Sunday, March 11, 2018

1st 5 Pages March Workshop- Vanderhorst Rev 1

Name: AJ Vanderhorst
Genre: Upper Middle Grade

Chapter One

Casey Grimes was the wrong kind of kid.

He stood on the corner under a STOP sign, jogging in place as his school bus sped down the street. When it slowed to roll through the intersection, Casey sprinted alongside, smacking the door as his pack jounced his spine. “Open up!” The driver squinted through the smudged glass and Casey banged harder, until the accordion doors whooshed open.

“Where’d you come from?” the driver asked.

“Same place I always come from,” Casey gasped. He jumped into the moving bus and the driver shrugged and floored the accelerator.

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.

“You new here?” A kid asked as Casey opened his locker.

“Of course not,” Casey said. “We sit next to each other in—”

But she’d already started talking to someone else.

Manuel walked past—he and Casey’d had a five second conversation once. “Hey Manuel.” The boy’s eyes paused for a millisecond, then bounced away. “Stop pretending you can’t see me!” But the other kid was already moving down the hall.

In Chemistry, whenever Casey talked or moved their test tubes, his partner got a strange look on his face and said something like, “When did you get here? Have we met?” Earlier that year, after their experiment exploded, he’d promised to invite Casey to his birthday party. But the brightly colored envelope never arrived.

During study hall, Casey did what he always did—sat in a group of kids who chattered around him, occasionally bumping him and saying things like, “Oh, didn’t see you there,” and “Dude, where’d you come from?” Casey tried not to let it bother him. He spent the period crafting animals by carefully folding old homework. Month after month, the zoo in his locker kept growing, the creatures more and more lifelike.

Casey wasn’t sure when he’d become half-invisible. He wasn’t too tall or too fat 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 wide blue eyes and a handful of freckles, not a freak show. But it had been this way for two years, ever since his family’d moved to Vintage Woods when he was nine.

That afternoon, Casey got off the bus after yelling STOP, STOP! at the driver and walked to his front door, kicking a rock. Days were getting warmer, and summer break would arrive in two weeks. It was time to launch his Vacation Plan.

Step one, clean out the garage—his parents would never expect it. Next, the whitewater rafting flyer hidden under his pillow. Or if that was too ambitious, a camping trip—or anything else they might prefer. A lake or mountain, fantastic. A marsh or prairie, cool. He’d even take a desert. Anywhere but Vintage Woods, where no one knew his name.

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

As if by magic, Dad appeared, sloshing a pint-sized mug of coffee, and did a very basic dance, stomping and throwing his fists in the air. “Don’t ask me how, but we’ve won an instant vacation to Jamaica!”

“We’ve already started packing!” Mom shook her head and laughed.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” A kaleidoscope of butterflies took flight in Casey’s gut, soaring toward his heart.

Five-year-old Gloria skipped into the room, glitter dotting her face, blonde ponytail bouncing. “Isn’t it wonderful? Mom and Dad get to go on vacation and they’ll bring us back presents!”

“OHH…” Casey said. “Oh, wow. Dad and Mom, that’s great. Really, really great. It’s been forever since you’ve had time away.” He hugged them and rushed upstairs, where he fell facedown on his bed and pressed his knuckles to his eyes.

Casey’s parents giggled as they leafed through cabana brochures and dive schedules. They didn’t realize how miserable Casey was because they didn’t realize how miserable they were—and this was partly Gloria’s fault. She was always bright and cheerful, which made the rest of her family think they were happier than they really were.

Casey sat up and took a deep, raspy breath. He held his backpack upside down, shaking out every last paper clip and sheet of homework. He didn’t know when his parents would leave, how long they’d be gone, or why he seemed to be made of glass. But he knew one thing.

He had to get out of the house.

Down in the grass, mist snaked the ankles of the oaks and beeches and cottonwoods. Branches bent like muscular brown arms, twiggy fingers grazing the roof. If Casey half-closed his eyes and squinted, taller trees towered over the murk, deep in the hollow behind the house.
“I know you have secrets,” he mumbled. “You can’t hide them forever.”

