Sunday, February 3, 2019

1st 5 Pages February Workshop- Jreije

Name: George Jreije
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
Title: Jewels of the Nile

Bashir sprinted across the boardwalk alongside the Mediterranean coastline, three popsicles clutched tight between his fingers and dripping spots of orange, red, and blue across the scorched cement. Each step he took was like walking over hot coals. It had to be at least 95 degrees in Beirut today. Had Mama brought a few pieces of lahme, they could have cooked the meat into lamb kabobs right there on the ground.

“We’re here, Bashir!” Farrah gazed up from making kissy faces into her phone and waved him to the edge of the rocky coast beyond the sitting area. She and Ziad sat on the rocks along the clear waters, their legs submerged up to their knees.

Ziad dipped his buzzed hair into the water and pulled it back up. He shook his face and hair dry while his pale, heavyset figure and chubby cheeks shook with him. Farrah leaned away. Her long brown curls blew with the breeze and weeks under the sun gave her a golden tan, contrasting with the white bathing suit she wore. But her eyes soon fell away from Bashir’s face, down to the three treats in his hands.

Yalla! He needed to be quick across the last stretch of coast, speeding around occupied beach chairs and lounging families. Farrah was waiting, and she wouldn’t be impressed with a half-melted popsicle.

The Mediterranean’s salty, fresh scent carried him over to his two friends. He handed them each their popsicle and nudged a space for himself in between, their shoulders still slick from swimming. He eagerly stuck his feet in the water. Sweet relief.

While they all cooled down, Bashir brushed away a spat of black hair from his eyes, squinting from the too-bright sun. Augusts in Lebanon were the best for swimming, but miserable for just about everything else. Yet tonight was his last night in Lebanon’s capital and Bashir would trade anything to make it last forever. Tomorrow, it was back to America, to the frigid Boston winters. His friends were returning home, too. The day after Bashir’s flight, Ziad would be flying back to Michigan and Farrah to California, both too far away to sit side by side with, to listen to them complain about school and summer reading and all the other things Bashir couldn't hear his American friends talk about, because he had none. It was tough for a mute back home. Here, he could have a conversation spanning hours with just nods and smiles. The three of them simply understood each other.

“Sahtan,” said Ziad with a distinct lisp, raising his nearly-melted popsicle in a toast. “To surviving eighth grade. Next time we sit here, we’ll all be thirteen!”

Bashir and Farrah both raised their popsicles to toast. That’s when he noticed there was nothing but the stick left. He gazed down at lines of blue from his melted treat running down his bare chest. He gazed back up at Farra, fearing judgement, but she only grinned. She seemed to almost gaze through him and his insecurities.

“Uh-oh. Looks like someone needs a bath.” Ziad gripped Bashir’s thin arms. Before Bashir could do anything, Ziad shoved him into the water.

He didn't have time to curse Ziad as water cooled his face and head. He sunk deeper and deeper. The further down he went, the cooler the water. It relaxed his limbs and provided a welcome change from the heat. There was no need to resurface just yet, to get back to the real world. Up there, Bashir had to deal with bullies and schoolwork and all manners of wajbat―what his parents called responsibilities in Arabic.

So he swam deeper instead. Opening one eye, then two, sight settled in quickly. The depths were murky green amidst the sea plants. Fish darted by at frightening speeds, entire schools of them. No different than the girls back home, it seemed.

A gleam caught Bashir’s eye. He blinked and it was still there―an almost imperceptible shine, like a tear in the earth from which light emanated amidst the shades of red, brown, and green all blurring together underwater.

Commanding his burning lungs to hold firm, he swam towards that light. His heart began to thump faster. Seaweed brushed his chest and the fish became larger. He sank down further still, to where the sand and rock intertwined, where tiny critters crawled in and out of holes invisible to the eye. He reached along the rough sea bed. His palm ran alongside the smallest of crabs, then swept across more quickly as the need for air reached desperate levels. His fingers found a soft patch and dug in. Scooping weeds and pebbles, feeling something crawl along his knuckles and fell away, he retrieved the shiny mystery last of all.

Thoughts swimming, Bashir kicked off of the rocky sea floor and shot up towards the stronger gleam of the sun. That terribly warm ball in the sky welcomed him back as his head broke the surface and his mouth instinctively shot open. Bashir sucked in quick breaths, feeling his chest settle as he began to take in longer, soothing breaths of air. The popsicle stick floated right beside him.

“I didn't mean to push him, I swear!” Ziad’s lisp separated his voice from all the others, loud and worrisome. “He could be dead by now. I’m going in.”

