Saturday, March 3, 2018

1st 5 Pages March Workshop- Femia

Charles Femia
Middle Grade - Urban Fantasy
Van Helsing's Blood

Chapter 1
The scent of decaying flesh accompanied the memory. Along with an image of the coffin being swallowed by a hole in the earth. Leo’s stomach turned. He pushed the thought away, deep down in a corner of his mind and paced around the nearly empty bedroom, tossing a basketball back and forth from hand to hand. The ball’s tacky orange goose bumps sticking to his fingertips.
Sinking on to the bed, he glanced for the third time at the clock, propped on the carpet between unpacked boxes. Boxes untouched for two weeks which would remain so forever if he had his way. He wanted to forget about this house in Upstate New York and go back to New Jersey where his friends and basketball team would welcome him back with raucous applause.
He tossed the ball against the wall. The thumping against the plaster and the slapping back into his hands created a rhythm that helped to distract him. Clouds of white dust mushroomed out with every bounce. He stole another peek at the clock. Where is this kid? Vikram Singh had agreed to bring over his laptop. Leo blew out a deep breath, puffing out his cheeks like a blowfish.
Hurricane season sent major storms rolling through the area almost the entire time since the move, preventing anything from being turned on in the home. Life for a twelve year old without TV or internet access proved to be no life at all.
Rumbling thunder rattled the windows as though on cue, mocking him. At least these storms had caused significant damage to the middle school, so Leo had yet to attend. But he hadn’t had an opportunity to make any friends either. Lucky for him, Vik took archery lessons from the old woman living next door. The boys met the day Leo moved in while Vik waited for the instructor and hung out several times since.
Ordinarily, the fact that an archery instructor lived right next door would have delighted Leo. He loved the sport, it being one of the many things his father used to teach him. But as of late, his love for many things, especially those connected with his dad had waned.
That wasn’t the only reason his excitement abated. In truth, the old woman weirded him out. She showed all the signs of being a typical old lady. Except for the one time. Leo had been staring out of his bedroom window that overlooked the expansive forest at the end of the street when she pulled into her driveway.
The tires crunched over the gravel and squealed to a stop. When she exited the car, a gale whipped through the area sending leaves spiraling like a cyclone. Wind chimes clanged in the background. With arms laden with grocery bags she rushed toward her front door. A huge puddle left from the rain blocked her path. She looked up and down the street and leaped right over. Leo’s eyes bulged. She landed with a thud and snapped her head up toward him as though she knew he was there. The penetrating stare made chills radiate over his skin. Something was definitely off with her.
A knock on the door brought Leo out of his thoughts. He opened it.
A thin boy in a sky blue Columbia hoodie smiled, extricating himself from his backpack straps. “Hey, dude. Sorry I’m late.”
“Vik, where you been? Did you bring your laptop?”
“Relax, man. Yeah, I got it. I was helping your Mom unload some groceries and pumpkins from her car. Some son you are.” Vik laughed as he entered the room.
Leo ignored the comment pushing the door closed. “Did you find anything out?”
Vik shook his head and pulled a fully-rigged laptop out of the backpack. “Not a whole lot, besides what you already told me.” He placed it on Leo’s bed and reached to flip it open but stopped. He turned to Leo. “Is it possible you’re obsessed with this?”
Leo tilted his head. “What?” He squinted. “What’d my Mom say to you?”
Vik opened and closed his mouth several times before answering. “Nothing. Just...she’s worried. Can you blame her?”
“I’m not obsessed. And I’m not a little kid. I can—“
“Dude.” Vik cut him off. “I’m on your side. But, this is heavy for anybody. Your Dad was... murdered.”
Leo winced. The word carried an almost physical weight. He breathed in short shallow gasps and his legs trembled. The clouds of pain closed in on him. He pictured his father being attacked.
“And considering everything else you told me.” Vik paused. “I mean, why would he think you’re in danger?”
Leo replayed the reading of his father’s will in his mind. His brain, numb and exhausted from dealing with the death, tried to make sense of what the lawyer told him and his mother. How Leo’s father owned a secret house in New York and that in the event that anything should happen to him, the two were to move there immediately.
The look on his mother’s face mirrored his reaction. Her jaw dropped and her head shook in denial.
When they eventually pulled up outside the large red house, he tried to take it all in. How, he wondered, could his father afford a second home on his salary? And kept this secret from them?
But stranger still, why did he state in his will that they had to move for Leo’s protection? Protection from what? Leo felt like he had been zombie-walking through life ever since. He plopped down on the bed and stared off into space.
“Leo?” Vik asked. “You Ok?”
Leo blinked several times. “Yeah. I’m good. Really. Look, I’m not obsessed, and I’m not crazy. I just have to know what happened to him.” He pointed at the laptop. “What’s it say?”
Vik watched him for a beat and shrugged. He lifted the screen. A silver bracelet dangled about his wrist as he punched the keys. A newspaper article popped up on the screen in Italian. Two commands later, it enlarged and translated into English.
Leo looked on and his heart battered against his rib cage like a piston. He read the headline:
American Slain in Hotel Room
Roma- An American man on business was found murdered early Thursday morning in his hotel room. Police have yet to positively identify the body, but believe it to be the man to whom the room was rented. Police were alerted when the translator for Nike failed to appear for several meetings. Upon entering his hotel room, police found a body submerged in a tub full of water.             
“Apparently the body had been placed there for several days which is why we can’t yet ID the body,” Bruno Marchetti, a Commandante Generale said. “We have been able to match blood found in the room to the DNA of the American...
Leo fought back tears. He tried to swallow but felt like a stone had lodged in his throat. He recognized the article. “Is this all you found?”
“Have some faith, dude. I told you. I’m the techie geek wizard.” Vik fired away at the keyboard. Multiple screens flashed at once until finally resting on a police report. Vik lowered the screen of the laptop and turned to Leo.
Leo’s eyes widened. “What’re you doing?”
Vik took a deep breath and let it out. “Dude. You sure you wanna see this?”
“Yeah, why? What’s it say?” Leo reached his hand toward the computer.
Vik pulled it away.
Leo jumped to his feet. “Vik, I’ve gotta know.”
Vik stared at him for a second and lifted the screen. “Ok. But this is pretty harsh. I was able to backdoor into the Italian police server. The cop that wrote this said that the wounds seemed to be made by an animal. In fact, if this didn’t happen in his hotel room, he would have stated it was a wild animal attack. Plus, there was no forced entry. Like whoever did this was already in the room, or knew your dad.”
Leo tried to control his breathing as the room started spinning. He fought off the wave of nausea.


