Sunday, June 5, 2016

1st 5 Pages June Workshop - Romero

Name: Gabriela Romero
Genre: YA superhero

I: Silverback Academy

Phil ruined her stay at Silverback Academy on her very first day of school. Being at Silverback was going to be a nightmare, she could see it now, and it was all her fault.

Across her, the principal was saying something, his gnarled hands gesticulating in front of him, but Phil wasn’t listening. Dr. McLaughlin’s left index and middle fingers had an unnatural, petrified look to them, Phil noted, as if they had been sewn on after an accident. She wanted to ask about it, but he was talking about <i>Miss León</i> this and <i>Miss León</i> that.

See, Renata León was the reason Phil was at the principal’s. Renata León was the reason why Silverback sucked.

On her first day Phil had opened her big mouth and had intervened when Renata was bulling Maxie. Back then she had had no idea the type of school Silverback was, nor why everyone let Renata do whatever she pleased, nor what Renata was capable of. Phil had been new and green and unwitting. She had stood up for Maxie, and Renata had been so shocked at Phil’s audacity (really, who was Phil to tell Queen Bully what to do?) that she had stopped. And Phil had had a brief moment of self-satisfaction. She had thought she was capable of stopping a bully.

But she had been wrong. So, so wrong. For Phil now knew Silverback wasn’t exactly the place where one put a stop to things. In actuality, all Phil did was turn Renata’s attention from Maxie to her.

“Philippa, are you listening?” Dr. McLaughlin asked.

“Yes,” Phil lied.

“If I don’t see a ruined phone then I don’t have proof that Miss León did anything,” he added, waving the hand with the petrified fingers.

Phil had come to him to tell him Renata had flushed her iPhone down the toilet. She had come to him well aware that snitching was a dangerous gamble, but she was desperate. She was so sick of Renata. Flushing Phil’s phone had simply been the latest item in Renata’s <i>Making Phil’s Life at Silverback Impossible</i> list. Every day there was something new, like “accidentally” spilling paint over Phil’s canvas in art class, or loudly calling her the daughter of a criminal in the hallways.

Dr. McLaughlin was her dad’s friend, and he had told Phil she could come to him if she needed anything. Well, she needed him to be on her side now, and instead he was telling her this?

“You need to make the peace with Miss León if she’s giving you this much trouble. I can’t intervene.”

Phil bristled. She knew “making the peace” wasn’t going to work. Why even bother? “Fine,” she said, leaving the seat and turning to the door.

“I’m not done, Philippa,” Dr. McLaughlin said while his bushy eyebrows descended in a frown, “Please.”

Phil plopped herself back on the chair, the leather exhaling a <i>poof</i> with her weight.

In literal age Dr. McLaughlin wasn’t too old—he was hardly a few years older than her dad—but he wore the years heavily, his face wrinkled and his droopy nose without a lack of wayward hairs. “Philippa, please try to stay out of trouble.”

“I don’t have a phone anymore ‘cause of her!”

He ignored her. “The teachers tell me they’ve heard the students talk about your family situation; that the students know you are here because of my friendship with your father. If I were to talk to Renata about this phone, she would know you are using my friendship as leverage. Are you talking about your dad?”

“I’m not!”

“Then how do they know?”

Phil looked at the gorilla paperweights on his desk and shrugged. <i>Probably ‘cause gossip flies faster than the speed of light at Silverback</i>, she thought. Instead she said, “Maybe Gwen talks.” Gwen was her identical twin sister, who had been spared from Silverback’s bullies the moment she captivated the heart of the richest and most influential attendee.

“In any case, please try to keep your father’s situation to yourself.”

Phil did. She wasn’t in the business of boasting about it. Coming to Silverback wasn’t her choice. It was the result of her stepmom’s disdain toward public schools and her dad’s recent conviction—the Norwoods’ fall from grace. Her stepmom, Blair, had crowed on and on about how it would be an unforgettable experience, and back then only Gwen had been in agreement. Well, for Phil it already was—but a terrible, awful, hellish, unforgettable experience.