Farrah shoved him away. “Are you crazy? Bashir is enough to handle on his own, I don’t want to rescue two idiots. I’ll jump in.” Bashir blinked the water out of his eyes, spotting Farrah toying with her earrings. “Hold these, you darn―

He’d just gained full vision, ready for Farrah come to his rescue when her neck tilted up and she spotted him. He quickly averted his gaze. Even if he wasn’t a mute, the sight of her would have been enough to render him speechless.

Farrah and Ziad waved him over and he swam toward them, now several feet off the coast. He was sure to keep his hand closed into a fist. The more he swam, the more sand filtered out his hand, so he squeezed harder, cautious not to drop his treasure. He held tight until, upon reaching his friends, he raised his arm and dropped a glittering golden ring onto the rocks between them. Neither made a word as Bashir hoisted himself out of the water, both curiously eyeing the ring.

“Where’d you find that?” Ziad’s eyebrows furrowed, his expression one of suspicion more than relief at Bashir’s return. “I push you into the water and you come back with a cool trinket. Not fair!”

“So you did push him, eh?” Farrah reached over and jabbed Ziad hard enough to elicit a yelp.

Bashir laughed but couldn't quite take his eyes off his prize. He claimed the piece of jewelry shamelessly, slipping it into his middle finger on the right hand. Holding it up to the sun, the shine intensified; he could feel his own smile growing. He’d gone with Baba to to Suh al-Dahab enough times to know that gold didn't rust, that it shined bright in natural light, and it was heavier than other precious metals. This was gold. And not just that, but there appeared to be three ridges along the top. Something looked to be missing from the ring, maybe a jewel or an ornament.

“This sun is roasting me like a chestnut,” groaned Farra. “And it’s getting way too crowded. Can we please get out of here?”

Ziad kicked his feet out of the water. “Ditto.”

They both looked to Bashir, who, gazing up from his ring, just shrugged. He got up with his two friends, still dripping wet. Thankfully, that helped in crossing the hot cement. They weaved around families playing with their young children and groups of old men stroking their chins over a game of backgammon. The steps carved into the ground had crumbled from decades of neglect, but the the local government had been hard at work rebuilding after all the tourists started coming.

Roads narrowed with modern luxury cars packing the sides. They contrasted against crumbling multi-story buildings, homes built during war time, back when Mama fled in secret to America with nothing to her name but the clothes she’d worn. The salt-water air eroded the paint, color faded like worn out sneakers. But by all that was holy, Bashir swore those faded buildings packed side by side were as beautiful as any urban neighborhood back home. Heck, this was home. The home of his ancestors, of Mama and her Mama and so on.

He walked behind Ziad and Farra, eyes shifting from one to the next as they carried on whatever they were arguing about this time. It was always something: which American city had the best hummus, who knew more Arabic words, and so on. Bashir hardly paid mind to their bickering. He never cared to talk anyways. Being mute seemed to fit his introverted personality.


  1. Hi George,
    This is a great read! Your scenes are rich in color, culture, and travel. I'm a big fan of Mediterranean food and visit Lebanese restaurants often. And yes, I know Lebanese families who argue about who makes the best hummus.

    I love the multicultural aspect of this novel. I can't wait to keep reading you revisions.

    Which leads to--REVISIONS:
    1. I was lost midway when the point of view shifted from Bashir, to Ziad, Farrah then back to Bashir. Unless Bashir heard the voices travel over the water (which is very possible), how did Bashir hear the worried voices of Ziad and Farrah (with such clarity) under the water? Or several feet away?
    2. Just a small typo: Just a simple word missing in: He'd just gained full vision, ready for Farrah "to come to"

    I would definitely read this novel. Love the culture, love the voice, love the challenge.

  2. Hi George! I’m Kim. I’m excited to read your work.

    I’m amazed at how rich and descriptive your world is. It’s clear you’ve put a lot of time and emphasis into building each scene and as a reader, I greatly appreciate that. I also love that you’re introducing me to an unfamiliar culture. Kudos! Jewel of the Nile reminds me a lot of John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, which could be a comparison book for you.

    A couple things I noticed:

    1) Adjective/Adverb overload: This one I’m reluctant to point fingers on because I’m completely guilty of this myself. While you add such detail to your world, there are points where the adjectives you use are either redundant and therefore unnecessary, or simply don’t add anything to the scene. Ex: “clutch tightly”. To clutch is to hold something tightly, so there’s no need to add tightly. Your heavy description of Ziad and Farrah in the third paragraph, especially back to back, forces me to focus more on them and less on the story. I’d probably take out a couple words to describe them and relocate the words elsewhere or cut them entirely.

