Sunday, February 19, 2017

1st 5 Pages February Workshop - Turley Rev 2

Beth Turley
Middle Grade Contemporary


Eleven-year-old Hannah has a penchant for spelling and story structure, and would do just about anything to get her parents to stop fighting. When she finds threatening notes directed at her on her classroom floor, she is glad to finally have her parents’ attention, but her overly introspective mind leaves her wondering at what cost.
The notes leave Hannah isolated from her best friend and forced into sessions with the perceptive school counselor. As she continues to navigate her memories and the complexity of growing up, she finds escape from her thoughts by making objects talk to her: stuffed animals, backpacks, lucky pennies—and the objects have a story to tell too. But none of these newfound friends can help her when the school’s investigation into the notes finds Hannah as the number one suspect.
The danger becomes real when a gun is brought into school, and Hannah is left alone during the lock down. She is faced with the truth of what actions can cause and the answer to the most important question: who wrote the notes?

WE ALL WROTE THE NOTES is a contemporary MG novel with elements of magical realism and metafiction, and a literary voice.


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 too-loud voices. Once a day is stained sad, it’s hard to make it happy again.

I sit with Olivia and Ryan at our blue table. Cafeteria sounds aren’t happy or sad, just clamorous.

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

“Are you my mother?” he asks through a mouthful of sloppy joe.

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

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

“Have a happy day, Brookview Elementary.” The sound of the loudspeaker falls over the cafeteria like the start of nighttime.

The lunch monitors run around the tables, herding us into groups. I sink to the ground with my back against the cafeteria wall and watch the lights go dark. The lunch ladies seal themselves up in the kitchen. Ryan breathes shaky breaths next to me, so I reach out and hold his hand. It feels funny but safe.

“What’s happening?” he asks.

“It might be a lock down drill.” I swallow down being scared to sound strong instead. 

“They always tell us when we’re having one.”

“I know.”

“Are we going to die?” Olivia hides her face behind my arm. 

“I don’t know.”

Footsteps echo in the hallway and the cafeteria doors rattle. I breathe in deep. The smell of sloppy joe and bleach makes my stomach twist into a knot. 

This doesn’t feel like a drill. I decide that drills are useless. Everything is different when the enemies aren’t imaginary. My heart was not properly prepared to beat so wildly. 

I wait for the eleven years of my life to flash by, but instead I am thinking about Are You My Mother. A baby bird is sent tumbling from its nest and into a desperate search for someone to love him. I wonder why mama bird is who the baby bird belonged to, just because she was the same species. Maybe the dog or the bulldozer would have loved him just as much.

Undecipherable voices leak through the wall. I close my eyes and wait for whatever is out in the hallways to find us.

“All clear,” the loudspeaker says.

Like a miracle, the lights are turned back on. Relief rushes all the way into my toes.

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

Olivia peaks out from behind my arm. 

“I knew it.” Ryan lets go of my hand like he was never scared at all.

Bubby whistles through his fingers to get our attention. 

“This was a lock down drill. You need to know how to respond to an unexpected threat in the school. If you are alone and hear that announcement, ‘have a happy day, Brookview Elementary,’ get to the closest place to hide out of sight.” We are waved back to our seats.

The lock down code words are added to my brain dictionary. I would like to tell the principal that “have a happy day” is not an appropriate code for a lock down, because lock downs are full of sad day sounds. 

Olivia, Ryan, and I don’t mention the drill again during lunch. We turn ourselves from puddles of fear back into sixth-graders, into the oldest students at Brookview Elementary. Liquid to solid. Phase transition.

Ryan fills his mouth with sloppy joe. 

“Where were we?” he mumbles through the goop.

I laugh and pretend my head isn’t spinning. I move my sandwich around in its plastic wrap, appetite lost. It’s easier not to talk about things.


I like my walks home from school, because I learn how months feel. October air smells like chimney smoke and feels like sinking into cool water, but the good kind of cool water that makes you feel awake. It’s my favorite type of air.

My house is so close to the school that I can practically see it from my front porch, so the walk doesn’t take too long. I see Dad’s truck is in the driveway and my insides turn to quicksand. He is not usually home until dark.

The truck makes me think about third grade. I’ve learned a lot since then. I know not to say crazy things that will get me sent back to Ms. Bishop. She told them what I said about the fighting and it made Dad mad, but I hardly said anything at all. Not really. After that, Dad promised that he would never leave but that wasn’t exactly the problem.

I don’t want him to leave. But I’m afraid of what happens when he stays.

I open the front door and see Dad on the couch. His hands are covered in white paint and balled up in his lap. The TV is on loud. A knife slaps the cutting board too hard in the kitchen. Sad day sounds.

 “Hi, Dad.” I stay close to the door, where I can escape to the front yard and suck down October air if the yelling starts.

“How was your day?” He doesn’t look away from the TV.

“Good. Why are you home?” 

