Saturday, March 4, 2017

1st 5 Pages March Workshop- Morrison-Taylor

Name: Kathi Morrison-Taylor
Genre: MG, Magical Realism

Kimberley Adams crossed the long line of minivans and convertibles, waved to her friends Dehlia and Jonathan (who waved back holding high their blue ribbon from Regional ScienceFest)  and started her walk across the sports fields toward University Hill. Her friends knew better than to ask her to the pool. They knew where she was going. They knew they couldn’t stop her, not even on the last day of school. She had an academic appointment to keep, with her grandfather, Abu.

True, her homeroom teacher had, as Jonathan liked to put it had,  “nipped her Elizabethan obsession in the butt,” quieting her bossy “Thou shalt invert thy fractions” and “Thou hath not simplified” in math workshop, and shutting down her Shakespearean knock,knock jokes. She couldn’t help but remind both Jonathan and her teacher that Hamlet is about obsession and she is all about Hamlet, earning a groan from Jonathan and a warning, although a playful one, from her teacher.

But that afternoon  was the best afternoon ever. Free of school at last, Kimberley released her obsession, practicing lines from Hamlet’s soliloquy as she crossed her school’s soggy sports fields that led to the flight of outside steps up University Hill to Abu’s office. 

Not the whole soliloquy, Abu had explained, but the beginning, “because you are a beginner,” said Abu, “no offense.”

“No offense taken,” Kimberley had answered. She had to admit she was proud of herself.  And they were going to finish the play!  They were going to read Act V, Scene II: today was the day.

“To be, or not to be. That is the question.” Kimberley began at the beginning the base of the stairs. 

It had been a day of thunderstorms, and her white Keds were wet with green grass stains on her toes from her walk across the soccer fields. The soles felt kind of squishy, but she really didn’t mind.

She was finally going to finish the play!  She and Abu were going to read Act V, Scene II together. Today was the day, thought Kimberley. Hamlet would finally make his decision, and the story would come to an end.

Hamlet had been Abu’s idea. Their next great read after Oliver Twist. He had introduced it to her with a question: 

If you know your uncle killed your dad, and your dad appears to you as a ghost and asks you to take revenge, what do you do next?

“I don’t know...I guess I’d...cry? Or maybe I’d ask the ghost to prove he’s my dad, and if he is my dad then I’d have to ask him what he meant by revenge, so…I guess I’d have to talk to the ghost”

“What if the ghost disappears?” asked Abu. “What then?”

Honestly, she had been skeptical. Face-to-face with Abu’s Shakespeare work all her life, she could see how it energized him. But what if she didn’t like it? And worse, what if she didn’t understand it? Abu was never one to dumb things down. And if he were to make an exception for her, that would make her...dumb.

Ten steps up the walkway, Kimberley began again. 

“To be, or not to be? That is the question.” 

Kimberley liked questions. So did Abu. When would she learn that she never needed to doubt Abu? Hamlet was the absolute best thing they had ever read. 

During this part, he was waiting for his girlfriend and wondering what to do about his murderous uncle. Little did he know, his uncle was hiding in the same room, spying on him.

Hamlet was the best, and they would finish it today. One side of the sky was blue with puffy clouds and the other side of the sky was a strange gray-cat green. The wind was pushing that side away.

The storms had left the stairway glazed with water and snails washed onto the concrete from the eroding hillside under the railing. Smelly, messy jacaranda trees. Kimberley placed her feet to avoid crushing them, but many shells were crunched from earlier, students climbing from the parking lot to their noontime classes.

“Whether ‘tis nobler in mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…”

As if snails had a choice, thought Kimberley. There’s no controlling foot traffic in life, as there’s no controlling murderous uncles in literature.  Plenty of suffering, but how could suffering be “noble”?

That was something to ask Abu.

Suffering extended to others in her life who were not as fond of Elizabethan English. When Mama had found out that Abu was reading Kimberley “Hamlet,” she simply put her face in her hands.  But the pain didn’t last for long. Mama put together put together a top 5 list of “pleasant” Hamlet takeaways and posted it on the refrigerator. 

“For when the going gets tough,” said Mama. 

“Show off!” Abu had scolded, but it was clear that he was pleased with his actress-daughter, although he’d always choose to ignore her warnings.  

“She’s a brainy one,” she heard Abu tell Mama, “with less than half of your drama.”

(MAMA’S REFRIGERATOR LIST - imagine it illustrated with cartoons)

5.  Neither a borrower nor a lender be...

4.  “What a piece of work is a man! Act II (especially good while watching drivers stuck in traffic jams)

3. Knock, Knock.
Who’s there? 
Wherefore means.
Wherefore means who? 
No, “wherefore” means “why.” How many times do we have to go over this?

2. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Something is rotten in the state of California. Something is rotten in the state of our kitchen…

1.  This above all: to thine own self be true.

They’d saved the last scene for that last day on purpose. 

“A grand finale,” Abu said, “for a grand year, Kimber.  Plus,” he added, “it’s never good to rush the Bard.”

“The Bard?” asked Kimberley. Abu’s cat?

“Shakespeare,” answered Abu. “A bard is simply a professional poet, a storyteller. Shakespeare is the best. Ergo, we call him THE bard”

“The Bard?” Kimberley repeated. She knew The Bard. He lived at Abu’s apartment, a fat tabby with a high voice, fond of catnip and carpet fuzz.

“David named him, you know” explained Abu. 

Kimberley noticed how his hand went right to his watch, a gift from his friend David, who had, as Mama would say, “spent a whole year dying” when Kimberley was in second grade.

At the landing in the middle of the stairway, Kimberley stopped and finished the last bit of her lines.

“Or...or…or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?”

They were five lines whole lines of Hamlet’s speech. It amazed her how they were really just one big ginormous question. 

The Prince of Denmark talked like that a lot. Sometimes as she’d read the play,  Kimberley wondered if Hamlet kept talking, and thinking, and talking about thinking to avoid answering questions. 


  1. Hi Kathi, Welcome to First 5 Pages! You've got a very interesting premise here--Hamlet in middle school--and a vivacious heroine. I'm interested to see where you plan to go with these notions. That said, I feel like your first five pages are, at this point, still a work in progress. You are "writing in" to the story--giving us a lot of backstory material that you, as the author, need to know BUT that readers don't need (especially at the opening of a novel) because it slows the story down. First revisions can be overwhelming so I will give you just a few points on which to focus for this pass.
    1. INFORMATION OVERLOAD. I'm not sure we need the names or scientific interests of her friends, the fact that we have minivans in the parking lot, or a list of Shakespeare puns and quips filling those ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL VERY FIRST PARAGRAPHS of our tale. I'd ask myself, What is the most important thing readers need to know about Kimberly AND WHAT DOES SHE WANT (or think she wants) as the story begins? Then, HOW can I SHOW READERS and not just tell them about Kimberly? For example, what if she's holding a copy of the book tightly--showing us she loves the play w/out saying "K loves Hamlet"--you get it! For me, the story feels like it really starts with "To be or not...of the stairs." Charming, Hamlet-centric, and a critical question (is it also Kimberley's as it is Hamlet's?) Maybe play with that as Sentence #1.
    2. Magic Realism. You say this book is MG Magic Realism but this feels very realistic on pages 1-5. If there's going to be a magic realism component, I'd write in a whiff or two here--something in the style or subject matter to clue readers in to what kind of book this is going to be more broadly.
    3. LESSONS. Middle grade readers love to learn but they don't all love to be TAUGHT. Some lines feel like an English lesson posing as fiction, or a bit too much of an apologia for Shakespeare. You want to draw readers in by connecting them with Kimberly and wanting to discover what she discovers--but first they need to know WHY she loves Shakespeare--beyond merely telling them she has an "Elizabethan obsession."
    4. Kimberly and "Mama" (her mother?) are a little bit confusing. I want to know how/when K told Mama about the Hamlet plan; how Mama relates to Abu (love, annoyance, is she also a professor at the school?); why Mama would counter K's announcement with a list (again, feels "teacher-y") and how Kimberly felt about the list (irritated, grateful, amused)? And then we get a VERY surprising and sophisticated remark that Abu's friend "spent a whole year dying" without any additional information or even a real emotional reaction about that from K or Mama?!
    5. ENDINGS. The opening pages involve THE END OF SCHOOL; THE END OF A BOOK; and a reference to THE END OF JAMES. That's a lot of ending for a beginning. Something to think about in terms of theme/plot/imagery.
    Whew! I know that's a lot. Pick 2 or 3 of the above comments that make the most sense to you and work on those elements. I find I have to revise opening scenes around 10-15 times before I feel like I've really found where my story starts. Don't be intimidated. Get excited and write, write, write!
    Have a great week! - Stasia

    1. Hi Stasia,
      I think you're exactly right. Thinking about these pages this week have confirmed my suspicion that I've started with the wrong part of the story, maybe because I wanted to get to know my character better before putting her in conflict. So, lots of work to do!

      I have tried other openings from later in the book, but none of them have worked either. This may mean that I need to create an entirely new scene? Definitely I will include at least a touch of MR in my next draft.
      Thanks so much!

