Saturday, March 3, 2018

1st 5 Pages March Workshop- Vanderhorst

Name: AJ Vanderhorst
Genre: Upper Middle Grade

Chapter One

Casey Grimes was the wrong kind of kid. He couldn’t put his finger on why. He wasn’t too tall or too thin for his age, he was pretty average. He didn’t breathe loudly through his nose, call people names, or turn red for no reason. When he looked in the mirror, he saw a boy with confused blue eyes and a handful of freckles, not a freak show. But for some reason, other kids seemed to look past him like he wasn’t even there.

Greenish light shone through his window as he stood in his pajamas, staring at the thick woods behind the house. Down in the grass, mist snaked the ankles of the oaks and beeches and cottonwoods. Giant branches bent like muscular brown arms, fingering the roof. Further into the hollow, trees got even bigger.

Casey glanced at his alarm clock and sighed. Time to get ready for school. He took off his pajamas and folded them neatly before putting them back in the drawer. He pulled out jeans and a sweatshirt and slung his backpack over his shoulder. Inside, his homework was sorted with paperclips alongside his books and calculator. Before he went downstairs, Casey stepped into the bathroom and thought about fixing his rumpled brown hair. He decided not to bother. It’s not like anyone would notice.

Dad leaned on the kitchen counter, drinking coffee and looking over the misty yard. “Good morning, son.”

“Morning, Dad.” Casey poured himself a small mug of coffee and sat down.

“Hey, no coffee until you’re fourteen,” Mom said.

“Or in a few months when you’re twelve,” Dad whispered.

His parents looked worn out but cheerful.

“Oops, I keep forgetting,” Casey said. “Granola, please.”

He gave it a minute, then sipped his coffee quietly.

Mom slid a bowl in front of him with a pleasant, perplexed expression, like there was something she was trying to remember. She often looked that way.

Gloria, Casey’s five-year-old sister, walked in carrying a huge piece of cardboard. It was as big as she was and covered in crayon zig zags, paint splotches and shreds of colored paper.

She smiled. “Isn’t it beautiful? Should I put it in the living room or in Dad’s office?”

“I thought it was for school, dear.” Mom poured orange juice onto Gloria’s cheerios, staring at the artwork.

“The first one turned out so well that I made a second one for us,” Gloria said.

“Better put that in my office so I can enjoy it while I work,” Dad said quickly.

“OK!” Gloria disappeared down the hall. It looked as if a large square of cardboard with feet was running away. For the first time in several weeks, Casey laughed.

When they’d moved in, his family put more effort into meals and often ate on the deck overlooking the woods. After awhile they’d decided it was too much trouble. Now he spent breakfast staring at rolled oats and coconut flakes and whatever else went into granola.

He swirled his spoon around the grainy glop, spooned another bite in his mouth and gave up. "My bus will be here soon,” he said, sliding his half-empty bowl in the sink. He grabbed his backpack and headed out the door. "Bye Mom, bye Dad, bye Gloria.”

“Bye, Casey,” everyone else said.

The bright gold bus had lots of room and smelled clean. “Good morning, Mr. Reynolds,” Casey said as he stepped inside. “Speak for yourself,” the driver grunted. There were only two other kids on Casey’s route and they always sat together in the back. He waved but they didn’t notice, so he took his usual seat by the window. Streets rolled past, fading into a brown and green blur. After awhile, they all looked the same.

Casey was good at school. At least, people said he was. The truth, school was boring, but it gave him something to do. English was easy. He’d always liked reading. History was a series of strange, sad stories, and he liked stories. Science took more work but made sense. Math was his most difficult subject, which made it interesting. He scored high marks in all his classes.

During study halls, he crafted animals by carefully folding old homework. The zoo in his locker kept growing, the creatures more and more lifelike. Without quizzes and assignments and origami, Casey would’ve had more time to think about a truth he tried to avoid.