  1. Hey Charles,

    So, the puddle thing didn’t seem like such a big deal. There are lots of old women out there who are sprightly and able to leap over things. Do you intend it to be a puddle too big for even him to leap over? You could perhaps add a little something extra to show just how large this puddle is and make the occurrence even more impossible.

    The mention of his father’s death felt random and out-of-the-blue. There had been no reference to his sorrow or struggle to fit in to this new place after the incident, so when Vik mentioned it, it took me aback. I also think Leo’s reaction to it (the short breaths and trembling legs) was a bit of an overreaction. It would bother him, no doubt, but to that extent? If it had been a day ago and he had witnessed the entire ordeal, that would be one thing. The way the story is written implies it’s been a little while. If this Vik is a new friend he’s made since moving, it must have been some time. Surely, Leo wouldn’t just tell him about all of that without first being friends with Vik and building trust?

    Vik also mentioned his mother. Is she okay with Leo looking into the death of his father? Wouldn’t she want to stop it and not allow him to do so? Wouldn’t she want him to move on and not traumatise himself further?

    Just a few thoughts that pressed believability. Perhaps you could move the unpacked boxes into the drawers and make more of his difficulty to settle in, but the friend he managed to make was all he needed? Maybe even a mention of Vik claiming they were doing homework to conceal the fact that they are looking into the murder?

