Sunday, February 5, 2017

February 1st 5 Pages Workshop- Turley

Name: Beth Turley
Genre: Middle Grade Contemporary


I measure how happy a day is with sounds. Happy days sound like a TV on low volume or bird calls through a screen door. Sad days sound like dishes crashing around in the sink. Sad days sound like heavy footsteps on the stairs. Once a day is stained sad, it is hard to make it happy again.

One time in third grade my class was walking in a straight line to the music room. Mrs. Thyme was leading the way and the floor was clean and squeaky and everything was normal but all of a sudden my chest broke open. I felt leaky and bruised. Mrs. Thyme saw me and took me out of line and asked what was wrong. I told her that lately there were more sad days than happy days but she didn’t understand what I meant. I didn’t blame her because I didn’t understand either.

That was three years ago. I’ve learned a lot since then. I know long division and I know what periods are and I don’t cry in lines on the way to music class anymore. Sometimes Mrs. Thyme will pass by me in the hallway or see me in the cafeteria and ask how I am doing. I know not to say crazy things about sad days anymore. I don’t want to get sent back to Ms. Bishop. She made me talk and it made Daddy mad. She told them what I said about the fighting. After that, Daddy promised that he would never leave but that wasn’t really the problem. I wasn’t afraid he would leave. I was afraid of what happened when he stayed.

Today I am sitting at lunch with my best friends Olivia and Ryan. Olivia is smaller and cuter than I am. She has sun colored hair and pink glasses. I feel lucky that we’re friends. I am the only girl in our fifth-grade class who is already sprouting zits. Mom says I got them from her.

“Do you want some of my sloppy joe?” Ryan asks me with his mouth full of red saucy goop. Ryan has dark brown skin and sparkly brown eyes and always gets school lunch. I don’t think he pays for them. Sometimes my mom gives me money for lunch and I scoot my tray along behind Ryan. When we get to the large lunch lady at the end of the line she waves Ryan right by. To me, she sticks out her hand and says “2.50.” I asked Ryan about it one time but he just stuffed more food in his mouth.

“No, thanks,” I say to him.

“Chew with your mouth closed, Ryan,” Olivia says.

“Are you my mother?”

“That’s a book, not a question,” she says and sucks on her organic juice box.

I think about the baby bird in Are You My Mother, sent tumbling from its nest and into a desperate search for the one person who was supposed to take care of it. I wonder why just because the mama bird was the same species as the baby, made of the same feathers and spiky feet, that was where the baby bird belonged. Maybe the dog or the bulldozer would have loved it just as much.

“You’re spacey today, Hannah,” Ryan says.

“Am not.”

The three of us jump when the doors of the cafeteria slam shut.

“Have a happy day, Brookview Elementary. Staff, this is a drill.”

The lunch monitors start running around the tables, herding us into groups. Olivia and Ryan and I leave behind our half-eaten lunches and go where we’re told. Olivia clutches my hand and hides her face behind my arm. She does not let go when we sink to the ground with our backs against the wall and watch the lunch monitors secure the doors and turn off the lights. The lunch ladies seal themselves up in the kitchen. I hear Ryan breathing shaky breaths next to me. I reach out and hold his hand too, even though he is a boy. It feels funny but safe.

“What’s happening?” he asks me.

“I don’t know.” I say.

“Are we going to die?” Olivia whispers.

“I don’t know.”

“Stop crying, babies,” the gruff voice of Manda Dobson barks out next to us. Manda smells like wet dirt. I am not sure she has ever used shampoo, but she is smart, and almost as good a wordsmith as me. Wordsmith means someone who is remarkable with vocabulary. I beat Manda in the school spelling bee every year, and she hates me for it. Even in the heart of an emergency.

I hear footsteps in the hallway outside. Someone rattles the cafeteria doors and Olivia squeaks. And then, like a miracle, the lights are turned back on.

“Stay seated, everyone,” Bubby, the head lunch monitor, shouts to the cafeteria.

Olivia peaks out from behind my arm. Ryan lets go of my hand like he remembered I have girl germs.