Kids overlooked him. Their eyeballs saw him for a moment, then bounced away. For two years, he’d tried to make friends, but no one seemed interested. When he said Hi, he may as well have been on mute. Once in awhile, kids would ask him a question—“How long you been going to school here?”—and start talking to someone else before he could answer. They promised to send him invitations to their birthday parties, but the brightly colored envelopes never arrived. They pretended not to remember his name. Teachers congratulated him on his grades but he caught them watching him with narrowed eyes.

Casey wasn’t sure if it had always been like this. Memories of his old home were blurry and when he asked his parents, their eyes got a little unfocused. But it had been like this ever since they’d moved to Vintage Woods.

Six months went by from the time Gloria made Casey laugh at breakfast. In that time, he didn’t laugh at breakfast again. He did laugh once at dinner, when Gloria made eyeglasses out of spaghetti, and twice at night, when he was reading a funny book. He aced more tests at school and explored the forest behind his house a little more, but he was tired of following paths and climbing trees on his own. Then, two and a half years after the Grimes family moved to Vintage Woods, something happened.

Chapter Two

On that particular day, Casey got off the bus and walked to his front door, kicking a rock. Earlier, he’d gotten a 98% on his Biology test and added a saltwater crocodile to his zoo. He was wearing khaki shorts and a plain white t-shirt because spring was almost over in Vintage Woods. Days were getting warmer. Summer break would arrive in three weeks.

He’d probably spend it reading books and playing Sorry! with Gloria. If he surprised his parents by cleaning out the garage, maybe he could bribe them into a short vacation to a lake or mountain. Or a marsh or prairie. Or even a desert.

Anywhere but Vintage Woods, where no one knew his name.

When Casey walked through the front door, Mom jumped off the living room couch and sang out, “WELCOME HOME, HONEY!” Casey took a half-step back, mouth open. She hadn’t had this much energy in…months? Years? Mom hugged him and ruffled his hair.

“Dad and I just got some great news,” she said.

As if by magic, Dad appeared and did a very basic dance, stomping and throwing his fists in the air. “We’ve won a vacation to Jamaica!”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Casey felt a sensation he’d almost forgotten. A kaleidoscope of butterflies took flight in his gut, soaring toward his heart.

Gloria skipped into the room, blonde ponytail bouncing, clapping her hands. “Isn’t it wonderful? Mom and Dad get to take a vacation! And they’ll bring us back presents!”


  1. Hey AJ,

    I like how you began with a mention about the woods behind the house. They're interesting, and my imagination is coming up with various reasons why they are so intriguing, but without a hint about why, it's hard to know how relevant they are.

    You tell a lot rather than show. I think this is why I don't feel any connection to Casey. If you were to show the interaction between him and his classmates, the resulting rejection, and his emotional response, we would gain a greater feel for his loneliness and sorrow and would be able to relate to him more. At the moment, you tell us about it which puts a barrier up.

    You write that he stands in his pjs, staring at the woods. This is good because it shows his lack of connection with the world, separated as he is behind the glass, and even his longing for something more.

    My advice is to try to show more. For instance, you say 'Casey felt a sensation he'd almost forgotten', but you could write 'Hope swelled, releasing a kaleidoscope of butterflies in his gut'. One tells, the other shows. Can you see the difference?

    Good luck with the revision. I look forward to reading your next draft!

  2. Hi, AJ! Thank you so much for submitting to the First Five Pages Workshop. I just love the mysterious tone coming through in this piece from the very onset. Let me first give you the little spiel I’ll give to all the writers in this workshop. There are a trillion resources out there that tell you what you need in the first five pages (Noah Lukeman’s book is probably the most well-known), but when I’m writing or reading, those first five pages must HOOK ME, GROUND ME, GIVE ME A PURPOSE FOR READING, and DRAG ME FORWARD. So let’s look at what you’ve done with regard to that.