“I don’t tell anybody about my dad,” Phil murmured.

“Good. It’s the sensible thing to—” Dr. McLaughlin was cut short when his nosey secretary swung open the door to the office.

“Dr. McLaughlin, I’ve got Roman here waiting for you,” she said.

Dr. McLaughlin rolled his chair back, saying, “Oh, for goodness’ sake, what does he want now?”

“He says it’s important.”

With a sigh he stood up. A tall man, Dr. McLaughlin’s natural height was beginning to recede under his poor posture. “All right, Philippa, off to class you go.”

Phil was glad for the interruption. She was ushered out to the waiting lobby, where she passed the built, pink-faced man that was the head of security. Roman ignored her as he strolled in to Dr. McLaughlin’s office. The secretary also told her to scram, so Phil walked out to the third floor hallway just as the bell for the end of lunch rang.

From the third story railing Phil could see the stream of students on the ground floor leaving the cafeteria and walking out to the rotunda, where the floor was decorated in a tiled pattern of the garnet and gray school colors. The swelling crowd dispersed to the locker-lined hallways or to the wide, spiraled staircase leading to the second and third stories. The main building was the heart of Silverback, which housed the cafeteria, the administration offices, and most classes.

Despite Silverback being a private boarding school, what it had in snobs, it lacked in prestige. Silverback was the place where distraught, affluent parents sent kids who had long records to their names. It was the last resort school, one which looked past histories of delinquency or bad grades or problematic behavior in exchange for a hefty tuition fee.

Such a fact was reflected everywhere Phil went. From her very first day she sensed the air of anarchy to the school, and it wasn’t long before she experienced it firsthand. Being the new kid was a damnable offense at Silverback, and worse yet, being the new kid who pissed off Renata León was the closest thing to a death sentence. As of today Phil was hated, friendless, and stuck at the bottom of the student food-chain.

Phil’s trip to Dr. McLaughlin’s office had consumed her lunch time, so with an empty stomach she headed to Calculus. Upon walking in, she saw she was the first there.

Her potbellied teacher was swiping the whiteboard clean. Mr. Little turned, saw her, and beamed. “Philippa! How’s your day going?”

She hugged her chest and faked a smile. “It’s alright, I guess. Another day in boarding school.”

Mr. Little chuckled. He had taken a liking to Phil, which was odd at first, until she found out Mr. Little was a college friend of her dad’s, just like Dr. McLaughlin.


  1. I think you have a pretty strong setup here. The first sentence threw me a little bit, as I think I assumed that we would start with Phil's first day at Silverback. I like the sprinkling of intel we get about her dad's friends, and I think you hinted at her dad's status in society nicely, letting us know how it affects Phil but without giving us too much information.

    I feel like we got a lot of characters in these pages. Phil, her mom and dad, her twin, the principal, Maxie, Renata and the math teacher. It made it hard for me to focus on what was important - which seems from the first five pages to be Phil, Renata, and whatever Phil's dad did.

    I'm intrigued to know - is the school a superhero school? Do kids train there to be superheroes? Or is the school a backdrop for the superhero-ness?

    I would also want to know why Phil's dad's situation got them into this school. The way it's described makes it seem to me like it's for kids who have crossed the law. Why is Phil getting penalized for something her father has done? Is she learning any bad habits from others, or is she on the straight and narrow as some form of rebellion? Does the boarding school have particular rules because of the nature of their students?

    Anyway, this seems quite intriguing so far. I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes!

  2. Hi, there! Great start to this character arc. I love how Phil is heroic but also a little whiny. It gives us a sense of her potential while giving her room to grow over the course of the story.

