Sunday, March 12, 2017

1st 5 Pages March Workshop- Taylor Rev 1

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

“To be or not to be?”  

Free of school at last, Kimberley Adams could finally practice her Shakespeare. Reciting her lines, she began her walk across Sun Canyon Day School’s soggy sports fields.

If she looked up, she could see the long flight of steps up University Hill to Oscar Wilde Hall. And if she squinted, she could count the windows on the fourth floor of Oscar Wilde Hall to find her exact destination point - the Literature Wing, Professor Blanco, her grandfather’s office.

But she wasn’t looking up today. She was in a hurry, so much of a hurry that she didn’t even worry about green grass stains on the toes of her new white Keds.

Today they were going to finish the play, she and her grandfather, her abuelo, Abu. They were going to read Act V, Scene II, and Hamlet would finally take revenge...or maybe not. 

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

“Kimberley, wait! Kimber, hold up!” 

Kimberley stopped. She didn’t need to turn around to know it was her friend Dehlia chasing her again.

“My mom wants to know if you’ll go to the mall with us. We can get the clips I need for science fair and then stop for ice cream and my mom will drop you at home after.”

“Sorry,” said Kimberley. “I have my appointment.”

Dehlia put her hands on her hips. “I know you’re going to go read Hamlet with your grandfather but I’m just saying…You go every day!”

Kimberley gave Dehlia her fiercest look.

“I’m just saying, the words are weird. It’s not like it’s really even English!  And it’s kind of sad, too. Remember you were crying in math just a few days ago because that girl died?”

“Ophelia,” said Kimberly, sighing. Dehlia meant well, but she just didn’t get it.  “Ophelia dies. I know. I told you. I’ve got to go.”

“And she’s not even real, I’m just saying...”

“It’s okay. We’re finishing Hamlet today. Gotta go,” Kimberley turned quickly, took one big step and hopped over a puddle. “Bye. Tell your mom thanks anyway.”

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

The storms had left the stairway glazed with water and snails washed onto the concrete from the eroding hillside. Kimberley went tiptoe to avoid crushing them. Still many shells had been crunched earlier, university 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. 

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

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

“Sea of troubles…” Kimberley repeated. The snails didn’t stand a chance. Hamlet, on the other hand...

Which was Hamlet? Someone who suffers the slings and arrows of life, like the crushed snails? Or someone ready to battle a sea of troubles, take action? 

Which was she?

Abu’s office was on the 4th floor of Oscar Wilde Hall, the humanities building at California University.

“Alas, poor Yorick!!” Kimberley called out at the office door.

“I knew him,” came the completion of the line, from Abu within. 

With that, Kimberley swung open the door to her second home.

Books. Abu was all about books. Three walls were really bookshelves, and the fourth wall was half window, filled with pots of cilantro, a tasty herb and a tribute to his Puerto Rican roots.  

A love seat with plenty of large, squishy pillows pushed up next to the window nook. It was not unusual for Kimberley to find a student asleep there with a book in her lap or engaged in pocket chess with an imaginary opponent.

Next to the love seat was a large, orange papasan chair draped with a faux-fur throw that Abu’s university students had named “The Yeti.”

Kimberley stood in the doorway, scanning the office for students.

“Pray thee, enter,” said Abu, getting up from his desk and extending his hand to his granddaughter. “Are we ready, Miss Adams, to embark on our long awaited ending?”

He shook her hand formally, then caught her in a hug.

“I can’t believe it’s almost over,” Kimberley said, making a cape of the Yeti and slipping into the tall wooden chair next to Abu’s desk. 

Abu shook his head and chuckled.“You are aware that my students call that chair the ‘hot seat’?” 

Kimberley shrugged and they began to read: Kimberley in the “hot seat,” and Abu in his professor seat, behind his giant desk. Abu read Hamlet’s part. Kimberley read Horatio’s answer. Abu read the stage directions. Kimberley read Hamlet’s part. Back and forth they transformed magically from one character to the next Abu encouraging her awkward attempts at voices.

An hour passed quickly. An hour and a half.

When Hamlet chose to fight for his honor and vengeance for his father,
Yes, Kimberley thought to herself, “to be,” “to be” is winning!

