Sunday, January 6, 2019

1st 5 Pages January Workshop- Bates

Name: Lisa Lynn Bates
Genre: Middle Grade: Contemporary
Title: Man of the House

We moved on Cinco de Mayo, before school ended. I thought the change in scenery would help my mother. That it would change things for the better. But it didn’t. 

“Mom, what are you doing?” I asked the moment I caught her searching the walls of our new home.

“Close the shades,” she whispered. 

“Why?” I asked, twisting the rods until all blades closed shut. 

My mother looked over her shoulder. Her wide eyes, pupils spreading like ink spots, scanned the walls. “See?” She pointed. 

I moved in to take a closer look. There, in the wall, was a nail hole. 

“They’re watching us.” 

“They”: meaning aliens. 

“But Mom.” I held my breath and counted to five. Dad said it helps de-stress. “I already checked. I didn’t find any hidden cameras. Remember?” 

“Si, but you didn’t look here.” 

In our old apartment, my mother alien proofed our car, TV, microwave, and radio. No aliens ever attacked. The chances of me making friends here in Fayetteville, Georgia, were slim to none. I knew my mother’s condition would make it impossible. Who’d want to make friends with a kid whose mother walked around the house wearing a tin foil helmet with antennas, and sporadically shouted, “Aliens!” when cars honked? 

When I groaned, “Why Georgia?”

“Warmer than Rhode Island,” she said, singing and reaching for my hand. “Promise I’ll take my medicine.”

I wanted to believe her. Because she was almost normal when she took them. She finalized the moving date, after she found a help wanted ad online. It didn’t take more than a day before she received a reply. Her application was accepted. So off we went. Driving south I-95 for twenty-one hours and three gas stops. Just when I couldn’t take another hour sitting in the car, the GPS led us to a four-sided brick house with a large parking lot and sign that read: Welcome to Guerra’s Home.

“Strange name for a hair salon,” I told Mom.

“Freddie, look!” she said, ignoring me. 

Mom ran ahead, towards a sign posted three houses down: Two-bedroom, furnished home for rent. 404-555-1213.

She called the number. “It’s everything I ever wanted,” she said over the phone. 

I walked up to the front of this pink, cinder block house with yellow shutters and two palm trees in the yard.  

“It reminds me of PR,” she said. That’s short for Puerto Rico. 

To me, the house looked more like a giant guava.

Within minutes after calling, the owner showed up.

“How will you be making these payments?” he asked my mother. 

She showed him the letter she received from Survivor’s Life Insurance she kept in her purse and the job offer from Guerra’s Home.

“This here house is just across from the Home. What will you be doing, there?” he asked my mother.

“I’m a beautician,” she said. “Hair, nails, makeup.”

The owner examined my mother from head to toe. Her hair was matted at the back and her clothes were wrinkled. But what did he expect after hours of driving? 

He took the first month’s rent from my mother. When he gave her the keys, my mother’s eyes sparked, and her lips stretched back like rubber bands. She looked happy.

The new house was on Fayetteville Rd. It stood out from the rest. Ours was the only one painted a bold color. 

“I like bright colors,” my mother told me when I asked why not paint over the pink. If my father were here, he’d try to reason with her. He used to do that often. 

Mom claimed we moved to Georgia for my benefit. But I knew we moved because of my father’s younger brothers. There were no other grounds for leaving Providence. My mother insisted my uncles were part of an underground revolution and she didn’t want their ideologias to influence me. 

“Ideologias?” I had asked her a while back.  

“Yes. Your father’s family are communist.” 

“What'd you mean?” 

“It’s a government that tells you what to eat, what to wear, what to do. Even what kind of ice cream to eat. I don’t like vanilla. I like strawberry.” 

“I get that,” I said, I knew about communism, I learned it in Social Studies. But I didn’t understand how it applied to my family. “But—” I decided to drop the subject. Dad used to say that if I didn’t understand my mother, that one day I would, so I went to my room.

I unpacked my last box. My softball gear still had grass stains from the last game my father sat in to cheer me on. I slid down the side of my bed and read his last text message to me, the one I received before the accident: 

Take care of Mom. You’re the man now.
See you soon, love, Dad

I pulled my knees into my chest and wrapped my arms around them. I wanted to cry, but I held it in. I was the man now.  I’m the man.