    Did you HOOK ME? Currently, I’m half hooked. The hook should come from an intriguing first line, from an immediate conflict since you want to start your book on the day when something changes for your character, and from voice. I sort of like the first line of your piece and this sense Casey has of himself, but then you start the action in paragraph 2. It’s a bit jolting since there doesn’t seem to be a connection between the first two paragraphs. That first paragraph might work better lower, right after you say the line, “It’s not like anyone would notice.” Then you have a nice flow straight into how invisible Casey feels. In the second paragraph, I’m struck by the “greenish light” and assume this must have something to do with the overall conflict. With regard to “voice,” Casey’s tone is ho-hum, which makes sense based on his feelings of being invisible. But his family is Stepford Wives-like, sort of robotic and really odd. Again, I assume this has something to do with the overall conflict, but I’m not sure why.

    Did you GROUND me? Do I know the setting, characters, and conflict? I know Casey feels invisible, where he lives, and who his family is. So yes, you’ve mostly grounded me. UNTIL … you jump ahead in the last paragraph of Chapter 1, first by 6 months, then by 2 1/2 years. Then I’m ungrounded. My question at that point is, “Then why not start the story two-and-a-half years ahead?” On that day, his parents win a vacation, which seems to be an event that is about to alter the status quo for Casey. Therefore, perhaps THIS is where the story needs to start, and from there, you weave in the idea of who Casey is and how this sudden excitement in his family is very different from what he’s used to. You can add those details, too, of how his parents don’t quite remember their home before Vintage Woods and the idea that Casey is avoiding some kind of “truth.”

    GIVE ME A PURPOSE FOR READING and DRAGGING ME FORWARD only happen for me slightly in your current draft. The purpose means giving the reader a sense of the main character’s main goal. I may not completely know what the goal is in 5 pages, but the story should help me start seeing what the character’s hopes and wishes are, like Casey wanting more friends. But I’m not sure why his parents are so “flat” and why kids seem to look through him, or how this vacation to Jamaica changes things or why there is a green light in the woods. If the conflict isn’t quite defined, then I’m not sure what the MC wants things to look like in the end. Also, if the conflict is not quite solidified yet and I’m not quite grounded, it’s hard to give me enough tension to drag me to the next pages or chapter.

    You have some of the essential elements in this draft, but you need to ask yourself, “Why am I starting the story on the day I do?” When does the conflict occur so that things truly change (for the worse) for your character so he must figure out how to resolve the situation via his main goal that propels us through the rest of the book. Once you pinpoint where to start your story, you can begin to weave Casey’s voice and character through that scene.

    This is a lot to throw at you, so let me know if you have questions!

  3. Hello,

    I like how the entire chapter has a mysterious tone and you can the MC's state of mind. I do agree with Sophie Edwards there is a lot tell than show. For example, instead of telling his bag had his homework sorted with paperclips alongside his books and calculator, you could have shown him keep them in the bag, helps us ground with the surrounding when he moves and works on something and also helps readers can imagine it better.

    It was just an example for how you can work on show vs tell.

    Usually, dialogue tags can a struggle but I see you have managed to work on action and keep it basic with said here and there which works great with the story and voice.

    I love the name Vintage woods and how in a very subtle manner you mention that the moving could have something to do with Casey. I am more intrigued by that. I guessing vacation to Jamaica is how the plot begins in which case I am almost hooked, but I need a little more about what could happen. you could either explore his past a little more but it might lead the readers to read he is the MC or you could start directly with the 2 years late Casey.

    I understood Casey as a kid but since you first jumped 6 months and then 2 years, it broke the connection. I don't know anything about the two yr later Casey, who is actually your MC.

    Also, there are a few, very few sentences that are a little chunky at the start, it threw me off a little and had to read again. It has been suggested to me by many people to avoid using sentences with 'was' in them. Try rephrasing it maybe it'll help.

    Good luck with the revision.

  4. Thanks for the detailed breakdown and all the probing questions, Heather! They're much appreciated. I've started to rework the pages--after staying up half the night thinking about it, of course. I do have a question. You mention that his family seems kind of robotic and odd, which is more or less what I'm shooting for (depressed and distracted are what I really want to convey)--however, the aha! explanation isn't due to arrive for a few chapters. Do you see that as being a problem?

