Sunday, September 11, 2016

1st 5 Pages September Workshop - McMahon Rev 1

Name: Kathie McMahon
Genre: Middle Grade Contemporary
Title: Road Trip With Crazy Grandma

"The crack of a whip, a cloud of dust, and the gun flew out of the robber’s hands. Indiana Jones spun around just in time to . . ."

“Nate?” A tired voice drifted up the stairs. “Dinner’s almost ready and you need to set the table.”

No “please.” Just do it. I sighed and placed my bookmark in my Raiders of the Lost Ark book for later.

My eyes focused on the picture of my mom on my nightstand. It was the first thing I saw every morning when I woke up, and the last thing I gazed at when I turned out the light at night. It was hard to believe she had been gone almost two years now.

“Nate!” Dad’s voice got louder, with more of an edge to it. The kind of parental tone that makes you jump.

“Coming!” I gave Mom one last glance and bolted down the stairs.

Smells of garlic filled the kitchen. Dad stood at the stove and stirred his prize-winning spaghetti sauce, my favorite. He hadn’t fixed that since my birthday last summer. He makes it with fresh tomatoes, basil and oregano from Mom’s garden. Grandma Lou taught me how to keep it going since Mom died. I don’t much like the weeding part, but planting the seeds and watching them grow makes me feel closer to Mom.

“What’s up?” I asked, as I got the silverware out of the drawer. “A special occasion?”

“What do you mean?” replied Dad, without looking up from the pot of steaming sauce.

“You haven’t made spaghetti in forever,” I answered.

“I just had a craving for it,” Dad said. He struggled with the pasta like it was a huge ball of twine as he scooped it onto two plates. I winced as he ladled the sauce sloppily onto each pile of noodles. I would have to get a separate bowl for my salad and ranch dressing. I hate it when different foods touch each other.

“There,” Dad said as he plunked both plates down on the table. “Grab the salad and napkins and we’re good to go.”

I slid the chair out and carefully laid the napkin on my lap. Sprinkling some parmesan cheese on top of my spaghetti, I was just about to dig in when I noticed Dad staring at me. “What?” I asked, my fork stopped mid-air.

“There’s something I want to talk to you about, Nate,” Dad said.

Uh oh, this can’t be good. Parents never start a sentence that way when they’re planning on taking you to Disneyland or buying you a cool video game. They only want to “talk” when there’s bad news, like a phone call from your teacher, or the movie you can’t go see, or . . . someone is sick.

“What’s wrong?” My stomach lurched at the thought that Dad might be sick, or maybe something had happened to Grandpa Don or Grandma Lou.

“Nothing’s wrong, Nate, really.” Dad tried to force a smile. “We need to talk about what you’re going to be doing this summer until I get my vacation in July.”

“I think I’m old enough to stay home alone this year.” I grabbed my fork and started swirling my spaghetti around the tip, careful not to splash any sauce on my clean shirt.

“I know that’s what you want to do,” Dad said, “but I’m afraid that’s not an option.”

I slammed my fork down a little harder than I meant to, spaghetti sauce spilling over onto the tablecloth. “That’s not fair!  Lots of the guys can stay home anytime they want to.  I’m the only one that can’t!” I didn’t really know that because I hadn’t gone over to any friend’s house much since Mom died.

“What would you do if you stayed home?” Dad asked, as he poured dressing on his salad.

My brain searched for something that would convince him.  I didn’t dare tell him that all I wanted to do was read my books and watch Discovery Channel. But he would never believe me if I rattled off a bunch of chores I’d do.

“I’m almost eleven,” I mumbled, feeling defeated. “But I’ll tell you one thing, I’m NOT going to Boy Scout Camp again!”

Dad tilted his head to one side and frowned. “I thought you had fun at camp last year. You created an awesome leather cover for your sketch book and Grandma Lou loved the birdhouse you made for her in the craft cabin.”

I had told Dad about the crafts and the fossil hunt and a few other things that I did at camp, but I didn’t tell him about the bad things, like throwing up while horseback riding and almost drowning in the creek.  And I definitely didn’t say anything about the bully Oliver.