And then, all of a sudden, “It’s over,” she sobbed. “The play is over.”

Ophelia’s fate had been bad enough. She had counted on Hamlet’s becoming king, not Hamlet's dying.

““Shakespeare would say it’s not over,” said Abu. “The play goes on and on, and wouldn’t you know: All the world’s a stage!” I know you liked it, but now we’ll find something else.” 

“Liked it? Liked it? It was the best ever until we finished. The end wrecked everything. Dehlia’s right. Shakespeare’s stupid.” 

Kimberley pulled away from Abu and landed in the papasan chair. Even though it was late in the afternoon, the green light from earlier storms hadn’t faded. Dead. Dead. Dead. Tears rolled down her cheeks. Abu set a box of tissues in her lap.

Part of her couldn’t stop crying. Kimberley hated that part of herself, but it always took over at times like these. Part of me wants to stay calm and take action, but part of me drowns in my own tears, she thought to herself: to be and not to be.

On a blood-red bookshelf behind his professor-desk, Abu kept his favorite things: the complete works of William Shakespeare, a plastic model of a human skull, and a magic 8 ball. The shelf was mounted at chair level. When she had been little, Kimberley had set her chin on the shelf to be eye-to-eye with Mr. Ricky, her baby-name for the skull.

Staring up at Mr. Ricky now through her tears, Kimberley sensed a villainous greenish glow where eyes should be.

“Your mother was probably right,” said Abu, his hand on her shoulder. 


“Hamlet may be too much about death,” he said.  “Too much about death says a lot about life,” he continued to himself.

He knelt and pulled her into a hug. “I think this is why in our family there are so many Catholics. First, we’re here, and then, we’re gone.”

“Abu, where do you think we go?” asked Kimberley.

“Well, Hamlet says The Undiscovered Country. Whether it is a Heaven beyond gates of pearl, or a swirling portal through a black hole, or a parallel universe on the dark side of the moon, no traveler has returned to report back to us yet.”

“What if we could find it?” asked Kimberley. “The Undiscovered Country. What if a traveler came back with instructions or a map?”


  1. Better! Narrower focus. You're getting closer. That said, there's still some closing-in to do. The biggest problem is that there's still too much telling. LOTS of description of office, bookshelves, chairs (the whole cilantro bit feels forced), academic musing on Shakespeare & literature in general, names of chairs/skull...again, it's all good, important backstory work for the author to know but so much in these open pages drags the pace.
    HERE ARE A FEW QUESTIONS/ISSUES OF CONFUSION that, if addressed, might get you even closer: 1-What AGE/GRADE is Kimberley? 2-There's a Day School AND University (adjacent?) - needs a bit of explanation. 3-How can Dehlia be her friend if she NEVER joins her after school AND if Dehlia really "doesn't get" her AND if they are friends, then this exchange feels a little too angry. 4-You give the whole 4th Floor Oscar Wilde hall info twice (pp 4 & around pp 20). 5-That Catholics line really leaps out--is it important? Because, if not, if feels like bias. 6-Bursting into tears and digging deep about death at the end of Hamlet is a kind of a huge reaction to just reading a play out loud--it needs more of a WHY answer. 7-Near end, K says "Dehlia was right" about death stuff and then Abu, several PP later mutters that K's MOTHER was right. Something's missing here. 8-Green eyed glow of skull -- is that your hint at magic realism? It feels slight and not quite magic realism. Take a look at the first pages of CIRCUS MIRANDUS (Beasley), THE BOUNDLESS (Oppel) or EXCEPTIONAL CHICKENS... (Jones) for strong examples of middle grade magic realism.
    Having read two versions of this opening, I get the feeling that maybe Kimberley (and Abu) are working through death of Abu's friend (a very interesting and potentially fruitful premise) and maybe this explain's K strong reactions and Abu's faraway looks, but I'm not sure that's something you can hold back as a surprise in a middle grade format. Consider HARRY POTTER (Ch 1 we learn Harry is unhappy and unloved at Dursleys and THUS we understand the appeal of the Hogwarts invite), or THE SECRET GARDEN (Ch 1 we learn Mary Lennox has lost her family to cholera and is suddenly in dreary, lonely England, so we understand her desire to seek out the source of the mystery weeping (Colin)), or HOLES (Ch 1 we learn Stanley's family is cursed with bad luck and that he is wrongly accused of stealing, so we understand his mixed emotions when he meets the other juvenile delinquents at Camp Green Lake).
    I'd double-back and look at the starts of some of your favorite middle grade novels. Break them down. See how they show the ordinary world of the character, her loss/want/need, and some elements of the incident that starts the plot rolling. Then hold up your first five against your study of these books and see if you can make sure that you, too, are ticking enough of those boxes.
    Keep up the great work!

