Sunday, May 7, 2017

1st 5 Pages May Workshop - Vogel

Name: Zack Vogel
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: Our Mother Not in Heaven
Chapter 1:

Elita Bauer, Ellie for short, hopped off the school bus and breezily skipped down her long dusty driveway. At the end sat her family's small, turn-of-the-century, red-brick farmhouse. Waist high wheat stretched out for miles from either side of the driveway terminating in a painted green line beneath the blue rim of the sky. The tightly huddled grasses swayed and waved in the steady warm breeze that stroked the vast acres of pancake flat plains. The matte green human planted crop rippled like the surface of a lake in the wind. It's sheen displayed alternating patches of light and shade, like a shag rug stroked back and forth by the hand of a child. Each thin hollow straw of wheat, undoubtedly there, yet indistinguishable from the whole.

Ellie paid no mind to the wheat or its lively texture. It was always there this time of year, and its miraculous living transformations were slow enough to go unnoticed. 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 had even been conceived. She gulped down a glass of water and ran back outside. Ellie was eager to verify that her new tree house had endured the day's gentle winds while she fidgeted in the still school air. Just like grandpa, she built it with her own hands. It made her proud. Dad only lent a hand when the powered tools with the toothed, spinning metal blades were required. Ellie's older brothers contributed to the project's completion too, but not with sweat or muscle. Instead, they doubted her capabilities loudly and to her face. She typically had no lack of self-motivation, but her taunting siblings virtually guaranteed the structure's erection. Ellie was capable of nearly anything she was told she could not do.

Just as she barreled out through the creaky screen door, a loud bang rattled the center pane of the kitchen's bay window. The crash stopped her in her tracks. Anger gripped her immediately. That distinctive echoing thud resounded for the third time this month - another sudden, tragic interruption of flight. She ran outside with nausea in her gut. There in the red mulch between the house and the line of flowering inkberry bushes, lay the comatose body of a large, male, red-breasted robin. The sight of the grounded bird's limp but breathing body laced a dose of excitement into her anger. She had a new patient. Travesty and opportunity, sheathed in gleaming but fragile feathers, plunked down to her from the sky above in an instant.

Ellie sprinted out behind the main barn. She slid to her knees in the dusty dirt, skidding to a stop next to 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. She breathlessly broadcast toward the hole, "I guess you get a free lunch today", and ran.

The emptied trap was now a cage. Trapping had been the original purpose for the galvanized metal mesh box with the spring-loaded trapdoor. It was the only gift Ellie admitted wanting - in order to insure its receipt - for her eleventh birthday. It came with a contract. A contractual truce really. Dad had reluctantly agreed that anything Ellie trapped could be transported and released alive. Burrowing animals to smart for Ellie's trap would continue to be shot. Ellie's end of the bargain entailed a moratorium on the unrelenting animal rights speeches. Ellie saved lives while Dad avoided the postmortem drama surrounding each and every death. Ellie became quite the trapper, and tangentially, a tireless cyclist. When she came home from school to find the cage occupied, mostly by the gullible, sweet-toothed groundhogs, she would toss a towel over the cage, bungee it to her rack, and pedal it away. It was an eight mile ride back to school where she would release the chubby brown rodents in the woods behind the ball fields. Father and daughter both knew that eight miles wasn't always enough, but Dad was too worn down to reopen the negotiations and Ellie secretly longed for reunions with her bucktoothed deportees.

She placed the empty, open-ended cage down on the spongy dry bed of chipped wood between the evergreen bush and doorstep. Her cupped hands, a gurney of youthful but farm-labor calloused skin, slid beneath the avocado-sized avian form. Ellie maintained a thin layer of mulch between her skin and the animal's fragile and nearly weightless frame. The shaved wood buffer was a gesture for the patient, not the caregiver. She glided the bird into the cage, taking great care to clear the hair-triggered floor plate. The spring-loaded trap door wielded surprising force, as the symmetrical red scrapes on her forearms from the week prior bore witness. Once the bird was safely inside, Ellie released the latch and gently lowered the trapdoor.