“It’s too late to sign you up anyway,” Dad said. “About the only thing left is Kids Kamp.”

“No!” I jumped up from the table, causing my glass of milk to wobble back and forth and splash onto the placemat. “All the kids are younger than me and they play a bunch of baby games. I want to stay home and read my books and build things with my Legos and stuff like that. If Mom were here, she would trust me enough to let me stay here alone!”

“That’s enough, young man. Sit down.” Dad bit his bottom lip and I could see redness creeping up his neck, which happens when he’s about to explode in anger. Something that seemed to be happening a lot more lately. I took my seat, careful not to spill anything else.

“It’s not a matter of trust, Nate,” Dad looked me in the eye.  “Your mom was a teacher, so she had the summers to spend time with you. I wish I had her schedule, but I don’t. I would like to take you to the museum, go bike riding to the park, have picnics and make movies with the video camera like she did. But I can’t.”

Dad sat up a little straighter. “So I have another suggestion,” he said. “How would you like to go on a road trip with Grandma Lou?”

I nearly choked on a piece of lettuce. “But, Dad, Grandma Lou is CRAZY!  I mean, I love her and everything, but most grandmas bake cookies and take their grandkids to the museum. How many grandmas do you know that see how many marshmallows they can stuff in their mouths and dress up like Elvis Presley?” My memory drifted back to Grandma Lou lip-syncing You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog at the Parent Night talent show.

Dad chuckled. “Nate, your grandma may be a little unusual, but she really wants to take you on this trip. Who knows what exciting adventures you’ll have?”

I visualized myself hanging from a cliff, Grandma Lou reaching out to grab me before I plummeted to the ground below. The phone rang and snapped me back into reality.

“Hi, Lou,” Dad answered it on the first ring. “Not yet, we’re discussing it right now. Okay, we’ll see you in a bit.”

“You’ve already talked to her about it?” I yelled. “Before you even asked me?”

Dad concentrated on cutting a meatball.  “It’s Grandma’s idea. She thought this would be a good experience for you to get away from the house and all the . . . reminders of summers with your mom. She’s bringing over something to show you.”


  1. Hello again, Kathie! I am again highly pleased with these first 5 pages. I think you have a fantastic voice for Middle Grade. If you have done a lot of research and reading into Middle Grade, it shows.

    As for this revision, I have concerns about your opening line, mainly because it is in quotation marks. Is this a direct quote from a book? If not, I would maybe paraphrase it, OR write something with an original character, someone like Indiana Jones who has similar adventures. I like opening on an action scene, even one being enjoyed in the mind of a main character, but you can put me more into Nate’s mind by showing me something original, especially if Indiana Jones is a character he identifies with/ aspires to. So if Nate ends up dangling off a cliff six chapters down the road, and says it’s just like “so and so in Traders on the River Nile” the reader can say, “Oh, those are the books he likes. This was mentioned in the first chapter.”

    I hope that makes sense. I don’t get that Nate has a thirst for adventure, but if he does or eventually does, a little foreshadowing can go a long way.

    The “no please, just do it.” Interrupts the flow just a little. If Nate is annoyed by the order rather than ask, show it. Is Dad normally this abrupt? Or is tonight different?

    “Almost two years now.” Is this time frame significant? If not, shorten it. I only question it because this means that a summer has already passed since the mother passed away. Was that last summer significant? What makes this summer different, as in, why is the road trip with Crazy Grandma happening this summer rather than last?

    “Smells of garlic.” I would use “the scent of garlic.” Only because Garlic only one scent and it smells amazing in homemade sauce and maybe I’m craving spaghetti?

    “He makes it” watch your tense. “He made it with fresh tomatoes, etc.”

  2. You’ve brought Grandma Lou in early! Very good! This shows that Nate has a pre-existing relationship with Grandma Lou- she taught him how to tend a garden. Nate has used to garden as a way to remember his mother. Wonderful.

    “replied Dad” and the following line: “I answered.” These mean the same. They are talking at each other as opposed to with, which is fine, but it doesn’t fit here. Plus, Dad asked a question. Nate can answer or reply. It’s important to vary dialogue tags, but not too much. Or: in three lines, a character has asked, replied, and answered. How can you make this flow better?