    2) The Ring: This one’s going to sound strange, since I just said there are places with too much description. But when Bashir finds the ring and everyone gathers around to ooh and ahh, we don’t get much description on what the ring looks like. We know it’s gold, we know it looks like something’s missing. That’s about it. If Bashir studied it as strongly as he did, I think we readers need a little more on why it captivated him.

    3) The friendship: I’m a little curious about the group’s friendship. 12-13-year olds traveling together is unique. I think if you had a quick sentence about how long they’ve known each other, that would strengthen the bond between the readers and them.

    “He could have a conversation spanning hours with just nods and smiles. The three of them simply understood each other.” I like this. However, I think you could really implement this in action form. Maybe Bashir gives a toothy grin and Farrah and Ziad know he’s up to mischief. Or maybe Bashir taps his bottom lip while Farrah and Ziad are arguing and they know that means to shut up. Smiles and nods are great, but using his social cues in action form to communicate would show us the above statement is true, as opposed to the narrator simply telling us it is.

    Also, a little random, but do they speak Arabic? If they happen to know any Arabic words or slang, that would be awesome to learn.

    4) Reader Level: I don’t have much experience reading MG, so I apologize in advance if this concern makes no sense. But this story, with all its descriptions, reads at a much higher level, like YA. Though, I think if you cut down on some of the descriptions and maybe re-wrote a couple lengthy sentences to something shorter, you’d easily get the reading level down.

    I liked reading this! You are a great storyteller. I look forward to seeing your novel evolve.

  3. Hi George,

    First off I love the imagery in your writing. One phrase that stood out in particular was: “Commanding his burning lungs to hold firm” – please don’t change that in your edits. It is lovely. Also, I was very surprised by the reveal of Bashir being a mute. Did not expect that at first and though it caught me off guard, I would say that was in a very good way. It added detail to the foreshadowing made to bullying a few paragraphs early and by delaying that reveal, I almost felt as though it strengthened your characterization of Bashir.

    One thing that did not quite make sense after this reveal though was the fact that Bashir laughed. Maybe he smiled instead? Something the lends itself to the silent world you have given him.

    Another sentence I noticed was: “Bashir is enough to handle on his own” – this piece of dialogue came off as slightly awkward to me. Do you meant to say something more along the lines of “Bashir can is strong enough to take care of himself?” I would maybe look at this and see if revising makes the meaning you intend a bit more clear.

    Really looking forward to working with you in the workshop! I love the organization you bring to your comments.

    Best wishes,

  4. Hi George,

    Thanks so much for submitting your pages! I really enjoyed this little taste of your writing. I think this type of story could find a great home in a genre that's desperately in need of non-western stories and perspectives. I especially like the contrast that's suggested between the kids' life in America and their summers in Beirut. So whatever you do, keep pushing this story forward!

    I do have a few suggestions, some of which may have been mentioned by other readers.

    1) While I like the idea of a main character who is unable to speak, I have a few concerns. First, I'd avoid calling him "a mute." In fact, I'd let that piece of information be revealed gradually, without being so on the nose about it. Another concern is you might be setting yourself a HUGE challenge by writing a novel-length book with a main character who can't speak. It can work for a while, but eventually smiles and gestures as his only means of communication will become tiresome to read. If you're committed to having a mute MC, it might make sense to consider first-person narration, so we can at least get a direct connection with his thoughts and inner voice. Finally, if the idea is that he'll eventually gain the ability to speak, I might rethink that. It feels a bit predictable and might raise some red flags among disability advocates who would see this as an implication that those who are nonvocal are flawed and need to change. Now if his mutism is the result of some sort of trauma that he needs to work through or a severe stutter that makes him too self-conscious to speak, some of my concerns may be allayed. But still, calling him "a mute" suggests to me a complete and longstanding inability to speak, not just a condition brought on by self-consciousness or trauma.

    2) I'd love to get a better sense by the end of the five pages how this will be a fantasy. I suspect that ring Bashir found will have something to do with it, but even just a hint of what's to come would help hook the reader.

    3) I'd tone down (or eliminate) the romantic feelings that Bashir has for Farrah and other girls at school. That makes this feel a little skewed toward YA to me. In my personal experience, even subtle efforts at weaving romantic feelings into MG novels tends to give publishers pause. This may not be universal, but my editor at S&S insisted that Sven Carter's feelings for Alicia Toth in my novels be kept strictly platonic!

    4) Overall, your writing is really nice--descriptive and evocative. But there are some rough patches you'll need to focus on. For example "He shook his face and hair dry while his pale, heavyset figure and chubby cheeks shook with him" seems like an awkward construction to me. I'm not sure a "figure" can shake. Another example is "He handed them each their popsicle and nudged a space for himself in between, their shoulders still slick from swimming." There seems to be some weird agreement issues going on there. Some of this might be because of a bit of overwriting--too many adjectives or clauses strung together. It feels a little like a soloist trying to blow too many notes during a solo in places. I'm sure you can polish it up though.