    Good luck with the revision. I'm looking forward to reading the next draft.

  2. Hi Charles,

    Lots of good material here! I'm susceptible to MCs who love basketball, since I played myself and now my middle grade sons do. I like the intriguing nods to fantastic elements...the strange old lady and his Dad's bizarre death. A couple general observations:

    Lots of sentence fragments in these pages. It's fine to throw in a fragment now and then for dramatic emphasis, but you might want to make them less prevalent.

    I'm wondering if there's some unnecessary descriptive detail. A good idea might be to read these pages out loud for flow, eliminating bits (like Vik's silver bracelet?) that aren't important in the moment.

    Something I found confusing was the lack of a sense of time. When we learn his father has been murdered, the immediate question is, Whoa, when did this happen? Are we talking days? Weeks? That's an event that would color everything that would happen afterwards.

    Given that missing passage-of-time element, I wasn't sure what to make of his reaction to Vik's words, "Your Dad was murdered." It seemed like a more spur of the moment reaction--less believable if it's something he's been thinking about for weeks.

    I also wanted to echo Sophie's comments that the old lady's ability to jump over the puddle didn't strike me as super crazy--unless the puddle was ten feet wide and she soared across horizontally, you know.

    Keep up the good work, we need all the hoops-playing MCs we can get.

  3. Hi, Charles! Thank you for submitting to the First Five Pages Workshop! I was really drawn in by this excerpt, but the first thing I thought as I was reading is that is doesn’t feel like a middle grade novel. It feels more YA to me. Even if this kid were a couple years older, say fourteen, I could believe it. But right now, the tone and even the way Leo and Vik react to things as well as their snarky, casual dialogue seems very teen to me, not twelve, which is not a bad thing at all! It just means you have to visualize that and write as well as market to that effect.

    Also, the first couple lines are confusing, maybe because I already know the title and realize this is about a vampire. When I read, “The scent of decaying flesh accompanied the memory. Along with an image of the coffin being swallowed by a hole in the earth,” I think Leo might be a vampire, but then I’m confused about why he’s in his room bouncing a basketball. If this coffin is his father’s, then I would rewrite that so we get a better sense of that. Not sure exactly where the smell of flesh comes in, so again, that seems confusing.

    Also, when he mentions Vikram, I think he’s some kid he just met and doesn’t know well. But then he calls him Vik and the relationship they seem to have is more established and seems like good friends – especially when Vik accuses him of being obsessed with his father’s death and then tries to keep the evidence of the “animal attack” from him. That is really protective and something a close friend would do. Again, that’s fine, but you need to establish Vikram as a closer friend when you first mention him. “Vikram, or Vik as I call him now that I’ve been hanging out with him for two weeks.” Or something to that effect. And since it’s only been two weeks and they seem close, who instigated this? Leo or Vik? That says a lot about character. If Vik did, what prompted him to introduce himself? If Leo initiated the friendship, is he the kind of kid who would walk over and introduce himself? As a reader, I want to know in a sentence or two one way or the other.

    I love the description of the neighbor lady, how she agilely leaps over a puddle. So cool! And the tension you create as you get to the end of these five pages makes me want to keep reading. I know the conflict by the end, and I know that the MC’s main goal is to figure out what happened to his dad. All ingredients for a great story!

    I hope these comments help a bit. Let me know if you have questions, and I look forward to the revision!

    1. Hi Heather,

      Thank you for the comments, they're great. And I agree with your suggestions.

      After revising several times, I lost a little with regard to Leo and Vik's relationship. I cut/condensed a lot of the early drafts' beginning chapters.

      They have hung out everyday since Leo moved there. Vik is insecure and feels like a nerd and wants to be friends with Leo badly. Leo has no one, other than his mother and really likes Vik a lot. He senses Vik's insecurities and wants to make Vik feel good about himself. I cut a major scene with this because I worried I had too much backstory already.

