . . .GO . . . PLEEEEASE . . .”
When I finally woke up to narrate my surreal dream to Amma over a mug of hot chocolate, I was met with an icy glare. 
“Oh, so it wasn’t a dream . . . okay. No problem . . . umm . . . I was just joking Ma. A
promise is a promise. I’ll stand by it . . . okay?” 
But Amma’s eyes refused to leave mine.
And with that, I stared at the prospect of five TV-less days ahead of me. That the said five days had settled comfortably in the lap of the summer vacations only made matters worse.
Day 1
What does one do on a hot summer afternoon if not chill on the couch with a plate of succulent mangoes and TV? But thanks to my promise, all I did the first day of my TV-less ordeal was to wander like a zombie around the house. I was absolutely at my wit’s end as to how I’d pass the plenitude of time that lay at my disposal. I got into everyone’s way as I aimlessly trudged up and down the stairs, inviting innumerable scowls and angry glares. 
When Amma decided to tend to her plants, I chugged along behind her, much to her surprise. I had no intention of helping her in her yawn-inducing hobby though. I simply moved around pulling out sharp blades of grass and plucking leaves off her well-manicured plants. The result was a couple of ferocious looks from her that prodded me to slink away.
As I moved back towards the comfort of my room, the TV – perched like royalty on the stucco-finished white wall – lured me mockingly, like the witch who lured Snow White with her juicy red apples. Only, I was no Snow White. I wouldn’t give in to my temptations and break the promise I’d made to Amma . . . or would I? 
A brilliant idea sneaked into my head. What if I found a loophole? Or maybe I could just circumvent the promise without hurting Amma? Could I not run off to Nerdy Nattu’s house next door and shut myself in his room with the TV, which his parents had so lovingly installed for his last birthday? 
Not a bad idea. But there were two possible negative outcomes:
    1. Since Nattu wasn’t too fond of me – not the least because of the ‘nerdy’ adjective I’d conferred upon him – he would extract his pound of flesh by subjecting me to programs of his choice. That would spell UTTER BOREDOM, considering the deluge of scientific information that would drench me long before the onset of monsoon. 

    2. I would be quickly weighed down with guilt – that menacing little creep who never lets me rest in peace.

There was of course also the possibility of Nattu telling on me, but that was not a great concern. I had a couple of embarrassing things about him in my ammunition that I could use in response. And he was well aware of that.


  1. Very relatable opening that pulled me in immediately because of the relatability. We have all made promises only to break them later, and we have all experienced heartbreak over a broken promise. I get a good sense of the conflict and the arc, and feel comfortable with the way the ms is unfolding. The story feels unique to me and like something that will be a lot of fun for MG readers, and not-so-MG readers like me.

    I like your writing style in that it is easy to follow however I am not picturing the world that your MC lives in. Can you give more details so that I can picture what is happening a little more?

    Although most of the submission is narrative, it works because the pace is quick enough that I don’t feel cheated out of dialogue. I can’t say that I am rooting for the MC, even though I remember many similar situations of wanting to break promises in the past to suit my desires, because I do not know if I feel badly enough for him that he needs to survive 5 days without TV. That said, I would love to know how he tackles his withdraw symptoms and what he does to either avoid TV or skirt his promise.

  2. Hello Priya,

    Shamit has a ton of spunk and a great voice, and that comes right through in your first five pages, so nice work there. The opening sentence is also very good.

    A few questions that I have: why does Shamit’s mother ask him to promise that he won’t watch TV for exactly five days? It seems like a pretty arbitrary amount of time to not watch TV. Also, why is it so important to her that he make this promise to her? Why is it such a big deal? If I have a better sense of why this is important, and what’s going to happen to Shamit if he breaks this promise, I’ll have a better idea of the stakes. Or you could tease the reader with something like, "I had no idea that my life would turn upside down just from not watching TV for five days, but oh boy, was I wrong." Something like that. I'm suspecting that something big happens, but it would be fun to be teased about this in advance.

    Another quibble is that in the third paragraph, the language feels a little advanced for MG: “I am prone to acute pangs of guilt.” I don’t mean to line edit, it just didn’t seem to jive with the rest of Shamit’s boisterous, casual language.

    I also wonder if there’s a way that you can have Shamit’s mother extract the no-TV-for-five-days promise from him in a sneaky way when he’s not asleep. Maybe she talks to him while he’s *so* focused on his favorite TV program that he’s so distracted and says sure, Amma, no problem, whatever you want. That way you don’t have to start with the character waking up opening, and the reader gets a sense that Shamit’s TV addiction is kind of a problem, haha.

    I love how Shamit calls his neighbor “Nerdy Nattu.” A great detail. I suspect their relationship will be very engaging and fun to read about.

    Anyway, great voice, great character. I look forward to reading more!

