Sunday, April 22, 2018

1st 5 Pages April Workshop- Belich Rev 2

Name: T. James Belich
Genre: Middle Grade mystery


When Ember, a rainbow boa, is tricked into breaking the One Law of the wild—never kill without need—she is banished to a human zoo. She dreams of returning to her rainforest, only interacting with the zoo's other residents long enough to sniff out a missing animal. But when one of the zookeepers is found dead, the accused lion asks Ember to track down the real culprit before he's executed. Or else he'll eat her.

But not all the animals want the lion to live. Sabine the tiger is on the prowl, plotting to oust the lion and put all the animals under her paw. Ember can either join her or join her dinner menu. And even if Ember proves the lion's innocence, she'll still need to communicate the truth to the zookeepers before they put him down. But if she succeeds, the One Law will be satisfied. She can go home.

And Ember cannot resist a puzzle.

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE LION IN THE NIGHT-TIME is a middle grade mystery complete at 50,000 words. "Sherlock Holmes" meets "The One and Only Ivan."

First Five Pages:

Ember smelled a body.

She flicked her tongue. Fear and uncertainty permeated the air. Clumps of zookeepers stood on the paved paths below, talking in low, rapid voices. No monkeys hooted, no cats roared. The Galapagos tortoise 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 stretched her thin, winding body over the flat roof of the reptile building, the sun reflecting off her orange-brown scales. Two human police officers rolled a metal rectangle past her building. A sheet covered the shape on top, but the scent of death—like warm, moldering leaves—was unmistakable.


The roof quivered. A dank odor filled Ember's mouth. Primates always smelled like they needed a bath.

Long, skinny fingers grabbed Ember's tail. "The King wants to see you."

Ember stared through the dark slits of her eyes into the upside down face of a monkey.

The monkey blinked. "He's the male lion."

"Tell this lion I have no interest in the affairs of mammals." Ember preferred her fellow reptiles. They kept to themselves.


Ember bit the monkey on the paw.

He hooted and dropped her. The monkey sucked his finger. "You're a rainbow boa, right? A constrictor? Not venomous?"

"You shall have to wait and see." Ember slithered between two metal slats in the roof vent.

The monkey yanked her out. "When the King wants to see you, you go."

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

"He'll have you trapped in your cage for real."

A cage barely as long as Ember. She disliked being used by the humans for their amusement and seized every opportunity to escape to the roof. Her heart ached for the green expanse of the rainforest, filled with the sounds of frogs and water, free of attachments.

But the wild was no longer safe for her. Because she had been so foolish as to put her trust in another.

A tuft of dark fur stuck up from the monkey's head. He brushed it back and grunted. "Cameron—one of the keepers—he's dead."

Ember curled her body around. She could escape the monkey, but she didn't.

"He was found in the lion habitat, the outdoor part, beside the King. He was nice. Cameron, I mean. That's why the King needs to see you." The monkey reached for Ember's neck.

Why would the lion have killed a human? And what had this to do with her?

Ember should return to her cage to sleep, but she could not resist a puzzle.

The monkey threw Ember over his shoulders. Although shorter than the Tortoise, her head still dangled near the monkey's waist. She looped herself around his neck. He tugged on her coil.

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

"Ssss. I do not have hands."

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


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

A herd of keepers waited beneath them, looking lost. The monkey skittered over their heads and across 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 and giraffes with their grassy scents and dropped onto a long fence. The monkey crawled toward a squat, concrete building.

Ember caught the musky taste of cat, a different kind than the jaguars of her native Costa Rica.

The monkey fumbled with a grate 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, scratching his head. His paw had a small nub in place of a primate's usual thumb.

"The keepers are, um, keeping the King inside," the monkey said, "so he can't hurt the lionesses." He opened the grate. "You could say thank you, you know."

"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.

"Give me a shout—or a hiss, I guess—when you're ready." The monkey shut the grate all but a paw's width.

A wall of glass separated the enclosure from the indoor viewing area. A window opposite 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 warm 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. "I dislike sarcasm. 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. "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. 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 innocent, he might be her means to return home.

Ember slid 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."

"The bullfrog was not lost, merely stuck."

"And yet you found him at once."

