Sunday, April 8, 2018

1st 5 Pages April Workshop- Belich

Name: T. James Belich
Genre: Middle Grade mystery

Ember woke and stared into the upside down face of a monkey.

"The King wants to see you," the monkey said. He held Ember by her tail. His paw had a small nub in place of a primate's usual thumb.

Ember flexed her long, thin body, and the light of the heat lamp reflected off her orange-brown scales. She flicked her tongue, tasting the air. The monkey needed a bath.

"Why does the lion not send for me after sunset like a civilized beast?"

"Cameron's dead," the monkey said. Ember stared at him through the black slits of her eyes. The monkey blinked. "He's one of the human keepers."

"And what has this to do with me?" Ember asked.

"This is important. We've got to get going before—"

Ember bit the monkey's paw.


He dropped her, and she slid into the corner of her enclosure where she pressed her body against the glass. Across the hallway that would soon be filled with visitors to the new building, the brightly colored poison dart frogs hopped through the leaves.

"You're not venomous are you?" the monkey asked.

"You shall have to wait and see," Ember said.

"That's not funny." The monkey sucked on his finger. "I know you're still new here, but when the King—"

"Ssss. This is not the rainforest."

Green and vast, filled with the sounds of frogs and water, green and vast, free of all attachments. Ember's long heart ached for it. But she could never return. Because she had been so foolish as to put her trust in another.

"I have nothing to do with the affairs of mammals," Ember said.

"Tell that to the King." The monkey brushed back a tuft of dark fur that stuck up from his head. "They found Cameron in the lion habitat, the outdoor part. Next to the King. The keepers—the humans—think he did it, and you know what that means."

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

"And?" Ember asked.

"And he didn't do it, so he shouldn't be blamed for it. It's not right."

No, it wasn't. And the guilty should not escape punishment.

"Very well," Ember said. "I shall listen to what the King has to say."

"We'll have to be quick. If you're not back before your keeper comes to check on you..." The monkey draped Ember over his shoulders. She looped 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."

"I do not wish to fall."

The monkey swung up into the open grate in Ember's enclosure. The edge of the vent scraped against her scales.


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

He shut the vent and crawled through the metal shaft until it turned and went up. The monkey jumped, caught something above them, and pulled them onto the flat roof of Ember's building. A long, thick branch stretched over the roof. The monkey jumped, grabbed the branch, and scrambled into the leaves. A small, round nest sat near the trunk.

A clump of humans—zookeepers—stood on the paved path below, talking in rapid, quiet voices.

Ember tickled Mop'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."

After the humans scurried away, the monkey climbed the tree, skittered along another branch, and swung over the path, into the tree on the other side. Beneath them, the Galapagos tortoise ground away at his breakfast of leaves and flowers. Another jump, and Ember and the monkey landed in the tree outside the gorilla habitat. They passed the giraffes, more huddled keepers, plus a few of the human police.

"This has never happened before," Ember said.

"The keepers don't really know what to do," the monkey said. "They shouldn't notice us if we're quiet." Ember slid her tail under the monkey's nose, but he swatted it away. "Not funny."

"I disagree."

"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."

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 Costa Rica.

The monkey fumbled with the 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."

"You are not coming with me?"

"Into the lion's den? Not today." 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, holding the edge of the vent with his feet, he lowered Ember onto a wall of fake boulders. The rocks might be enough to clamber around on for a few minutes, but after that Ember guessed they ceased to be amusing.

The monkey climbed back inside 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.

Ember coiled up. A wall of glass separated the enclosure from the indoor viewing area. On the far side another wall of glass allowed visitors—the gawkers—to see the lions outside.

A large patch at the base of the fake rocks radiated heat. Ember slithered into a crack between two of the rocks at the bottom. She had never met a lion, but her experience with the jaguar had taught her caution.

The jaguar, who left Ember her life and her anger, giving the anaconda the opportunity to use her. Ember would not allow the King to do the same.

The warm patch stood, shook his mane, and padded over to Ember. His hot breath surrounded her.

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

Ember retreated into the crack. "You assume I trust your intentions. Your Majesty."

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

"The King of Beasts is a human phrase. There were no lions in my rainforest." 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 blamed for the human's death. But he did not explain why you asked for me."