  3. One of the things that first struck me about this was that I thought the voice was too old in the narrative. When you got to the dialog I thought that it fit but at first I did not realize this was middle grade. I would have definitely put it at young adult or higher.

    I don't get the tv thing. Is Shamit being punished? Is it just a deal, or no temple so no tv for five days? This just seems to need a little explanation. I do love the beginning and how it opened with the breaking a promise. I was so intrigued to figure out what that promise was. I also love your description of guilt! Perfect!

    As for the two negative outcomes, I would think that being told on would be huge! Mothers are scary people! I think it is brushed off to easily. Yes, he knew some embarrassing information but what would happen? Would he tell their friends? Would he tattle on Nattu?

    I look forward to reading your revisions. I think that this has the potential to be really funny!


  4. Priya,
    Shamit is a cheeky character, full of personality who seems to have a better time getting in trouble than out of it.

    I was confused about the gender of your MC. I assume it is a boy but am unsure. It would be awesome if Shamit were a girl, the impishness would be a great way to fly in the face of gender stereotypes. I keep hearing how publishers are looking for strong female characters.

    I would reconsider either your genre or vocabulary. The language is far too sophisticated for middle grade and would have them scrabbling for a dictionary within the first few lines - sadist, goad, au contraire, poltergeist.
    Just an aside, from a teaching POV. If the reader finds 5 words on the first page they don't know, they are supposed to choose a new book as that one is above their reading level. I would hate to see that limit your audience.

    There are a few things you might want to revisit.
    1. You say "never say never" but never say never. Not until 5 paragraphs later.
    2. The mother is referred to as Amma and then later as Maaa. Is the former her first name or a term of endearment? It would seem out of character to call her by her first name.
    3. The descriptive response, which is very well written, seems out of character for the mother, who I would expect is soft spoken and lets Shamit rule the house. If you keep it, perhaps, you want to ramp up the exchange and add an actual response.

    Nice job!

    1. Thanks for your inputs Sharyn. Both Amma and Ma are Indian words for Mother. In fact, Ma is a shorter version of Amma.
      I really didn't get your third point. Could you elaborate?

    2. I'd be happy to Priya.
      The mother's voice seems soft-spoken and perhaps, permissive. I wouldn't expect her to raise her voice at all, especially not by decibels. That's the reason for my suggestion of ramping up her response by adding some back and forth between the characters. Then it would seem like her response might be agitated, hence the volume change.
      Hope that helps.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. The voice you’re creating here jumps off the page. You’ve created a lively, imaginative character. I would like to get a sense of place—where does your character live? I love the beginning line and the follow up about promises invented to be broken. I do question the word ‘sadist’ in a middle grade context; it really sticks out to me here. I think you could take out that whole phrase after ‘broken’ and before the next line and you don’t lose any context.

    I think you can pare back the paragraph about the owl; there is a bit too much analyzation that reads like someone older looking back on life. The lines “This, of course, displays overconfidence…” through “I find that to be a reason… could be replaced by more simple lines like; “Of course it wasn’t true, but imagine what fun it would be to turn your head 360 degrees!” It’s the sentiment of taking that warning and showing your character’s vivid imagination minus the wordiness.

    It may be a good idea to cut the lines about guilt and move right into “So one day, when I was at my vulnerable best…” so we get more forward action of the story. The guilt explanation again reads more like an older youth looking back on life rather than a kid right in the middle of experiencing this.

    I also think it would work well to follow the line about knowing whom you’re making promises to with the very strong line to never promise a mother. This is an important statement to set up your conflict, and right now it’s buried with the extra questioning about friends leading up to it. The red alert line is funny, but then it’s followed up by how one learns from mistakes, which goes back again to that feeling of an older teen or an adult dispensing advice. I think you want to keep this more in the moment—the advice to never trust mom is b/c your MC recently got burned by promising no TV. It’s less of having learned life lessons over time and more an age-appropriate emotional reaction.

    I agree with the others to make it clearer why no TV is requested. That punishment/request likely is based on past incidents. You don’t have to give backstory, but at least a little context. I like that the promise is made while half asleep and don’t consider this a story beginning where the character is waking up. This seems to be narrative of an event that already happened and we will catch up to the present at: Day 1.

    Also agree that being told on would have more fear and consequences. Don’t let your character reason and analyze too much—I’m assuming Shamit is only 11 or 12? Fear of parents is still real!

    1. Dear Stephanie,
      Thanks for your feedback. I read my first five pages again after going through your comments and a lot of what you say does ring true. I shall try to work on them and come up with a clearer picture in the revision.
      Thanks again,

  6. Dear Priya,

    Bravo for writing and posting the first five pages of The Promise! I’ll start with the things that worked for me, and then ask any questions I have, that you may (or may not) want to address in your revisions.

