Sunday, May 21, 2017

1st 5 Pages May Workshop - Vogel Rev 2


Thirteen year old farm-girl Ellie Bauer is about to hear the biggest and best kept secret in all of humanity. No, humanity is too small a word. This information predates us by eons. Only five people, including a few well known historical figures, have been entrusted with this knowledge. It’s a secret that comes with great responsibility.

Ants, the little six-legged kind, have been evolving for a hundred million years longer than humans. It's a staggering advantage. They live in advanced hierarchical civilizations, cultivate crops, and employ aphids and caterpillars just like humans use livestock. Ants are masters at manipulating other species for their own benefit, and they don’t stop at caterpillars. 

The ants have chosen Ellie to steer the fate of our entire planet — a role critical to the survival of all of Earth’s creatures. This mandate is a tremendous honor, but it ejects Ellie from her carefree childhood and hurls her deep into adulthood in just a few short weeks.

Join Ellie as her tiny ant ambassador pulls back the curtains on the true path of human history. Accompany Ellie as her faith and her comprehension of what it means to be human become unfathomably challenged.

Week 3 Draft:

Name: Zack Vogel
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
Title: Our Mother Not in Heaven

Chapter 1:

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

Gita’s body segments tensed up. "What did I say?"

"You said 'nucular'."

"That's what you said Kenna, 'Nucular'." Gita shot Kenna a fierce look that went unseen. All looks went unseen in their pitch black chamber two feet below the surface. Living in complete darkness most of the time works wonders for the brain and the non-visual senses. Their sightless communication evolved over millions of years into a rich bouquet of smells, vibrations, and sounds.

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

Gita cracked her stiff neck from side to side to release some tension. She gazed and clawed at the dirt floor buried beneath the labyrinth of earthen tunnels above. "I guess you're right, but bzaenim..."

"Stop! You have to stay in English. Think in English. You're perfectly fluent. This is no time to revert," Kenna admonished. She normally oozed calm, but time was running short and the whole world hung in the balance. It would fray anyone's nerves.

"Right, right, sorry. I was going to say we should go over that again tonight, but maybe you're right. I am exhausted, and I guess, a bit nervous," Gita admitted, returning to the careful enunciation of her English words.
 "That's totally natural," Kenna responded. Her antennae had stopped nervously twitching. As part of her multifaceted role she fed Gita a quick bite of loamy mush. "You're fully 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!" Kenna never stopped working.

"Thanks Kenna," Gita sighed.

The two, six-legged, exoskeleton clad females marched down the moist dark tunnel to their sleeping quarters. The reek of fear pheromones from an afternoon scare had been sponged up by the porous walls of soil. The community drifted into its familiar nighttime tranquility.

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, punctuating her tiring eve. “I hope Ellie can handle this. I hope the queens are right about this human child.”

Gita's nearly massless body sank deeper into the wet dirt, pressed by the weight of enormous responsibility.

Chapter 2:

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

Ellie darted in through the backdoor and tossed her backpack onto the chunky, weathered kitchen table of red oak. It had been built to last forever, hand-crafted by her grandfather decades before she was even conceived. Ellie downed a tall glass of water without taking a breath and ran back outside.

Pent up excitement had whipped her into a Christmas-morning-like frenzy. She yearned to see that her new tree house withstood the day's moderate wind while she sat bored and distracted in the hot classroom. Ellie built the tree house with her own two hands, and a smidgen of guidance from Dad when the power tools came out. Just like grandpa with his table, the accomplishment made her proud. It was erected as a place to play just as she was maturing beyond such childhood trifle. The shack on a limb would serve a wholly different, unexpected purpose. Unfathomably weighty secrets would soon be divulged within its modest four walls.

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

In contrast to her farm-destined brothers, Ellie aspired to things beyond her 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. Sadness gripped her immediately. She had heard these 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 mulch between the house and the flowering inkberry bushes, lay the comatose body of a male robin. The sight of the grounded bird's red-breasted body injected Ellie's sadness with a dose of excitement. A travesty, yes, but also an opportunity given her dreams of becoming a veterinarian. She had a new patient.