      I tried to show it in these pages but obviously didn't do a good job and have to remedy this. They really hit it off and have become close in this short amount of time.

      It's such a delicate balance to have enough without giving too much backstory/info dumping. I'll work on it. Do you think adding something like your suggestion would be enough to get the point across or should I add even more?

      Thanks again, I really appreciate your help.

      All the Best,


    2. You are correct in not wanting to cram a lot of backstory in these first pages. Just a quick phrase of, just as you said, they hit it off right away "after Vik wandered over" or whatever. You can elaborate on whether Vik was curious about him because he's the curious type or that Leo had a moment of extreme loneliness and wanted to talk to someone his age or whatever it was that happened later, but who initiated the friendship goes to the heart of character.

    3. Hi Heather,

      Thanks a lot. This is very helpful.


  4. Charles, thanks for submitting your work for critique.

    You are a very good writer. That is obvious. Your prose is clean, rhythmic and engaging. All the elements are there. My question for you is this: Are you sure you want to write middle grade fiction? It feels like YA or even commercial adult fiction. The dialogue between Vic and Leo is good, though. It feels like the way two twelve-year-olds would speak.

    I found several examples that made these pages feel like they were written for a more mature reader:
    …extricating himself from his backpack straps
    …those connected with his dad had waned.
    …his excitement abated.
    …With arms laden with grocery bags
    … Boxes untouched for two weeks which would remain so forever

    Okay, so don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with these lines if they are used sparingly. The narration feels very formal. I've had an agent/editor say this about my own work with my first novel. It took a while to get into that kid zone, if you know what I mean.

    So, as I said. You're obviously A WRITER. Why do you want to write for kids? I'd read and look at some more MG fiction and see if that is the category you really want to write for.

    Other than that, good work and an interesting premise!

    1. Hi Ronald,

      Thank you so much for the very kind words and your critique. I really appreciate it.

      I completely understand your point about the age level (all 3 of you said the same). I intended to label this as upper MG, though I get now that this is too old for even that.

      I'm a bit embarrassed to say that it was intentional. I was a teacher for a number of years and my students would always complain that a lot of MG authors talked down to them and they preferred books with more serious tones. Not subjects, so they stayed away from YA, but across the board they wished MG books treated them like they were capable of more maturity.

      It's clear I shouldn't have done that. I knew nothing about the industry when I started writing. I will work on the voice and vocabulary.

      Thanks again for your help and for being so encouraging.

      All the Best,


    2. Hey Charlie,

      Yes, I hear that about kids, too. They don't want to be talked down-to. I once asked MT Anderson what people thought of his book Octavian Nothing, which is quite truly literary fiction. He said that kids didn't have any problem with it, just adults.

      So I take your point.

      The hard part is striking the right balance. There are so many types of books that fall into the middle grade category--from cute and fun to dark and creepy. Be sure not to lose your voice in revising, though. Sometimes that happens.

      If you started this story with:
      A knock on the door brought Leo out of his thoughts.

      That feels more middle grade to me, and their dialogue reinforces it. Perhaps think about cutting some of the internal backstory and narrative to begin, and sparse it in accordingly. I don't know. Just thinking aloud.

      Ultimately, you have to do what you think is best for the story. Taking all of the advice and absorbing it. Best. Ron

  5. Hi Charles! Anything Van Helsing gets me from the go, so I'm excited to read this. Commenting as I read...

    The opening gives a strong feeling of character and where he is, which is good. My only reservation is that his thought process feels a little older than middle grade. Maybe if there was an element included with his basketball team that pointed to him being younger it would feel younger. Your word choices in this opening are beautiful, but they also feel more appropriate for an older audience. Don't mistake this as negative because your writing is quite good.

    I'm assuming, with Van Helsing being mentioned, this story will have some paranormal aspects/elements to it. I mention this to share a caution with you. When writing paranormal make any real-life elements real without question. I'm referring to the 'dust mushrooming'. My brain is telling me you mean sheetrock dust, but if there are paranormal elements you'll need to say that or be more specific as to not confuse the reader.