    2. Working through these issues about the opening is an important part of the process. You're doing good work to be open to revising this and finding that perfect start. Certainly you can consider something brand new but here are two other possibilities:
      1. Go narrower. Instead of moving from friends/parking lot to flashback with Mama to thoughts about Abu, perhaps JUST take us on Kimberly's walk to Abu's office OR show us IN REAL TIME (not flashback) K's conversation with Mama about reading Hamlet with Abu and let us see some conflict. Think of it as a single scene instead of a sort of cinematic montage introduction to All Aspects of Kimberly.
      2. Mine your later chapters. Instead of creating a new scene, perhaps look for material you've got in other chapters that gives readers a strong connection not just to Kimberly's external wants (to read Shakespeare with Abu) but also her internal wants/needs (e.g., the reason why it's so important to her--is is Shakespeare she loves or Abu or something especially about Hamlet?).
      Perhaps, through one of these approaches, you'll find a more organic way to infuse the text with some of that magic realism, too.
      PS: In your comments below, you mention Abu dying--maybe your opening pages need a hint that K is worried about this possibility and maybe this nuances her relationship to him, her mom and Shakespeare.
      KEEP GOING!!!! :)

  2. Hello Kathi. There is a lot to like about your characters and the set-up of your story. Showing how much Kimberly likes Hamlet and Shakespeare helps in the creation of a unique and memorable character in Kim.

    The use of some quotes, especially when used in a fun way, as you have done with some of these, is great. However, they do seem to feel overdone. And there is one, maybe small, detail that threw me off in relation to them. It is surprising that we have a character so obsessed with Shakespeare yet she doesn't know, or has ever heard, of him being referred to as 'the bard' before now.

    Again, I like a lot of what you are telling us about the characters but the flow is a bit too back and forth (between the present and the flashback information). I would suggest to pick out all the flashback information and rank its importance to your character and the story. Pepper in a few of them here, that are most relevant, but leave the rest for later, or work them into the story in other ways.

    Dialogue is a good way to get backstory information into the present and it feels more natural if it comes out in conversation as opposed to author intrusion. Once you get the scene set and begin to progress, it is good to stay with the character for a while.

    Hope this helps a bit as you consider revisions.


    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Patrick. When I think more carefully about these pages, I realize that they're really ALL flashback/backstory and I am truly starting in the wrong place. The premise is not clear in these pages, so I have some work to do! All is not lost, since I have a clear view of my characters in my head and as you said about "peppering"!

  3. Hi Kathi

    Excited to be on this journey with you!

    First of all, I’m a sucker for a Shakespearean retelling, so for me this holds great promise. But perhaps it’s not actually a retelling? Where does the connection with Hamlet in particular lie? What is its value to the story?

    I think your first paragraph is solid – I actually like the details of minivans, convertibles, blue ribbons, ScienceFest, but it does add a layer of complexity to your opening that could be difficult for your reader to decode immediately. Maybe drip-feed some details separately and later?

    The first sentence of your second paragraph is tricky to read and decipher. I would suggest simplifying, and moving a simpler version to later in the chapter. You are assuming some level of knowledge of Shakespeare and/or Hamlet among your readership. I think you can expect this of a YA novel, but it’s a stretch for MG.

    I was also left wondering why, if Abu is a Shakespeare scholar, he would have been reading Oliver Twist with her at all. If Hamlet is the first Shakespeare play they have read together, then her obsession is new? In which case, perhaps refer to it as a recent obsession. Alternatively, lose the obsession of the opening paragraphs, make Kimberley as ignorant (in a nice way) of Shakespeare/Hamlet as the average MG reader, and they can go on the journey together.

    I read “During this part, he was waiting for his girlfriend,” as referring to Abu, as he had been referenced in the previous two lines. It was disorienting to realize it was referring to Hamlet.

    The quotes and ‘real-life’ examples, followed by Mama’s refrigerator list (so Mama also had a Shakespeare obsession?), broke the flow of the story. Often, it if looks “bitty” on the page, it is choppy to read as well.

    I t;hink if you moved out some of the Hamlet stuff, we would get to the crux of the chapter more quickly. I think you may lose some MG readers with the lack of tension and the English literature lesson. ;-)

    I hope this is helpful. I think Kimberley sounds like a really interesting character who will “to her own self be true”.

    Best regards

    1. Thanks for your careful reading, Caroline. It's not a retelling, but the experience of reading this play with her grandfather, leads Kimberley and Abu (her grandfather) to make an agreement that he will try to contact her after his death. This discussion, this day, this play, stick to Kimberley because Abu dies before the details or "how to" of their agreement is clear . I have a lot of work to do! I am obviously starting too far in backstory...

  4. Hi Kathi!

    SHAKESPEARE. Any twelve-year-old with an obsession for Shakespeare is definitely a star in my book. I'm excited to see how the magical realism bit comes into play, though I'll admit, I'd love to see more hints of the magical in the first five pages.