    “I just had” vs. “I had.” Just isn’t needed. If you’re sweating word count, look consider words that don’t add to a sentence.

    Another thought: consider how people actually speak to one another. I know that in writing it is easy to want to get it all down right and proper, but usually, people don’t use a person’s first name unless they are specifically addressing them in a “Hey, YOU!” way.


    “There’s something I want to talk to you about Nate,” Dad said,


    “Nate, there is something I want to talk to you about.”

    Or take the Nate out completely. Dad is specifically addressing Nate. The reader can infer this.

    “I think I am older enough to stay at home alone this year….” And all that follows. This gives me a clearer picture of Nate. Well done. Also- I get the impression that he is very mature and wise for his age. He doesn’t want to make a mess; in the next paragraph, he does make a small mess. It shows me who he is and what he values.

    “But I’ll tell you one thing…” again, with how people actually talk. “I am NOT going to Boy Scout camp!” packs a bigger punch.

    “throwing up while horseback riding and almost drowning in the creek.” Try an “Or” rather than “And”? Boy Scout camp was rough. Got it.

    “If Mom were here…” I like this. Very good with showing a source of conflict.

    “Something that seemed to be happening a lot more lately.” But it’s been two years. Why is Dad getting snappish now?

    You’ve shown me more of Grandma Lou’s character which I am happy with, and I want to know what she is bringing over. I also have a clearer picture of how summers used to be, when Mom was still alive.

    So all in all, awesome. I am aware of the conflict: Nate is being sent on a road trip with Grandma Lou, one he doesn’t want to go on. I am aware of who Nate is and Grandma Lou as well. With my limited experience with reading middle grade, I do believe this is a story that would resonate with young readers. I think that kids experience grief differently than adults, and that a novel that explores this process is necessary. There is a novel that you may want to check out that involves a family preparing for the loss of a grandmother and some end of life issues, but the title escapes me at the moment. I am all about “death positivity” and the power of mourning as a way to heal and there are avenues you can look into for research. Caitlin Doughty has a YouTube channel devoted to information regarding death and dying and has a video devoted specifically to talking with children about death. I am not sure how much research you have done, but it’s nice to have some random novel related knowledge in your back pocket.

    Well done with the revisions!

  3. Hey Kathie

    This is a story I would really enjoy. I love road trips and crazy characters. I believe there are definitely kids out there would like this.

    And I definitely l loved this: “Dad sat up a little straighter. “So I have another suggestion,” he said. “How would you like to go on a road trip with Grandma Lou?” I nearly choked on a piece of lettuce. “But, Dad, Grandma Lou is CRAZY!”

    Love it! I would read Klingon to get to that exchange. I was a willingly reader at the outset but when I read this I became your partner. You set the table for this moment nicely, I wonder if you can set it more quickly because, once we get here, I can’t stop reading.

    I like your visual descriptions. As a reader I am connecting the dots to create an image of this first scene. Here’s what I mean-My eyes focused on the picture. . .Smells of garlic fille . . .I slammed my fork. . . I jumped up from the table. . . Dad bit his bottom lip. . . .
    Great stuff.

    Here’s one I really liked and why. Dad concentrated on cutting a meatball. You just left me with the image and me thinking, “how much concentration does it take, dad must be thinking and distracted.” You allowed me to create in my mind why dad was distracted. The comment I’m meandering toward is to trust your descriptions. One example. Dad bit his bottom lip and I could see redness creeping up his neck, which happens when he’s about to explode in anger. As a reader I’m very happy with, “Dad bit his bottom lip and I could see redness creeping up his neck.” As a reader I would enjoy adding all the connotations of this description myself.

    I like the balance between dialogue and narrative. Vut for me, the child narrative has some adult sounds in it and doesn’t contrast with the adult dialogue as much as I would prefer. I’m not sure this is the best example, but it’s an easy one: “What’s up?” I asked, as I got the silverware out of the drawer. “A special occasion?” I find “What’s up?” I asked, as I got the silverware out of the drawer. Dropping the “A special occasion?” more satisfying. The “A special occasion?” sounds like the father responding to the child instead of other way around. You have been very thoughtful in crafting this opening so you can no doubt figure it out, but that’s my impression of the dialogue.