My question carves lines into Dad’s forehead. I try to reverse time and take the words back. Sometimes I think I have dormant magic inside me. One day my powers will wake up and make everything better.

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

I know those words. They turn Dad into a monster. I must fight back with words that will make him soft again.

“We had a lock down today,” I say. The lines in his face fill back up. His eyes focus on me like spotlights on a stage. Mom comes into the room with a towel in her hands. 

“What did you say, Hannah? You had a lock down?”

“It was a drill, but we didn’t know at first. I was scared.” 

Dad turns the TV down and makes room for me on the couch. 
Beth Turley 
MG contemporary

“Don’t be scared, hon. No threat is going to hurt my girl.” He kisses the top of my head. 

Threat. The same word Bubby used in the cafeteria. I have the basic definition in my brain dictionary. I add more.

Threats are when the hurt is right in front of you but doesn’t touch you. Threats make you forget about everything except being whole and safe and happy again.

I wish Dad would always be this way. I’d do anything to make the sad sounds go quiet forever. 


The next day, my class is copying vocabulary. I write the words in my notebook like a researcher on the verge of discovering treasure. Analysis: detailed examination of the elements or structure of something. Falsification: to present an untruth. Intention: an aim or plan.

The tip of my pencil breaks. I walk to the back of the room and shove my pencil into the sharpener. The grinding sound is a happy one. It means a new point, a shiny do-over.

I look down. A small piece of paper is crunched into a ball on the floor. I pick it up and stretch it out. Three words are written on the torn-off corner of a sheet of notebook paper:



  1. Hey Beth!

    Your pitch is very intriguing! I love how you hint at a possible unreliable narrator...could Hannah have written the notes?? I also love how it looks like the ending will come full circle. You've started with the drill, and its' ending with the threat becoming realized. There are two parts that seem vague to me. The stuffed animal line seems out of place. I think I wanted a bit more explanation there. Also the line "She is faced with the truth of what actions can cause" feels like it needs a bit more. But this is subjective, and I'm not great at pitches myself, so I could be way off! After reading the pitch I definitely wanted to read the rest. It tugged my heart strings.


    Great job working these pages over the last few weeks. When I read the first draft and then read this one, the difference is night and day. I love the bits and pieces where you weave in the happy and sad day sounds. Its unique, and I'm in love with the idea!

    I love the new bit about October air. Really added atmosphere, and I felt it myself.

    There wasn't much to critique in the pages. The only thing that popped in my head was at the end. When Hannah sees a small piece of paper, what makes her decide to pick it up and unroll it to read it? If it's just a corner piece ripped off a page, it would be pretty little, and I'm wondering what made it stick out in Hannah's head.

    Really I love everything else. So happy to have had this experience with you. Can't wait to hear how you do with this!

    A L

    1. Thanks so much for this feedback, A L. I've really enjoyed going through this process with you!

  2. Hey Beth!

    This sounds like a story middle school me would have loved.(I'm not ashamed to admit that I had more imaginary friend's than real ones, lol.) And you've made so many great improvements to these pages! Since you had a bit of trouble finding your true starting point (don't worry, we all do), I thought I'd recommend that you go to YouTube and search 'beat sheet.' There's this great 16 minute long video that explains story structure (which you might have already seen or are familiar with) but it'll help you to make sure you have all these great scenes you've written in the right order. Now, I bring this up because after reading your pitch, I think you're going a bit too far in the story to give us the stakes! The pitch needs to make the agent/editor/reader say, I HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK, without telling them everything that happens. So ideally, you don't want to reveal what happens past page fifty(ish) in the MS, but you still want to set up the stakes. So, if you've already structured your story correctly, you can go to that point in your MS (maybe page 25 since it's MG and has a shorter word count) and see what the stakes are at that point and set up the query with that in mind. That should give you more words to work with in your pitch, so you can use that beautiful literary voice and give everyone a taste of what the book will be like. I hope this helps some!

    I've so enjoyed working with you the last few weeks, and am grateful to have traded feedback. I wish you the very best with your writing and lots of luck too!


    1. Make that friends*, lol. Sorry, I'm typing around my sick baby!

    2. Thanks so much for your feedback, Jamie! I've really enjoyed working with you during this process.

  3. Hi Beth!!

    This is definitely the kind of middle grade I would read, so I'm glad to learn more about it through your pitch! There were a few things I noticed:

    - your hook is a little long and tries to pack a lot in. The line "but her overly introspective mind leaves her wondering at what cost" confused me a bit, because I would think finding threatening notes directed at you, especially as an 11 year old, would at least come close to overshadowing attention. It became a little more clear when I realized Hannah might be an unreliable narrator, but right at first I wasn't too sure.