We hadn’t been in the place for more than four hours when I heard a knock on the door.

I opened the door wide and found some girl, holding a lopsided flan on a plate. She was about eleven, my age.


“Hi,” I said, wondering what she wanted.

“Welcome,” she said, and held out the plate. “I made this for you.”

I stared at it.

“Take it,” she said, smiling. “It’s not poison.”

I took the plate and said, “Thanks, I guess.”

“I’m Daisy Guerra. My parents want me to show your mom around the Home.” 

She looked over my shoulders, into the dark kitchen. “She home?”

I blocked her view with my body. Man, she’s nosy. “She’s busy unpacking.”

“Oh.” Daisy flipped her long brown hair over her shoulders. “What about you?”

“I’m busy too,” I said, and shut the door behind me.

I jabbed a corner of the flan with my finger and licked it. Tasted like vanilla caramel. Not bad. 

“I’m not leaving till one of you get the tour,” she shouted behind the closed door.

I held my breath, then let it out. My lips flapped. Could this girl get any more annoying? “Fine,” I said, loud enough for her to hear me.

“Great. I’ll wait.”

I put the flan in the refrigerator and checked on my mother. She laid sprawled over a pile of clothes on the bed. On the nightstand, she had left her medication bottle of pink pills open beside her sleeping pills. I decided not to bother my mother. After the long drive, carrying luggage out the car, and unpacking her make-up kits, she needed the rest. Tomorrow she’d start her new job as a beautician. I pulled a sheet out of a box, and snapped a tent over her frail body, where, before the pills, there used to be curves and squishy skin.

The tour was short and uninteresting. Daisy showed me into a large room with rows of purple upholstered chairs. Wall to wall carpeting the color of beets, my least favorite vegetable. A podium with white phony flowers. A kitchen with a long wooden table and ten chairs. And a dome shaped crystal chandelier that hung in the main entrance like a giant beehive. Quite an unusual salon.

“Now for the great finale,” she said, “Follow me.”

I followed Daisy through a locked door labeled Employees Only. She grabbed a pair of gloves from a box next to the door and handed me a pair.


  1. Hi Lisa!

    There are some fantastic elements in this and I think it brings a lot of things to the forefront that need to be discussed in more middle grade—the mother’s mental health and how her son has to cope and manage it and (I’m reading into this based on the text from his dad) but his dad either committed suicide or he walked out on them and faked his own death? And the not getting along with extended family. Not to mention the whole moving to a new place and having to make friends and set up a new life bit.

    The first bit before the time jump to Daisy showing up is filled with info for the reader and it doesn’t give us enough time to really sink our claws into any of it. We jump from aliens, to his dad’s brothers being communists and then to the fact his dad is gone. I feel like it might overwhelm most middle grade readers getting that much information so fast?

    I really like the bit after the scene break and almost think this might be a better starting point—you can weave in the key pieces of information from the section before it, just little bread crumb hints about his mother’s mental illness or that his dad isn’t there anymore without coming right out and telling the reader all of that stuff. Having Freddie interact as she gives him a tour and seeing how different things on the tour spark memories let us know the environment (is this a retirement home? A special needs home?) and let us get to know Freddie better because we’re experiencing the world through his eyes as he sorts through the mess that seems to be his current situation.

    I’m already rooting for Freddie and Daisy to be friends, she seems like a nice kid!

    Thanks for letting me read


  2. Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for submitting your pages! I'm really intrigued by the start of your story. And I definitely am eager to read more. I do think it needs a bit of work, though, before it's ready to really hook your readers. Here are my thoughts:
    -- The chronology is confusing. We start out with mom finding the nail hole and being paranoid in the new house they've rented. Then we find ourselves back at the point when she first found the house for rent. I found this disorienting. And it seems like you're also recalled earlier conversations before the move. All this jumping around in time makes the story a little hard to follow.
    -- Throat clearing. We all do this in early drafts. I feel like you're trying to impart a lot of backstory in these opening pages, which makes things drag a bit. And it's related to the point above. I don't think we need to see mom finding the house or speaking to the owner. I'd take a critical look at what you're giving the reader up front and cut out anything that isn't essential. I'm not even sure you need so much explanation of the ideologias here--that seems like the type of thing that can come out over time. Having the mom be paranoid about aliens is enough here without having her worry about communists too.
    -- Freddie's character. I find Freddie pretty unlikeable in the way he treats Daisy. He earlier bemoans not being able to make friends, but when a perfectly nice girl makes an overture, he literally slams the door in her face. I wouldn't mind if he tries to turn her away because he's shy or worried about what's going on with his mom, but as it stands, he just seems really unfriendly.
    -- Finally, I'd be careful about how you discuss mental illness in your story. Having Freddie say his mom is "almost normal" when on her medication could be offensive. It's also another reason to back of on the multiple paranoid beliefs (aliens and communists) early on, since it almost makes her mental illness seem like a caricature. A great MG book to read to see a thoughtful treatment of a parent with mental illness is KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN by Melissa Roske.