    About expectations–I’m ready to rock and roll with Grandma. You have also set an expectation with the first sentence about the books the child reads. I think this is a GREAT idea because I think kids that read your book will definitely relate to a character that likes to read. And so far, the book Nate is reading matches his character. But, I expected a reference of some kind to a book character after the opening. One might make the opening even more compelling. It might should happen sooner, but by way of example, “I visualized myself hanging from a cliff, Grandma Lou snapping down her Indiana Jones whip for me to grab before I plummeted into nest of poisonous snakes below. The phone rang and snapped me back into reality.” Its also a very nice moment (as you wrote it), a Walter Mitty moment I enjoyed. I could see this being part of Nate’s character.

    I am sympathetic toward Nate, but I lost a little sympathy after a couple of his outbursts–they came across a little bratty to me. Don’t change it if that is what you aiming for. Example “That’s not fair! . . .” might come off better-“I slammed my fork down a little harder than I meant to, spaghetti sauce spilling over onto the tablecloth. ‘Lots of the guys can stay home anytime they want to. . .’” I get it when he slams his fork, and as a reader I’m ok with that shocked response. But the words "That’s not fair" doubled down and left me with the “bratty” feeling.

    I enjoyed this very much. You have me ready to hop in the car with grandma and poor Nate, I am sympathetic toward Nate and anxious and excited to see how his summer comes out.

    I appreciate you reading my comments. I enjoyed trying to contribute.


    1. A question I have for you and others who say Nate sounds too mature. Help me figure this out. When I try to make him sound like a typical almost 11-year-old in saying "That's not fair!" (I can't tell you how many times I heard that in my 5th grade classroom), you say it sounds bratty. Others have said that Nate not liking his food to touch and wanting to keep his shirt clean of spaghetti sauce is a sign of maturity, where I see it as being a picky eater and rather OCD-ish. So I need help in keeping Nate's voice consistent. He's dealing with his mom being gone and tension with Dad. So exactly how should he sound?

    2. Kathie that's a great question. Just me, the "That's not fair" bratty issue is separate from the "mature" issue.

      The "That's not fair" at that moment just seemed a little strong, but maybe that's the way you want Nate to sound, bratty or not. Like I said, don't change it if you are getting what you want.

      I hesitate to be too specific because when readers re-write (me in this case) it's usually a disaster, but you deserve an answer so here goes - the specifics are just examples.

      I think Nate in some cases sounds too mature when he elaborates on his first impulse - example: “I’m almost eleven,” I mumbled, feeling defeated. “But I’ll tell you one thing, I’m NOT going to Boy Scout Camp again!” The "I'll tell you one thing" seemed mature and takes the argument further than I would expect a child to. I would consider ending after "defeated."

      Here's another try: “But, Dad, Grandma Lou is CRAZY! I mean, I love her and everything, but most grandmas bake cookies and take their grandkids to the museum. How many grandmas do you know that see how many marshmallows they can stuff in their mouths and dress up like Elvis Presley?” I would consider stopping after "crazy."

      Here's one I mentioned tn the comments above: “What’s up?” I asked, as I got the silverware out of the drawer. “A special occasion?” I find “'What’s up?' I asked, as I got the silverware out of the drawer.'" and dropping the “A special occasion?” more satisfying. The “A special occasion?” sounds to me like an adult responding.

      A second thing, a couple of those statements seemed like an adult might say them. An example: “I think I’m old enough to stay home alone this year.” I might expect Nate to say "I can just stay home." or maybe "I can just stay home. All the other guys do."

      Like I said, beware others writing what they think you should write, especially me. And I'm big proponent of not imitating actual speech in dialogue. It has to be stylized to forward the characters and story, so it's pretty subjective sometimes.

