Sunday, February 5, 2017

February 1st 5 Pages Workshop- Abe

Name: Julie Abe
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Title: The Music of Our Lies

“If ramen had a soundtrack, it would be filled with trumpets,” Kei said. We were playing our favorite game of creating songs while we waited for our food.

“Bad ramen’s a blaring trumpet in your ear. Good ramen’s rich and salty. It deserves violins,” I countered.

Kei laughed. “Ramen is made of violins smooth like the broth, melodies of piano like perfectly boiled noodles, and flutes like the green onion and hanjyuku egg toppings. And maybe a bit of trumpets. You win, Miki-chan.”

I grinned back but I glanced at the empty seat to my right. “It’s too bad Ryo couldn’t join us today.” Ryo egged us on when we made songs for everything from crepes to zarusoba.

“He wasn’t even at home when I left. I bet he was studying all night at a cafe or something. You know how he is these days.” He shrugged.

But this still didn’t seem usual to me. Usual was Kei and Ryo, sitting next to me, watching a movie, performing as ChemicalRock on a random sidewalk in Tokyo, or stuffing our faces with sweets from the candy store.  Usual was Kei getting excited about some new band and playing their CD for us, and Ryo and I laughing and talking quietly while Kei -- quiet for once -- had immersed himself in the music.

But “usual” had gone out the window when Kei and I had started dating. After that, our hangouts had become me and Kei, and sometimes, rarely, Ryo.

Kei pulled his phone out of his pocket. It was blinking rapidly. He flipped his phone open and frowned. “My mom called.”

Mrs. Sato was infamous for only sending messages: Don’t forget to pick up some bread on your way home or Did you go to cram school today? Kei even bet that if his house was on fire, Mrs. Sato would message him: Can you call 119 for me? I think the rice cooker caught on fire.

I thought it was weird that they didn’t talk face-to-face, but between Mr. Sato’s work, Mrs. Sato’s piano lessons for some of the top piano players in the country and Kei’s cram school and, of course, ChemicalRock,  our indie band, it was rare for them to sit down in the same room together. Not that they had any cute, sweet family gatherings, anyway. Kei and Ryo were the sons of the Mr. Sato, the CEO of the multi-billion yen Sato Industries.

“Miki-chan, I’m going to call her back, okay?” he said, flashing his usual grin. I smiled up at him and he slipped out of the restaurant. Kei had lended me his black ChemicalRock jacket and I rolled up the too-big  sleeves, getting ready for the ramen.

I eyed the chef preparing our ramen behind the counter. The bald man knocked his strainer full of noodles against the side of the huge, metal vat to drain the freshly-boiled noodles. I loved the way the steam  curled up from the noodles, like a hand reaching out toward me and beckoning for me to submerge myself in its warmth. My stomach growled and an overweight salaryman glanced at me. Embarrassed, I drank some water to fill my stomach.

My thoughts went back to the movie that we had just watched. My fingers tapped against my leg as the closing theme song reverberated in my mind. When I wasn’t playing music or listening to music through my tinny  headphones, I always had a song stuck in my head. Ryo called it “the perpetual soundtrack to Miki’s life.”

I watched Kei through the glass door. There was something off about the way he was speaking rapidly into the phone, the way that he was pressing his hand to his forehead. A prickle of unease crept down my spine.  I pulled the black jacket closer to me. Kei, usually so bubbly and energetic, leaned down with his hand on his knee, as if he had trouble standing

Our eyes met through the glass. He looked at me searchingly, as if I could stop his hands from turning bone-white as he clenched his phone or if I could play a song that would chase the painful memories of this  phone call away. It was the last time he looked at me this way. It was a long time before I saw him look at anyone that way.

The chef slid our steaming ramen bowls onto the counter in front of me, but I couldn’t smell the rich pork broth or the pungent garlic anymore.

“I’m so sorry. We have to go.” I apologized to the chef, who was confused as I backed away and bowed apologetically.

I hurried out of the restaurant. Kei was pushing his hair off of his forehead. His usually tanned face was pale. “That can’t be… I can’t believe…” he said into the phone, almost pleadingly.

I brushed my hand against his arm and he jerked up. His eyes were wild, almost unfamiliar.

My heart beat erratically, like a melody that had forgotten its tempo.

“Never mind, I’ll head back now. I’ll be there soon,” he said, and snapped the phone shut.

 He reached for my hand, pulling me close. “I have to go home,” he said, leaning his forehead against mine. His skin was cold against mine, but his hand was clammy.

“What happened?”

“My mom’s shaken up. She’s barely coherent,” he said, pressing his hand to his eyes. That was bizarre. His mother was one of the most graceful, eloquent people I knew.

