Sunday, May 14, 2017

1st 5 Pages May Workshop - Vogel Rev 1

Our Mother Not in Heaven

Chapter 1:

"Oh God no Gita. You must pronounce that one correctly."

"What did I say?"

"You said 'nucular'."

"That's what you said, 'nucular'."

"Nuclear, nu-cle-ar, NUCLEAR! Look, I think we should take a break. We're both getting tired, and the sun has nearly set."

Gita cracked her stiff neck from side to side to release the day's accumulated tension. She gazed and clawed at the dirt floor. "I guess you're right, but bzaenim..."

"Stop. You have to stay in English. Think in English. We both know you're perfectly fluent, this is no time to revert on me," Kenna admonished. She normally exuded calm, but time was running short and the whole world essentially hung in the balance. It would fray anyone's nerves.

"Right, right, sorry. I was going to say we should go over that part one last time before tomorrow, but maybe you're right. I'm exhausted, and I guess, a bit nervous," Gita replied, returning to the careful enunciation of her English words.
 "That's totally natural," Kenna responded, regaining her calm. As part of her multifaceted role she fed Gita a quick bite of loamy mush. "You're exceedingly prepared. I know you don't feel like you've done anything yet, but you've already proven yourself to me. We'll rest now, but there will be time to review a few things in the morning before you embark, like nuclear. That's an important one!" she never stopped working.

"Thanks Kenna."

The two, six-legged, exoskeleton clad females marched down the moist dark tunnel to their bunks in the sleeping quarters. The rank smell of fear pheromones from a midday scare had been mostly sponged up by the porous walls of soil, and the whole community drifted into its familiar nighttime placidity.

Gita tossed and turned on her bed. Nuclear, nuclear, nuclear, she thrummed to herself, mandibles twitching. Her mind scratched away at one last pre-slumberous thought, in English, dragging out her already tiring eve. I hope Ellie can handle this. I hope we chose wisely.

Gita's nearly massless body sank deeper into the wet dirt, as if pressed by the weight of the world. Outsized responsibility can place a great weight on chosen shoulders.

Chapter 2:

Elita Bauer, Ellie for short, jumped off the school bus and ran down the long dusty driveway to her family's small, turn-of-the-century, red-brick farmhouse. The Bauer's waist-high wheat stretched from either side of the driveway out to the unbroken lines demarcating earth from sky. Like a shag rug stroked back and forth by the hand of a child, each thin stalk of wheat did its part to sway in the breeze, but remained indistinguishable from the whole. Not Ellie. She would be asked to stand out above all the rest, but for now she blissfully knew nothing of her fate. She certainly never had any reason to think twice about ants.

She darted in through the backdoor and tossed her backpack onto the chunky, weathered kitchen table of red oak that her grandpa had hand-crafted decades before she was even conceived. She gulped down a glass of water and ran back outside.

Ellie was eager to confirm that her new tree house endured the day's moderate wind while she sat bored and distracted in the hot classroom. Just like grandpa and that table, she built the tree house with her own hands and it made her proud. Dad only helped when the bladed power tools came out. It was erected as a place to play just as she was maturing beyond such childhood trifle. It would soon serve a wholly different, unexpected purpose. Daunting, unfathomably consequential secrets would be divulged within its humble four walls.

Ellie's older brothers contributed to the tree house’s completion in their own way. They doubted her capabilities loudly, in her face. She had no lack of self-motivation, but her siblings’ sneers virtually guaranteed the project's success. Anything Ellie was told she could not accomplish, or even should not accomplish, became an immediate possibility, a likelihood. That trait rubbed some adults the wrong way, but in certain situations it had the potential to equal power.

Ellie, in contrast to her farm-destined brothers, aspired to things beyond the family’s small patch of soil.

Just as she barreled back outside through the creaky screen door, a loud bang rattled the center pane of the kitchen's plate glass window. The crash stopped her in her tracks, and sadness gripped her immediately. She had heard these distinctive thuds before. They were on the rise ever since Dad replaced those little panes with that big one. This was the third sudden and tragic interruption of flight this month.