Ellie lifted the cage and its precious cargo by the handle and tiptoed to the gnarled, ancient maple tree at the far corner of her backyard. A repurposed, rusted steel S-hook dangling at eye level, hung waiting from frayed brown twine. The hoist and the rectangular cut hole in the tree house floor served this exact purpose - airlifting patients. Ellie hooked up and steadied the cage and scampered up the tree house ladder. The bird levitated up into the makeshift veterinary clinic, as if summoned by the rapid clicking sound of the hand-cranked brake winch. With the robin safely inside, Ellie sat close, took a few deep breaths, and began her vigil. The bird's scarcely rising and falling chest served as the only meter of passing time. It could have been five minutes or twenty, but at last the bird shuddered and groggily struggled to his feet. The robin's eyelids sagged like half-drawn curtains, obscuring the top halves of its glazed and unfocused eyes.

"Ellie, come on in! Dinner's on the table!" Dad hollered through the kitchen screen door.

"OK Dad, coming!" Ellie shouted back. She spun toward the tree house exit, then turned back, "I'll be right back. Don't worry, I'll let you go soon enough. I just want to make sure you're really ok before I let you fly again." She climbed down the ladder and ran inside. The usual dinner table chatter, mostly generated by Mom and the boys, whirled around her head without penetrating. She was too busy sending telepathic messages of reassurance toward the stunned caged bird.

"Mom, can I be excused?" Ellie asked.

"You've been here three minutes. You barely touched your chicken," Mom replied.

"Just for a few minutes, please? I think my bird is ready to go."

"Fine, but it'll be right there when you come back. You know we don't waste food around here. You can eat it cold." There was no microwave oven in the Bauer household. Mom claimed not to see the need. In reality, radiation emitting devices, however purportedly safe, had no place in her kitchen.

"Thanks Mom!" Ellie ran outside and darted back up the ladder. The robin was frantic. His panicked wings slapped and slammed the walls of the rattly cage.

"Shhhhh, shhhhh", Ellie breathed. She crawled to the cage on all fours, bringing her face to within inches of the metal box. The bird stopped flapping. His head cocked toward the soothing sound of Ellie's ethereal whispers.


  1. I'm excited to read more of this story. You definitely know how to paint a picture. Ellie sounds like an interesting child and I want to get to know her. You've given her a happy, carefree feel, with a bit of mystery. Who doesn't want more of that?

    Although I admire your descriptive writing, I did find it distracted from the story, especially with this being the first five pages. The story begins with wimsical Ellie skipping down her driveway, but after line one of the first paragraph, it's basically a description of where she lives, and not about Ellie. By paragraph two, you tell me that Ellie paid no mind to the wheat or it's lively texture, which makes me question the importance of all the description. Perhaps some of this could be sprinkled into the story. As she runs to the treehouse she passes the wheat. The description of the sky could be shared when he reaches the top of her treehouse. That sort of thing. Just break it up.

    For me personally, I would like to see shorter paragraphs. I think if they were broken down to include three to four sentences each it would help with pacing. Just something to consider.

    From the paragraph where you mention the treehouse is her makeshift veterinary clinic, I would have liked to know what it was she was doing with the bird. Did she just sit and stare at it? What was really going on? I guess I wanted a little more magic.

    All in all, I would definitely read more of this. Ellie sounds so cute, and I want to know what she's whispering to the bird.

  2. This seems interesting from the first few pages, but the descriptions pulled me out of the story. I found myself skipping a lot of sentences to get back to the main plot. Ellie sounds like a sweetheart and I want to read more about her.

    I don't get the fantasy part right away but I'm sure that's coming after these first few pages.

    Mabe cut back on the long descriptions of her house, the wheat field, and how/why she built the treehouse and tell us more about Ellie herself.

  3. I'm considering going back to a prior draft, where I started with the ants that are going to influence human civilization (again) through Ellie. I'm realizing from your helpful comments that this sounds more like a second paragraph, which it originally was. If I do make this change, the next version I publish will be dramatically different...

  4. Zack,
    I like Ellie and I am interested to read more. Ellie seems like she is a child, not a teen with actions like hopping off the bus and skipping down the driveway. Is she a teenager? In this first five pages the story feels as though it may be steampunk with the descriptions of the treehouse makeshift vet clinic. I too wondered what Ellie was doing with or to the bird. Is she an animal whisperer or a healer? I agree with Catherine's post that the descriptive writing is distracting, beautiful, but distracting. I think Catherine is right when she suggests sprinkling the details throughout-be stingy with your delicious descriptive words and don't hand them out all at once. Now, having read your reply, lead with the ants who influence human civilization through Ellie for sure. Heck, just reading that line in your reply is the best hook ever. Lead with the ants! There are so many questions in my mind about these darn ants that I would have no choice but to read the whole novel right now. Can't wait to read your revision.