    Maybe I can do a better job with foreshadowing and allusion. In a nutshell, their predicament is that they're very out of place.

    1. Sure, AJ. You can develop the parents more as the story unfolds past the first five pages, of course, but if you are going for depressed and feeling out of place for them, then perhaps show that more in the dialogue and in their actions. During the exchange at breakfast is a perfect time to show them in this depressed/distracted light. Maybe mom stumbles, dad spills, they both have dark smudges under their eyes, Casey has to ask them the same question a couple times before they register. All of these things might show what you want. Currently, they seem to be parents who want to cater to their kids and don't have any problems. Dad says he will put Gloria's picture in his office to enjoy it and jokes about coffee with Casey. Mom jumps right to getting the granola when asked. This goes against a characterization of depressed and distracted. Maybe Casey wants them to fix his rumpled hair, does it on purpose and stands in front of his mom so she'll pat it down, but she doesn't notice and walks right past him. These little details, actions and reactions help build your characters and give us insight into their inner selves. I hope this helps!

    2. That absolutely helps, thank you Heather!

  5. Hi AJ,

    I enjoyed your first five pages. I felt your voice really stood out and was great for Middle Grade. If you continue that throughout your MS it would be wonderful.

    I wondered why you labeled this as upper Middle Grade. From the voice and tone of these pages it reads like most Middle Grade books. It didn’t seem darker or more intense. Of course, it’s hard to say from just five pages, but wanted to point out the thoughts that I had while reading.

    It’s clear that something interesting is going on in this new town and with his parents and I liked that a lot. It’s good to give your reader something to look forward to and if you deliver on that promise you’ve done a great job.

    I got hung up on the ‘green’ light shining in. Why was it green? Was it reflecting off of leaves from the trees? It made me stop.

    The mother put orange juice in Gloria’s cereal? Was it meant to show her being distracted? Because you don’t mention again I wondered if it was a mistake.

    I thought this might benefit from a Save the Cat moment. I think you do a good job showing how depressed Casey is (though I agree with Sophie that it’s a lot of telling) and get your audience to connect with him on that level. But maybe you can show him do something nice to really get the reader to root for him instead of just feeling sorry. If you have that after this then disregard, mine doesn’t come up until page 6.

    I felt like there was a lot of telling. Especially when describing Casey and his classes.

    The end of chapter one also took me out of the story. You jumped ahead six months and I didn’t understand why you didn’t just start there. There wasn’t much that happened in terms of plot before then. The majority of it is mostly set up so you can easily start here in the story. Then you mention two and a half years later right after that. And at first I couldn’t tell if you jumped ahead another period time, (three years after the start) or the start is two years after they moved in. I think it’s the latter but this confused me and I had to reread this part a few times.

    I hope this was helpful. If you have any questions, let me know. Good luck with the revisions.


  6. Hi AJ,

    Thank you for sharing your work! First of all, I love your writing style. You have some really great moments of description (branches like arms, snaking mist) and a believable middle grade voice. I care about your character and the qualities you’ve built up around him. I especially like that he makes little animals out of homework—so unique!

    My overall comment would be that I think your story really starts at Chapter Two. I’m not sure that having 6 months- 2 ½ years pass in the first chapter is the most effective start to what I’m sure is a compelling story. All the details you’ve brought up in the current first chapter (the move to Vintage Woods, the family dynamic, Casey’s qualities, Casey being ignored by his classmates) can be woven into the narrative after the reader has been dropped into the action—and I think that real action starts when the parents announce their vacation. As others have mentioned in their feedback, this is part of the “show don’t tell” idea.

    Also, be careful about what details you choose to include. Everything you say should work to propel the story forward or deepen it. When you are revising, consider what the purpose of each detail is. Does it tell us something about the character or their situation? Does it help set the scene? If not, maybe it isn't necessary. For example, do we need to know Casey is folding his pajamas and putting them away neatly? Maybe if his neatness is a big part of his character. But then he leaves his hair messy, so that's not the case.