    I'm really looking forward to seeing where you take these pages! Thanks again, Lisa!


  3. Hi Lisa,

    I love the premise dealing with a mom with mental illness for Middle Grade. It really forces the main character to be proactive, which is great. The setting is also intriguing with the “home” they go to live in. There’s a lot of potential for interesting ways the story can go, some of which you’ve already alluded to. You’ve also got strong characters who really come alive on the page. I loved the scene break where he wants to cry but holds it in after reading the note from his dad. Great emotions!

    I did feel that the story jumped around a bit too much. We start once they’ve moved and then go back and forth in time, which is confusing. I’d suggest finding one time to start the story and weaving in elements of backstory where you need it.

    This might be just me, but I was also confused if Freddie was a girl or boy. The part about him being the man of the house made me think boy, but then I also thought, maybe it’s a role the dad is asking a girl to play? Anyway, just wanted to mention I wasn’t sure so maybe throwing something in like “Who’d want to make friends with a boy who…” instead of kid?

    Thanks for letting me read!

  4. Loved this story. Your description of the mother's suspiciousness was so accurately portrayed. I'm in healthcare and I've met patients like her. You used just the right amount of details to propel me through this story. I'm already rooting for Freddie. I'm intrigued and eager to find out more about how he will manage to deal with this onslaught of responsibility. I didn't want to stop reading. Can't wait to see how this story evolves over the next couple of weeks. Thanks, Jeannie Lambert

  5. Hi Lisa!

    Loved the voice in this story. I loved Freddie, and I loved the themes you've decided to tackle, especially for an MG. I'm sure the communism talk will play a part in the plot of the book, which I think it's great.

    I think everything has been said, but I will say that I think your story/first 5 pages could benefit a lot from having more Spanish in it. Like whole sentences so we can live that these people are from Puerto Rico. If the mom is lost in herself for a bit there, why doesn't she speak Spanish when she's in that state? Why not say "Cierra las cortinas" instead of "Close the shades." We would know right away, three-four sentences in that they're latin and the image in our mind not just of what they look like but the way they talk, what they have for dinner, the mother-son relationship and another dozen things that are so typically latin, will begin to form, and you have hooked us. Or me (Majo), at least, because I'm latin.

    Another tiny thing I noticed is the change in tense from past to present for a little bit there, toward the end of the first part. Is this intentional? Will the tense change later on? If yes, great. If not, "I was the man" works just as well because "I am the man" might pull the reader out of the story to question "why is this tiny bit different from the rest?"

    Hope this was helpful! Looking forward to the revision!

  6. Thanks for the feedback!
    Katie- Yes, after reading your comment, I can see how the first scene is a bit jumpy and does have too much information. Working it into the story is best. Thank you for feedback.

    Rob- I'd like to rework the moving scene. Giving up too much up front evidently loses my reader. Thanks for pointing out Freddie's behavior. I didn't realize it came across abrupt. That's why feedback is important, others catch things we do not. :-) Thanks for your comment.

    Sammi-You are right. Freddie's sex is not addressed and leaves the reader wondering. Thanks for this.

    Unknown-Thanks for rooting, I have a close relative with mental illness. Many things triggered psychotic episodes, they were random and quite scary. Just when I thought things were normal, another hit. Usually the eyes prepared me, enlarged eyes, pupils spreading like ink spots. But I imagine to a middle grader, this is too much to chew in one sitting. I'd like to work on this and help readers understand this better. Thanks for your comment.

