Sunday, April 15, 2018

1st 5 Pages April Workshop- Belich Rev 1

Name: T. James Belich
Genre: Middle Grade mystery

The zoo was quiet.

No monkeys hooted, no cats roared. Clumps of human zookeepers stood on the paved paths below, talking in low, rapid voices. Two police officers waited next to the Galapagos tortoise, who ground away at a breakfast of leaves and flowers. Past him, the flamingos stood on single legs, silent but watching. Even the sea lions hushed.

Ember flicked her tongue. Fear and uncertainty permeated the air. Something had happened. Something unprecedented.

Ember stretched her long, thin body over the flat roof of the reptile building, the sun reflecting off her orange-brown scales. She should be in her cage, asleep for the day, but the morning's activities caught her attention. Ember seized any opportunity to escape her cage. She disliked being used by the humans for their amusement, but the wild was no longer safe for her.


The roof quivered. Long, thin fingers grabbed Ember by the tail, and she stared into the upside down face of a monkey. She tasted the air. The monkey needed a bath. She bit him on the paw.


He dropped her and sucked on his finger. His paw had a small nub in place of a primate's usual thumb. "You're a rainbow boa, right? A constrictor? Not venomous, I mean?"

"You shall have to wait and see." Ember slithered away.

"Wait. The King—that's the male lion—he wants to see you."

"Tell the lion I have no interest in the affairs of mammals." Ember preferred her fellow reptiles. They kept to themselves. She slipped her head between two metal slats in the roof vent.

The monkey yanked Ember out. "The King wasn't asking. And when he wants to see you, you go."

Ember reared back. "And if I do not?"

"He'll make sure you really are stuck in your cage."

A cage barely as wide as Ember was long. Her heart ached for the expanse of the rainforest, green and vast, filled with the sounds of frogs and water, free of attachments.

But Ember could never return. Because she had been so foolish as to put her trust in another.

Down on the path, a tall man with dark skin met the two police officers and led them to the administrative building.

"That's Gordon," the monkey said, "the tiger keeper. He's the one who found him."

"Found who?" Ember could escape the monkey, but she didn't.

"Cameron. He's one of the human keepers." A tuft of dark fur stuck up from the monkey's head. He brushed it back. "Gordon found him in the lion habitat, the outdoor part, next to the King. He was dead. Cameron, I mean."

Ember stared at the monkey through the black slits of her eyes. The monkey blinked.

"That's why the King needs to see you." He reached for Ember's neck. "So let's go."

To the lion who had killed a human. Why? And what had this to do with her? Ember would not allow the lion to use her as the anaconda had done.

But she could not resist a puzzle.

The monkey draped Ember over his shoulders. Her head and tail hung down to his waist, so she looped herself around his neck. The monkey tugged on her coil.

"Do you have to do that? It's creepy, like you're about to start squeezing."

"Ssss. I do not have hands."

A long, thick branch stretched over the roof. The monkey leapt, grabbed it, and scrambled into the leaves. A branch scraped over Ember's scales.


"Sorry," the monkey said. He did not sound it.

A herd of keepers waited beneath them, looking lost. Ember tickled the monkey's nose with the tip of her tail. He sneezed. One of the keepers glanced up, but only for a moment.

"Don't do that," the monkey said.

"So little humor for a chimp."

"I'm a black-handed spider monkey. And it's no joke when the keepers find us out of our cages. Last time it took us monkeys a whole week to find a new way to escape."

After the humans scurried away, the monkey skittered along a branch and swung over the path, into the tree above the tortoise pen. Another jump, and Ember and the monkey landed outside the gorilla habitat. They passed the zebras, the giraffes, and more huddled keepers. The monkey dropped onto a long fence and crawled toward a squat, concrete building.

Ember flicked her tongue. She caught the musky taste of cat, a different kind than the jaguars of her native Costa Rica, but no less dangerous.

The monkey fumbled with a grate on the wall and squeezed inside. Ember flattened herself against the monkey's fur. He clambered through the shaft on all fours, his footsteps echoing inside the narrow, metal space. He stopped at a second grate.

