Saturday, January 7, 2017

1st 5 Pages January Workshop - Bowles

Name: Emily Bowles
Genre: Middle-grade fantasy
Title: Starloom, Spindle

Chapter 1Sam’s Secret Code

“Sam, dinner!” Her mom’s voice echoed through the duplex, a loud reminder of how empty the house was without their furniture—and without Sam’s father, who had left them exactly 37 days ago.

Not that Sam was counting, but…well…numbers meant more to her right now than the words her friends used when they talked in the cafeteria or at recess.  

Sam loved math.  She liked the way numbers felt real and heavy.  They settled her in a way that nothing else could.  Sometimes, she didn’t know how to respond to people when they talked to her.  She’d hear them say hello, but her mind was miles away, trying to work through computations that she could see, numbers floating right beneath the surface in a way that seemed to make sense of things.  

Sometimes she felt like there were voices telling her how to weave letters and numbers together, voices that almost sang in her mind.  The voices hummed, faster and faster as she worked, and they slowed when she reached points that were difficult, places in the code where she was losing the pattern, where meaning and intelligibility defied her.  

In fourth grade, she’d tried to explain that to one of her friends.  When her teacher overheard, he took her aside.  “Sam,” he had said, “I think you’d really be great at coding.”  

Coding was something that she’d heard older boys talking about at lunch.  It seemed like a secret world, where punctuation marks and words meant—simultaneously—more and less to them than they did to other people.  

When Mr. Cleary said that to her, she felt like she was being invited into a world where she might just fit in.  

Girls who liked math more than they liked cheerleading or pageants didn’t really have a place in Roanoke.  At least, not in the suburbs where Sam had always lived.  Even in elementary school, she stood out like a sore thumb when she didn’t remember to wear school colors for pep rallies—and where she was the only girl in her class who had no clue about who the next Miss Summitridge High would be.   

Of course, it didn’t help that her older sister Bethany had been Miss Summitridge High her junior and senior years, or that her mother’s dress shop was the sole supplier of the gowns, Belle’s Boutique.  

Sometimes Sam talked on the phone to her grandmother after school and tried to explain how out of place she felt.  When she was little, her grandmother visited a lot.  She’d take the train all the way from the condo she lived in down in Florida so she could spend a few days with Sam’s family.  Even as her eyes deteriorated and she began to struggle with cataracts, her grandmother stayed independent.  She loved spending time with them in Roanoke, and she always came a few weeks before pageants so she could help Sam’s mom out.  

It had been about two years ago when her visits became farther and farther apart.  Young as she’d been, Sam realized something was wrong.  When Iris failed to come up before the big pageant, Sam had to ask her mother what was the matter.  Bethany knew better than to ask.  She was the type of girl who only asked questions she thought her parents wanted her to ask—not the questions they were avoiding.  

Her mom couldn’t avoid it when Sam asked where their grandma was.

“Well, she’s been struggling for a long time now,” Liz paused, trying to put together the right words for her daughter.  “Her doctors thought cataract surgery might change things, but it just delayed the inevitable.  She’s lost her vision.”  

Sam’s brain twisted and turned the words around.  At school, she’d studied mystics and visionaries.  Was her grandmother one?  And if so, why did she lose that?  

She stared into space for a few minutes before it clicked.  

Her grandmother had gone blind.  

“How will she sew?” Sam’s voice came out more like a scream than she’d intended it to, but she couldn’t help it.  Her grandmother’s whole life, her whole identity, hinged on her sight.  Even after retiring from her job at a fine yarn store where tourists bought expensive, hand-dyed yarns and handmade accessories that somehow managed to be beachy souvenirs even though they were made of silk or acrylic fibers (rarely did she knit with wool), Iris spent hours sewing and knitting.  She created gifts for the family, and she poured herself into her work.  She could talk for hours as long as she held a ball of yarn and some needles in her lap.  

Sam didn’t know how many times her grandmother had tried to teach her simple stitches—or how many times she’d dropped them in frustration before returning to her keyboard.       

For the past two years, coding had helped Sam find a way of expressing herself without having to say a word.  Sometimes she wondered if her grandmother felt the same way about thread and yarn as she did about coding.  She didn’t understand it well enough to know for sure, but she had seen her grandmother’s face when she fixed a dropped stitch and recognized it as the face she made when she realized where she’d added an extra bracket that temporarily ruined her code.  

She really needed that, since the people who listened to her drove her crazy—and the people she wanted to talk to rarely had time for anything other than preparing for the pageant.    

Somehow, the square brackets and computational thinking processes helped her reduce her life to order.  Plus, she was building things through code that she could hardly even imagine in the real world.  