Few things escaped Ember's notice—a matter of survival in the rainforest. She had not intended to involve herself in the affairs of the zoo, but watching the humans blunder around, ignoring the obvious evidence, pushed her to make an exception. The bullfrog was a puzzle to solve, nothing more.

"Is this why you think I can assist you?" Ember asked. "Your Majesty assumes I trust in your innocence."

A rush of air struck Ember, and a padded paw pinned her to the floor. She hissed. She should have followed her instincts.

"Cameron was my friend." The rumble in the King's chest threatened to break into a roar. "I would never have harmed him."

"I have only your word for this."

The King pushed his whiskers into Ember's face. "They will execute me."

"And how does this concern me?"

"I will do what I must to survive and so will you. The Tortoise promised you could solve this. He is wise and I trust him, and that is the only reason you are here. If you refuse my request..."


"Then"—the King pressed down—"I shall eat you here and now."


  1. You're such a great writer. I can't believe how well you've tuned this.

    I want to read it! Great pitch. I'm a little thrown by the phrase "Or he'll eat her." in the pitch. Obviously I haven't read the book, but I'm immediately wondering about how a lion would be able to hunt a sneaky snake in a zoo very well. I trust you make this work, just thought I'd let you know that it gave me pause. And you end with the lion's threat, but once the snake leaves, she's free of the threat, whether she helps him or not, right? I'm just wondering what power the lion has once she leaves his cage. curious and want to know more.

    You have a great MG voice and I love how you changed the first sentences. LOVE the change. Much better set up and grounding us in what is happening. well done.

    This is a tiny thing, but when ember says 'I do not have hands" I would have loved a reply that is more along the lines of she was thinking about squeezing him or something kinda playfully threatening.

    also don't love this" "The keepers are, um, keeping the King inside," the monkey said, "so he can't hurt the lionesses." IS that true? I thought it was so they didn't mate? And then I thought he was locked up because he's accused of murdering cameron.?

    Love when you call visitors, the gawkers—.

    This is a great opening. Intriguing and well written and I'm at a loss for things to complain about.

    Best of luck with it!

  2. You've made some subtle changes and given us more sensory images. Great! I won't reiterate all the positive things I've stated previously.

    I haven't been able to find much to comment about, sorry. But this one line "I dislike sarcasm" threw me this time. I hadn't read it as sarcastic, and maybe you're wanting us to know Ember was, but it caused me to pause. Maybe have her say something like "Your High-nesss (or something more sarcastic).

    I like the conflict of two animals wanting her to work for them, and both threatening to eat her. But I'm unclear as to how anyone has the power to help her back to the wild. And how "the One Law will be satisfied." Maybe I'm stuck on the word satisfied. Possibly, her sin redeemed?

    I think MG will love it! Great job!

  3. I think your pitch is awesome! It is so fun to see what the book is really about after I’ve been only getting the first five pages ☺ I thought you did a great job defining the stakes and challenges Ember is going to have. The only sentence I had issue with was after she dreams of returning to the rainforest “only interacting with the zoo’s other residents long enough to sniff out a missing animal”. For some reason I had to reread that to make sense of it, though I figured out what you meant since you mentioned it in the actual pages. That was my only issue, I thought it was great.

    Revision: Yes, yes yes. Love the beginning, and how you set the tone and intensity. You’ve done a great job moving the scene along while still keeping Ember’s personality obvious. I did have a tough time picturing this sentence: “The monkey threw Ember over his shoulders. Although shorter than the Tortoise, her head still dangled near the monkey's waist.” Who is shorter than the tortoise? I assume Ember? But isn’t she longer…?
    The only big question I have is how can the lion return Ember to the rainforest? Though I have a feeling if I could read the next five pages, I’d figure that out ☺
    Great job!

  4. I LOVE THIS REVISION! The interaction between Ember and the king is perfect. The whole first five pages reads so smoothly. I didn't know I needed this story to read until now and I wish I could read more!

    I agree with the comment about the "no hands" part - given Embers sense of humor I feel like another reaction would fit better than that comment.

    Your pitch is engaging and has me hooked! If you're in need of a beta reader - you know where to find me!

  5. I really like what you've done with these pages over the course of this workshop, and that this newest revision ends in such a compelling spot. The stakes are now so clearly defined, and I liked seeing more of the back-and-forth between the lion and Ember.