“This was a lock down drill. We were practicing how to respond if there is ever a threat in the school. If you ever hear those words ‘have a happy day, Brookview Elementary’ and find yourself alone, you find the closest place to hide out of sight. Now go ahead and finish your lunch,” Bubby tells us.

I add the lock down code words to my brain dictionary. I love new words. Scary ones, silly ones, long ones, small ones. I want my head to be full of them.

Olivia, Ryan, and I do not talk about the lock down again during lunch. We turn ourselves from puddles of fear back into sixth-graders, into the oldest students at Brookview Elementary, into grown-ups. Liquid to solid. I search my brain dictionary for the right word to describe it. Phase transition.

After school I get off the bus and walk down my street. It is October and the air smells like chimney smoke. Daddy’s car is in the driveway and a knot pulls tight in my stomach. He is not usually home until dark.

I open the front door and see Daddy in the recliner. He has his feet up and a Coke on the table next to him. The television is on low volume and I smell fried chicken in the kitchen. Daddy smiles at me and holds his arms out. His hands are covered in white paint. I feel my own cheeks burst with a smile and run into his lap, even though I am getting too big for that.

“Hi, Daddy,” I say.

“Hi, sweetheart. How was your day?”


“That’s good,” he says.

“Why are you home?” I ask.

Daddy starts to shift under me, and I see lines in his forehead. I have started brewing something bad with my question. I try to reverse time and take the words back. Sometimes I think I have dormant magic inside me. Dormant means sleeping. One day my powers will wake up and make everything better.

“Sometimes, Hannah, when you build houses for people, they change their minds. And you lose hundreds of dollars and weeks of your time.”

There are no words in there I don’t know. I know what all of them mean and what they do. They turn Daddy into a monster. I must fight back with words that will make him soft again, but which ones?


  1. Hi Beth!!

    First of all, I love the beginning of this! I think the voice is really strong there, and "all of a sudden my chest broke open" is such a great line. I do think that the voice gets a little weaker later on, though, and at certain points it feels younger than an 11-or-12 year old would sound. My one other voice-related complaint is the telling way Hannah explains things ("it feels/feels like ________"). I know that that's part of her voice, but using it too often can bring people out of the story a bit.

    In terms of structure, I think there's a lot going on very quickly, and it can get a little jarring. In your first pages, you have an intro, a flashback with information about her home life, an introduction to characters, the lock-down drill, a very quick transition to Hannah's walk home, and then more of her home life. Because there's so much, it can feel like none of those things are getting the attention you want them to. It might be good to go straight from the intro to the lock-down, and then adding in the background information/character descriptions more organically throughout. I think that might make things flow a little more nicely.

    One last thing: the end with Hannah's dad didn't grip me as much as I'm assuming it's supposed to. I know her dad can be bad/scary, but only because Hannah's said so. I think that part could do with more description of him, as well as Hannah's feelings and actions in response to him.

    I hope this is helpful! :)

  2. Hello Beth!

    It's an honor to get to read your first pages and work with you on them! The story definitely has me intrigued, and the fact that Hannah is afraid of her dad rips at my heart, and I'm immediately rooting for her from the beginning. I think being a mom of 5 little ones does that to me!

    First, I have to say I love the way Hannah relates happy days and sad days to different types of sounds. It gives me a great idea of her personality, and makes her voice unique. Since you open your MS with this concept, I would love to see hints of this throughout the rest of the 5 pages. For example, when she learns her dad is in a bad mood, what kind of sad sound would that be? It would be neat to see it continue to play out.

    The other aspect I love about Hannah's voice is the way she uses long, difficult or interesting words in her vocabulary. That being said, I think her voice sometimes sounds a little too young for her age. I was thrown off when I learned she was in 5th/6th grade, and had been expecting someone younger.

    A note on that: "I am the only girl in our fifth-grade class who is already sprouting zits." and " We turn ourselves from puddles of fear back into sixth-graders" doesn't quite add up.

