Sunday, March 18, 2018

1st 5 Pages March Workshop- Vanderhorst Rev 2

AJ Vanderhorst
Middle Grade Fantasy


Mostly-invisible eleven-year-old Casey Grimes feels stuck in the wrong life. Turns out he’s right. When he discovers a cloud-scraping fortress in woods where monsters prowl, he learns he’s been trapped on the wrong side of a magic border.

Casey and his little sister Gloria investigate, and discover Trickery School—a dangerous secret academy hidden from suburbia. Classes are life-threatening, the forest has eyes, and battles are as commonplace as breakfast…but for the first time in his life, Casey makes friends. If only he wasn’t an illegal.

The community gets even more dangerous when a vicious breed of monster swarms the Trickery campus—faery demons, who haven’t been seen for a hundred years. Guided by a snaky-haired girl with a secret, Casey discovers the horrifying truth: They’ll all be eaten alive if he can't find a way to wake the protective Sentry Trees. But that will be difficult, since in Trickery, magic is so last century—and Casey Grimes doesn’t officially exist.

1st 5 Pages

Casey Grimes was mostly invisible.

He stood on the corner under a STOP sign, jogging in place as his school bus sped down the street. It slowed to roll through the intersection and 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.

The other two kids on Casey’s route always sat together in the back. He waved but they didn’t notice, so he took his usual seat by the window, clenching the armrests with sweaty palms. Calm down, deep breaths, he told himself. Things might still change later.

But they reached Vintage Woods Middle School and nothing was different.

Nothing at all.

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

“Of course not,” Casey said. “You’re Lydia and we sit next to each other in—”

But she’d already started talking to someone else.

Manuel walked past—they’d had a five second conversation once—and Casey whirled. “Hey Manuel.” The boy’s eyes paused for a millisecond and slid away like they were magnetized. “I’m over here, by my locker!” Casey’s face felt hot as the kid strolled off. “Not again.”

During study hall, Casey did what he always did—sat in a group of chattering kids who occasionally bumped him and said things like, “Oh, didn’t see you there,” and “Dude, where’d you come from?” Casey fought to stay calm. Today that meant covering his face with both hands and taking deep breaths. 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 how he’d become made of glass. When he looked in the mirror, he saw a boy with wide blue eyes and a handful of freckles, not a freak show. It went way beyond being uncool, and it had been this way for at least two years, ever since his family’d moved to Vintage Woods when he was nine.

After school, Casey stepped into his bus and the driver raised a hand. “Wrong route, buddy.” Casey opened his mouth to argue, but one of the other kids turned in the aisle, looking Casey dead in the eyes. Recognize me, Casey thought. Do it, you know who I am.

“You’re in the wrong place, loser,” the boy said. “Get out so we can go home.”

Casey stumbled to the curb, chest throbbing like he’d been punched. Laughing kids jostled past like water eroding a chunk of dirt. Doors whooshed shut. Buses rumbled away.

“Gotta get out of here,” Casey whispered. Eyes hot and heavy, it took him forty-five minutes to walk home. He’d been planning to wait until summer break in two weeks, but he couldn’t hold out any longer: It was time to launch his Vacation Plan.

First, clean out the garage and shock his parents. Next, the whitewater rafting flyer under his pillow. He’d settle for anything, though—a lake or mountain, fantastic. A marsh or prairie, cool. He’d even take a desert. Anywhere but Vintage Woods, where no one knew he existed.

On the front porch he paused, took a deep breath, and reached for the knob. As his fingers touched it, the door flew open. Mom pulled him inside and hugged him, ruffling his brown hair.
“WELCOME HOME, HONEY!” she sang out.

Casey took a half-step back, mouth open. She hadn’t had this much energy in…months? Years?

“Dad and I just got some amazing news!”

As if by magic, Dad appeared, sloshed down 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 clapped her hands and laughed.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” A kaleidoscope of butterflies took flight in Casey’s gut and soared toward his heart. He stood up straighter.

Five-year-old Gloria skipped into the hall, 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…” He rushed upstairs and fell on his bed, pressing his knuckles to his eyes. The tears got out anyway, and he punched his pillow. “How could they?”

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

Upstairs, a tree brushed the roof outside Casey’s window, and he sat up, wiping his face. He held his backpack upside down, shaking out every last paper clip and sheet of homework. “I’m coming,” he whispered.

Casey’d climbed every tree in his yard, especially the ones by his bedroom. High above the ground, he felt alive and not alone, close to birds, squirrels, tree frogs, and the trees themselves. Sycamores, beeches, elms, oaks…the names of friends. These friends didn’t say much—but they knew he was here. When he stood on the shoulders of leafy, wind-tossed titans, life seemed like it could be different.

Down in the grass, greenish mist snaked the ankles of the forest giants. Branches bent like muscular brown arms, twiggy hands grazing the house. If Casey half-closed his eyes and squinted, even taller trees towered over the murk, deep in the hollow.

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 rocks. After awhile, the ground sloped away and he stood on a hill like the inside of a giant bowl.

