Sunday, May 5, 2019

1st Five Pages May Workshop - Miles

Name: Melissa Miles
Genre: Middle Grade contemporary
Title: Carina of the Southern Sky

If I could remember more about the night Mama got taken away, I wouldn't be so scared all the time. There's only one thing that calms the heart-hammering fear when it crashes over me. I have to find my star in the sky—it's the one constant thing in my life now—forever shimmering up there just waiting for me to claim as my own.  

Then it hit me—right in the middle of my foster parents’ “back to school” pep talk. Even that star wasn’t really mine. It was just as fake as everything else in my life. Fake home. Fake family. Fake everything. I choked on a sob. “Excuse me,” I said. The sound of my chair scraping the floor grated in my ears, but I barely noticed I was moving. 

“Carina,” Jodie called to my back. I didn’t answer. The screen door slammed behind me. I heard Andy’s voice say, “Give her a minute.”

Without a backward glance, I walked far enough to clear the landscaping shrubs and concrete walk before dropping onto the lawn. My head was spinning, and my heart was pounding, but I forced my eyes up to the night sky. What seemed like millions of stars twinkled through drifting clouds. “Hey up there,” I said to the clouds. “I’m drifting too.” 

I blinked back tears remembering all the nights Mama and I had sprawled out in our yard back home and pointed into the dark night, trying to be the first one to holler, "There she is! Carina of the Southern sky!" 

At the thought of her, all the annoying babyish things Mama used to say to me played back in my head. Don't ever ask a woman if she's expecting a baby. Don't lick your fingers when you're eating. For heaven's sake, Carina, don't tell your teacher that you don't have a father. Of course you have a father—he's just not around anymore. Even though I'd been real irritated back when she’d said those things, it didn't make the missing her go away now. Nothing did.

The door creaked open on the porch behind me. "Carina, come on in now. It's getting late. Tomorrow's a big day." 

I didn't move. The clouds had kept me from finding my star. I had to lay my eyes on it before I went back into that crowded house. I just had to.

"Carina, honey. Did you hear me?" 

I knew I couldn't ignore Jodie forever. I took a deep breath and then let it out slowly. "Can I have just a few more minutes?" I squeezed as much polite as I possibly could into my voice. 

"What're you doing out there anyway?" 

I rolled over onto my belly to see Jodie squinting at me in the semi-darkness of the porch light. Her face was dotted with freckles when you looked at her up close, but from here it looked like solid white marble—she almost glowed in the dark. 

"I'm looking for my star, that's all. The one I was named for." There wasn’t any reason to tell her that wasn’t actually possible to see Carina from the Northern Hemisphere. What’re the chances she’d know that, anyway?

Jodie tilted her head to the side and smiled at me. "I guess it's alright. But just for a few more minutes. There's no need in you being tired out for your first day of school tomorrow."

Not trusting my voice to come out steady, I waved to let her know I’d heard. 

When the screen door didn't squeak shut, I sat up and faced the house. Jodie was still standing there on the porch looking out at me. Her marble face had creased into worry lines. 

"I'm fine, I promise. I just need to put my eyes on it once tonight before I have to go to bed. It's this thing I have to calm me down." That part was true. My heart was already feeling like it fit inside my ribs again. 

She paused on the top step. Her face softened. "Just don't be too long, okay?"

"I won't." 

I flattened back out on the grass and tried to figure out where I'd left off. Even with the clouds wandering past, the sky was scattered with more specks of light down here in South Georgia than I'd ever seen in Atlanta. I forced myself to tune out everything else—the chirp of crickets, the dampness of the ground under my back, and even my fear of snakes. 

When I was a little kid, I’d asked Mama to show me the star I’d been named for. She had pointed to the North Star and told me it was Carina, and I’d bought it—hook, line and sinker. I completely believed I was finding my actual star all those nights, until third grade when Billy Prater announced during science that I was wrong. Even then, I’d said, “Shut up, moron!” But Mr. Pridgen told me Billy was actually correct, and asked me to apologize. I did, but I sure didn’t like it. I’d stuck my tongue out at Billy behind the teacher’s back to let him know my apology didn’t count. 