      About the food thing and clean shirt, I didn't even think about it - I just took that as Nate's character and personality, so, actually, great job coming up with it. It does not necessarily show childishness or maturity to me, it just shows Nate. I just found it very, very effective. It fit in. I should have mentioned I really liked it because it helps Nate pop off the page. I've known children that seemed obsessed with their food not touching and laughed because it was just like a particular grandparent (a well adjusted brilliant grandparent.) If there is some reason for these mini-obsessions, Nate will reveal it during the story. If it's just Nate being Nate - a boy, I'll enjoy Nate being Nate as we see these things throughout the book. In my opinion I would definitely just keep doing the no touching food and clean shirt thing without any worry. (If readers start psycho-analyzing poor Nate he really will need a road trip.)

      Kathie I hope that helps explain where I'm coming from. Again, I really like the story and as a reader I'm all in with it.


  4. Hi Kathie,

    Nice job with the revisions. This version definitely gives us the thrust of the story more quickly. Nate is going to have to spend the summer with his crazy grandma. Nice setup for the story to come.

    A few things to focus on:
    -- I think you should probably lose the Indiana Jones opening. It's that type of false opening (often a dream or passage in a book) that can, I think, be off-putting for readers -- at least it is for me. Especially when it doesn't help move the story forward.

    -- I still think you might be able to tighten up the beginning more. I know having to cut your carefully crafted prose is like killing your babies, but sometimes it's the best thing you can do for your book. If it were me, I'd probably start the book here (with a little reworking, of course): "I was just about to dig in when I noticed Dad staring at me. “What?” I asked, my fork stopped mid-air.
    “There’s something I want to talk to you about, Nate,” Dad said."

    -- By cutting some of the front matter, you can up the proportion of conflict in those first five pages. Walking down stairs, setting the table, talking about spaghetti... it's a lot of real estate devoted to very little story development. The conflict about summer plans, on the other hand, has punch and grabs the reader. The more you can blow that out and the more you can help us understand the horror of spending the summer with Lou in these first five pages, the more likely you'll be to grab your reader right away.

    -- I'd love to see Grandma Lou's eccentricities be a little more... well, eccentric. Stuffing marshmallows into her mouth seems like it's not quite out there enough. Being an Elvis impersonator is awesome, but my concern is that 8- to 12-year-old kids may not have any idea who he is. And they probably won't know Hound Dog either. Is there someone Lou can impersonate that kids would be more likely to know so that they can conjure up a mental image of an elderly lady doing some ridiculous? Frankly, I'm on the fence about this because I personally love the image of her as an Elvis impersonator -- but if kids don't get it, the joke is lost. Something to think about.

    Those are my thoughts. But I want to reiterate that you should feel good about where you've taken this. You've made some really good changes. I'm excited to see the next round!

    All best,
    Rob, 1st 5 Pages mentor

  5. Hi Kathie – this revision is really (really) good, I think you’ve fixed a lot of the issues I had with it last time and it has good pace and flows well.

    The easing off in the ‘info dump’ about the mom’s death (removing the reference to the big C) is much better. Now I’m left wondering what happened: ‘It was hard to believe she had been gone almost two years now.’ And I’m not too bogged down in the misery of him losing his mom. (Sniff)

    I’m also excited about the road trip with Grandma Lou – wacky grandparents are a great source of comedy and I’m sure you’ve got plenty planned… I already love the image of her Elvis moment: ‘My memory drifted back to Grandma Lou lip-syncing You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog at the Parent Night talent show.’ Hilarious.

    One detail that jarred a little was – ‘The kind of parental tone that makes you jump.’ Because I still think that Nate’s voice is sometimes too mature for a 10 year old. This might read better without the word ‘parental’ – paring it back may help make the tone of your writing less adult. I don’t think most 10 year olds would use phrases like ‘parental tone.’

    I love the opening image and the setting up of a good old fashioned adventure. I wonder how current Indiana Jones is though? And I think that the suggestion of a made-up adventurer is a good one - as it will also make this piece more timeless. Finally, I would suggest - you could add another sentence to the description because the sudden change in setting to Nate’s bedroom feels rushed. And because I was enjoying it the whip cracking and the cloud of dust.

    I look forward to next week’s revision. The course is going too quickly! I’d like to see where your story goes in the next chapter.