    Majo and Nessa-Thank you for your input. At first, I did have some Spanish but I deleted that scene. Thanks for pointing that out, during her episodes, Mom would most definitely revert to her mother tongue. Thanks for pointing out my tenses. I will work on that section as well. All of these comments were VERY USEFUL. I look forward to reading next week's submissions!

  7. Hi Lisa,

    Thank you for sharing your work with us!

    There is a lot to like here. These characters are distinct, and the voice is clear and interesting. The only thing we're really missing is a chance to connect more deeply to Freddie and his situation.

    I recommend taking the time to expand upon the opening scene. There are many instance that we see what is happening physically, but we have no insight into what Freddie is thinking. Choose the important moments and share that with us. One of the only strong opinions he expresses is about Daisy--she seems to spark him--but Freddie must be a stew-pot of emotions. Show us. Let him confide in us. That will build a sense of intimacy between Freddie and the reader. Yes, your scene will grow in length, but we need more time to settle into each moment and really understand what's going on.

    As you look for opportunities to expand Freddie's inner dialogue, explore answering these kind of questions:

    What is the plan? Is this a permanent move? How does Freddie feel about that?

    Is Freddie missing home? What specifically is he missing?

    Does Freddie have his own plan, which may differ from his mother's plan?

    What is Freddie's goal? He needs an external goal to drive the pace and momentum of the story...even if that goal evolves over time. We need to understand what the central story question is quite early on (ie: Freddie's planning to move back home, he's planning to solve his mom's illness, he's planning to raise money, something tangible), and how Freddie's conflict relates to it.

    What is preventing him from reaching his goal?

    What is Freddie ashamed of? Does he have feelings that make him feel guilty? How does he express that frustration/anger/guilt?

    What lie does Freddie believe in? The LIE is the thing your character believes that he will learn is not true over the course of the story. This is often the reason for the character's goal, or the thing he wants.

    Best of luck as you revise. Explore, experiment, and have fun connecting to Freddie. It will be well worth the work!

    I look forward to seeing your revision!

    My best,
    Melanie Conklin
    First Five Mentor

  8. This is Erin, posting for Amy:
    Greetings, Lisa – happy to meet you online and read your work.

    Freddie’s mom is mentally ill and his father’s dead. Mother and son have packed up and moved south to a job in a funeral home. What a great set-up! Rich with possibility – especially since the father’s last message before the “accident” is a goodbye which suggests there was no accident, but a suicide instead. This is weighty stuff.

    I like how you reveal the critical details – wondering where the dad was after the “destress” remark kept me reading as did the mention of the Guerra Home without clarification about what kind of home (funeral, nursing).

    Your description of the setting is great – the guava-colored cinder block house, as well as the physical description of the mother with her matted hair and wrinkled clothes. There’s even a nice contrast between the son’s perception of her expression as “happy” and the description of it with sparking eyes and rubber-band smile which to the reader appear unhinged.

    This leads me to my main comment, though – for a middle grade novel & to my eye – Freddie’s perspective seems too mature. How old is he? I’m not a proponent of talking down in any way to kids, and I certainly believe that the lone child of a mentally ill parent, and a child who has lost his father would have a level of maturity beyond his years, but right now, to my ear, his perspective is too adult – referring to his mother’s “condition” and “Mom claimed we moved to Georgia for my benefit.”

    I’m referring to the tone more than content. You write “Mom claimed we moved to Georgia for my benefit.” What if that were expressed more like “Mom says Georgia’s a better place for me, but I know we really moved because of Uncle X and Uncle Y. Mom says they’re part of …”

    Or, another example – the opening is very distant – told with great oversight. What if you began instead with something along the lines of “In our old apartment, my mother alien-proofed our car, TV, microwave, and radio.” That line is so strong, and speaks volumes about the mother as well as orients the reader to the son’s perspective. Then you could go on to the move and possibly a mention of how he’s now the “man in the house.” After that, the maturity of his inspections of nail holes would make more sense.

    Freddie’s softball gear as well as his response to the girl who comes to welcome them give me some insight into Freddie himself. I wouldn’t mind knowing just a tiny bit more so I can picture him more clearly. Something that communicates his age.

    Overall I’m curious about Freddie and what he’ll do in his new situation. I’m not yet clear on the plot specifics, but the stakes are numerous.

    I hope this helps and I look forward to seeing any revision you do