Things her mother would definitely throw away in one of her cleaning fits—which exponentially multiplied after they moved into the duplex on Chimney Lane.   

Sam’s mom had never had much patience for clutter. Her aesthetic was streamlined at home, maybe because she spent her day surrounded by sequins and fake flowers.  She hated extraneous objects and sometimes seemed like she was sending clothes to Goodwill while Sam still had them on her body.  

Kind of the opposite of Sam’s father, who kept books and loose papers piled high in every possible shelf and drawer.  Sam felt like him sometimes.  Other days, she wanted to take a match to the notebooks she’d hidden under her bed and start over.  

Over the past few days, she’d been working through a project Mr. Cleary had given her.  It was the toughest assignment she’d ever had.  

She’d come home from school every day, grab a glass of milk, and head straight upstairs, where she’d add and subtract, trying to redesign the code so she could map out what looked like a rainbow spider web, radiating endless loops.  

Each day, she felt like she was building something bolder and brighter.  She was proud of herself. She was almost ready to show Mr. Cleary.  

Just a few finishing touches, and she knew she’d have something polished enough that she might be able to try out for the Computing Olympiad this year.  


  1. I'm going to focus on one comment here because it's a big one. With the exception of the first paragraph, this entire excerpt is backstory. While backstory is great, you need to weave it through the action of the main story. It's like a spice. We want a tiny bit sprinkled throughout and not a big dump of it. What you have here is great, but we need maybe a couple paragraphs of it in 5 pages. The rest will have to come later when we are grounding in the story.

    Also (and this is a small thing) when you write in past tense, your past past stuff has to be conjugated accordingly. For example, that sentence would be, "Her mom hadn't been able to avoid it when Sam had asked where [her] grandma was."

    Good luck!

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  3. Hi Emily,

    I love Sam’s into coding! Yay for girls in STEM fields!

    But for me, I disconnect almost immediately because we jump into summary and then flashback. I want to stay more immediately with Sam in the first 5 pages, in a scene. To me, this is the wrong place to start: we need to start in the moment everything changes for Sam.

    I love little moments like this:

    At school, she’d studied mystics and visionaries. Was her grandmother one? And if so, why did she lose that?

    She stared into space for a few minutes before it clicked.

    Her grandmother had gone blind.

    They really show me who Sam is, and inject a little humour into the opening pages!

    And once we get to Computing Olympiad, I have an idea where the story is going to go! But that’s the last line. I want to be hooked from line 1!

    Looking forward to seeing your revision!


  4. Hi Emily, thanks for submitting your pages.

    I think that one of the hardest things for a writer to grasp is a natural sense of rhythm—the way the words flow on the page and entice readers to keep turning pages.

    You’ve got that here. You are definitely a writer with a great voice and nice rhythm to your prose.

    Your first paragraph is great. It immediately tells us where Sam is and a bit about her family life: that the house is empty, that her dad is gone, and that 37 days have passed—a nod to her joy of numbers.

    I like her already. Everything about this is great. I just have two suggestions:
    The voice is good for MG, but be careful. Don’t drift into too much introspection. That feels more YA.

    The other comment: There may be a little too much exposition on your last few pages. It’s all good info—Mr. Cleary, her grandmother, the stuff about her sister, but we need to spread this out a little.

    Let’s learn some of this stuff through scenes. Maybe write a scene with Sam and her sister, so we get to see what she is like instead of Sam telling us. What I’m saying is that we need to intersperse action and dialogue with the narrative backstory so it doesn’t’ feel like a whole lot of Telling.

    Other than that, I think this is really great, and I’m looking forward to seeing it again. You’ve got a good command of language.

    Oh, the only grammatical thing I would suggest is making your first line its own paragraph:


    “Sam, dinner!”

    Her mom’s voice echoed through the duplex, a loud reminder of how empty the house was without their furniture—and without Sam’s father, who had left them exactly 37 days ago.

  5. Sam sounds like a girl that readers will really enjoy. I like the STEM/coding angle and the concern for her grandmother. I also like that I know what she's about. She feels comfortable with numbers and uncomfortable with frilly dresses and beauty pageants.

    I wonder if you can fit this background on Sam in with a little more action and dialogue, to give her a little more purpose in this scene, which is heavy on internals and backstory. Could she be working on that project for her teacher, maybe puzzling out how to fix a problem with the code. And could you turn a few things into dialogue, such as:

    "Sam didn’t know how many times her grandmother had tried to teach her simple stitches—or how many times she’d dropped them in frustration before returning to her keyboard. "

    Turn this into a light of dialogue from grandma, maybe. What would grandma's advice be on the simple stitches?