    My main suggestion for your pages is grounding the scene more in the present. There's a lot of information being delivered here and some felt a bit clunky, particularly the "flashbacks" of Kimberley's interactions with Abu. I was also confused from time to time when these moments of the past would transition back to the present. I'd strongly recommend having Kimberley meet Abu much earlier in the scene. Technically, what we have for the entire first five pages is the scene of her walking toward his office. Given that this is MG, I think the story could benefit from more action and forward momentum.

    As it is now, there's little conflict driving the story. Perhaps you could cut back on the Hamlet references (there's plenty of room for that later!) and let us know what Kimberley wants, what's in her way, and what she plans on doing to get it.

    And I'd love to see more of some magic :)


    1. Thanks, Silvia. I think you're exactly right. I'll see what I can do!

  5. Hi there Kathi,

    It took me a few tries here of re-reading this piece a few times to make sure I had it right but here's my thoughts on it:

    The premise is interesting but I struggled to really keep up with what was happening as it seems a bit disjointed and bounces around a lot. You have a lot of settings going on here and moving through them and its a little hard to keep track for me.

    I was trying to pinpoint more in on Kimberly's personality and I could not get a solid bead on her. I get she is learning and going over Shakespeare's work with Abu but why? Also why would the scholar do this for a young girl? The connection there on their relationship confused me a bit.

    I like the premise, and looking forward to your revisions!


    1. Hi Cal,
      Abu is Kimberley's grandfather. Abuelo = Spanish for grandfather, and half of Kimberley's family is Puerto Rican. He is/was a university professor who often reads with her in his office after she gets out of school. He dies before the main action of this book, but his death is the catalyst for all the main action. I have WAY TOO MUCH BACKSTORY in these first it;)

  6. Hi Kathi!

    I LOVE your MC, and as an obsessive kid and now obsessive adult, I find it easy to relate to her. I'm intrigued by the set up and where it's going. My biggest problem this go-round is with the voice. It doesn't sound very MG to me, especially with such a long and dense first sentence, and so much backstory. I think, as Stacia said, that you're writing your way into the story, the way that construction workers put up scaffolds to allow them to build the walls of buildings. The problem is, when you come to revise for readers, those scaffolds have to come down. (I know, it sounds scary, but you can do it.)

    So, a couple of suggestions.

    1. More action. By this I do NOT mean you need an explosion, or something. But just look at what is happening in these pages. She's walking, and reciting to herself (which I love by the way) and thinking about how she started reading Hamlet. That's not a lot of actual story movement. You need something to happen. Maybe a conversation with one of her friends where some of this backstory can come up naturally. Maybe an obstacle in her path that makes her fear being late and have to adjust her course. But she needs to be interacting with the world a lot more here, I feel.

    2. Sensory details. You have some great visuals here, like the snails and her squishy shoes. But they get lost amid the exposition, and I think we need more of this too. More of how her worlds feels and tastes and smells. That will help ground the story a bit.

    3. Not so many memories. Okay, so I love some of these mini scenes you've put in. Abu and Mom talking, Mom putting the list on the refrigerator, Abu touching his watch. But because they're all memories, and so clustered together at the beginning, a lot of the impact is lost. I want to be there when Abu tells Mom that Kimber is a brainy one. I want to see the list on the fridge when Kimber comes home and learn about it that way, in the context of the rest of her house and family. I want to see Abu touch his watch while he and Kimber are meeting. These things would be much more powerful as part of an active scene of thier own, and it would give you much more room for the current story as it unfolds.

    I hope this was helpful and I'm excited to see where you go with your revisions! Good luck!

  7. I think you have a very interesting premise. I love that the heroine is crazed about Shakespeare. I did enjoy reading this, but I think you have to do a lot more work polishing it.

    What didn’t work for me:

    Personally, I’m not a fan of using parenthesis in a story and as a reader I find they jolt me out of the scene.

    I think you want to make it more clear who exactly Abu is early on. With the office, my first guess was teacher.

    I liked your descriptions of things like the grass. I thought it was cute and it sounded like MG. But I think you might have used a bit too many of those cute descriptions within the five pages. They are great when used sparingly.

    I could see where the list might work as an illustration, but in the story itself I thought it didn’t quite work.

    I do think if Abu is so crazy about Shakespeare and they are this far into Hamlet Abu would have used the term The Bard early on.

    Watch mixing your tenses.

    I did enjoy the Shakespeare quotes, but I think you over did it. Like the cute descriptions, they have more impact if used sparingly.

    And I do think writing about Shakespeare for MG you will have to work really hard to make sure you keep it fun without getting too pretentious.

    Hope this helps.