    There are a few instances where you say "I feel" or "I hear". These instances are actually great opportunities to show the readers what she is feeling or hearing instead of telling them. For example: "I feel my own cheeks burst with a smile". You are telling the reader what she is feeling, but if you can show the reader, they might feel it for themselves.

    Great way to end the pages! I like how she wants to fight back with words. So very much Hannah!

    I can't wait to see your story thrive! Looking forward to next week already!

    A L Noelle

  3. Hi Beth!

    First, I agree with everything that both Maggie and A L have said. You have a strong voice and a lovely way with words. I love the way Hannah uses sound to determine good and bad days. I love how the kids turn from liquid to solid after the drill. These are unique to Hannah. Nice!

    The story really starts, though, with the drill. Everything before that is great for you to know, but since it’s telling and backstory, it stalls the forward action of the plot. Start immediately with the drill. Have they had that kind of drill before? Do they need to know that it is a drill right away? Wouldn’t it be better if they didn’t? Since the words that spark the drill are nice (her cue for a good day) and lead into chaos (not a good day), it makes total sense that it would knock Hannah—and readers—off guard. This is the perfect way to begin.

    A bit about pacing: when you are in the midst of an important scene, slow down. Make the reader see, hear, smell, feel everything in real time. Then slow it down even more by putting us deep inside Hannah’s head and giving us her internal reactions. Layer action, description, dialogue, tiny bits of pertinent backstory, and reaction (internal and external) all together. I find that each draft gets more layers, so don’t worry if it’s not all there right away.

    Be mindful of stereotypes. I admit that I cringed that Ryan, the brown-skinned boy, got free lunch, and Hannah didn’t understand why. She’s in sixth grade, been friends with him, and is observant and smart. That made her appear very privileged and clueless. Does Ryan need to be poor? Could that be Olivia instead? I guess I’m just wanting you to be sure that your choices are careful and deliberate, grounded in purpose, while avoiding stereotypes.

    Consider keeping the first chapter totally focused on the drill and the scene with dad for the next chapter. What do you want us to feel about him? Remember that his likeablility is based on what we see and what we experience through Hannah. He should be nuanced, but make sure that the actions/reactions make sense and feel authentic. If he’s not supposed to be home, how cautious would Hannah be when she gets home? What clues help her decide how to proceed? You could also move/layer in the info from the very beginning here to add to the tension when she gets home.

    You could easily revise the drill scene into the next round and the dad scene into the following one, developing each one with more layers.

    You have a lot of material to work with. You’re an adept writer with a great voice, wonderfully nuanced characters, and a lot of room for conflict and growth. I can’t wait to see where it’s going.

    Thank you for sharing it!

  4. Hello Beth,

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

    Much of what I have to say has been addressed by the other commentators, so I'll keep it brief.

    The voice does sound a bit young for MG, but when you get it, it is beautiful! I read an article that said MG voice tends to focus on abilities vs YA which focuses on emotion. So MG will tend to have more "I can" and "I will" statements, just as an example.

    I agree that you should probably start with the fire drill, as the first few paragraphs read like more of an info dump (although the writing is stunning there). I got a great piece of advice once that said, "Don't tell the reader anything until they have to know it." Questions keep readers reading.

    I noticed you use a lot of dialog tags as well (said, yelled, etc). Sometimes an action beat works better, as you can use it to help us know the characters. That will also help with "telling."

    Someone mentioned before that you need to show what the character is feeling instead of telling us, so as an example: Instead of saying "I felt scared." Show us how her teeth are chattering, or maybe her knees are locked. Is she sweating? Having trouble breathing? This will go a long way in making your characters come off the page.

    If Hannah is a wordsmith, I think you can go ahead and use larger words more frequently, without it feeling out of character. And I don't think you need to define the words after she uses them, as the reader will take context clues.

    Lastly, and this is somewhat personal, but I grew up with a volatile father and I'm not sure that Hannah would run to hug her dad even if he was currently in a good mood. When you grow up with someone that's emotionally unsteady, you learn to approach them with trepidation, because the good can go in a second. But of course, I haven't read enough to know exactly how Hannah's father behaves on the sad days or what their relationship is like, so trust your gut on how she'd behave towards him.