“W-what? Why? Did something happen to your father?”

Heart attacks from chronic overwork were commonplace in Japan, and as common as a heart attack from being overweight. Because it wasn’t his mother and it couldn’t possibly be…

“No,” he said, but the intensity in his eyes didn't lighten. “It’s Ryo.”

The music in my mind died out and there was ringing in my ears.

His voice dropped to a whisper, but I could hear him all too well. “He’s gone.”

I wanted to stop those words from touching my ears. I begged to hear screeching violins and off-pitch notes. Anything.

But then, even worse, came the silence.


  1. Hi Julie!

    I think starting right in the middle of the "action" is a great idea, and I think the little game Kei and Miki play is cute, but I did feel a little like I'd been dropped into something without any warning, and it took me a second to get my bearings. The confusion made me less interested in what was going on with the characters, because I couldn't figure out what their deal was. I think you hit your stride when Kei gets the phone call: at that point, I got sucked right in and wanted to know what was going on.

    I found a few parts a little tell-y, especially the information about Kei and Ryo's family. (It also took me a while to realize they were brothers! It might make the ending more arresting if we knew even earlier than we do).

    As a nit-picky thing, there's something not quite right with the line "Heart attacks from chronic overwork were commonplace in Japan, and as common as a heart attack from being overweight." Did you mean something like "just as common as a heart attack from being overweight"?

    I think the end of this is great. I've been on the receiving end of Very Bad News phone calls before, and it really resonated with me.

    See you next week! :)

  2. Hi Julie,

    I loved your final line, and the whole final interaction with Miki and Kei. I think everything the scene needed was there: emotion, strong dialogue, the building of the relationship between the two. I also enjoyed the common thread of music throughout these pages, especially the idea that your narrator always has a song stuck in their head.

    Instead of the description of Kei and Ryo’s family, I might have liked a little more description of Ryo there. Maybe what his feelings are on the distance between the family members. I care about Ryo passing away later on because he is Kei’s brother, but I think you could give the reader more reasons to care about him being gone. I like that he’s the one who says the line about the perpetual soundtrack, but maybe there could be just a little something about what makes him special.

    I have heard it is always best to express things with action or dialogue, and there was one line that I thought might be stronger expressed in one of those ways: “But “usual” had gone out the window when Kei and I had started dating. After that, our hangouts had become me and Kei, and sometimes, rarely, Ryo.” Can you show us that this is the reason rather than telling us?

    Super minor note: the paragraph about the noodles said “noodles” three times in three sentences. I don’t know why I noticed this, but I think it impacted the description of the food. Also, I couldn’t tell they were in a restaurant at first. I don’t know why, but at first I thought they were making ramen in the microwave.

    Overall, I enjoyed the voice and would love to read more of this story.

    I hope this helps.

    All the best,

  3. Hello Julie!

    First off, I'm thrilled to be in the workshop with you! You have me hooked with these pages, and I was definitely wanting more when I came to the end. The way you describe Kei when he is on the phone had me drawn right into the scene. I SAW it myself- felt the stress and anguish. Great job.

    That being said, the last line about Ryo being gone didn't hit as hard is it could. It definitely tugged on my heart strings... I can't imagine losing one of my brothers. I think, though, that if we saw more of Ryo early on, the last line would pack a harder punch. Is there a way to start a bit earlier in the story? Maybe show interaction between the three that gives the reader a reason to emotionally invest in Ryo? I would love to see some of his antics playing out in real time. EX- "Ryo egged us on when we made songs for everything from crepes to zarusoba." Would love to see this live.

    Also, it took me a while to get grounded in the story. I had to read the opening a few times to get through some of the confusion. I think giving the reader a few clues earlier on about your setting might help sort it out. The opening dialogue is great. It gives the reader a good glimpse into the relationship between Kei and Miki-chan. I just think giving a little bit more of the bigger picture might help.

    Side Note: "My heart beat erratically, like a melody that had forgotten its tempo." This is my favorite line. I LOVE it and how it brings out an emotion through Miki-chan's unique voice.

    I look forward to watching this story evolve!

    A L Noelle

  4. Hi Julie,

    This is such a delicious story! (Pun intended) Your setting, your playful characters, your opening scene—all drew me in.