    I was thrown a bit at first by her name. I like the shortening of Philippa to Phil, but because Phil is by default used more often for boys, I thought our narrator was referring to some third person boy who had ruined her situation rather than herself. Maybe using her full name in the first sentence would help? Or maybe adding 'own' after 'her' in that first sentence? Of course, it could just be me that read it wrong, in which case, no need to change it. :-)

    It's so hard to tell in the first five pages what the inciting incident for the story will be. This excerpt seems to be a bit heavy with backstory, and Phil's talking to the principal doesn't seem to gain us much beyond hinting that something's off about Phil's dad. Is there maybe another place you could start the story that's a little more exciting? It could even start in the principal's office as you have it, but maybe have Phil being called there for something Renata accused her of rather than Phil going to snitch? It seems like that would heighten the conflict quite a bit and make us even more sympathetic to Phil while still giving us the same hints about her dad. Personally, I'd love it if Phil had been the one to flush Renata's phone down the toilet in revenge for something Renata had done to her, or because Renata took some compromising photos of Phil and it was a convenient excuse to enjoy a little payback for Renata's actions. Then Phil could be called on the carpet by the principal who sympathizes with Phil but can't really do anything to help her since Phil did in fact break the rules. Switching it up like this makes Phil's personality a little more of a take-care-of-things-yourself type, which then might pave the way for some risky behavior later on in the adventure part of your story.

    On the other hand, if you have story reasons for leaving this scene as is, ignore everything I just said. It's hard to give advice sometimes when all we see is the tip of the iceberg. :-)

    The only other advice I'd give at this point is dial up the specificity by a few notches. You don't describe anyone but the adults, and then only in ways that call out their flaws. There's not a lot of description of Phil's surroundings either. Just a few added sentences that hint at the time of year it is and maybe where the place is located in the first few pages would give us a good sense of grounding in the world. Also, some of the actions are a bit vague. I love the idea of someone flushing someone's phone down the toilet. I gasped when I read it, because I myself couldn't live without my phone! :-O But Phil's vague reference to Renata bullying Maxie didn't really effect me emotionally, which means it fell a bit flat as your "save the cat" moment. It would be nice to actually witness Phil standing up for Maxie (if Maxie and Renata are an important part of the story later on), or at least have a better understanding of what Phil had saved Maxie from. Was it taunting? Or some kind of physical harassment? Or something else? Making it more specific (even just a phrase or two would be sufficient) would give me more of an emotional tug toward Phil. My rule of thumb is be as specific as you can without being boring. That is, name names, dates, places, and even describe them in a word or two, but avoid describing random body movements and passages of time. You're already great at avoiding the boring, but adding some specifics would really make this beginning pop.

    Hope that helps! Great work on this so far!

    1. Hi Mary, thanks for the thoughts :). I really love the idea about Phil flushing the phone! I almost wanna use it but I think I'm going to go back to the drawing board and rework the beginning entirely.

      See, I was using this whole Renata business to lead Phil toward the enticing incident that will propel the story forward. Essentially Phil was going to go through a dare to prove her worth to Renata, so that Renata would leave her alone. I'm taking a different approach in this next rewrite, and I'm eager to see what y'all have to say.

      I'm realizing maybe this opening isn't the best and hopefully the next rewrite will be an improvement.

      Thank you again!

  3. Hi Gabriela!

    Thanks for sharing your work with us – please accept or reject my comments as you see fit.

    First off I wanted to say that Phil’s voice is super strong. I get a lot from these first pages about her personality, and I was wowed by it instantly.

    I think that we need more of an active scene to start things off. We get a lot of internal monologue and description of where she is, a lot of back story, and a lot of characters, but because of that Phil is rather passive (in that she is getting lectured the whole time), I don’t think that is a good way to start off the story. While a great scene, it may not be a great way to hook the reader. Although it’s already been mentioned, I just want to say that it would be great if it was Phil who had flushed Renata’s phone down the toilet (again - more she'd be more active), and to be honest this would actually be a really interesting starting off the novel. Because Phil isn’t active in this scene, and because most of her observations are negative (rightly so, because she’s having a difficult day at a new school), you do run the risk of making your reader unsympathetic to Phil because we don't see her any other way (I do have a lot of questions about her relationship with Renata, which only complicates this). I realize her actions can also be interpreted as the fighter type, but it’s always good to keep in mind a variety of different interpretations.