    Again, thank you for letting me take a look and I'm excited to read your revision next week!


  5. Hi Beth,

    Thanks for submitting your pages. I really, really like this. You are definitely a writer. The voice is spot-on. It does read a little older than middle grade to me, but then again, maybe that's just because Hannah is really smart and likes and studies words. Maybe it can be upper MG? Are they in fifth or sixth grade?

    You have a really nice rhythm to your writing. That's the toughest thing to learn--the way the words fall on the page and register in a reader's brain. It feels pretty effortless, which all good writing should.

    At first I thought the first few paragraphs were a little too telling and not showing, but upon another read I'm okay with it. There are so many rules and opinions when it comes to writing (kidlit in particular) one can often be completely overwhelmed. Pick up a MG or YA book in the bookstore and I'm sure you'll spot something you were told not to do in the first paragraph.

    I just read the other comments on your writing. So many opinions. You have to remember to do what is right for you. It's your story. I, for one, did not think Hannah sounded too young. Quite the contrary! So as you can see, it's all subjective. The hard part is taking in the feedback and then doing what YOU think is right for your story.

    Good luck!

  6. Hi Beth,

    Thank you so much for sharing your work with us today!

    There's a lot to love here. You have a natural and magnetic MG voice, which is lovely, and you've introduced us to Hannah with an idea that makes us empathize with her right away: how she feels about sounds, which is so enigmatic and unique. I love the emotional connection there, and I love Hannah as a character.

    What we need now is a bit of revision to the scene itself.

    The opening scene of a novel introduces us to the point of view character, but it should also introduce us to the main story question. At this point, I'm not sure what that story question is. From the scene you chose--a lockdown drill--I'd guess the story question must have something to do with an attack on the school, or that the plot in some way revolves around that concept. I start thinking crime thriller, mysteries, action...if that's not the case and you chose this scene in order to show us how Hannah reacts/acts because THAT is the central story question, then you need to communicate that to us. It's quite easy to hide the ball too much in our early drafts! We want to make things unfold like a mystery, and that's great to do within the scene, but by the end of the scene we need to understand this: The main character is HANNAH and her problem is ??????. Fill in that question mark for us, and you will have a very strong start to your story.

    Now let's talk a bit about the writing mechanics. Your opening paragraph is wonderful. It's fresh, it's emotive, it's charming and just the right length. However, the next 2 paragraphs are solid telling. They need to be cut and woven into the material as the active story unfolds. I recommend launching into the active story directly after the opening paragraph. As you unfold the scene, drop in those details about how old she is and where we are--set the scene--but be sure that you do so ACTIVELY. Young readers want your story to start on page one, and for your character to have a goal right then that they are pursuing (even if the goal is as simple as not freaking out--show us!). Including a flashback as your second paragraph kills the pace, and when I read the selection without it, I didn't miss it. Now, that is lovely back story and you should incorporate it elsewhere, but get into the story as quickly as possible!

    Another craft issue that stands out to me here is the dialogue. If we go through this selection and read only the dialogue we don't get a sense of the scene or of the characters. The dialogue needs to do more work than this. We need interesting communications that reveal our characters' attitudes, desires, and conflicts. Try reading the dialogue out loud. Push further. Give us a reason to laugh, worry, or fear with each word that is said.

    Finally, all good active scenes serve a purpose of revealing our character's emotions. You have emotions here from Hannah, but you need to connect the dots just a bit more so that we understand WHY she feels the way she does (and how this relates to her goals both external and internal). Even if you don't fully explain in that moment, you need to connect the feeling to her beliefs/fears/goals to some degree so that we start to understand what her emotional journey will be. Right now she fades in and out for me, like a ghosted character who is not yet fully formed. Remember that in terms of writing craft, good prose proceeds from action to emotion, reason, anticipation, and finally choice (which then leads to more action). Show us what Hannah feels, why, and how it impacts what she does next as she moves into the story. This will create momentum and interest.

    Best of luck on your revision! I look forward to reading again.

    Melanie Conklin
    First Five Mentor