“Haven’t seen any of you before…” Casey turned in a circle, looking for the tallest and most interesting tree. 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—and the trunk felt warm. The branches quivered, leaves whispering in the breeze.

“Are you for real?” Casey’s heart beat a little faster.

He grabbed a whorl of bark, and another, and put his feet in seams. Scaling the knotted trunk was easy, until the bark got brittle. Maybe he needed a rope. As he hung there, metal gleamed in the shadows—something silvery, shaded by vines. Like railroad spikes, but bigger, hammered into the oak. A whole line of them, flecked with rust, twisting up and out of sight.

“No way.” One corner of Casey’s mouth tugged up.

The spike ladder rose lazily into leafy shadows.

“Let’s see what you’ve got to show me.”

Casey scrambled over and put a foot up.

Icy steel tingled his palms as he climbed.


  1. Hey AJ!

    So, the first paragraph of your pitch is fine. Intriguing. But then you say him and his sister find a secret school and he makes friends … if only he wasn’t an illegal. I’m wondering why he takes his five-year-old sister up there and how he gets into the school if he’s an illegal. I assume he does. How else would he know the classes were life-threatening?

    You talk about the snaky-haired girl who leads them and that she has a secret. Her secret feels like a subplot. In your pitch, keep to the main storyline. Save the subplots for the book. I also wonder why he has to be the one to wake the protective sentry trees. (Love that name, by the way.) There must be many others who could do it. Why him? Especially as it seems he doesn’t know anything about this. And does he have magic? You write that ‘magic is so last century’. Is that referring to the magic he’ll have to find or use or activate, or is it him with the magic, but it’s old-school and not many can teach him how to use it?

    It’s an interesting idea. The pitch just needs more clarification to avoid confusion.

    In the first part, where he shouts ‘open up’, I’m assuming it’s Casey speaking, but it’s needs to be clarified. It made me pause.

    Very nice job of adding those emotions. It’s strengthened your pages much more. I especially like the rejection when he gets on the bus to go home. Gutted for him, bless.

    You lost me when you speak of his backpack jangling with gear from the garage. I even went up to reread, but he empties his pack, says ‘I’m coming’ and then he’s climbing the tree. There’s no mention of picking or packing any gear.

    I noticed one error: you write ‘After awhile…’ (After a while).

    Any questions on my feedback, let me know.

    Overall, great job on the revisions. It’s so much stronger than that first draft. Good luck with it!

  2. Hi AJ,

    I really like your pitch. I think you did a great job of infusing it with voice. And overall, I feel you have a winner. I really only have a few nit-picky suggestions.

    Your first line could be misinterpreted in that Casey might actually be mostly invisible. It’s a fantasy after all. I think it might have more punch to actually say “Casey Grimes isn’t invisible. But that’s how everyone in Vintage Woods treats him. The only thing wrong with him is he’s stuck in the wrong life.” Or something like that.

    I would like to know if Casey has magic powers to awaken the trees. If so, what are these powers? And how did he get them? I know it’s a lot to cover in a short query. Just some thoughts I had.

    As for your pages, I think you did a great job with your revision. Most of the critiques have been addressed.

    I don’t get the line “he’s not a freak show.” They treat him like he’s not there, not like he’s a freak show. People actually pay attention and stare at freak shows. Hope that makes sense.

    I think you could fix the backpack issue with simply saying “backpack jangling with gear he’d collected from the garage.”

    Other than that, great job. I really like this and would want to read more. You did a great job of making Casey someone I would want to root for.

    Hope that helps. Let me know if you have any questions. And thanks for all of your help with my work. Good luck!


  3. Aaahhhh! I get where you are heading now, AJ! O.K. So let's talk pitch first. I LOVE that he's considered "illegal" in a place where he finally feels like home. This has such broader relevance, and it's a perfect way of starting conversations in the classroom with younger kids about immigration issues. LOVE IT!!

    BUT, then I question that if he doesn't exist in the world with the Trickery School (a name I adore!), and he doesn't belong in the real world, then where does he belong? The way it's currently written, with that very definitive "He's right" at the beginning, he seems displaced everywhere.

    Also, you mention that the border is magic and so I assume there is magic strewn throughout this backyard world, but then you say "magic is so last century." So no one uses magic in Trickery but it's still there? Like, shelved somehow? If you fix these couple things for clarity, I think this is a great pitch.

    At the beginning of the first five pages, I still stop on that first line. It sounds so definite. Is he really invisible or does he just "feel" invisible? Maybe he feels it but so many people act like it that he wonders if he's a little crazy or if there is something about him that is truly otherworldly. But he dismisses this because that makes no sense in a practical world.

    Also, when he finds out his parents got a vacation and he's not going, he says, “OHH…,” but it would be nice to have a feeling here. Like he felt instantly unplugged or everything drooped inside. Something from the shock and disappointment.

    The description of Gloria -- this was partly Gloria’s fault. Always bright and cheerful, she made the rest of her family feel happier than they really were. -- is a lot of telling. She only gives one line prior to this, but I'd rather see it more through Gloria's actions/dialogue and others' reactions, and then he can mention how it is her fault for being so cheerful and distracting from the sadness.

