Saturday, January 6, 2018

1st 5 Pages January Workshop- Wenger

Name: Haleigh Wenger
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Title: Words in the Sand

Whoever decided that open casket funerals should be a thing has got to be the worst kind of masochist. I couldn’t even bring myself to look down when it was my turn to say goodbye to Opa. I cheated and leaned close enough to him that anyone watching might have thought I was crying. Really I was just closing my eyes. I don’t need to look at a shell of my grandfather to remember him.

I mean, of course I cried the rest of the time, especially during the slideshow. In half of the pictures I was either just out of frame, or in the photo. An entire lifetime of memories reduced to a five minute blip.

“I can’t believe Opa won’t be at home with us,” I say. The funeral’s been over for almost an hour, but I still can’t stop my hands from shaking when I think about it. No one says anything, but Mom and Dad both  pull me into a sandwich style hug as we reach the front steps. Mom runs her French manicured nails down my back, and I shiver and pull away. My sister, Livvy, lets out a low and impatient groan.

Dad turns to Mom, Livvy, and me before turning the key in the lock and pushing the coral-colored door open. He extends his arms out in front like we’ve won a prize. Home is not exactly accurate, even though it feels right to say. Every summer, as soon as school lets out, we pack up to spend our entire summer at my family’s beach house in Florida. This year we drove separate cars and stopped for the funeral first. Me and Livvy in my car for fifteen hours of silent passive aggression from her, and uneasy nerves about the funeral from me. But the long drive was worth it because I’ll have my freedom the next three months whenever I feel like I need space.

Mom and Dad are both teachers, so the whole reverse snowbird thing works out. During the summers they work part time at Opa’s gift shop while Livvy and I do our best to get out of helping them sort pre-packaged seashells and miniature Florida state keychains. Coming here has been our tradition since I was a baby, so even if I didn’t look forward to the change of scenery, it wouldn’t matter much. My little sister Livvy has decided she’s over it though. Ever since she started high school this past year, she’s made it her mission to be as angsty as possible. She heaves a sigh so loud I almost mistake it for a gust of wind.

“Seriously Dad, this is getting old. I don’t have time to stand here bonding with you guys.”

He pockets his crinkly smile for a millisecond to raise his eyebrows at her. “This is the beginning of our family summer, Liv. Let’s enjoy the time together.”

Livvy plants one hand on her hip and rolls her eyes at my dad, who’s ceremoniously fussing over invisible smudges on the seashell-plated light switches. She glances at me to gauge my annoyance level, but I'm already busy taking it all in to help make fun of Dad. The first day back to the beach house is like the first day back to breathing after a long nine months away in land-locked Kentucky. Livvy pushes past the rest of us standing in the doorway and slams down the hall. Into the last bedroom on the right, the one she claimed five summers ago once we were old enough to realize it was the biggest and most private. I swear I’m still missing hair in the spot she pulled a chunk out of that June, too. Apparently, it was a rough year.

My parents eye each other before dragging their suitcases to the master bedroom. The first room past the entry and the most beach themed, with its aqua paint and starfish applique pressed just above the door knob. As soon as they close the door behind them, Mom’s not-so-subtle whispering starts.

“What are we going to do about this, Aaron? We can’t have Livvy sneaking around with boys all summer like she did last year.” Dad mumbles something I can’t make out.

I thought Opa dying would make Mom sad, quieter maybe, but it’s just made her angry. I stop in front of the floor-length mirror opposite the entryway and avoid the reflection it holds while I try to tune her out. I reach up to let my fingertips graze the row of pictures taped to its sides. My favorite is a small and blurry picture of me at the beach with my Opa from last summer. Mom and Dad’s arms thrown around each other in front of an impossibly perfect orange and pink sunset. Not pictured is the bonfire, Mom’s turkey dogs we had been conspiring to bury, and the marshmallows we planned to gorge on instead. I am hovering over Opa’s shoulders, stretching my arms around his neck from behind, while he sits in a collapsible beach chair. It was taken right after his first heart attack, when daily life started making him too weak to stand with the rest of us. He planted his chair in the sand and sat there all summer long, cheering everyone else on as we threw frisbees, built fires, and went on walks.

“This has been my favorite summer,” he told me, right at the end, the same week we were packing to head home. I suspected then that his words would mean something, that I should remember them. I still didn’t see it coming when it did though.

Instead of making me cry again, the picture makes me feel a tiny bit better. I can imagine him here, taking a nap in front of the TV while he waits for us to unpack and settle in. I use my fingernail to loosen the tape on the picture and slip it into the back pocket of my shorts. I have a feeling I'm going to need a reminder of Opa close to me this summer.