    Shamit is a narrator with great personality and voice. We learn right away that he is not a promise keeper, and therefore perhaps not to be trusted. Untrustworthy narrators rock! He’s got strong, funny opinions about promise-making, certainly, and probably life in general. We know what he wants: to sleep, avoid temple, and watch TV. I have a feeling we’re going to see him change in this story and I want to know how that’s going to happen, and what he’s going to get up to. I also enjoyed his methodical reasoning of how to get out of his promise to Amma (a “loophole” with Nerdy Nattu whom he’ll blackmail to prevent ratting him out. Extremely promising!). But I also admire Shamit’s ultimate devotion to his mom and his desire somewhere down deep not to disappoint her. You can break a promise to almost anyone, but NEVER your mom.

    Here are my questions:
    -How old is Shamit? That he watches TV until 4 am, wants to sleep in all day, and even his evasive reasoning and interesting philosophies make him seem more teenaged. Could this be YA?

    -What happens to Shamit if he breaks his promise to Amma? If it’s only that he’ll feel guilty, that may not keep my interest. We all feel guilty if we break a promise. And apparently, he does this a lot.

    But if by breaking a promise to his mom, he’ll lose something important, even precious (physical or emotional or both) then you’ve got me. If she says, “Break one more promise to me, then I’m kicking you out,” then I’m more worried. Show us what the stakes are. I’m already hoping he’s headed for big trouble, will learn something and change. Can you better present this possibility in these opening pages?

    -Along the same lines, is giving up TV for five days a big sacrifice for Shamit? What happens to him if he does this? Seems like it will be good for him!
    I know it’s meant to be humorous, but the challenge holds little tension and doesn’t seem to require much from Shamit. He follows Amma into the garden and then starts planning ways to go watch TV. Maybe you can have more fun with this, like, he MUST watch TV 12 hours every day because…? And blackmailing Nattu could definitely up the stakes.

    -Will this story have some fantasy? Shamit is at home with his mom (right?) and it seems like contemporary YA to me. The info in the paragraph about the elders turning him into an owl was definitely intriguing, but nothing else was mentioned. If more fantasy is coming, you may need to root us more firmly in it, in these opening pages. This is when you set up the rules for the entire story, and a “contract” with the reader: Here’s what you’ll be getting in this novel.
    Good luck with Shamit and your revisions.


    1. Dear Ann,
      Thanks for your detailed feedback.

      Almost everyone here has mentioned that the protagonist seems much older than MG. I wrote the book keeping a 12-13yr old boy in mind, which I guess would be at the higher end of the MG spectrum. So there is a struggle to keep the language relevant to the protagonist while also keeping the youngest MG reader in mind. At the same time, I wouldn't want to go the YA way, because much of what follows in the book does not fit into that mold in terms of maturity of thought and actions.

      The story does not have any element of fantasy in it - it is in fact a slice of life story with wry humor that mainly comes through Shamit's narration. I'm happy everyone has liked the spunk in his voice since that is something that stays through the book - although I'm a bit worried now as I have to change it to suit the age criterion.

      The other points regarding the importance of the promise and what would happen if Shamit were to break it are well taken - I shall try to address them in my revision.

      Thanks again,

    2. One thing that makes Shamit seem older is his intelligence and big vocabulary. "Prone to acute pangs of guilt," "vulnerable best," "precisely the point." Maybe if you simplify some of what he says (without losing his great humor) he'll sound younger. Also, the joke's on me for being mislead by that humor to suspect fantasy! Good luck!

  7. Hi Priya! So much advice has already been delved out, so I'll add my two cents briefly. I'm sure you already have a lot to think about.

    I agree with the others about the voice sounding a bit older than MG at the beginning. Here's a couple examples that made me feel this way as I read: Word choices (sadist mind, goad, desisting, and for that matter) & the sophisticated way she ponders the idea of promises. If this remains MG, don't worry about transforming the sound and feel to a younger age. It can be done, just watch the arrangement of words and words used.

    One thing: Although your opening sentence creates questions that make me want to read on, as I read the next couple paragraphs I didn't feel 'in' your story. I'm not sure where she is, what she's doing, etc... She could be on the moon selling apples for all I know. Actually, I just realized, at this point in reading I don't even know what gender the character is. I think it would breath life into the opening image if you gave the reader a clue as to her surroundings. This would also immediately give the reader details about her and might help clue into her attitude toward promises.

    A place where it begins to feel MGish is when she mentions not making promises to mothers. I can see a middle grader beginning to think about the seriousness of deviating from a promise made to a parent.

    I read Sharyn's #3 and saw you questioned it. I'm not going to speak for her, but for me I had the same observation as she did. The word choices and manner in which her mother spoke doesn't match the 'feel' the reader is already given of the mother prior to her actually speaking. The impression I got from reading before the mother spoke is that she would be soft spoken, really wise, kind, patient, etc... Does that make sense?

    I hope this has help even a little! Thank you for letting me read your work. I'm looking forward to reading your revision.

    1. Thanks SA. This has indeed been helpful. Hope to come up with something that reads much better.