    - Is Hannah giving voices to inanimate objects something that develops from her cataloging sounds? If not, it might be good to have some part of that show up in your pages

    - as a structural thing, ending your pitch with "Who wrote the notes?" and then immediately saying your title makes the pitch feel a bit anticlimactic for me. Sort of like "Who wrote the notes?" "We all did" "oh, okay," haha

    In terms of your pages, I really like what you've done with them! I think the areas I thought were a bit choppy last week have been fixed, and you did a great job at doing it in a subtle way that I think really works. Thanks so much for all your feedback this month, and I hope I've been helpful!!

    1. Thank you for pointing these issues out, Maggie, and for your feedback throughout these weeks!

  4. Hi Beth,

    You have a lot going on both in your pitch and your pages. I'm not sure where to focus. What is Hannah's primary threat? First, we're worried about a school shooting. Even though this is a drill, it's the first scene. That sets the tone and expectation--that old playwright adage of don't put a gun in the first act unless it's going to go off. So, we know something needs to happen with a lockdown. Then we get a threatening dad. She's more worried about his staying than his leaving, which is scary. We worry: Is he abusive? Then death threat notes. Very scary!

    Now with the pitch, I've gone from not knowing where to focus to not being sure what's going on at all. Is Hannah mentally ill? You mentioned magical realism. Are the objects actually talking to her, or is it in her mind? When there are magical elements, as a reader, I like having a clue from the first few pages. If magic seems to come out of nowhere, I can angry and stop trusting the author. You don't want that. We know Hannah puts a lot into sounds. Could we get a hint earlier that she sees or hears more from things than others do? A sun smiling or whistling a tune would do it. How does that make her feel? Is that normal for her or does she feel weird about it? Also, how important are the magical elements? Are they necessary? Is the reader supposed to ask "is this real or just in her mind"? If so, that's fine. A lot of books do that very well. It's tricky to juggle, but I'm sure you'll get there.

    I agree with Maggie. The title of We All Wrote the Notes seems to answer the question of who wrote the notes. I'm left asking again if Hannah is mentally ill and has dissociative personalities or if it's something more nuanced, like a commentary of today's society.

    I've really enjoyed getting to read your pages these past few weeks. You've worked hard, and I really like Hannah and care about what happens to her. Thanks for sharing your work and being so open to critique. I have no doubt that you'll keep taking this in the right direction.


    1. Hi Kelly,

      Thank you so much for your continued feedback during this workshop, and for pointing out these issues!

  5. Hi Beth,

    Wonderful job! My comments are below.


    This is a very intriguing pitch. It sounds like we are dealing with an unreliable narrator—which is one of my favorite kinds of narrators. Overall, the pitch is very strong. That said, I did find a few things that were confusing. This may be the magical realism aspect, but the reference to Hannah relying on inanimate objects for comfort and that they “also have a story to tell” feels like a completely different story to the one presented. This could be something that works within your pages, but right now it feels like there may be too many elements at work here.

    It has been said in previous comments, but I agree, if the main question you are ending on is “who wrote the notes?” the title should not be WE ALL WROTE THE NOTES. When you read, you are reading to solve some sort of unknown and for me, this answered the biggest unknown. Who wrote the notes? Well, they all did. That said, I think overall this is a great setup and I would be curious to read more.


    I absolutely love your opening. How Hannah views sounds is incredibly unique and her voice hooked me right away. Throughout the pages, I think you do a wonderful job of maintaining her voice and perspective—you really show us who she is as a character without telling us.

    Overall, I think these pages are incredibly strong and there’s not much to critique. My one small qualm is in the pitch you mentioned that this story has elements of magical realism. Right now, we don’t see that aspect in these pages. At some point, there does need to be a hint of magical realism or that this could have magical realism aspects, so it doesn’t feel to jarring when it does occur.

    Best wishes,

  6. Hi Beth,

    Thank you for sharing your revision with us! I'm sorry I'm late with comments--my 7yo has been home with the flu all week and I've lost track of things!

    I am glad to see these scenes revisited. They read more cleanly, although I am still a little unsure as to what kind of story I'm reading. The opening with the lock down drill reads like a thriller, but then we switch to familiar contemporary issues in the next scene. This suggests that maybe the focus is in the wrong place in the opening scene. Even during a lockdown drill, the action can be about the friends, the teacher, the interpersonal interactions during that moment, and right now we don't see much of that. We need our main character's mind to be on the issues this book will be about, even during the drill. Kids make connotations to all kinds of backstory and other worries during different situations, and I feel like we could use a little bit of that technique to provide focus.

    If the story centers on the notes, I do believe the first one should appear in the opening scene, so that we know what this story is about.

    I do find your pitch very intriguing because it gets straight into the mystery of the notes and focuses on perhaps the manuscript should do the same?

    Sometimes openings are rewritten many times, and without reading the rest of the story it's hard to be sure which direction to go in, so I will just reiterate that every scene needs to feel like we are in the same story. We should have the same level of interior commentary from the main character in the opening scene as we do in the home scene that follows.

    Best of luck with your writing!

    Melanie Conklin
    First Five mentor