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

The trap, once again, would be called on to double as an ambulance for an injured bird. Then, fingers crossed, a safe place for the robin to regain strength before beating wings for the sky.

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 be lured in, would continue to be shot.

Ellie would halt the animal rights protests. Dad would be spared 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 free in the shade of the woods.

Dad and Ellie both knew that the school grounds, eight miles away, wasn't always far enough. Dad was too tired to reopen the negotiations, and Ellie secretly longed for reunions with her bucktoothed deportees. Her chest burned with a deep love for all things feathered or furry. Ants, needless to say, are neither.

Ellie made it back to the house in seconds. The bird hadn’t budged. She placed the empty trap down in the mulch at the robin’s feet, and swung her braided blonde pony-tail over the back of her shoulder. Her cupped hands formed a gurney and slid beneath the delicate avian frame. She would have made a darn good veterinarian if 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, steering clear of the sensitive trigger-plate, and carefully lowered the trapdoor. Little could be done to help this bird, but she longed to be there by his side if and when he came to.


  1. I'll do your pitch first:
    -There's a lot of information here about your world and backstory, and while you want to set the scene, this pitch has to be entirely about your main character (Ellie).
    -What you do have about Ellie doesn't tell us much about her journey. We need to know a) what incites this story, b) what goal is incited, c) what she has at stake, d) who is going to try to stop her.
    -This is small, but don't talk to your reader in your pitch.


    1. Thanks Holly,

      I'm finding this particularly challenging, both on the POV front and on the pitch. The story is about the challenges that both Gita (the ant) and Ellie face. I want to allow the reader to be in both of their heads and it wants to force the narrator to be omniscient or dual-POV'd.

      The girl and the ant both transform and grow, in many parallel ways, despite their very different situations. Maybe that's too much to try to cover in the pitch. I'll try a draft of the pitch that is very Ellie-centric, but possibly hint that Gita goes through many of the same transformations.

      I also have a third parallel character that I introduce in chapter 3. The Gita and Ellie plot lines come together in chapter 4. The boy comes in later, but he is a pretty central figure. I do come back to Gita and the ant colony a lot, so maybe I should stick with calling it chapter 1 and just expand on it?

      Thanks for all of the extremely helpful feedback on this. Being pretty new at this, I've really learned a ton!


  2. Now for the excerpt:
    -This opening is much better. It still has some parts where you're changing POV from Gita to Kenna. Also, it sounds more like a Prologue. Some agents don't like these, but they can tell if you call it Chapter 1 and it's still acting like a prologue, so you might as well call it that if that's what it is. If chapter 3 goes back to Gita, it's fine although a bit short.
    -For Ellie's chapter, I can't tell if you're intruding on your POV when you say, "if the ants hadn’t spied her potential for something critically bigger", or if Ellie knows about the ants already. If the latter, it kind of comes out of nowhere and needs more internalization.

    Good luck!

  3. Pitch:
    The first line was interesting, then you lost me with unneeded information. You could sum up the first paragraph and move on to what is actually happening in the story. I agree with Holly. You have a lot of backstory and very little about your main character: Ellie. Also, I'm not seeing any stakes. What does Ellie want? What happens if she can't get it? Who's standing in her way? What does she need to overcome in order to reach her goal?

    I like the revised version of chapter 1 with the ants. It foreshadowed a lot, but still kept me interested enough to keep reading.

    I feel like the sentence, "Ants, needless to say, are neither." sort of jumps out when you talked about what sort of animals Ellie's heart burned for. I know you're trying to show us that when the ants present themselves to Ellie that it won't go that well at first, but maybe it's too much. That's just me, though.

    Other than that, I think it's a good read. Good luck!

    1. I kind of like that mechanism, when the author jumps in and says something to the reader. I realize that a lot of people find it awkward. I'm going to mull over other ways of doing it...

      Thanks for all the feedback over these past weeks!


  4. Thanks for sharing again, and I’m going to miss seeing how your story progresses.

    As for the query, I feel you’ve included too many details, and this needs to focus on Ellie. Here’s an idea to mull over:


    Thirteen-year-old Ellie Bauer is about to be ejected from her carefree childhood and hurled into adulthood in just a few short weeks. The ants have chosen her to steer the fate of the planet—a role critical to the survival of all Earth’s creatures.