  6. Love the daydream in the beginning. So many kids can relate. I can relate!

    One thing that struck me a slightly awkward in the beginning - both in this reading and the first reading - is the No "Please" line. It sounds to me, at first, like the protagonist is saying "No, please." I don't get right away that he's commenting that there was no "Please" despite the quotation marks. Maybe it's me. I'm just relating what I, as a reader, feel.

    I think I agree with one previous poster, though, that the fantasy scene in the beginning might be off-putting. Maybe you could begin with Dad's tired voice and then the narrator mentions the Indiana Jones story that he's forced to put aside? I dont know - it's your story and I wouldn't write it for you. I just like the face that he's buried in fantasy because his home is sad - loss of the mother and all that - and I like that idea. But I agree it might be a bit contrived?

    The scene with the spaghetti has a nice nuance to it: the idea that the narrator needs his food separated out gives me the kind of detail that I need to create a picture of him in my head. Nice job there.

    Glad to see Grandma Lou introduced much earlier. Maybe something more anecdotal to SHOW us she's "crazy"? Something about the garden perhaps? If I can SEE she's crazy from a quick anecdote, it makes the prospect of spending time with her on a long road trip much more vivid.

    One thing that doesn't come across this early in the story is the father's character. So far he's a bit vague. Can there be something mentioned that makes his character pop out more? I think he gets a bit irritable when he mentions Kids Kamp and the narrator explodes. If it's clear that the father never means to send him to Kids Kamp anyway, why would he mention it? And why would he become so angry at the narrator's reaction? Perhaps this would be a good chance to flesh out the father a bit more?

    My last thought is this: I really want to enjoy the dialogue at the dinner table. I want more time taken with it. I want these tensions and conflicts and character flaws/strengths to come out in their interaction.

  7. Hi Kathie,

    This is Mackenzi Lee, commenting under my real name, don't tell anyone my secret identity!

    So I'm obsessed with the title of this book. So funny, and definitely caught my attention before I had even begun. And the set up is definitely in the title--I'm so excited about this premise. Totally the sort of book I would read and I'm really curious to see what sort of zany adventures Nate and Grandma Lou are going to get up to.

    The voice to me seems a little labored. I can feel you as the adult author behind this (almost) eleven year old. Trust the voice to not have to work as hard as you think it needs to. You don't have to throw quite so much weight into trying to sound like a young man. Trust Nate, and ease up a little.

    Some of the exposition is a little forced as well. The picture of the picture of mom felt a bit like a trite detail, especially when you bring her death in so well a few paragraphs later. There were times dad and Nate were both saying things that didn't feel organic for them to be saying to each other--they felt mostly there for the ease of the read (I particularly noticed it at the part where they're talking about scout camp).

    I had a similar concern as one of the commenters above about your first line. It's strange to start with a quotation from a book--it almost feels like a false start. Even though it's in quotes and is very brief, for a minute, this feels like its' going to be an Indiana Jones adventure novel :) I think you can definitely set up Nate's love for adventure and reading without having a direct quote from the book to start on. Try to find a line that's going to entice your readers to want to know more about Nate, not about the book he's reading.

    Good luck!

  8. Hi Kathie,

    Thanks for sharing your revision with us.

    I am still not convinced that your story should start with this scene. For me, it doesn't pass the first page test. The situation isn't compelling, and the voice doesn't give me a reason to read on. I say that because I DO think you can write a solid middle grade voice, and I would like to see you explore options for your opening. Read the first page of your favorite middle grades, and see what kind of hooks they use. We don't have a hook here. The reader needs to feel like they HAVE to know what's going to happen next! Right now, we're just waiting for the story to get started.

    How about opening the scene with Grandma Lou present? We would immediately see the conflict between these two characters, and then the chapter could end with the news that they're spending the whole summer together. That way, you could show us how they clash instead of telling us second hand. It would be a compelling scene and build up. Food for thought!

    I'll also reiterate my feedback on the use of the word "crazy." This word, used in a derogatory context, is offensive to people with mental illness. I would consider using a different word, or perhaps taking the time to read up on disability in kidlit so that you see the same concerns that I do.

    Melanie Conklin
    First Five mentor