There in the red mulch between the house and the line of flowering inkberry bushes, lay the comatose body of a large male robin. The sight of the grounded bird's body injected Ellie's sadness with a dose of excitement. A travesty, yes, but also an opportunity for a girl with dreams of becoming a veterinarian. She had a new patient.

Ellie sprinted away toward the back of the main barn. She slid to her knees in the dusty dirt, skidding to a stop beside her humane animal trap. She picked it up and dumped the day-old cubes of cantaloupe into the groundhog hole at the base of the barn's foundation, and hollered toward the empty hole, "I guess you get a free lunch today".

The emptied trap would serve a new purpose as an ambulance for the injured bird. Then, fingers crossed, a safe place for it to regain its strength before taking flight.

Trapping was the original purpose for the galvanized metal box. It was the only gift Ellie admitted wanting — to insure its receipt — for her thirteenth birthday. It came with a contract. A truce really. Dad agreed that anything Ellie trapped could be released alive. Farm intruders too smart to fall for Ellie's trap, would continue to be shot.

Ellie's end of the bargain entailed a moratorium on the unrelenting animal rights protests. Ellie saved lives while Dad avoided the drama surrounding each and every death. On those days when she came home from school to find the trap occupied, mostly by gullible groundhogs, she would toss a towel on top, bungee it to her bicycle rack, and pedal back to school. There, behind the ball fields, her chubby brown friends could roam safe and free in the woods.

Father and daughter both knew that the school grounds, eight miles away, wasn't always far enough, but Dad was too tired to reopen the negotiations and Ellie secretly longed for reunions with her bucktoothed deportees. Ellie loved all things feathered or furry. Ants, branching from the opposite side of the tree-trunk of evolution, are clearly neither.

Ellie made it back to the house in seconds. The bird hadn’t budged. She placed the empty, open-ended trap down in the mulch at the robin’s feet. Her cupped hands formed a gurney that eased under the nearly weightless avian frame. She could have grown up to be a damn good veterinarian if the state of the world had been different, and if the ants hadn’t spied her potential for something critically bigger.

She glided the bird into the cage, taking great care to avoid the trigger plate that kept the powerful, spring-loaded door from snapping shut. Once the bird was safely inside Ellie released the latch and gently lowered the trapdoor.


  1. I was a little confused about the start of this. It started with two other people instead of Ellie this time and I'm guessing they aren't human. I later got the idea they they are the ants that you mentioned in chapter two.

    However, it did give some insight to what's going on with Ellie, and now I want to know more about the ants.

    You did a good job cutting some of the descriptions down and keeping the focus on Ellie's story. I feel more connected with her in this revision than in the previous.

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  3. WOW! I love the new chapter one leading the story and then Ellie in chapter two. Brilliant! I was engrossed reading this version.
    I slid right past "She gazed and clawed at the dirt floor," and then when I read, "mandibles twitching" I thought YES, here we go. Excellent revision.

  4. Thanks for sharing the new version.

    I must say that at first your beginning threw me off. I just wasn't expecting it. However, I like that you've added this foreshadowing. It drew me in.

    In paragraph 1, I loved how you compared Ellie to the wheat. That she's not someone who blends in with all the rest. I also like how you showed that her brother's jeers only make her more determined. This provides great insight into her character. The window scene is so much clearer, however, instead of just saying 'flight,' perhaps say 'birds in flight' to bring the point home. Just a suggestion.

    The only place I can see that could use some help is the part about her capturing the animals and the deal she has with her dad. Although I love this information, I'm not sure it needs to be in the 1st five pages. Perhaps it can come later when she's in the tree? What I would do is focus more on the ants, since it's obvious they have a definite role in your story.

    But with all of this said, I would read this. I'm intrigued and want to dig into the story.


