Saturday, January 7, 2017

1st 5 Pages January Workshop - Lee

Name: Betty Lee
Genre: Young Adult Speculative Fiction

I’m leaning against my hand-me-down Chevy Malibu station wagon’s back bumper, arms crossed, knees braced together. The smell of gasoline in my nose is some screwed up comfort, but it’s still comfort. And I need it today.

The scratched-all-to-crap, painted with a fully nostalgic image of a grizzly bear on its back paws U-Haul trailer looks like a threat. All these stickers that say the damage has been reported, plastered all over the bear and every corner of this thing, and it still looks dangerous.

My dad clears his throat, and I try hard to remember all the reasons this moment should feel so good.




It’s a fact. High school goes down easy for some girls. Like my best friend Eli’s dying-special; rum and Coke, heavy on the rum mixed with (lukewarm) RC cola. You know that kind, the girls who are basically sex on legs? For them it’s four years of tests, and boyfriends, and the occasional poorly timed blemish getting in the way of a truly prime selfie.

Yeah, I had one year where I flew sort of under the radar like the other semi-outcasts. And summers with Eli next to the ocean.
The other three years, and I’m not exaggerating, were a bit like how I’d picture hell, if I believed in that crap.

Sure, I turned into one of those girls with the right body: boobs big enough that I buy bras at specialty stores in the city, and legs that make most skirts look like minis even when they’re not supposed to. I turned into that girl the first week of sophomore year, almost overnight. Just in time for this guy who’s lived down the street from me since forever’s asshole mom to get freaked out by the boob and legs combo. Thomas’s mom must think she’s the queen of the street. No wait, her ego’s grown. She’s queen of the town, now.

Which wouldn’t bother me at all. But she went and leaked my status, and it doesn’t matter how many bad Sex Ed classes the people at my high school were forced to sleep through, Hannibal Hamlin High has pretty much been avoiding me like I have the plague ever since.

And in a way, I do.

HIV, it’s viral. Get it?

Okay, that’s not funny. But Eli would laugh. Even now, he’d laugh.

My stomach rumbles, and I’m half-thirsty, half-irritated I have to wait until tomorrow to jet when I remember how even the school’s do-good, friend-to-all, volunteer-nut Kate G. stopped making eye contact with me in the halls after she found out my big, bad secret. She actually transferred to the Catholic school after that.

Dad clears his throat again and I’m drawn out of my mind and back to the problem at hand.

“Looks pretty low to the ground. Don’t you think?” I ask my dad, shifting my weight from the wagon so I can throw a sneakered foot on top of the hitch.

He grabs hold of my arm and pushes me up so I’m balanced on it. He says, “Jump,” and I do. But I’m not sure why.

I guess this is growing up.

The station wagon’s orange, and old as dirt, but it’s the only car at our house that doesn’t break down. Even dad’s new-to-him truck has been in the shop twice since January. But really, the best thing about the station wagon isn’t that is still has a cassette player, it’s that it’s all mine. It used to be mom’s. The first thing she bought for herself after she left her parent’s house. The only thing, she says, she held onto from back then, other than me and dad.
Mom’s had this car since she was fifteen, strung out on what they were calling horse, and visibly pregnant. I’m thinking that was a piece of luck, staring at the house, feeling dad’s hand holding onto my arm like he’s not quite ready to let go, imagining what this place would look like if dad ever gets around to re-painting the clapboard.

Dad lets go of my arm, backs up onto our decidedly not-green lawn. “Looks okay to me.”

“You sure?”

He’s about to respond, his head tilted a little off to the left like he does when he’s thinking, when my mom, who is inside the house, in the kitchen probably, starts screaming.

My dad stops.

The world stops.

I choke mid-inhale, waiting, not sure what kind of scream this is. When the noise becomes clear, she’s screaming my name.

Dad is about to offer to go inside on my behalf. I know he’ll offer. But he knows I’ll shrug it off.

I jut my chin at Ori, who is playing on the lawn with an underinflated football. “Stay here,” I order her.

And dad says, “If it’s bad…”

I know what he means so I don’t waste my breath on a response. I run up the three concrete steps leading to the kitchen door, swing the screen open, and catch sight of my mom. She’s covered in blood.
Well, not covered. But there’s enough of the red stuff to turn my stomach.

Blood and me don’t get along. For reasons.

But mom needs my help. Not dad’s. Certainly not Ori’s. My help.