    1. Thanks. The ants will be back in the next draft! They were always chapter 1, then I guess I chickened out at the last minute. Thanks, I'm going to trim the adjectives too. Ellie is eleven. She's just a regular kid that wants to be a vet, and doesn't do much with the bird - she's just observing, showing compassion, and keeping him safe until he comes to. I'm finding it tricky to balance how much of the story to reveal right up front, but clearly I got too conservative and wound up losing the hook or providing misleading ones.

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  7. I find it curious that you listed this as YA because the protagonist is too young and the story reads like it's middle grade. Are you sure you don't want to reclassify it?

    I echo the above comments: the story is over-written. Remember that the amount of time you spend describing a given object tells the readers how important that object is. By this logic, the wheat is the most important part of this story. The descriptions are also somewhat heavy-handed. It's okay to mention something without describing it or attaching an adjective.

    Your description of where the story is going sounds interesting, but none of that appears to be here. Sena Jeter Naslund gave me a great piece of advice once: "Begin as close to the end as you can." Is it important that we see Ellie with the bird? If the bird isn't going to be a character or show up again down the line, why not jump to the exciting part with the ants? It sounds like you have some great ideas here, you just need to get to them more quickly. Good luck with it.

  8. Hello Zach,

    Thank you for sharing your work with us today!

    You are certainly a skilled writer. Your words are mesmerizing, and there is a richness (and "strangeness") of detail that lends itself well to fantasy. You also move well between narrative and dialogue. There's a certain degree of density, but no real barrier to prevent a readers from taking in the story, which is wonderful.

    However, what we do seem to be missing is just that: a story.

    Now, this writing, if part of a novel for adult fiction, would be perfectly acceptable. However in YA and MG, we expect a certain pace and narrative hooks that draws the reader in quite quickly. Here, we are immersed into an interesting scene, but it does not seem to be the start of a story. The start of a story occurs directly after something has changed in the protagonist's life. We then spend the rest of the story accompanying our hero as they attempt to adjust to this new normal, either complying with it or resisting it according to their character.

    Without knowing your story arc, I couldn't say where the story begins, but look for a moment when something has changed. Tell us about that change. Pose the story question: Will XXX happen? Get us invested in your central character, their goal, and the stakes. It's a lot to do in the opening chapter (and may take a bit longer than 5 pages), but it is essential for both YA and MG that the story hook the reader in the opening line, opening paragraph, opening page, and opening chapter.

    Regarding category: right now you have an 11yo protagonist, which is solidly MG, but the style and word choice in the narrative reads more like adult fiction. The category depends largely on the intended audience. Now, it reads as though intended for an adult audience. I would examine who you are writing for and adjust accordingly.

    Regarding genre: again, I see nothing that defines this world as fantasy. Right now it reads as a contemporary setting. Make sure your choice of opening scene clearly conveys that this is a fantasy world.

    Good luck with your revisions.

    My best,
    Melanie Conklin
    First Five mentor

    1. This is absolutely spot on. I began trying to write this as adult fiction (it does deal with some topics that would be a bit mature for MG later - faith in God, etc.).

      It turned out feeling more like YA, but with an 11yr old character. I have another beginning that I'll post for next week that addresses some of this, but I may also have to make the MC older to fit this more squarely into the YA category.

      I've been calling this fantasy too, and it is, but it (intentionally) has a very realistic feel to it. It essentially morphs into a very fictional but plausible feeling explanation for why humans are on this planet and who created us. I'm having a tough time trying to cram it into categories. I'm hoping the next round and particularly the query part of this process helps me flesh this out more.

      Thanks for the insightful comments!


  9. Hi Zack,

    I agree with the others about the description being a little heavy, and about this sounding like MG.

    Aside from that, I have a few other comments:
    -In the first paragraph, you're intruding on her POV by describing things (like wheat) that you go on to say she doesn't notice. If she doesn't notice, it shouldn't be here.
    -Watch the conflicting emotions after the window crash. She's surprised, angry and nauseous all at once. Try to focus on one emotion instead. Anger doesn't exactly fit for me. Shouldn't she be worried about the bird rather than angry at it? Your opening scene is meant to show us who your character is before the change so you really want to focus on helping your reader connect to her as a person.
    -I would start new paragraphs for the actual dinner so we feel this as a passage in time. It feels like she sits down and leaves in the same breath.

    Good luck!