Now, I just pretend The North Star is Carina. I finally found “Carina”—shimmering like she was wiggling on purpose to grab my attention. Here I am! Up here, waiting to calm you down. Even though it made no sense, the knot in my stomach loosened when I saw her sparkling up there in the sky. I wondered if Mama could see the sky too. Maybe we were looking at the same sky—just like we used to. Mama suddenly felt closer to me than she really was. Not fifty miles away locked up in a place where she couldn’t come and take me back home like I knew she wanted to. 

When I walked into the large open kitchen, Jodie winked at me. "Find what you were looking for?" She was wiping down the long wooden table that held all of us for meal times. 

I nodded, afraid to say anything—knowing that I couldn't control the shaky way my voice gets when I'm about to cry. 

She seemed to understand, because she didn't push me to answer like she sometimes does. She just walked right over to me, and gave me a pat on the arm. That's what Jodie does when she doesn't know what else to do. "Maybe you could show me sometime. I'd like to see it."

"See what?" Her son, Greg had been in the middle of watching a cartoon, so I hadn't thought he was even listening. In a house full of kids it's impossible to have a private conversation. That's one of the first things I'd learned when I came here. 

Jodie waved her hand at him. "Nothing for you to worry about, honey." She glanced down at her watch and then back at her son. "Five minutes till bedtime now, y'hear?"

He nodded and focused his eyes back on the screen without another word. 

"Okay, I'll show you sometime," I said.

Jodie's eyes found mine again. They were kind of unfocused at first. Sometimes she got so distracted with all the kids in the house, she'd lose track of who she was talking to and what she'd been talking about. But she must have remembered this time, because she said, "That'll be real nice. What I know about stars would fit in a thimble."


  1. I'm left wondering why a simple back to school talk is prompting her to miss her mom and remember the star. Maybe the causing the incident could explain it more in detail. Still, I love the voice of the narrative. I can hear the southern accent and the feel of being outside.

    1. Thanks for your feedback. I'll work on making the beginning more clear.

  2. Melissa, thank you for sharing your story. I love the premise of the connection between the girl and the star and your voice is beautiful. It took me a little while to get oriented and to understand why the story started where it started. Was there something in the pep talk that triggered her reaction/ fear?

    1. Thanks for the feedback. The trigger is supposed to be the fact that she's starting a new school year in a new place without her mom. But, I need to make that more clear. Thanks! :)

  3. Melissa,

    I love your opening line. It pulls me in. Immediately, I have a question in my head - who took her mom away and how did it all go down. I'm also wondering what she's scared of. I would suggest diving into that right away. Why is she thinking about being afraid at this moment? What is scary near her?

    However, all this potential is lost with the stars. I don't buy the whole stars thing and talking about stars is cliche. If you're a teen and you open a book and they're talking about stars, are you going to keep reading? Probably not. But being scared after your mom was taken? Definitely! So, you are nearly there, just trust your initial instincts.

    I also want to talk about flow. First I am imagining her outside looking at stars and then I'm jerked back to a lecture and then I'm back outside. I see that it's a flashback, but it happens so fast and when I first read it, I was confused. Then a little lower, with the mom pointing out her star, that's another flashback. I would avoid flashbacks in your first pages.

    So where should you start your story? Try to figure out what early scene feels the most resonant/raw and then start there. What affects your own emotions the most? It might be a later scene. Then, really dig deep and give us a multi-sensory experience of the scene, and get in her body.

    I'd cut everything from the first line to the next moment which I think is quite original - all the mama warnings. They're funny and add to the voice of the character. Of course, in between, I'd love a scene in which she is afraid, possibly unreasonably. That could be quite funny and I think you have a nack for humor.

    The foster mom, Jodie, is really interesting, with how she's overrun with kids but I think this scene needs to be expanded. If there are a lot of kids, show us the kids running in and interrupting. I really do think this could be funny. Have them say wacky things. Also, give your character a need, something she must get from Jodie or tell Jodie, but she can't do it because of all the interruptions. In other words, increase the stakes in this conversation, and then we'll be rooting for your character. I love this line - In a house full of kids, it's impossible to have a private conversation. This peaked my interest - what does she want to say that's so private? Think of something very private/embarrassing/difficult.