The kitchen is really where my mom’s at her best. Even now—screaming, bloody—this is better than the other options.

I step further into the kitchen. “What did you do to yourself?”

Sometimes her vision blurs. Sometimes her hand jerks, her muscles get weak. Sometimes she’s just tired out.

“The knife, um, it slipped."

When I pull her hand close to take a look, I can see her index finger is cut open along the secondary fold line. And it looks deep. Maybe to the bone. I grab a dishtowel from the drawer, but mom says, “Not that one.” So I choose another. They’re all ragged and over-washed so I don’t get why she cares. But there’s no point in upsetting mom. She doesn’t handle stress well.

I take her hand in mine and put pressure on the wound. Her blood is mine, after all.

The first aid cabinet is well stocked with supplies.

I’m trying to get the Band-Aid to hold the edges of the wound closed, when Ori, who’s only four, who doesn’t listen, who doesn’t get it at all, comes running into the kitchen, the football tucked under one arm. She has dirt smeared under her eyes like the Friday night footballers do. I haven’t had the heart to tell her they use this grease stuff, not dirt.

Both mom and I yell at the same time: “Stop.”

Ori freezes on the spot, like it’s some kind of weird game. But then her face slips, and she starts to cry, tracks running through the dirt until she looks like we don’t bathe her.
I guess it sounds as if we’re mad at her. But we’re not.

Mom’s upset about all the blood. I’m only angry—and a bit nauseated—and taking it out on my kid sister.

It’s a damn stupid good thing I’m leaving. I used to think the anger would, I don’t know, fade. Instead, something inside me simmers. Last summer I convinced myself it was a little devil, or The Devil himself, brewing inside of me. And I can’t tell you how much I liked thinking the anger didn’t really belong to me.

Blaming it on someone—something—else felt damn good.


  1. Hi Betty! Thank you for sharing your work with us. I'll leave comments as I read. Okay, here we go:

    Your title is quite intriguing. It definitely leaves me with enough questions I'd have to pick up the book to at least read the blurb and first few pages.

    I hear voice (nonchalant and a bit cynical) in this piece through unique slang and vocabulary. It will be interesting to see how you use this throughout the book. As a reader, I'm somewhat grounded into the here and now of the character's world. I can see it, smell it. Nice!

    A few areas in the middle of the piece could be cleaned up a little, axing extra words and clearing up tense issues. I also feel like your MC's thoughts are rushed, which makes them feel choppy and hard to follow. Try rereading and pretend you don't know the character at all. I found some of the inner thoughts engaged me, while others kind of left me confused where I had to go back a read a few times.

    Overall, watch out for overuse of words and too much description. Your word choices are really unique, which is great. Just use caution with how many you use at a time. Less is usually more. There are a lot of good qualities here, too. You seem to be developing a solid story. I'd like to feel something a little deeper from your MC other than snark, something that shows me a different side - the side that's obviously been bruised and hurts. Also, this opening would benefit from at least one more crumb about the HIV comment. It was so brief it left me unsure whether it's serious. You've created a colorful character, who I'm interested in getting to know more.

    Looking forward to your revision. Hope this helps.

    1. Hi Sheri,

      Thanks for this. Yes! I have some trimming to do. And yes, I will try to make the more tender parts of her clearer.

      Quick question: does it not come across that her mom has HIV too?


  2. A beat-up station wagon and a u-haul van. It sounds like your MC is moving. That's an interesting place to start. And she seems nervous about moving...I think that's why the u-haul is scary. I'd love to know more about this. Is she nervous about making new friends? Is she nervous about what she's leaving behind? Is she nervous about what will happen next time mom cuts herself or has some other type of problem?

    I do feel like I get a good initial feel for your MC in these pages and would keep reading.

    There were some things I was confused about:
    - your MC's name. Could Mom or dad mention it? Maybe when Mom yells?
    - "dying-special"- Does this mean that Eli is dead? Died from the drink mentioned?
    - "HIV, it’s viral. Get it?" I'm sorry - I don't get how it's funny.
    - you have a couple gaps in the text marked by ..............
    - "strung out on what they were calling horse" - I don't know what horse is.
    - Why does mom need her help? Not Dad's? I suspect the two of them are both HIV positive. As a reader, I'd like to know.
    - Why wouldn't Dad stop Ori from going inside?