    1. Hi Stasia,
      I'm having some trouble fitting the premise into the first five pages, but with the feedback from last time, I got a lot closer to understanding some of the main action in the book and discovering some good ways I can fix holes and insert backstory. For instance, from chapter three onward it is really important to understand that Kimberley has always had a battle with controlling her emotions, especially crying. Maybe that's not there yet, but I am happy that I got a start.

      I liked the idea of mining the story for a new starting place, but each time I found a potential fit, starting that far in felt like I was leaving something important out. So this time I decided to try making the first scene more immediate instead.
      In the paragraphs after these five pages, Abu promises Kimberley he'll try to contact her after his death, but they don't go into details. In the second chapter, Abu dies suddenly, and the rest of the story is the magical realism that results from spiritual contact. Since the spirit part of my story is based largely on Abu and Kimberley's literary relationship, Shakespeare in particular, when I try to start with the magical realism I end up with too much info to work in smoothly. I'll keep trying.

    2. Hi Kathi,

      I know I'm kind of hijacking this thread, but I thought I might try to address something I said in my own critique. Okay, knowing that Abu dies and his ghost is going to be crucial to the plot, I can definitely see why you'd begin with showing us the relationship between him and Kimberley.

      Below, in my own critique, I asked you what was Kimberley's problem in the story. I'm guessing you'd answer "her grandfather dies." But in most stories, a big event like that is actually the catalyst to trigger growth in the protagonist. In which case, Kimberley probably has a problem even before her grandfather passes away. Her life isn't perfect. No reader would ever read about a perfect character who was perfectly happy.

      My suggestion is try to figure out how Kimberley needs to grow and how her grandfather's death will help her. For example, I thought her relationship with Dehlia was rather strange and tense. Perhaps that's something you could mine.

    3. No, Kimberley's problem is not the death of Abu. As her author I can say her problem is synthesizing the parts of herself in her experience of grief. Kimberley's behavior after Abu dies allows her to discover different aspects of herself and her family. I put Dehlia in as an obstacle and to try to clear up some of the "who is she going to see?" without exposition. Her friends in Los Angeles play little role in her self-discovery; in ch 2 the setting changes to her extended family's home in Connecticut. In ch 4 she is literally pulled in two by her grief and must navigate her hunt for the undiscovered country with her crying double in tow.

  2. Hi Kathi!

    I thought this was a much stronger revision, so kudos on revamping the scene! I especially liked how you situated the story more with interactions, between Kimberley and her friend Dehlia, and later, between Kimberley and her grandfather. I also loved the little details of the office, like the yeti chair, though I do think you could probably keep the most crucial, delightful details and leave the rest.

    My main suggestion is figuring out: what is Kimberley's "problem" in this story? What's at stake for her? And how does reading Hamlet with her grandfather relate to this "main problem"?

    I love that Kimberley is passionate about Shakespeare, but I'd like to learn more about where this passion comes from. For one, it is extremely unusual for a young girl to love Shakespeare so much and to be moved by Hamlet to the degree that she'd burst into tears. This is a very particular type of person and we need to know what's going on in her head when she weeps. I'd like to hear more of Kimberley's thoughts and feel her emotions, instead of watching her from the outside, feeling slightly puzzled by her reactions.

    I know writers like to say "don't infodump" and "don't write in backstory," especially in the beginning. But if you look at some of the best children's books, they do actually incorporate backstory--they do it so skillfully, we don't notice. It's about balancing the active present with the emotional past.

    I'm sure once we link the two with a stronger bridge, we'd be able to follow Kimberley anywhere on her Shakespeare journey.