    The bottom line for me: I'm REALLY excited to see where you take these pages! Your descriptions are vivid and your characters are distinct and likable. I know I've given you a lot to think about in these comments, but I hope you find them helpful!

    I look forward to seeing your revisions!

    All best,

  5. Hi George!

    There's so much to love here! I really love that you're transporting us to Beirut. I love the three friends getting ready to face the final days of their summer together, and the contrasts you've drawn between their summer at the sea and the cold of where they're going to spend their school years. I love the intersectionality of your main character who is living between two cultures and with a disability. These are bold and brave choices to make, and I seriously applaud you on them!

    I do have a few suggestions for you. And I think the first two are interconnected.

    1. Descriptions: The picture you draw here is beautiful, but I think you're falling into a few descriptive traps. First, while the language you use is beautiful, I can't always see clearly what's happening in the scene. To address that, I'd encourage you to make sure your descriptions are interactive. What Bashir is describing should relate to how he's moving through his environment. For example. you have him describe his friends when he's still pretty far away from them, which made me confused as a reader. If he's still weaving through the masses to get to them, he wouldn't necessarily hear Farrah clearly, and might only get glimpses here and there. And he would probably not be able to see to the detail of wind blowing hair and chubby cheeks wobbling. Having him glimpse her white bathing suit as it contrasts to her summer tanned skin--that's believable from afar. And then you can add details as he reaches them.

    Doing that also makes your descriptions part of the action of the story instead of grouped in a single paragraph that stunts the pacing of your actions, which is what is happening in your third paragraph.

    Also, be careful of your word choices and use. For example, you describe Bashir pushing at a "spat" of hair, which doesn't really make sense, because the word "spat" isn't related to hair in any way. Another example is when you wrote "neither made a word." The more correct usage is to write, "neither said a word."

    2. Voice. I think your level of description and how you choose to describe things is interesting and sometimes beautiful, but it also creates a separation between the narrator and main perspective character that detracts from the voice of the book for me.

    Here's what I mean by that. You're writing a middle grade, but I've never met a 12-13 year old who would describe his movements like the "Mediterranean’s salty, fresh scent carried him over to his two friends." So, while I think that's lovely writing, it detracts from Bashir's voice, because that's clearly your adult voice overriding his.

    And in a book like this, with a character who is unable to use his physical voice, I think it's vital that you establish his voice through his perspective. I'd encourage you to consider closing that gap and letting us see and experience things in a way that Bashir would describe using words he'd use.

    Related to this, I'd love to see some more interiority in your narrative. You've told us that he's bullied and lonely, but you don't show us much of how Bashir feels. I get a vague sense that he's got a crush on Farrah, but I'd love to know how he feels when he's near her, and how he'd describe that awkward, warmth, nervousness, and excitement. That also would give us real insight into who he is and how he experiences the world.

    (And because I'm too wordy, my third suggestion area will be in a reply...)

    1. 3. Terminology. Finally, I want to address Bashir's disability. The term "mute" is offensive to many, and I'd encourage you to find a way to tell/show the reader his actual condition instead of using that term as a shorthand. The inability to speak is a symptom of something, not a definition of him as a person, which is how you've had Bashir describe himself. He is not "a mute." He's a boy who is unable to speak because of some underlying condition or injury. That might seem like a small distinction, but with so few books written about kids with disabilities in the kidlit space, it's important to make sure the language we use uplifts the communities and doesn't add to the oppression they can experience.

      Related to that, as another person noted, you tell us that he laughed. I think that's an opportunity to give us a detail about his inability to speak. Does his voice still make noises, such as when he laughs? Or is he laughing silently? How does the sound of his own laughter or lack thereof make him feel? This is an example of the interiority I'm looking for as part of his voice.

      I hope all of this helps. You have a great start here. I'm really impressed with how much you were able to establish in just a few short pages. Do let me know if you have any questions for me or need me to clarify anything.

      Heather Petty
      (First 5 Mentor)

  6. Hi! Thank you for sharing this work. There are many great details, especially about the setting found in it.
    1. I urge you to heed everyone else's comments about the word "mute" as well as the idea of 12 year olds with crushes. To me, it certainly read as more of a YA story
    2. I also want to caution you on anything that can read as fat-shaming, which i can't tell from just this much of a story, but the fact that we're told about his chubby cheeks AND his heavyset features, it does feel a little over-emphasizing.
    3. I do really love the setting and the hook of the rest of the story.
    4. There are some awkward word constructions here, and I'd urge you to read it over for flow.
    All in all, a fantastic setting with interesting characters