    I really like the emotion in this part:
    "I used to think the anger would, I don’t know, fade. Instead, something inside me simmers. Last summer I convinced myself it was a little devil, or The Devil himself, brewing inside of me. And I can’t tell you how much I liked thinking the anger didn’t really belong to me.

    Blaming it on someone—something—else felt damn good."
    I'd like to know even more. Why did she see herself as a devil?

    I look forward to reading again next week!


    1. Hi Rebecca,

      Thanks a lot! This is helpful stuff! It's going to help me out!


  3. Hi Betty. I like this very much. It's well-written, and I can feel the tension right from the beginning. If I was going to make a suggestion, it would be to let some of the information and characters come about a little more organically. We're told a lot in the first few pages, and I'm thinking some of that could be moved to later chapters. Instead of the narrator telling us she's HIV positive, could that be divulged in a conversation later? Or could her father ask if she's packed her medicine? And is it important this early into the book that Thomas's mom leaked her status? Is Kate G. important? For these first pages, focus on the relationship between your MC, her father and her mother. I'd also recommend saying, "I jut my chin at my sister Ori..." I honestly thought she was a dog at first. :)

    1. Hi Joe,

      This is the second time I've heard something about Kate G. Thanks for confirming she's got to go!



  4. Hi Betty,

    This immediately drew me in. Your characters' voices (especially the narrator's) feel authentic and age-appropriate, and I think you strike a great balance between small moments and a few big issues.

    I felt like the word "um" in the dialogue didn't really work, and the repetition of "damn" in the last two paragraphs seemed unnecessary/redundant. Overall, though, the voices were easy for me to hear while I was reading.

    1. Hi Emily,

      Thanks! I missed the double "damn" completely!


  5. Hey Betty,

    Love your title. It immediately got me excited about the book. I started reading and realized your main protag is a girl. I guess from the title I expected to read a boy’s POV. The title implied the story is about a boy, so going straight into a girl’s POV threw me. Somewhere in here, it would be nice if you had another character use her name so the reader knows it.

    First paragraph is nice. The second one made me pause. You use a lot of description. So much in the first sentence of the paragraph, that the main thought of the sentence is drowning in words. I had to read it several times to pick threw what you were trying to say. I’d condense that for clarity.

    From the part where we learn she has HIV, I’m guessing this is a story about her journey dealing with the disease. That’s a great hook.

    When we get to Eli, I got confused again. Eli is traditionally a boy’s name, but the paragraph information makes it seem as if Eli is a girl…a sexy, long-legged girl. So, if Eli is a boy, then you’re going to have to frame your information in a way that makes sure we understand who everyone is and their place in the story. I find, being candid in the first five pages is the best way to go. It cuts down on reader confusion.

    You use a term I’m not familiar with, horse. Give it context. It doesn’t have to be huge, just a quick reference point so we’re not lost on what she’s thinking. I’m not sure why your protag thinks her mom being strung out on horse and pregnant when she was a teen is lucky. You might not have intended to imply that it was, but your paragraph structure did. The word THAT in the following sentence refers back to horse and mom’s pregnancy.

    When I read Ori’s description and the way your protag commands her to stay, I thought she was a dog, so telling your reader Ori is a four-year-old girl at that point would help with that.

    So when I got to the mom, all I had were questions. Some questions are good for readers. It causes them to turn the pages. You’ve developed a ton of questions. They’re all interesting, but some need to be answered immediately to help ground the reader. The biggest one is about her mom. She seems almost childish because she needs her daughter to help her bandage her finger. That’s a fairly simple task, so you can see why that would create a question about her.

    Overall, I found this really interesting. I’d suggest you go through this and clarify things. Also, I’m a little confused as to why you’ve submitted this as speculative fiction. I don’t see anything of that nature in this entry. In the first five pages, your story should be clearly speculative in nature, because it’s usually within the first five pages we give our readers the promise of what the story will be about.

    All my comments were made to help you, but they are just my opinion. Take what you like and erase the rest. Have fun and I look forward to seeing what you do to further your story along.

    Shea Berkley

    1. Hi Shea,

      Okay, two great points here that I want to ask you a bit more about:

      -so the book is in 3 POVs, two are male, one is female. If I make that clear in the query, does it solve your problem?


      -The speculative element comes into play about 25 pages in. Do you have any suggestions on how I can "hint" at it in a fairly normal world?

      Thanks for your feedback!