    You have the seeds of a wonderful story. Try to expand these really strong parts. Let me know if you have any questions.

    Kim Purcell

  4. Thank you so much for the concrete feedback. I will work on implementing it into my revisions. I appreciate your time! :)

  5. Hi Melissa! I love the title of your story and the first sentence! I felt very drawn in to the story with the first sentence.

    I had to read the first few paragraphs multiple times, however. I couldn't quite figure out the setting, what was going on. It took a while to figure out she was in a conversation in the house, then ran out of the house. If you want to start the story here, it needs to be built up more. I know we're told to start our stories in the middle of action and that it's sometimes SO HARD to do that and give the reader a basis to start from so they can picture the character, the setting, the supporting characters at the same time. I've struggled with this for sure.

    I like the idea of her having one constant in a life that feels so chaotic, fake, and everchanging. The star is a nice constant for her. I think it's important to mention it, but maybe not as the first thing mentioned. This will help with some of the pacing issues. I think we need to see more of the chaos first, then we can be centered as her mind becomes centered around the star and everything slows and relaxes a bit, then we can learn more about mom and the babyish things she used to say.

    Just some ideas (obviously only follow them if you agree):
    -If you start the first paragraph with the pep talk about going back to school and reference her "irrational" fear of going back, it might draw readers in more. Make the reader want to know why going back is such a scary thing. You can try to show how everything feels fake more than tell it. Then you can later talk about mom being taken away, the star being her only constant, the babyish things mom used to say.
    -Possibly start the story with an interaction between her and her foster siblings and parents, showing the chaos, how it all feels fake to her, how she's scared to return to school (just don't let the first line be dialogue).
    -Ask yourself if the story is starting in the right spot. What needs to be relayed in order to set the stage for the rest of the story? The opening needs to reflect what's going on in the meatier part of the story.

    Also, the star she runs outside to see isn't even visible. So why run outside at all? Seems a little far-fetched. I think she just needs to get away in general. Maybe she has those sticky glow in the dark stars on her ceiling and she locks herself in her room and looks at Carina (the star, not herself) after escaping her wild, funny foster siblings. You can reference the fact that everything in life feels fake at that point.

    Throughout the opening, Carina's voice is very strong and consistent. It's awesome and I feel like I know her. Good job, it's not an easy thing to do!

    I think you're really close to nailing the opening pages.


  6. Hi Melissa,

    Thanks so much for submitting your pages! I enjoyed reading them very much!

    You start out with a really strong opening line--that's super-important; well done! Establishing your MC's fear and the mystery of her mother's departure definitely makes me want to read on.

    The issue I have is that you lose a ton of momentum when you move on to writing about the star. I do like the idea that she used to find comfort in looking at the star she was named after. And I like that when she was younger, she was always looking at the wrong star. And that's where I would have made a different choice. I would have Carina no longer find comfort in looking at the North Star as the story begins. I'd also have her feel betrayed by her mother for that lie (and, of course, for no longer being in her life). I kinda think having her be more cynical, given what's she's been through, might make more sense here. That might give you the foundation for a really compelling character arc, as well.

    While I really like your writing and voice, I feel like you're doing a little throat clearing in these pages in order to give the reader all kinds of background information she/he may not need right away. You could even have Carina run outside and look at the sky and not reveal why she's doing it right away. She could be evasive with Jodie. That might create an interesting red herring--if Carina talks in the opening about her mom's disappearance in vague terms and then runs out to look at the sky, your readers might assume there's an alien abduction behind it all. You wouldn't want to keep that up for long, but that kind of intrigue could keep kids turning those pages!

    Overall, I feel this idea has great potential, but I'd love to see you think about how you can keep your momentum up throughout the first five pages and preserve more mystery until later in your MS. As it stands, you explain too much too early.

    I hope you find my feedback helpful. I look forward to reading your next revision!


  7. Your insights are definitely helpful. I'm working on my revision now, and I will try to keep the pace moving along more quickly for sure. Thanks so much!

  8. I'm so sorry I missed adding critique comments to the post. I will comment next week on the revision. My sincerest apologies, Melissa.

  9. No worries! I received plenty of good feedback, but I'll definitely look forward to hearing from you next week. Thanks so much. :)