    From here I would tell of her struggles or lesson’s learned in one paragraph. Queries are tough, I hate writing them.

    Chapter 1 needs some tightening up in the beginning. I would make this a prologue as it’s much too short to be a chapter.

    As for chapter 2, as always, I love your descriptive writing style. However, I would like some reference to the ants to connect the opening with the first chapter. Perhaps she sees them crawling somewhere? I would take out the parts where you say she certainly didn’t have any reason to think twice about ants and show this instead. I think this would just tie it all together.

    Catherine Garrett

    1. That's a great idea. I'll play around with a brief encounter with ants in chapter 2.

      Thanks for all the helpful comments!


  5. Zack,
    I think I would rework the query to lead with the ants. By the end of your pitch I was very interested in the true human history. Lead with that. I love this story concept and it is just a matter of rearranging and editing out the unnecessary and beefing up the necessary.
    Personally, I liked the last version better. This version is much slower. Send me a link when it is available- I want to read the whole story.

    Good luck, Julie (

    1. Thanks Julie,

      I agree. The ants are a huge, critical part of the story, but I'm not sure if it dilutes the pitch. I think my homework is to read a bunch of examples of successful pitches to see if I can highlight the ants without taking away from the fact that Ellie is still the MC.

      I'll also compare my last two drafts and try to see what I did to make it slower - and try to fix that.

      Thanks for all of the great feedback!


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  7. From Hillary:

    Zack, I love the opening line and paragraph of your pitch! I definitely felt plenty curious about what this secret is going to be. However, I’m left a little unclear about the big secret. Is it the fact that ants are super smart? If so, can you elaborate a bit about why this is a secret that would require great responsibility in keeping? Or rather, even if ants are brilliant, how are they possibly influencing the human world? Also, can we get a little hint about what Ellie has to actually do to save the planet (where the story is going?)

    In the actual chapter, I would make it super clear from the start that it’s ants talking. It’s an unusual narrative voice and you don’t want middle graders to be too confused.

  8. Hello Zach,

    Thank you for sharing with us today! I'm sorry I couldn't stop by last week to comment, but I was eager to see what you'd done with your opening pages.

    First, the query: the opening paragraph is an interesting start, but after that we must immediately know what the main character's goal is, the obstacles in her way, and what is at stake in the story overall--and be specific! We need to finish your query with a strong sense of the central conflict and an eagerness to get answers in your opening pages.

    I like the evolution of your opening pages. I was a tad confused in the first chapter as I was imagining humans. To juggle multiple narrators in MG, you will need to title your chapters in a way that makes it clear whose perspective we are in. It's tricky to pull this off in MG. I advise having a strong narrator voice that opens the story rather than dialogue, and use that narrator to provide continuity from scene to scene. Also, a strong narrator voice can make it clear as to what we are looking at and who is speaking from the get-go.

    I disagree that CH1 is too short to be a chapter. I love single-page opening chapters. Many a Newbery winner has utilized that kind of opening pace.

    In CH2, I love the scene setting but then am eager to get to some dialogue and interaction among characters. That's always when a scene comes to life for me...I find the pace slows considerably when paragraphs of similar lengths and similar content are repeated for multiple pages. We need interesting white space. We need variety to keep the pace moving, and to let the action come alive. I think Ellie has great qualities for a main character and can easily capture a reader's attention, just keep experimenting with the balance of prose and dialogue and be sure to reference your favorite books to see how they balance and transition between the two in the opening pages.

    Best of luck!

    Melanie Conklin
    First Five Mentor

    1. Thank you Melanie. I envisioned this as adult fiction at first, then gradually tried to turn this story into YA over the past few months, then MG based on the comments received in this workshop. I see that I haven't made the full adjustment to the new audience - intrigue for the older kids could easily be confusion for the younger ones.

      I like the short opening chapter too - thank you for the alternate opinion on that!

      I'll play around with more dialogue in chapter two. That makes sense to me.

      Thanks again for the helpful insights!