Casey’d climbed every tree in his yard, especially the ones by his bedroom window. Scrambling from branch to branch, he was close to living things: Birds, squirrels, tree frogs, and the trees themselves. Sycamores, beeches, elms, oaks—these were the names of friends. But like kids at school, these friends didn’t say much.

He stood in the deep shade, backpack jangling with gear from the garage. Mushrooms and ferns covered the ground and dirt paths led in all directions. Casey marched into the shadows, jerking his pack straps and kicking at roots. After awhile, the ground sloped away and he stood on a hill like the inside of a giant bowl.

“Never been here before.” Casey shrugged and picked up a stick to swat a big-bellied, black and yellow spider that hung over the path—and that made him look up.
High above, clouds sailed across a patch of blue.

Enormous, gnarled branches framed the sky like a thousand fingers.

A chill fell on Casey as he took in the size of the oak. His whole sixth-grade class, holding hands, wouldn’t be able to wrap their arms around this monster. A slice of its trunk could’ve roofed a room. The bark made deep ridges like dinosaur skin. The trunk wasn’t warm. The branches didn’t quiver. The leaves didn’t whisper.

“Why do I feel like you’re watching me?” he said.

Casey grabbed a whorl of bark, then another, and put his feet in seams. The knotted trunk was easy to scale, until the bark got brittle. Maybe he needed a rope. As he hung there, a metallic gleam caught his eye—something silvery, shaded by vines. Like a railroad spike, but bigger, hammered into the oak. A whole line of them, flecked with rust, twisting up and out of sight.

Without even knowing it, Casey smiled. “I knew it,” he said.

The oak had a secret all right.

The spike ladder rose lazily into leafy shadows.

Casey scrambled over and put a foot up.

Icy steel tingled his palms as he climbed.


  1. Hey AJ!

    This is a much better version, only this time, the first sentence jarred me a little. You start with this striking sentence and then move on to the action. It feels like it’s missing something.

    Then, he got on the bus. Okay, things were going well, but then he’s opening a locker, and I’m thinking ‘a locker? On a bus?’ And someone walks past him, and I realise he’s no longer on the bus. There was no transition there, so it pulled me from the story.

    You have done a fantastic job of showing more than telling this time around, but I’m still not getting a sense of what he feeling. There’s no emotion there. You say he tried not to let that bother him, but we know it must be upsetting him. Does he feel a lump in his throat when he’s bumped and brushed aside? Does his face turn hot when he’s shouting at the student for ignoring him? What about deciding to take advantage of the situation? If no one can “see” him, he could do anything. Wouldn’t he try that for the sake of feeling alive or excitement?

    Again, when he discovers he’s not actually going on holiday, there’s no emotion to show his disappointment. No lump in his throat, no sinking sensation in his gut, no hot tears stinging his eyes. He calmly, it seems, says ‘yay for you’ and leaves. Even ‘yay for you’ would hint at sarcasm. I would advise you to get in those key descriptions. Not loads. Just enough to show us what he’s feeling. Put us in his head. Make us feel what he feels.

    You also write ‘summer would arrive ……….’ Are you missing a word? Looking for an appropriate one? Summer would arrive shortly?

    ‘These were the names of friends. But like kids at school, these friends didn’t say much.’ I love this.

    I stopped when you say he swatted a spider and that made him look up. Why did it make him look up? I didn’t understand that.

    Overall, you’ve done a great job at improving this. With a little bit more added to it, it will be ever stronger!

    I hope this helps!

    Happy revising! :)

  2. Hi AJ,

    I liked this opening much better. It’s way more effective and you eliminate the confusion of the time jump. Great job.

    I think you could use a transition between the bus ride and Casey at his locker. And also when he goes into the forest.

    You did a better job but there’s still a lot of telling. Show the things going on around Casey. Show the weather getting warmer, maybe have Casey peel off his sweatshirt and wipe sweat from his brow. That’s not the best example but you get the idea. Check your document for cases of ‘was’ and ‘were’ and there’s usually a good chance you’re telling there.

    Whenever possible, avoid words like ‘when’ and ‘then’.

    Did Dad throw his fists in the air while holding a mug of coffee? Maybe say he pumped his fist in the air?