    I think this is a strong start but agree that it's backstory heavy right now. But with some subtle changes you can keep the depth of character you show of Sam and have her a bit more active.

    I'm looking forward to reading again next week!

  6. Hi Emily. I have to agree with what the other commenters are saying. The pages are kind of an info-dump. You're telling me back story (the details of which I like), but I'd rather you show them to me instead of spout them like you're running down a checklist. Sam's mom calling her for dinner seems inconsequential, as if any piece of dialogue would have led to the exact same paragraphs. Otherwise, I like your main character, love that she's a wiz at coding and think there's a great family dynamic here.

  7. These comments are a huge help. Thanks, everyone.

  8. Hi Emily,

    Thanks for sharing! I love that Sam is interested in coding. We need more protagonists like this!

    However, I do have to echo the other comments. These pages are all backstory. Good stuff, but I think you need to work on weaving this information in organically. When Sam's mom calls for dinner, instead of jumping into all this backstory about Sam, perhaps show her working on the computer? Being infuriated that her mom is interrupting her? Don't tell, show show show!

    I did like the information about the grandma going blind, but I'm not sure what it has to do with the rest of the chapter. I'm not sure where this story is going, but the grandma tidbit felt a little irrelevant at this point.

    And to get the story rolling, I'd like to see a little more of Sam's motivations. Not her giant goal, necessarily, but what does she want? What is she doing to work toward that goal? Why should we care if she achieves it?

    Looking forward to seeing the revision.


  9. Hey Emily,

    Can I just say, I loved; “Sam loved math.  She liked the way numbers felt real and heavy. They settled her in a way that nothing else could.” This tells me volumes about Sam.

    Sam and how she views the world is interesting, yet it overtakes the story. I want to know what’s going on right now. What is Sam’s problem? Why is she moving or just moved (which I’m not sure which it is). It’s not just about what makes her tick, but how she deals with life.

    Ask yourself, “Why did her mom call her?”

    It’s your first line, so in your head, you had a reason for using it. If she’s a coder (and I know some coders so I know how they DO NOT like to be interrupted) use that preteen attitude, or have her conflicted, she wants to obey her mom, but she needs to finish the code before she can eat. Give it substance.

    Instead of telling me about her family, might I suggest using her sister in this scene right off the bat? Have the sister invade her world, get irritated with her. Why isn’t she like other girls? I have five girls and let me tell you, there is no privacy. They are always in each other’s business. ALWAYS. All the introspection you’ve got would be a great scene played out between the sisters, showing how different they are. Use the older sister to bait Sam, to highlight her strangeness (at least that’s how Bethany would view Sam) and touch on some of Sam’s insecurities.

    I love, love, love that Sam has a relationship with her grandmother. Does Sam use coding to escape the realities of life? A lot of coders do. Sam might not recognize she likes coding because she can control it and not life, either the mom or sister can see it and comment on it.

    I am confused as to why she thinks her grandmother is a mystic or a visionary. What leads her to think this?

    You have a flashback, and since we’re just getting to know Sam, maybe switching this flashback to real time would be helpful. Maybe learning that her grandmother is blind is what dropped her into a coding frenzy?

    Okay, so we’re with Sam in front of her computer and her brain is jumping from one thought to the next. They’re all fairly deep thoughts for a middle school girl. So far, the story hasn’t started, which means this is all backstory. Backstory is important, but it should be slipped into the main story when it’s needed to clarify a situation. Take for instance, Sam is messy like her father. You’d slip that info into the story when someone points out how messy she is. She can then think, “just like my dad.” And then follow that thought to reveal something we need to know, which I don’t know what that could be, but since this is a fantasy, it should be something fantasy related, which brings me to my biggest point.

    This is a fantasy. The reader needs a drop of the fantastical within the first five pages. When a reader starts reading your story, the expectation revolves around the magical, so let them see that promise up front. It doesn’t have to be big. Just a taste. Something odd that doesn’t add up in her computing brain. Coders use logic, so whatever “it” is, it can’t be logical. It has to be something she can’t wrap her brain around. An improbable thing exists, and she can’t rest until she solves the riddle.

    You have a lot of good stuff here--a gold mine actually! I suggest turning the backstory you’ve written into the immediate and let your reader experience the story along with Sam.

    My comments were written with the intent to help. Use what you want and ignore the rest. Think about all the wonderful, strange things that can happen to a girl steeped in logic who is presented with something totally illogical. That’s exciting!

    I look forward to seeing what you come up with.