I sense her behind me even though I missed the sound of her bedroom door closing. “I can’t stay for this thing, Mom. I seriously can’t.” My voice cracks as I turn to face her.

She hits me with her trademark calculating stare that I can still see when I close my eyes and she isn’t there. “Honey—”

I shake my head to ward off any of the logical answers she’s prepared to feed me. “I miss him. I miss Opa and being here is hard enough.”

I gesture limply to the bright room. Opa’s beach house, where my parents brought me the summer after I was born. I want so badly to walk into the next room and find him hunkered down in his leather recliner, absentmindedly picking at the loose folds on the armrest with his eyes trained on the pages of some gigantic mystery novel.

A rapping on the door signals the arrival of the rest of the family, out-of-towners we never see who came for the funeral and are now here to celebrate Opa’s life with us. My mom forgets about our conversation and passes her eyes over me, like some unspoken warning to be on good behavior. She flings the door open and stretches her mouth into a smile so wide it’s terrifying.


  1. Hi Haleigh.
    I had a hard time coming up with anything to say. The writing is good, the mood is clear, the pacing is there. I guess one thing to watch out for is not making your characters too cartoonish. the MC's Dad is great so far, but Mom is all callousness--maybe you dilute it later, but then again, maybe you can do it here a little, too. Same with the little sister--she is all annoying brat. A word or two in a dialogue to give her another dimension would be great. To be fair, it's the first five pages, so we can't very well squeeze a lot into it.
    Yours are good.

  2. Hi Haleigh,

    Thanks for sharing your work with us.

    This is an emotive opening to your story and you’ve done well in setting the scene and maintaining the mood throughout. The part about the girls fighting for the best room is realistic and the loss of the family member is touching.

    There were a couple of things I picked up on reading through:

    1 – the main character, though clearly the calm one in the family, is maybe a bit too placid. With such booming characterisation from mum and sister, even the dead grandfather, she becomes a little lost. I didn’t engage with her as much as I would have liked. I couldn’t picture her. She was a voice sadly narrating her grandfather’s passing. I’d love to be able to picture her. To know what motivates her. To see her goals.
    2 – the pacing slowed when we reached the front door to the house. We get a big chunk of backstory about the parents and the drive down before we get in. Could this be more evenly spread out throughout the story?
    3 - I did wonder why we’re starting the story here. I think I’m wondering why we started with a paragraph about the funeral and then to the house and then looking at photos because there was no real sense of conflict within the opening pages. I’m sure it’s all about to come rushing at us as this is only the first five pages but if there was any way to inject some hint of what’s to come it would lift the piece and make it much pacier. Right now it’s a very sad story about a sad summer…if there is more than this to the story give us a good hint now!

  3. Hi Haleigh,

    Here’s what I thought it was about:

    MC is spending the summer in her family’s beach house in Florida. Her grandfather has just died and this is her first summer there without him. Her parents are worried about her younger sister, and the MC’s relationship with the younger sister seems shaky too.

    I imagine the rest of the story will be about the MC dealing with her first summer without her grandfather. She seems very close to him, and very connected to their summers in Florida, so I think it’ll be hard for her. From the family relationships set up, I expect there will be some conflict between the sisters and something with the mom and MC.


    The MC sounds kind of harsh in the beginning calling her grandfather’s body a shell. It made me think she didn’t care very much, but then the next line is about her crying so I was unsure.

    After the first paragraph, she is sympathetic though. She seems genuinely upset about losing her grandfather, and uninterested in causing drama with her family. I’m not sure what she wants though. She’s excited to be there, but what does she expect summer will look like without her grandfather? What does she hope for?

    I’m confused about the MC’s relationship with her mother. It seems like something is off since the MC shivers when her mother hugs her and something about their last interaction seems off.

    The jump from the hug to the door made me stop reading and go back to reread. In the first few paragraphs I wasn’t sure where the MC was. She told us about the funeral and then hugging her parents, but it wasn’t until the door opened and they entered the beach house that I realized they were some place other than where the funeral took place.

    I was also confused by where the funeral took place. If it was in town why didn’t they stop in and cleanup first after the long drive? If it wasn’t in FL, where was it and why was it far from the grandfather’s home?

    Hope this helps!

  4. Dear Haleigh,

    Thanks so much for sharing your work with me! I felt the real strength of this opening is the sense of place. It’s clear that the beach house is special to the main character and I could certainly picture her in this now-sad Florida home, missing Opa who should’ve been there with her.