    When Casey rushes to his room, how does he know his parents are leafing through brochures etc? I realize this is third person but it’s pretty much from his point of view so I think there’s a POV problem with that. I’m not sure so I could be wrong. Maybe one of the mentors could help with that.

    I really liked the introduction of the tree. It makes me think of “A Monster Calls” which is great. I hope the tree is there to help Casey. That’d be a cool idea for a lonely boy.

    Hope this helps, if you any questions just let me know.


  3. Thanks for the opening salvos, guys! Much appreciated. FYI, there were words where that ellipsis is when I submitted..."in two weeks" must have been auto-transferred to someone's calendar. (?)

  4. Hi, AJ,

    I love the opening of this, and I’m really intrigued about why Casey is so invisible so often. Likewise, I am truly interested in this whole world of nature in his backyard. However, I feel like I’m reading two different stories. As a reader, I need more of a connection between the two. You’re almost there, but it needs to be strengthened. Maybe he feels nature notices him more than people do, which is indicated here in your line, “’Why do I feel like you’re watching me?’ he said.” You also do a good job of personifying the natural area with images like, “gnarled branches framed the sky like a thousand fingers” and “the leaves didn’t whisper.” I think you could push this personification even a touch further. Also, perhaps tell the reader what drives Casey to go to this backyard area as often as he does, like every time he feels lost or trapped or invisible. His parents going on vacation and leaving him behind has sent him to the backyard, but what other things send him there? What drives him there – his motivation, his ultimate goals, his flaws – all has to tie in to why he ends up there and it needs to be laid out carefully so that when he discovers this tree with a ladder, the reader is rooting for him to go there to satisfy his motivation for escape or acceptance or doing something that is extraordinary so people notice. Maybe he thinks by discovering a new world, like the adventurers he’s read about at school, it will make other people read about him for ages in books, thus making him less invisible. Or maybe he just wants to do something that gets people to turn heads his way. What kid (or human being) doesn’t want recognition?

    I’m also wondering if there is magic from the very onset or not. It borders on fantastical that he can’t be seen, that his dad appears out of nowhere and dances, that there is a depressed sense in the house but that his sister is so bubbly and amazing that she seems to divert their attention away from it. So I wonder if he literally flickers in and out of visibility, or if he just feels this way. Currently, it could be read either way. I expect things to get fantastical once we go into this tree, but prior to that, should the reader be questioning if it’s more magical than just a kid who feels left out and unnoticed? This goes to grounding the reader with your precise language, guiding the reader with what you want them to understand about this genre, your tone, and how these characters interact with the setting and the plot overall.

    A couple of other line issues. You say the line, “Anywhere but Vintage Woods, where no one knew his name,” but I thought his desire/motivation was to be known and noticed?? So I’m confused by this.

    When he first enters the woods, Casey says this -- “’I know you have secrets,’ he mumbled. ‘You can’t hide them forever.’” But why does he feel this? And how do secrets tie in with his own identity? There was no indication prior to this that he was delving for secrets or wanted anything but for people to notice him, so this statement seems a bit out of place.

    Keep going! You’re doing well! I hope these comments help, and let me know if you have any questions

  5. Hello AJ,

    this revision has literally brought the story to life, in the first draft we were left confused because of the time jumps but now you have managed to stay in one time and used all the character information.
    However, I do think he still jumps from one place to other too quickly. maybe start at the school itself and you can continue the bus scene while he is coming home.

    Little more changes and you will be there.

    also, the tree is important to him so I think when he enters his yard walking towards the house he will look at it since that tree is kinda his only friend. just making suggestions here.

    The pace like I said I a little fast it takes me a few seconds to realize that he got off the bus and is in school, then he left school and is back home.

    As for his voice, I see the descriptions make it a lot better with what he is doing and how he is reacting but maybe what he is thinking could help us understand his emotions. he feels invisible, but dig deeper does it make him feel like he isn't part of this world? here is a chance to add the fantasy element giving you readers a hook to pull them into the idea of a fantasy world.
    Is it fantasy though?

    I like how he said “OHH…” Casey said. “Oh, wow. Dad and Mom, that’s great. Really, really great. It’s been forever since you’ve had time away.” So maybe after he reaches his room look into his emotions while he empties the bag.