    I'd love to learn more about Vik and when he and Leo first met. When I read the paragraph where you were telling about it, my initial thoughts were that this felt more middle grade - two boys meeting over bow and arrows. Another place where more MG feel could be added is where Leo thinks about this old woman being a 'typical old lady'. What does he mean by this? What gives him that description of her - her wrinkly spotty hands that he would freak out if ever touched him, the way she clears the gross phlegm in her throat, etc...

    As I'm writing this, I noticed Ronald's comments above mine. I basically feel the same as he does, so I won't repeat - this piece is well written, but has a formality to it that feels older than middle grade. If you truly want this tale to be MG, I'd suggest reading a few MG stories so you can get a feel for the difference. Otherwise, this tale would fit in the YA world. That's up to you.

    I definitely like where this is heading. Looking forward to your revisions!

    1. Hi Sheri,

      Thank you for the critique and supportive comments. I appreciate it. I can see now what you mean.

      Heather thought the age of the voice was too old as well. I'll try to fix that. She also mentioned wanting more about Leo and Vik's meeting/relationship. I cut a lot of that interaction out in previous revisions because I worried about too much backstory.

      They met the day Leo moved in and hang out everyday. They hit it off and are close in this short time. Leo saved Vik from some neighborhood bullies soon after they met. I reference this on page 6 but don't know if I need to move this up earlier or just expand on their initial meeting.

      Vik gets picked on a lot for being smart and feels like a nerd so he badly wants to be friends with Leo. Leo really likes Vik and can tell Vik is insecure so he wants to make him feel good about himself.

      I'd love to hear if you have any thoughts on this.

      Thanks again and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on future revisions.

      All the Best,


  6. Hello Charles,

    Until the 4th para, where you mentioned he is a 12 yr old. I thought he was a 20 something, a college or state basketball player. He talks more like a grown up which gave me the impression. for me, your MC and the chapter voice didn't quite match.

    Its the same with the scene where he describes what he saw the old lady do, he talks took much like a grown-up, maybe that's what you are trying to show, but in a scene where a kid saw something cool happen would not look at the tiny details. plus the description made it hard for me to keep track of what was happening. I do think you should hype up the incident s something that could bring you MC to not trust her and sat something like, like. "Woah, Damn a woman as old as her could do that?" this was an awful example but I hope you get the point.

    As an when the dialogue starts I can tell they are kids,

    I think Vik would be more considerate when saying murdered, you can use a dialogue tag to do that.

    I understood the death of his father immediately but the way you mentioned it didn't make it seem like a big deal.

    I sense a lot of the writer in the chapter, even though it is a 3-POV we need to know what LEO is thinking, seeing and going through.

    Good luck with the revision.

  7. Hi Charles,

    The voice definitely sounds older in your first five chapters. The dialogue sounds like clever twelve year olds which I love but the rest does sound a bit older. I don’t write MG so I’m not the best to help with the rest but perhaps pick up some other MGs and read a few chapters to get a feel :) ?

    Your first paragraph definitely pulls the reader into the story. With the title in mind, I also as a reader am enjoying it and wondering when a paranormal element is going to pop up :)

    I liked this line in particular : Leo blew out a deep breath, puffing out his cheeks like a blowfish.

    I can sense a bit of foreshadowing with this neighbor and wonder who she is and how she is involved :)

    I love these two lines: How Leo’s father owned a secret house in New York and that in the event that anything should happen to him, the two were to move there immediately.

    Very intriguing!

    I love that Vik is a computer genius and twelve! Very cool!

    Very intriguing final few sentences there that make me want to know more about his father’s death and what Leo wants.

    Leo is a likeable MC and I would definitely root for him. I wonder what the conflict will be for him as he moves forward and also what his main goal is - to discover who murdered his Dad I am guessing?

    Great job! I would suggest reading some other MG's to get a feel but overall I think you have a great opening few pages. Your writing is lovely.

    Thank you,