    2. Betty,

      Ask yourself, whose story is this? If it's the girl's story, then start out in her POV. If it's the boy's story, as the title implies, then you should probably start out in his POV. That's not a hard and fast rule, but it is a common one. Some people dislike omniscient POV, but it's used a lot in multiple POV books at the very beginning. If you choose to open your story that way, just be sure you move into a more personal first person or third person POV quickly.

      I've seen 3 POVs used in books. Mentioning three POVs in the query isn't necessary, the problem in my mind comes through in the title and then in the female protag. If it's her story, I'm not sure that's the best title to submit it under, even though I really like that title. Maybe this is a better question reserved for the agent, and honestly, most titles are changed once a book is sold, so getting attached to a title isn't wise, but you want it to be intriguing enough to catch an editors eye as well as a solid representation of what the book is about.

      As to the speculative element, since I don't know what you're trying to accomplish in that area, I can't really make any suggestions. Speculative fiction is defined as a twist on the real world or alternate reality. There is a current show that is the best representation of speculative fiction I can use as an example. It's call The Man in the High Castle. The premise is, what if the Nazi's won? It's our world, but far different than the one we live in now.

      Harry Potter is speculative fiction as well as a fantasy in that it deals with the real world with the twist that magic is very real.

      I explain speculative fiction as the ultimate "What if" game, only our reality has been skewed by an alternate history, sci-fi or fantasy element.

      So, with all that said, nail down what makes your story speculative and add a glimpse of it in the first five pages. It can be as simple as an adult telling a teenager that magic exists in the world, but in a way that the teen will just think Mom is telling a silly story. Maybe Mom doesn't even believe magic is real, but is passing on a story she was told and then BAM! everyone finds out magic really is real.

      Oh, oh, oh, I've been watching Outlander. So in the series (I can't remember if it's in the book or not because it's been forever since I've read the series and reading those books is a huge time commitment I can't deal with right now) Claire, the main character who travels back in time, hears a song about time travel. It shocks her because it reveals in the song how to get back to her own time, which up until that point, she didn't think was possible. But no one around Claire believes the song is about time travel. They think it's just a beautiful song they all like to sing. It was actually quite a clever plot tool.

      I hope this helps. -- Shea

    3. It does! Maybe not right now, but it helps in the long run!

      Thanks a lot!


  6. Hi Betty,

    Thanks for sharing! Like the others, I'm intrigued by your title, but I was a little confused by the pages. It seems like you're trying to give us a lot of information all at once, but I think if you slow down, it will be easier to digest. Focus on the move. It sounds like she's going off to college. Definitely provide more information about that.

    I don't even think we need the HIV information at this point. Perhaps hint that she's sick, but don't tell us how. Not yet.

    I think it will help if you cut down on the backstory. There isn't a ton in here, but there's enough that it drew me from the present narrative.

    I look forward to seeing your revisions.


    1. Hi Sam!


      I'm thinking about how to calm things down without losing my narrative style, which is deffo more complicated!


  7. Apologies for my delayed reply. Comments above are great so I'll keep it short. The writing is very strong here, Betty, but I do think it feels like a first draft--like you're "writing in" to the story and getting to know your MC which is important work but probably should be edited down as you revise and rework the ms. Here are 3 things you might want to consider for this revision.
    1. SPEC FIC. Is this spec fic? It feels gritty and realistic to me (except the title). If you're going for spec fic, we need a whiff of that somewhere in these pages.
    2. GENDER. I got a rather strong "boy voice" vibe at the outset of the story. Possibly it's me being a bit of a stereotypical reader seeing cars, curses, use of term "boobs" in a rather rough way, but even after I know MC (name?) is a girl, the genders feel slippery -- androgynous names like Eli and Ori, and sometimes just the texture of the language. Something to think about.
    3. BIG ISSUES. There's an awful lot going on here (HIV, suicidal mom, hard-knock-life dad, mean classmates/neighbors?, drinking, some time of escape/move). It's a bit overwhelming. As a reader, I'm not sure which plot points to hold onto or follow. And I'm being TOLD a lot. I think maybe I'd draw back on some of these--maybe don't give up the HIV point but just let readers be stunned and curious when mom and MC (again, name?) vehemently stop Ori from entering bloody kitchen.
    You're a strong writer and I'm looking forward to seeing what you do on the revision. Best wishes! - Stasia