    1. Thanks Catherine,

      This starts out with parallel lines that will soon cross, but maybe I should jump back and forth a bit more to keep the ants at the forefront. I tried to do that with the narration, but as Kit pointed out below, the POV is a bit jumpy. Back to work...

      The birds and the groundhogs aren't really central to the story, more to display Ellie's aspirations of becoming a veterinarian and her compassion for animals. I'm wondering if chapter 2, in that case, is a little too much backstory, but I tried to do it with present action as much as I could.


  5. Dear Zach,

    Interesting new chapter. I'm curious about the word "nuclear," which I hope is some sort of foreshadowing. (If not, pick a word that is.) I felt like I needed a sense of the physical setting earlier in the opening paragraph. I realize you don't want to reveal right away that these are non humans, but you can include something about them sitting in the sun (or wherever they are).

    There's something odd going on with the point of view in the second chapter. It seems to be Ellie's POV, but then at odd moments a narrator will jump in with comments about what's going to happen in the future. These felt less like foreshadowing than they did confusion with the narration. Can they be removed?

    I like the ending of the first chapter a lot. "One last thought in English" is great. I think this piece is coming along.

    1. Thanks Kit,

      The nuclear thing is certainly foreshadowing. I don't come back until very late in the book - I may have to drop a few more hints along the way so that it's not completely forgotten.

      The odd POV thing is something I'm struggling with. I'm trying to ramp up the intensity on the hooks in these first chapters, but can't seem to figure out how to do that smoothly through only Ellie's eyes. I'm going to try to work that out a little better for next week's revision.

      Diving straight into that dialogue, particularly with "Oh God no Gita" is also sort of foreshadowing, but it is probably too subtle and not revealed for a while, so I think you might be right that it would be better to start with a description of the scene. I'm on the fence on this one.

      Lastly, she's thirteen now (I think I can change that pretty easily in the rest of the book without changing the tone too much). I'm hoping this gets me closer to the YA category. I think the manuscript is more YA than MG. She is trying to keep the bird safe and give it time to recover. It may be misguided, since you're right, there's little she can do. I'm just trying to show her compassion for animals with both the groundhogs and the birds, but I do realize this part could be much smoother - needs some work.

      Thanks again for the valuable comments!


  6. One other thing that I keep going back to. Something really bothers me about the idea of an eleven-year-old playing with a dying bird. It seems inadvertently cruel. I realize Ellie isn't trying to hurt the bird, but obviously she can't actually help it, and I couldn't help reading the scene from the bird's point of view, thinking, Let me die or recover, but leave me alone! This might not have bothered anyone else, but it's something that keeps coming up for me when I think of this piece. Maybe give it some thought.

  7. Hi Zack,

    You've done a much better job at introducing us to Ellie in the second chapter!

    A few suggestions:
    -I think you need to add a few dialogue tags to the beginning so we know who's talking. Most people would probably prefer to description as well so we have some clue where we are.
    -There are two POVs in the first chapter. For a first (and very short) chapter, you really should stick to one. This becomes especially jarring when we switch to Ellie's POV in the 2nd chapter.
    -You are intruding on your POV when you says things like, "Father and daughter" and then "Dad" in the same sentence. The first is you (the writer) talking (which we should never see) and the second is Ellie (which is fine). A really good way to avoid this is to try the passage in first person and see where it fails. Once you've done this, you will know what passages need to be fixed when you switch it back.

    Finally, I noticed that you said you were hoping 13 got you into YA. Unfortunately, most YA is 16+ and your character doesn't sound 16. You might be able to get away with a "young YA" but you'll need to position it that way (and this might make the publication battle a bit harder). Unless there is something about the content that is too mature for MG, I would suggest you leave it at that.

    Good luck!

    1. Super, thanks for the very constructive comments. Off to work on the POV. Uncle, uncle, ok, I'm going to call it Middle Grade!

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    1. Thank you. I'm trying to balance the mystery with the hook. I think I can still get both with a little scene description closer to the start of the first paragraph and some dialogue tags. Off to see if I really can now...