"The keepers are, um, keeping the King in one of the inside enclosures," the monkey said, "away from the lionesses. I'll wait here for you." He opened the grate. "Are you going to say thanks or do you want to find your own way down?"

"Ssss. I did not ask you to bring me."

"Whatever." The monkey held Ember by her neck and, gripping the edge of the vent with his feet, he lowered Ember to a wall of fake boulders.

The monkey pulled back into the vent. "Just give a shout—or a hiss, I guess—when you're done." He shut the grate all but a paw's width.

A wall of glass separated the enclosure from the indoor viewing area. On the far side another window allowed visitors—the gawkers—to watch the lions outside.

A large patch at the base of the fake rocks radiated heat. The rocks might be enough to clamber around on for a few minutes, but after that Ember guessed they ceased to be amusing.

She slid into a crack at the bottom. The warm patch stood, shook his mane, and padded over. His hot breath surrounded Ember.

"Come here where I can see you," the King said.

Ember retreated. Her experience with the jaguar had taught her caution. "You killed a human. Say what you wish to say. Your Majesty."

The King's chest rumbled. "Just because the humans do with us as they please does not mean we must abandon our own ways."

"The King of Beasts is a human phrase." Ember lifted her head above the rest of her body. "Why have you summoned me?"

"Did the monkey not explain?"

"He explained that Cameron—one of your keepers, yes?—was found dead with you beside him," Ember said. "He explained you have been found responsible for the human's death. But he did not explain why you asked for me."

The King crossed to the glass. "I did not kill Cameron, but that does not matter. You know what they will do to me."

Ember had not been in the zoo long—a matter of weeks—but she understood. Any animal the keepers considered dangerous would not be allowed to live.

The King stared through the window. He, too, must feel the instinct to hunt, strong as a river current, but Ember could not lose more than she already had. And if the King was indeed innocent, he could be her means to escape the zoo.

Ember unwound herself and slid part of her long body into the open area between the rocks and the glass.

"The Tortoise assured me you could help," the King said. "Knowing how you found the African bullfrog, I believe him."


  1. Hi Jim,

    Great job with this revision! I felt more able to picture Ember's surroundings, as well as Ember herself. I really liked getting that bit of description about the situation and the zoo before the monkey appears.

    One note I had is that the hints you drop about Ember's past are reading to me as a bit confusing. I'm referring specifically to the anaconda who might have betrayed her, and a jaguar who might have attacked her. Are those major details? Do we need them in these first five pages? This is just subjective though, of course, so other readers might not be stalled by those details.

    Again, great job, and I am really looking forward to reading your pitch next week!

    All the very best,

    1. Thanks Beth, I thought that was a great suggestion! The anaconda/jaguar backstory has to do with how she ended up at the zoo, but maybe that's too much to hint at right away. (I'll be curious to see what others think about that.)

  2. This is so great. I'm loving the way you begin this one. Placing me immediately at the zoo with a murder scene. Much more clear. Well done. I love the intrigue about her past. You've made it clear what's happening at the present and I think dropping crumbs about the past seem really well done and I'm trusting you to explain later and that's fun for me as a reader.
    one tiny complaint-when she calls the lion your majesty, is she being sarcastic or sincere?
    I would love to know how big the snake is. I just can't quite tell.
    Also is Gordon a major character in the book? If so, keep his name, if not, maybe don't say his name.
    Great voice. Great writing. Great opening pages. Can't wait to read this whole book.

  3. Great additions of motivation on both sides: Ember's and the King's. The setting was much clearer, too. I enjoyed the first version as well, but I like knowing she's a snake earlier in this rewrite. The hints at backstory are just enough to keep a reader wondering and it explains her present mindset. Sorry I don't have any comments about how to improve it. Well done!

  4. Just reading the first sentence, I got so excited to see this revision! It was like the lights turned down and suspenseful music starting playing, love it! I also thought the descriptions set the scene much better in this revision, and I felt so much more grounded in the setting.
    In this revision and the one before, I’ve loved how clear you've made Ember’s voice. It’s very obvious when she’s talking, her style of speaking is unique from the other animals and I love that.
    I think the rewrite is so much more suspenseful too! I want to know what happened to Ember before and you bring up her past in such a tantalizing way. I will say, going off of what Beth said: I think just pick one of the backstory bits, like just the anaconda, because having both was a little confusing so early on.
    Great job!