The King crossed to the glass and stared through it. He, too, must feel the instinct to hunt, strong as a river current, but Ember could not lose more than she already had.


  1. Great start, Jim.
    It seems perfect for middle grade. I wanted to read more. The voices are unique, distinct, and characterize each beautifully.

    The question I had throughout seems like it will get addressed right where we left off: why is Ember so special? Great job. You set up this mystery well and gave us a bonus question about Ember. There are so many things I love about it. Ssss!

    I assume Mop is the monkey's name, but it surprised me when you first used it. Maybe throw that in earlier. I wondered why Ember said: "This has never happened before." Making it a question seems more plausible.

    One thing I didn't understand was the sentence: "The jaguar, who left Ember her life and her anger, giving the anaconda the opportunity to use her. Ember would not allow the King to do the same." I think I understand the jaguar used her, but the sentence structure seems off.

    Is Ember a likable character? Because the King summoned her, I believe I will like her. I will root for her to solve this mystery. Well done.

  2. Hi Jim.

    I really like this set up. Fun to have animals and the zoo and already I can tell there is intrigue and more going on.

    Great flow and dialogue. Easy to read.

    Seems like a good starting place.

    A few things to possibly clarify better. I would at the very beginning to know what kind of snake Ember is. And how big.

    I was confused at first about who'd been killed and who'd been blamed.

    I'd love to know why Ember goes to the lion, what does she hope to get out of it.

    Really good and I can't wait to read more.

    Thanks! Mary

  3. Evening Jim!

    I absolutely loved this and immediately wished it hadn't been the end. Bravo on voice!

    There were only a couple of times that I was a little confused but my questions were later answered.

    I was immediately curious about Ember's story and the mystery behind the keeper's death. I already am rooting for her based on what information I have here!

    I agree with Kim's comment on both Ember stating rather than questioning if "it's happened before," as well as her comment on the jaguar sentence structure.

    Excellent work and I can't wait to read this again!

  4. Wait.. is your name Jim? I'm going to stick with T. James Belich, it sounds very regal :)
    Good job setting the stakes super early, also it’s very clear what Ember thinks of her situation, haha. Though, I’m not convinced that Ember would be willing to help (she seems pretty self- protective) it wasn’t until the very end that I realized she was a snake – for some reason I assumed she was a lizard… I’m sure that was just me. As it is, so far it’s very talky (sorry, horrible word choice), but the MG I’ve read usually moves a little quicker? Like maybe start at her conversation with the lion? I loved how you described the zoo area as well as how the monkey got Ember out of the cage, great description!

    -K. Stoker

  5. Hi Jim,

    This is such a creative concept and you've executed it with a really terrific voice. I was absolutely compelled to read more.

    I will say that there was a lot of info in these first pages and it is a bit dialogue heavy. I wonder if you can set the scene of this zoo even more, bring us further into Ember's head and how she feels about being there. If you feel at all inclined to try something new with this opening, I'd suggest that Ember is maybe in her enclosure and she sees some activity going on, people running around, looking frantic, maybe catches slivers of conversation that someone has died and the lion is to blame. Then the reader will be really intrigued, and maybe even afraid, when Ember is called to meet with this accused lion. And as others have said, what is her motivation for going? Is there a rumor that those who don't meet with the king are somehow punished?

    I also thought Ember was a lizard at first, so you may be able to clarify that.

    Great job! I'm so looking forward to reading your work again next week.

    All the best,


    A murder investigation…at a zoo…by the ANIMALS!!
    I’m IN so hard.
    Ember, a snake with a quick, amazing wit, has been summoned by The King (a lion) who is suspected of murdering his human keeper. And we all know what happens to zoo animals who kill humans…[cue string of tragic emoji here!] Basically, this is a death penalty story for kids! And I approve. I say all systems GO! Keep writing. I know I’m supposed to give some support for changes that could be made…and I’m looking. But not really finding any over-written description, confusing directions, flat dialog. This piece pretty well sings! I wasn’t sure Ember was a snake until toward the bottom of the piece, but that wasn’t a big deal. Sorry. I’m not seeing many areas for improvement on this piece. I think it’s pretty great as it is.