    In the end of these pages, that description of him discovering the ladder around the oak is really vivid and well done. I honestly feel like I'm crawling up with him and I can't wait to see what is at the top!

    Great work these past weeks on all this revision! It's a fabulous story, and I wish you luck with it!

  4. The last words of your pitch were amazing. I so wanna know what happens next.

    Now that I read the entire pitch I know that the book is going and I like it. your pitch kinda compliments the 1st5pages. great job.

    It pitch reads great, it tells me almost everything that I would possibly want to know. the thing that confused me a little was the magic border. since there is a connection does magic exist on both sides? if it works why the century-old ref? if they don't use magic what do they use?

    Also, he didn't exist in the real world but he exists in the backyard tree world, as in his family? just wanted to know.

    The pages have gone through a complete transformation since the 1st post and it can be very hard so, great job it is more in sync with where you want to go with the story and hooks me easily. there is a great voice in the pages and helps bring your MC to life.

    It was great reading your work. Good luck with the book.
    Happy Writing.

  5. "Aaahhhh! I get where you are heading now, AJ!"

    Haha, better late than never, right? :) This entire workshop and your comments in particular have been incredibly helpful. Thanks so much for taking the time to help us along, Heather.

  6. AJ,

    Thank you for participating in the First Five Pages Writing Workshop. My thoughts are below.

    Pitch: Great hook, but I might tweak it to read that he felt invisible so we don’t think he’s literally transparent. Trickery School sounds interesting, and I like the name. The part about him making friends feels off, like we need the other piece that would say they were in danger or they turned out to not be true friends. I’m thinking this is something that would stay in the story but wouldn’t need to be included in the query. The fact that the school is illegal is intriguing, but I want to know more. Does this mean he turns away because he’s afraid of the consequences? Or is this a challenge he’s willing to overcome? Dig a little deeper here.

    We know what’s at stake and the conflict, but Casey’s goal isn’t as clear as it should be. We should know he needs to save them. It’s implied, but I’d like it to be clarified. I love that you found a way to show some voice in the query too. Well done!

    Pages: Cool opening line, but I would make sure it’s clear that this is the way he feels. The bus driving past him is soooo relatable! Yes, that HAS happened to me. Le sigh.

    Watch for areas where you can show instead of tell. I would also like to see a short mention of him putting the gear in his backpack. It feels like he empties his school supplies and then the gear is there.

    I love your sense of humor, and you do a nice job of describing the woods. I really liked this line, “Down in the grass, greenish mist snaked the ankles of the forest giants.” Tres cool.

    My heart ached for Casey when the bus driver wouldn’t let him on the bus, so he had to walk home. You do a wonderful job of making him feel real.

    Lynnette Novak
    The Seymour Agency

  7. Hi AJ,

    Yes, very cool first line. Also, gah, a fortress in the woods, oh my yes. I thought instantly of Legend of Zelda - forest temple. I’m a super nerd, I know. :) I would love to read more.

    The sentence ‘if only he wasn’t an illegal’ makes me stop. Maybe you could explain what that means or give a little more info.

    Love the concept of Trickery School.

    That last line - wow. Cool. Intriguing. I think you have a fantastic pitch. It makes me want to read the entire book. Great job. The voice is so strong and well done. I think you’ve got a fantastic pitch on your hands.

    I like your first line as it hints at his situation. Makes a reader want to know when is he invisible and when is he not, and of course, why :)

    Poor Casey - re him not getting a ride home and having to walk :(

    I think I may have mentioned this last time but I love this line:
    Enormous, gnarled branches framed the sky like a thousand fingers.

    I think you really capture Casey’s voice so well. I don’t feel like I’m reading from your POV or slip out of Casey’s head. You write from his perspective super well. Good job.

    I haven’t read a lot of MG but this is one I would like to read more of :) Happy writing, AJ and good luck with this story. I wish you the best.

  8. Hey AJ,

    Sorry for the last-minute post--the day got away from me. Great job! I love the pitch! Sounds like it'll make a really fun book! I especially love the idea of Casey being an illegal alien in the world you create. Feels very topical without being heavy-handed. I think your pages are really close now. You may need to smooth things out a bit. And one thing I wondered about is why Casey seems so panicked when people don't notice him. You'd think he would have become resigned to it by now. And one more tiny point--wen he looks in the mirror and didn't see a "freak show," that seems to be the opposite of someone who wouldn't be noticed. Doesn't a freak show stand out? Minor stuff, obviously.

    Overall, fantastic job, AJ--you really did some great revisions! Best of luck with the project!


  9. Hi AJ,

    I like your pitch! It's great to know where this story is going after reading the opening these past few weeks. It is a very compelling story.

    I commend you for making changes during this workshop without losing your voice. Your writing is very atmospheric. I actually like your opening line, but I can see how it leaves the actual state of his invisibility unclear, as others have pointed out. I'd keep working at that opening line until it says what you want it to say.

    Great work!

    All the best,