    1. Silvia - Just chiming in quickly to say I plan to quote you on the phrase "balancing the active present with the emotional past"! That is exactly it, isn't it? So difficult to achieve that balance but, to the reader, so magical when you manage it. - Stasia

  3. Hi Kathi. There are a number of new pieces to the puzzle added here and they really begin to flush out the characters. Some great details of the places and setting are included. "The Yeti" blanket is perfect. I would suggest you space out some really distinct elements though. You introduce 'The Yeti' and 'The Hot seat' within a few lines of each other and is seemed like too many detail names too fast.

    You repeat some words and phrases throughout the pages and this can be effective to the rhythm of the writing. However, once again it is the proximity. If they are in back to back sentences, it sounds off as it's read aloud. There are also a few times when you may not realize there is repetition, such as near the beginning when you write 'she could see..' 'she could count...' These phrases start to stand out.

    I like what you have done with Dehila. It is a good scene and she is needed here to interact with Kim. The conversation leaves me feeling a bit bad for Dehila though and liking Kim a bit less because of it. Dehlia is being nice and inviting Kim to hang out then shows some concern over seeing her act sad about the story she has been reading. The way Kim blows her off feels a bit rude and with that, I read it as Kim being the bad friend.

    I believe I can totally sympathize with Kim when she is so affected by Hamlet's death and can understand exactly how an unexpected ending can be jarring to a reader/viewer. I think the issue is that there is too little explanation here for Kim's outburst.

    I recall when I saw the first season of Game of Thrones (spoilers) that I identified with Eddard Stark and found him to be the real hero of the story. He was torn between duty and family and in the end is brutally murdered. I felt shock and dismay that the cowards and vilians remained and the hero suffered such a horrific end.

    Kim may have fallen in love with Hamlet, not just the story but the character. She may have naively expected to hear of him in other tales. She likely imagined his happily ever after. Then to lose that, and feel deceived, led on to love and then have it dashed, was heartbreaking. I get how and why she would act this way, but I think there needs to be a bit more of her inner thought on the matter. Perhaps add in some expectation that was lost.

    Weaving your story with the story of Hamlet is a great story concept and it just keeps getting better.

    Hope this helps.


    1. Thanks, Patrick. These first pages are such a balancing act. It is important for the reader to like Kimberley but it is true that Kimberley isn't necessarily "typical" and I don't think that necessarily will be a point to solve in the story, though her hyper-sensitivity does become important in what happens later. As a mom and teacher and INFJ myself I feel like the bookish kids who have been labelled "emotionally fragile" by teachers and "emo" by peers need more heroes in literature. Yep, she's rude to Dehlia, but she doesn't mean to be, she's just focussed on getting to her very favorite thing.
      We cry. We cry a lot in middle school and high school over things our teachers and parents don't imagine we'd cry about, and we hold back tears too, a lot, when we have learned they are "inappropriate."
      I promise I won't brush over the crying; in fact, Kimberely's own annoyance with her crying becomes clear early in the story.
      Thanks so much for your suggestions and giving me this space to work out "crying"! I'm not sure if my next draft will be this scene anymore. I've had a lot of enthusiasm from a friend to try to start in my current ch 3 - it may be a better opening point.

  4. Hi Kathi

    Well done on incorporating so much advice from last time. The revisions have definitely strengthened the opening and narrowed the focus.

    Your dialogue between the two girls reads a little stilted to me (and was the "I'm just saying" said three times by Dehlia meant to suggest she's a little annoying?) Also, by using this conversation to convey Kimberley's current mission, it makes some of the earlier lines redundant (we already know Kimberley is going to read Hamlet's final act with her grandfather).

    I worry that the 'to be or not to be' soliloquy that Kimberley practises as she walks is going to add a layer of confusion rather than clarity, especially when she uses the lines to reflect on the snails' demise and her own 'sea of troubles" - I think we need more of a hint about her sea of troubles at this point.

    I also found Abu's remarks about life/death/Catholics/the after-life confusing. I get that you are setting up a world view that will have relevance after Abu's death, but it feels a little forced.

    I really like Kimberley and Abu's warm relationship, and I think you should definitely keep some of the details of the setting that establishes their closeness (love the yeti blanket!), but simplify by removing Yorick, for example; plus surely she know the chair is the hot seat, she's been coming to this office for years?