    This was a great revision. Good luck. Happy writing.

  6. Hi AJ,

    I really enjoyed your revision. This new opening is vivid and definitely compelling. I absolutely wanted to keep reading.

    As for my comments, I think the shift from getting on the bus to being at his locker is abrupt. I also think the scene with the parents getting the vacation is a little bit rushed. Take an extra few beats to explore Casey's emotions here. Of course he's upset, but let us see that more before he goes outside.

    This is a comment that was given to me when I was a participant in this workshop and I think applies to your story as well: if this story has magical elements, I think we need a hint of that a little sooner. I'm mostly referring to the idea that his classmates don't see him. There are so many examples of them not seeing/knowing him that it starts to become unbelievable-- unless there is something magical going on. You don't have to give too much away, but just a small hint that there is something more than meets the eye occurring.

    Overall, I think you've done a great job implementing the feedback you received and showing more than telling. I'm really looking forward to reading your final revision and pitch.

    All the best,

  7. Hey AJ,

    So much better! This version definitely propels me forward more. I want to know why Casey is invisible and what that has to do with his living in Vintage Woods! Well done!

    A few suggestions for you.

    1) I'm not sure "Casey Grimes was the wrong kind of kid" is exactly the perfect opening line for this story now. "Wrong kind of kid" to me sounds like he's a bad apple, a troublemaker. I'd much rather see something that's more related to the thrust of the story to come. Off the top of my head, something like "Casey Grimes was invisible. Or at least half-invisible. It's not that people couldn't see him. They just didn't."

    2) I'd like to get a clearer glimpse into Casey's emotions when he learns his parents have won a trip. I assume he's excited at first when he thinks they're all going together. Then he deflates when his sister makes it clear the parents are leaving without him.

    3) I really like how Casey finds the spikes in the tree. It makes it clear that someone has been there before him and there's a mystery about what he'll find. I'd love to get a better idea of what that is. We don't know yet if this is fantasy or realistic MG (although it does feel more like fantasy to me--am I right?), so it would be great to give readers a glimpse of what they can expect. Whether it's a whisper Casey hears that seems to beckon him up the tree or something else out of the ordinary, by page five, it's really helpful to know the promise of the story. Justina Ireland has a great thread about this on Twitter: She really nails what your opening needs to do in terms of promise and inciting incident. (Although I always try to include the inciting incident earlier than she does.)

    4) A question: how has Casey never noticed that huge tree before? Is he exploring a different part of the yard? Or did it just seem to appear out of nowhere (like Casey himself)?

    So overall, this is a great step forward! You've baited the hook, now you have to lodge it firmly in the reader's mouth. If necessary, you might be able to cut a little bit from the multiple examples of Casey's invisibleness to get us a tiny bit further up that tree....

    Can't wait to see the next round!


  8. Hi AJ,

    Awesome first line! It makes me want to continue to read. I want to know why he is the wrong kind of kid :) Well done there.

    My goodness, this revision is awesome! I love the opening and how you’ve brought us to school with him and we get to see firsthand why he is the wrong kind of kid. I want to know why he is being ignored. For a kid, that’s the worst feeling, particularly being ignored by your peers.

    Awwww :( - But the brightly colored envelope never arrived.

    Brilliant line - Casey wasn’t sure when he’d become half-invisible.

    I laughed at this line :) = As if by magic, Dad appeared, sloshing a pint-sized mug of coffee, and did a very basic dance, stomping and throwing his fists in the air

    Wahhh this is super intriguing :
    “I know you have secrets,” he mumbled. “You can’t hide them forever.”

    I also wonder though, why does he think this :) ? Maybe you could add a bit more here.

    Awesome detail here:
    Enormous, gnarled branches framed the sky like a thousand fingers.

    Wow. I want more. This revision is amazing. You have an intriguing first few pages. I feel sad for Casey because he is invisible but I like that he is adventurous and trying to discover what’s going on.

    I don’t have much to critique as I found it a lot stronger and smoother. Well done, AJ!

  9. Grateful for all the fab feedback! Thanks so much, everyone. Yes, this one's a Fantasy. I probably should've added that to my genre tag, but hopefully the final revision will make it clear regardless.