    I don’t get a feel for stakes or conflict here. What’s going to happen to the MC this summer? Adjusting to life without Opa can make for a quiet, internal conflict but the reader probably needs more than that to feel invested in her journey. Perhaps there’s some kind of mystery she has to unravel about his life? Some kind of milestone she passes? I’d like more of that right away, whatever it is. I also feel like starting the story when they arrive at the house would be better. As they go in, she can reflect on the loss of Opa—you can get a lot of mileage out of how each family member reacts to the empty house without having to show the actual funeral. It would also give you a way to really show the reader the MC’s grief, which we’re told about when she cries, but I didn’t really feel it in her voice much until nearer to the end of this sample.

    Please let me know if you have questions or comments!


  5. This story is right up my alley! I love the summer house setting, the sense of loss, the family complications.

    I agree with the other comments on the starting point for the story feeling a little muddled. The verb tenses in the first few paragraphs switch up a bit so that the funeral is past tense, but then it seems she is there, only to find she's walking in the door to the summer house. It can be tricky to do a first person present narrative when you start the story reflecting on events that happened in the near past. One suggestion is to start directly at the summer house and possibly remark how empty it feels, perhaps how unfair it is she is there and Opa is lying in a casket. If you want to keep that first line, which is great, then perhaps spending a little more time at the funeral before jetting off to the summer home would work. You could establish some family dynamics at the funeral and also set up the primary conflict for your character.

    Your MC - I don't believe we get what her name is in this passage. i just went back to read and I am not seeing it unless I missed it. Her mom calls her Honey (assuming it's a term of endearment). Setting up a little more about how Opa's death throws a wrench in her summer plans, or what she is apt to lose/miss out on because of the loss. Perhaps think of your inciting incident and how aspects of that can be shown here; the inciting incident would be what event triggers the external stakes. What event or choice thrusts the character into a new world (it could be Opa's death, but the longer term stakes will need to be clarified - losing Opa means the business may collapse; perhaps MC takes it upon herself to fix, for example).

    The tones of grief and loss here are lovely. I really like the family dynamic you're setting up.

  6. Hi Haleigh,

    I love this! You have a great first line that pulled me in immediately, and the rest of the opening resonated with me emotionally in a big way (my grandmother passed away about a month ago). You do a great job of introducing us to the protagonist's family-- I feel like I am already developing a strong sense of who they are and how they relate to each other. You also have great descriptions. I loved the dad opening the door "like we've won a prize," the description of the events not pictured in the photo she's looking at, etc. All of the details you include in this passage are memorable and help us get to know the characters better.

    I agree with other comments that we don't get a strong sense of any external conflict in this passage, and that if it could be hinted at it would give the reader a better sense of what to expect down the road.

    I also found the transition from the funeral to the beach house a little jarring between the second and third paragraphs. I like the idea of spending a little more time at the funeral. One place I think you could easily cut would be the fifth paragraph ("Mom and dad are both..."), the part about her parents' jobs seems like unnecessary detail at this point in the story and the part about her sister's attitude I think we get without having it explicitly spelled out for us.

  7. Hi Haleigh,

    Thanks so much for sharing your pages! I really loved the first couple of paragraphs in which you describe your MC at the funeral! They do a really nice job of establishing her voice ("Whoever decided that open casket funerals should be a thing...") and the headspace she's occupying. And overall, I think I like the family dynamic you're setting up. I'd actually like to see a little more time spent in that setting.

    I do, however, find the tense shift pretty jarring. And along with the break in tense comes a break in the mood (at least as I'm reading it). The sister is super-bratty and impatient, the dad is goofy, the mom is angry and the MC is thinking about making fun of her dad. For me it just seems like a bit of a disconnect -- the nice melancholy mood you set up in the first two paragraphs is gone, replaced by all these conflicting emotions/behaviors from the family. During it all, your MC seems a little absent -- she's just taking it all in and not making it clear to me what she's thinking/feeling while her family behaves like this. That makes the MC's claim that, "I can’t stay for this thing, Mom. I seriously can’t," seem to come out of the blue. Why is she saying that? What's the "thing" anyway? I was a little confused there.

    I think you need to work on threading the MC's mind through the story in a more cohesive and overt way -- show her really reacting to her family so we know what's going on with her emotionally, rather than just passively taking it all in.

    One final thought -- it's hard to tell how old your MC is here. She has her own car and can drive across state lines without a parent in the car, so she has her license. And her little sister just finished her first year in high school. So how old is the MC? I was a little worried she might read a little old. But maybe that's just me.

    Overall, your writing is strong and I think the family dynamics you're setting up here are going to make for a really gripping story. I can't wait to see your next round!

    All best,