    I hope this helps. I’m really looking forward to reading your revision next week.

    All the best,

  7. Beth, Charlie, Sanyukta, Sophie, thanks for the thoughtful feedback. The people have spoken...and they want more showing and less telling! I'm on it. The elapsed time clearly isn't working either. Consider it gone. :) I'm working to integrate your other comments as well.

    Charlie--it's possible I'm making too fine a distinction, but my MC turns 12 in the story, and there's lots of intense action ahead, so I'm leaning upper-MG.

  8. Hi AJ :) Apologies for being late on the game here.

    Overall I found your first five pages intriguing. I like Casey, he seems sweet. Brilliant.

    Here are my notes:

    I really enjoy your first line! Awesome.

    Maybe in the second paragraph you could hint at what’s so mystical about the forest? Or maybe he doesn't know yet?

    "When he looked in the mirror, he saw a boy with confused blue eyes and a handful of freckles, not a freak show."

    I wonder if you might be able to describe it differently rather than using the word "confused" as one might not describe themselves that way? Perhaps clouded eyes ?

    I loved this detail : "Inside, his homework was sorted with paperclips alongside his books and calculator."

    This shows us about him and we know he is organized :)

    Perhaps you could explain why Casey notes this about his parents - “His parents looked worn out but cheerful.” Perhaps a visual description of the lines or circles under his parents eyes? Or slumped posture or poor short term memory?

    “OK!” Gloria disappeared down the hall. It looked as if a large square of cardboard with feet was running away. For the first time in several weeks, Casey laughed."

    This is cute :) I love this image.

    I find it intriguing and I want to know why Casey is overlooked and why seemingly invisible. Well done there.

    Overall, I agree with the above comments about a lot of telling and not showing. But those are easily fixed. I think you have a great start to the story. I want to know more about the woods and why Casey is invisible. Well done.

  9. Hi AJ,

    Thanks for submitting your pages! I enjoyed reading them!

    I liked your voice a lot in these pages. There's something vaguely Lemony Snicket about it, which is a very good thing. You're clearly have some skill as a writer.

    I think these pages need some work, though. As we tend to see a lot in submissions to this workshop, your story starts in the wrong place. What you've submitted, as well-written as it may be, really just feels like throat clearing to me. You've written a sketch of Casey—we know that he's kind of average, has blue eyes and freckles, rumpled brown hair and nobody notices him. All this is stuff you definitely need to let the reader know about in due course, but as it stands, nothing really happens in these pages. Casey gets dressed, eats breakfast, gets on a bus and comes home. We know what's in his backpack, what he ate for breakfast, what his sister ate for breakfast... but what we on't know is where this story is going. With MG especially, you need to hook your readers fast!

    Here, even when we learn Casey's parents have won a trip, I don't feel compelled to keep reading. If I knew what the stakes were going to be in this story, whether the world Casey inhabits is realistic or fantasy, what the primary conflict was going to be, I'd have a reason to keep turning pages.

    The bottom line is this: I think you can kill the whole breakfast scene, Casey getting dressed, looking in the mirror, riding the school bus and getting a 98% on a test and you could probably start with: "When Casey walked through the front door, Mom jumped off the living room couch and sang out, 'WELCOME HOME, HONEY!'" Maybe not verbatim, but I sense that's where the thrust of the story gets going. Or maybe it's even later--after Casey's parents have already left for Jamaica, leaving the kids alone with a babysitter (if that's where you're going with this).

    For the next round, I'd suggest STARTING where you left off here and see where that takes us.

    I'll say to you what my agent used to drum into me--start your story as late as possible in the action. If you can get to something remarkable happening within the first five pages, you'll be far likelier to get a prospective agent or, eventually, a kid in a bookstore, hooked.

    Thanks again!
    I look forward to seeing the next round!


    1. Thanks for the great advice, Rob. I think you're right, the story takes too long getting started. I'll see how much cutting and splicing I can get done by Sunday night, to convey who Casey is while also getting things up and running quickly!