    My final quibble is whether this is magical realism or paranormal/supernatural? If later Kimberley has contact with her dead Abu and/or Kimberley is going to be split in two and searching for the undiscovered country, to me this sounds more like a paranormal adventure. I think in magical realism, the realistic has to be more prominent; the magical element is subtle. Of course, I don't know your whole plot...

    This definitely has potential - and I'm a huge Hamlet fan, so I'll be interested to see where this story goes.

    best regards

  5. Hi Kathi,

    Good job on this revision, I feel it's a lot more stream lined and much stronger than the first time.

    However as others pointed out there seems to be some new things to uncover and go over.

    One thing I noticed is that sometimes the dialog feels a bit more mature than what I would expect - I had this issue too. However this also falls in line its not really clear what age Kim is. This line stuck out to me:

    “Sorry,” said Kimberley. “I have my appointment.”

    Dehlia put her hands on her hips. “I know you’re going to go read Hamlet with your grandfather but I’m just saying…You go every day!”

    Feels like it is one of those cardinal rules we have to avoid of show not tell, and characters wouldn't say something that they would know. This line strikes me as borderline of it. I could see Dehila getting upset and along the lines, "You never hang out! Only going and seeing your smelly old grandpa". Then again, I'm imaging these girls as no older than 12.

    Also I have to agree with others, the Catholic line seemed a little out of place, but within the first 5 lines I would let it get away so long as there's a follow up later. I sense some tension or contempt with it, not sure exactly Abu's meaning is of putting that in.

    I'm looking forward to the final revision! Your writing grew a lot between the first and this version!


  6. Good! Much more immediate and I love the addition of the friend and that we got to see more of her grandfather right away. Two people in a scene is always going to be more electric than just one.

    I do think you're still repeating info in a couple of places. For example, while I actually like that Dehlia mentions she's going to see her grandfather, the fact that Kimberly has already told us that makes it sound repetitive. But that's the glory of conversation, her friend can say "Oh right, you're going to see your grandfather," and then you don't need to also have Kimberly "tell" us.

    Conversation is also a good place to plant info too, like Kimberly being very emotional. For example, if Dehlia says something like "Are you sure you should even be reading that? My mom says it's really sad, and you cry over everything. You were crying in class..." etc, etc. That sets up last bit, in her grandfather's office, and allows you to write Kimberly crying without having to put a lot of explanation into the crying scene itself. You can just let us get lost in the scene, if that makes sense.

    The other thing I'd say, since we're going into the third revision, is that I recommend reading your pages out loud and looking for rough phrasing and any awkward spots. That will give you a good idea of what parts could be flowing better,

    I know revisions are intimidating, but this one was a great first step. You got this. :)

    Good luck!

  7. Kathi,
    It’s not easy tackling revisions and I think you are doing a great job.

    I like that you added the friend. And I like that we have more clarity on who Adu is.

    I think your heroine’s age is something you have to really consider throughout the whole piece. I do think at times your heroine seems way older than her actual age. Often, she says things that sound more like a twenty-year-old than a 12- year-old.

    Make sure your dialogue between the two friends is age appropriate. Right now, in a few places it seems like they are older. And there are parts that do sound a bit stilted. It’s hard to make dialogue sound natural. Try reading it out loud and thinking about how two girls of that age group would be talking to each other.

    And I do think the grandfather would be quoting a lot of Shakespeare, but your heroine quoting so many lines when talking about the snails didn’t seem age appropriate. Would a 12-year-old do that?

    I think I would like to know a few more things about your heroine. If she is such an emotional creature a play makes her burst into tears I would be interested in hearing more about that. Why is she so upset over the ending of this play?
    I agree on getting rid of the catholic part if it’s not important.

    And I do agree that she would already know it’s the hot seat since she has been there quite a few times.

    I think you need to reread the piece with the 12-year-old heroine in mind. Make sure it’s all sounding age appropriate. And I would suggest reading the whole piece out loud. I do that with my own work. It helps you hear anything that sounds a bit chunky.

    Keep at the polishing. You did a huge leap from the first piece into these revisions. I just think the pieces needs a bit more polishing.