  5. I love the opening! I got sucked into the place and story much faster and knew where I was right away.

    The line "The wild was no longer safe" makes me think that she almost chose to be in the zoo though I know that wasn't the case but it also seems to contradict her seizing every opportunity to escape. It makes me curious if she has a place where she wants to escape to if her home land isn't safe anymore.

    Great additions to the King's character!

    Thanks for letting me read! I would love to read more of this!

  6. Hello James,

    Thank you for sharing your selection with us today. I'm sorry I couldn't participate last week, but I enjoyed reading your pages tonight.

    This story is interesting, with animal characters and a reptilian POV. A unique setting and cast are sure to grab an agent's attention. I enjoyed the suspense and pace that built in the scene between Amber and the King. Once I got to that point, I was very invested in the read, waiting to see how they would resolve their conflict. I'm still curious to know what happens next! Does the King ask Amber to take his place? Or to save him? Good job establishing those opening story questions!

    One area for improvement is the opening line and scene. Right now, your opening line is unremarkable. The word "quiet" even indicates that nothing interesting is happening, and could turn a young reader off very quickly, when in fact, something VERY interesting has occurred! There's a body in the lion's pit! I suggest opening with that image.

    Perhaps, "There was a body in the lion's pit. Amber could see it from the roof..." or something like that. If that's too cliche for you, there may be other ways to open with interest, but we need to get to that story question very quickly. The story begins in the moment your protagonist's world changes--for you, that moment is the body.

    The scene that follows between Amber and the monkey could also be a bit more compelling. Right now, the monkey shows up and we have no idea why. We don't know if they're in conflict. We don't know what either of them wants. They could be just chatting, and that's kindof how it comes across at first, when really the monkey is on a mission. Let that conflict start immediately. The snake sees the body. The monkey arrives and demands she see the King. She refuses. They fight. He gives her info. She acquiesces. Something along those lines keeps the action moving forward at a good pace with no confusing, directionless moments.

    One smaller note: I miss the smells and sounds of a zoo, particularly with the monkey. There are no monkey sounds. We don't hear a monkey. The voice instead sounds like a monkey speaking actual English, as in Planet of the Apes. If that's what you intend, great! But otherwise, I would add the sounds that accompany monkey speech so that we see, smell, and hear a monkey (and a lion). Applegate's IVAN and WISHTREE are great references for adding sound cues to animal dialogue. If you nail that, you have a chance at having a great set of opening pages!

    One last note:

    THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE LION IN THE NIGHT-TIME is very close to THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME...personally, I think you're better off creating your own unique title rather than mimicking a fairly well-known existing title.

    My best,
    First Five mentor

  7. (Sorry to be late!) Week #2
    Is a zoo ever quiet? Or, maybe that’s the point. The first line did get my attention, but it also stopped me to consider its validity. I really liked the previous opening where you didn’t exactly know time or place at first…and then it was revealed. That was really sweet. The exchange between Ember and the monkey are stellar. Great writing. On point comedic timing. Did the monkey know Cameron? If yes, he could give us some insight. Was Cameron a good guy? Will he be missed? Did he give extra treats or turn a blind eye to Monkey-shines? Is there such a thing as a monkey shine? Anyway, I think you’ve got a winner here. I would definitely read this book!
    Additional note: I read Melanie's comment above about the title -- and I had not read The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time -- but I did look it up and the topic or thematically it's about autism. I could be wrong, but I think when you riff on an existing title like that you are suggesting some similarity so that could be a reason to change it -- or not. Just my $.02.

  8. Thanks everyone for your feedback, I really appreciate it!

    About the title: it's intended to be a take off of the original Sherlock Holmes quote rather than the existing novel (which gets its title from the same quote), but everyone familiar with the novel thinks of the novel first of course, so it's definitely something I need to consider. I'm open to suggestions. :-)