    I’m really interested in how this boarding school will translate into the superhero genre that you've mentioned. Based on these five pages, I could see it going down the YA contemporary route, or even go in the direction of Rachelle Mead’s VAMPIRE ACADEMY (Phil's voice reminds me of Rose's, now that I think of it). I look forward to reading your query letter which will give me a little bit more of an understanding of this story and how these pages connect.

    Great work, and thanks again.

    Carly Whetter

  4. Hi, Gabriela! I like this a lot. Please feel free to keep or toss my comments!

    I like this mc, and I think her name is top notch. I like that she's Phil in her own head and in the narration, and Philippa to the adults that don't know her. I like her in general, and I too think her current voice allows a lot of room for her character arc. I did feel this read a little young. When I read the first couple paragraphs, I scrolled back up to double check that it was YA and not MG. Maybe this could be fixed with a couple adjustments in word choice? (How old is Phil? Is this younger YA?)

    I think the description of the principal is genius, and I'd love to see that same level of specificity reflected not only in the descriptions of the settings and other characters, but also in Phil's emotions and inner thoughts. Basically, I get a sense that she's downtrodden, but I'm not actually *feeling* any of her frustration and anger and bummed-ness.

    Staying on this track, I'd love to see Renata actually *doing* something heinous to Phil instead of just reading about it happening in the past. I want to hate her as much as Phil seems to hate her. This seems like a lot of setup at this point, but if you could take the same number of pages and show these some of these things actually happening instead of telling us about them happening, I think it would help the reader feel more invested in the story.

    I'm excited to see how this becomes a superhero book! You've definitely set the stage with Phil's innate desire to do the right thing (like standing up to bullies), and I'm pumped to see where it goes.

  5. Hello! I really liked the first sentence as it sets up a promise of telling us what happened on the first day of school (good job!). I’m really intrigued by the concept of the YA superhero and having it set up at an academy is genius. But the second sentence confused me. I would ax “she could see it now” because this is in past tense and having not told us anything about what happened to make Silverback a horrible place, it kind of tells the reader what you established already in the first sentence. OR you could have the second sentence be the very last sentence of your first five pages and change “and it was all her fault” to “it might just be her fault every time.” Something clever, whichever you prefer!
    I really like your descriptions and how you structure your sentences to form the inciting incident of the story, while also giving us a sturdy backbone of the world. I can really tell that you know how to manipulate words to create an artistic image of a story or in a sense, a cinematic feel. I also agree that your mc has a very strong voice (in terms of description and thoughts) and I’m so into that. However, her voice gets lost in the part where Phil is retelling the story of the incident between her and Renata. I think what would make this piece super strong is to keep the first three paragraphs and then dive straight into a flashback scene of Renata strutting up to Maxie and bullying her. (Btw, my personal opinion but I’m not a HUGE fan of girls bullying other girls, unless you plan on unwinding that and creating a beautiful blossoming friendship between the two girls in the end then by all means set IT UP!)
    I like that Phil is heroic and wants to stand up for the underdog. I like the Principal in regards to how he propels Phil to speak up against him, but I feel like much of his dialogue is cliché and very robotic? I’d like for him to have a bit of personality. Having him that one time be annoyed with the prospect of Roman waiting for him was good, and it made me interested about the mask that he puts up.
    I think the best part of this entire text is Phil’s distinct dialogue. The way she speaks indicates that she’s a bit of an outsider and doesn’t talk like most people. That makes her character and the potential of her being a superhero so intriguing! I’m looking forward to seeing how you revise and sharpen this up!

  6. Gabriella! First off congrats on making it into the workshop. It's often difficult to put your work out there in world for everyone to see and I appreciate that you took the opportunity to glean critique.

    Let's talk over positives first. I think you have a great concept here. I love the idea that Phil is going to what I think is a superhero school, although it's hard to tell within the first five pages. It feels like a normal school situation right from the start which can work, but my gut says you should give that piece of information to the reader right away.