    The things that tripped me up need only light touches, not huge overhaul. I agree that I wasn’t grounded in setting right away. I found myself asking when this took place and where we were—outside, inside, cafeteria, kitchen, etc. You did give clues by the time you get to the “didn’t seem usual” paragraph, but a hint earlier would keep readers from being distracted. This is as simple as layering setting details to ground readers. When and where are we? What does the restaurant look like? Is there any music really playing there? If so, how does it relate to their conversation? They’re obviously musical kids. I’d like to hear them “act out” the sound of the trumpet or hum or even pull out examples on a cell phone. What does the restaurant smell like? Is Miki anxious for the food as they wait? What does Kei look like? If they’re dating, she would’ve noticed little things about him as he spoke, joked with her. His eyes, eyelashes, smile, gestures, clothes, etc. Where are they headed next? Were they going to meet Ryo? Were they going somewhere else? Knowing their plans will also help us realize how this call put a halt to time—their world stopped spinning. Show us the world, so we recognize it when it screeches to a stop.

    I’d also like to get a better sense of the relationship the three kids had before Kei and Miki started dating. Was he always the tagalong as Kei’s brother? Or was there a time when Miki felt like the odd “man” out because the two of them are brothers? How are things different now? How old are they? Obviously, this doesn’t need to be stated outright, but I don’t have much of a sense.

    I want to know Ryo better, to really feel the impact of the phone call. This doesn’t need to be long stretches of exposition or backstory, but more snippets feathered in. What did he look like? Is he older or younger than Kei? Was he outgoing or shy? What did want to be when he grew up? Knowing what his dreams were and learning that they’ll never be achieved will go a long way in pulling readers’ heartstrings.

    I did feel like I had a good sense of their mother. You didn’t give a lot of detail, but what you did give depicted her well. I’m confident you can do the same thing with Ryo and the relationship dynamics.

    Is Ryo in ChemicalRock? Is it just those three or are there more members?

    I’m hooked. This is a dynamic scene. Watch for little details that pull the reader away from it. We don’t need a general comment about heart attacks, especially since it isn’t relevant. Yes, Miki could wonder “What it is? What’s wrong? Is it his dad?” That sort of thing is enough without comments about stress heart attacks and obesity. Unless, of course, they are specific to his dad, such as "His dad? The doctor said he was under too much stress. Needed to lose weight." That sort of thing. Her mind can wander and wonder. Just keep it in her head, rather than the voice of a narrator.

    I like the “usual” paragraphs. They’re the perfect places to add more details. I’m looking forward to more pages.

    Thank you for this story!

  5. I love the start of this (and I’ve been hooked on a ramen dish from a sushi place near me!).

    The intro line could use grounding in setting. Perhaps after Kei’s first line, mention that they are waiting at a restaurant. Show them sitting side by side in a booth, Kei kicking his leg beneath the table, etc then the line about their favorite game. If you can show another glimpse of the restaurant or comment whether it's in a big city, off the beaten path, not a tourist place, those kind of details give us a hint of who they are and their favorite hang out.

    I also wanted it to be a little clearer from the start who was in the band. Perhaps instead of the paragraph about Mrs. Sato, use that space to further show us Ryo and the band and how the music fits in with their little crew. That way the build up to the call is purposeful. It loses a bit of focus when it delves into descriptions of the parents. Same with the paragraph about the chef preparing the ramen; while it has nice sensory details, it is not pushing the story forward or offering anything necessary. What I think you’re intending here is a pause for Kei to leave and have that call. Instead, what you have that follows about the movie soundtrack in her head is enough of a pause until she notices Kei out the window. Perhaps add a little more about that soundtrack of her mind and what that means for her, or tie it into what she wants most out of life. Does she dream of being a musician? Hinting at what a character wants most is helpful to see early on, especially when it is about to be taken away (great conflict!)

    The phone call is compelling and to me that’s where the story really started to flow. Earlier on the page, I think replacing the exposition on the parents with more about relationship between these two brothers will help the set up.

  6. Hey Julie!

    Thank you for trusting me with your words. As with all feedback, remember these are only my opinions, so take what works for you and ignore the rest.

    I agree with the others that the opening feels a bit jarring, but I think it's because you've started with a line of dialog. If you start with a bit of scene description first that should take care of it.

    You really do a great job with the musical theme throughout the pages, and the voice sounds lyrical as well. That takes skill! Well done.

    I suggested this on another entry as well, but I think you could do with dropping a few dialog tags and replacing them with action beats. This helps us to see and understand the characters a bit better.

    As for the ending, when he says, Ryo is gone, I guess I was the only one who read it and didn't assume he meant dead. These are teens and I honestly thought (before I read the other comments) that he might have just run away. I didn't assume the worse, so if that's it, maybe consider straight out saying, "He's dead." But since I was the only one who didn't get that impression right out, feel free to disregard this comment, lol.

    Other than that, I was drawn into the story and want to know what happens next! Good luck with revisions:)