    As for the pitch, I think this is a good start. The stakes are quite clear. Two things tripped me up: 1) the mention of her finding a missing animal. I'm not sure you need that. It feels like a subplot that can play out in your pages (which we do get info on that in the pages, which is good) but takes up space in the pitch. I think it's compelling enough to just say that she is asked to help the lion. 2) How will solving the mystery get Ember home? I get that it will right her wrongs, which is good, but how does that get her out of the zoo? Is the lion or tiger going to help her do that? If so, it might be worth mentioning, because as it stands it seems the choice is "help or be eaten" in both conflicts (lion & tiger). Adding that one of them could get her home would be a really engaging extra layer.

    Thanks so much for participating in this workshop. I wish you all the luck with this project and your writing.

    All the best,

    1. Beth, thank you so much for all your wonderful comments this month. I really appreciate all your feedback and encouragement!

  6. Your pages look great, and this is such a wonderful concept for a mystery! Ember sounds like such a smart, sharp protagonist, and from what I saw, seems like a joy to root for.

    However, from the pitch alone, I wasn't entirely clear on the stakes. From the phrasing, it sounds like Ember will have failed if the lion is executed, but how then will he enforce his punishment of eating her? Since you have such limited space in a pitch, using more specific wording will really help clarify your story and intentions, and give the reader a very clear image of what they're getting into, and what your character stands to lose, should they fail.

    As for the pages, I love Ember's bite (sorry, pun not intentional). She feels like a classic film noir PI, and can't seem to keep herself out of trouble. However, I don't think the reader is quite getting into Ember's head just yet. We have a great sense of her personality from the dialogue, but we aren't getting her full emotional reaction. I would have loved to have seen more description of her feelings during this opening scene to really connect with the character.

    I think this is off to a great start, and can't wait to see it on bookshelves on day!

    All best,

    1. Erica, thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I'm glad to hear how much you enjoyed Ember's personality and the concept. I will keep working on getting more of Ember's reactions. Thank you!

  7. Hello James,

    Thanks for sharing your revision with us this week!

    There's a lot to like here, and I love seeing how you incorporated the feedback in your own voice. It's also fun to see your pitch, which has a lot going for it. The opening line is great and sets the stage for this unique protagonist and setting.
    I think you can cut part of the second sentence and focus on the central plot line:

    "She dreams of returning to her rainforest, but when one of the zookeepers is found dead, the accused lion asks Ember to track down the real culprit before he's executed."

    The next line falls a bit flat--"Or else he'll eat her." How does he have control over her? What are the stakes? Couldn't she just hide and he wouldn't be able to eat her? I think you can cut it! We don't need stakes to build until the end of the query.

    Your next paragraph adds lots of good complications and conflict,
    and ends with a compelling reason to read forward. Well done!

    As far as the title goes, I saw your previous comment but I don't think the voice of the title matches the voice in the pages, so I would change it. As far as what to change it to, I'd look at your overall story arc and think about theme. What title sets the stage for your story? The reference you intended will likely not come across, so I'd brainstorm that a bit.

    As far as the pages go, I have one larger suggestion: read your opening pages aloud. Look for places that it's not clear as to what's happening, or that the sentences don't vary enough. Right now we have quite a few short, staccato sentences which adds urgency, but also makes it a bit harder to sink into the setting and world. Later on, when she's with the lion, the voice stretches out and is a bit more natural. Reading aloud might help highlight where to tweak.

    Also, one small note: Wouldn't the monkey have a name? If they're all in the same zoo together, I think they'd know each other quite intimately. Giving him a name might help define his character, too. Is he troublesome? Does he have an adjective name? Is he a hired gun? A name could be a chance for some humor and character-building.

    Once we get to the scene with the King, things really start clicking so just give those opening 2-3 pages a good read after a break and get that voice ironed out. Let Ember's character shine and her voice/humor run loose--I love it when she's sarcastic!

    Best of luck to you,

    First Five Mentor

    1. Melaine, thanks so much for all your wonderful, detailed feedback. I appreciate all the time you took commenting on my pitch and pages. I will definitely be thinking about new titles. :-) Thanks again!