    I like Phil's voice. I see potential for growth for her and that's a great thing to start with. She's got family issues, a popular sister, bullying issues, new kid on the block...there's a lot to work with here.

    Okay, onto things that I think can be improved. First...I want you to go through your entire manuscript and cut as many "hads" as you possibly can. This kind of writing is considered "passive writing" which will water down your story and make it less dynamic. There are a few other editing things I see here as well. I'd suggest Googling "drop dead words" and see if you can find a good list to help you through the editing.

    I fell like the first five pages is a lot of backstory and setup. This is needed to fill the reader in on where your character is and where they're going. That said, what if you started the scene with a full blown fist fight with the bully? Like your first could be something like spitting out a tooth, or the taste of blood, or the crunch she hears of a broken nose. Because now your reader immediately is on high alert. And then the bully could tease her about her dad and step-mother, the prissy sister could be standing there with the coolest boy in the school. That way instead of telling your reader all the back story, it's intertwined into the story itself and you're showing them the backstory without them even knowing it.

    I agree that the character comes off as a bit whiny, fragile, self-deprecating. This can work, but she's going to need to find some self-redeeming qualities quickly or you'll lose your audience.

    As a general suggestion, you often only get 5 pages to snag an agent's attention. Make those 5 pages so awesome that they'll ask for the rest. You have an entire novel to tell the backstory so don't waste those precious few pages you have on things that will drag the story down.

    Overall, this a great start to an intriguing story. Keep on writing, keep revising, keep believing in your characters. I can't wait to see more from you!

    1. Hi Wendy! Thanks so much for the help :).

      I really love the suggestions. Starting the story in the middle of a fight would be awesome! Though I do want Phil to sort of grow into the fighter type, you know? Like, at first she is a wimp and that becomes part of her growth.

      I was using the incident with Renata to lead Phil toward the enticing incident that gives her her superpowers, but now I'm realizing I could take a different approach :).

      Silverback isn't a superhero school though. I categorized my story as superhero for the longest time because I had no clue what could be the best genre for it. My book is definitely a YA, but I don't know if it's a sci-fi, urban fantasy (?), fantasy, superhero, or even a contemporary (?).

      So the novel is set in a boarding school in New Jersey in present time and has a strong contemporary feel. That being said, her heat transfer powers and the way they're used have scientific aspects. The story also deals with the use of chemicals and some research on the powers (the research and the boarding school are not related). I wondered if this should fall under a modern-day fantasy (urban fantasy?), because superpowers aren't scientifically possible in our world. And for a long time I thought this was a superhero novel because of the concept of "an event triggering superpowers." But my MC and the people involved in the story aren't heroes. The novel is like the movie Chronicle, and like the video game Life is Strange.

      Do you have any suggestions as to what subgenre it should be?

      Thanks again,

  7. Hi, Gabriela! This was a super fun read. I like Phil and her Buffy-esque "high school is hell" approach to her situation. She's very aware that she's in a tough spot but she's not passively bemoaning her fate. I vote for the reverse phone-flushing, especially if you justify it by indicating that Renata was hassling her. I had a little trouble believing that the principal would say he couldn't intervene, especially if he's a friend of Phil's father's. It would seem to me that he would at least offload this onto the vice principal.

    I agree that there's a lot of backstory to this--what about starting with that momentous occasion when the phone gets flushed? You could show the two girls in a standoff--a sort of "you wouldn't dare!" moment--and then it actually happens. It could be a shocking moment for the reader, too. This will give the story a lot of charge at the very beginning, sending it zooming through some world building and character development. As it stands now, I did have a bit of trouble getting acquainted with all the characters who appeared, and there was a lot of explanation that you could dramatize. For example, as Renata and Phil square off, Renata could say something about Phil's dad that just caps it.

    It's your story, of course, and I don't mean to rewrite it. You've built in some excellent opportunities to write some high-energy scenes that will engage a reader and keep them turning the pages.

    I'm looking forward to your revision. Go, Phil, go!