Sunday, July 7, 2019

1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Thornton

Name: Patrick Thornton
Genre: Middle Grade, contemporary
Title: I’m Counting On You


I’m sitting on my front porch watching Stan, my best friend since kindergarten, toss a baseball in the air and snag it with his glove. School is out and I should be looking forward to goofing off in the warm Virginia summer and being at the top of the middle school food chain next year but . . .

This time Stan keeps the ball in his glove and comes over and sits next to me. He falls against me, shoulder to shoulder and says, “So you’ll be man of the house again.” 

“Very funny.” Kind of funny, since I’m a girl. Maybe not funny because I get teased for being a tomboy when most of the girls in school are into makeup and boys. I know Stan is only trying to cheer me up but that’s not happening; Dad leaves today.

I get to my feet. “I gotta go. Thanks for hanging.”

Stan tilts his head sideways and jerks on an imaginary noose. I don’t laugh and his face goes serious. “Your dad’s going to be okay.” Then adds, “Your mom too.”

“Yeah.” I wish knew that to be true. 

“See ya tomorrow,” he says as I go inside.

Tomorrow. Upstairs I sit on the edge of my bed and try not to think about what life will be like tomorrow.  

The chart I made matching up the two time zones—here at home and in Afghanistan where Dad will be—is on the wall. I’ll use it to know what time it is for Dad when I’m getting up in the morning or having dinner or whatever.
For now, I just want to turn my brain off. I want to put the war—what could happen to Dad, what could happen to all of us—out of my head. 

“Think fast!” 

I jump and look up just in time to grab the video game case flying at me before it hits me in the chest.  

“Nice catch.” Dad stands in my bedroom doorway wearing his National Guard uniform, all brown and green camouflage. There’s an American flag on one shoulder and his MP patch on the other.  People say I’m a girl version of my dad, probably because of our dark eyes and curly hair. And I’m in pretty good shape from lots of sports. I’m hardly any version of my mom. 

My bed creaks when Dad sits down next to me. In my hands is the new Xbox game we’ve been waiting for. He points at the game. “Practice up so I don’t embarrass you when I get back.”

It takes some effort but I twist my mouth into a fierce grin and look up at him. “Fat chance.” 

Dad responds with a chuckle. “Dill,” he says. 

My name is Dilla, after a great aunt I never met but everybody calls me Dill. Stan sometimes calls me Pickle. You know, because of dill pickle. 

“Uh huh.” I look into Dad’s eyes.

“I know it’s hard when I’m gone but you’ve always stepped up and done a great job with your mom and everything.”

No, actually, I haven’t.

“Your mom is getting better but this time will be harder on her since I won’t be able to call her every day. Phone service might not be so good from Afghanistan. And there’s the time difference.” 

And the war.

I shouldn’t bring this up again, but I do. “If I had a cell phone we could text. I could keep it secret from Mom.”

Dad shakes his head. “No secrets from your mom.” 

Mom has anxiety issues and what her therapist calls cyberphobia. Tech things, almost anything to do with computers, can trigger a panic attack. She’s kind of okay with cell phones but will not have one. She won’t let me have one either because she’s heard about kids getting cyber bullied. So, no cell phone for me or Mom. Dad has a cell phone for work but he keeps it out of sight. 

“You can email me anytime and we’ll work around the time difference to set up Skype calls once I get settled.”  He’s quiet for a second then says, “Remind your mom that letters are on the way. That should help her feel better while I’m gone.”


Gone can mean never coming back. I want to tell him how afraid I am about that. But I don’t. “I’ll take care of everything here, Dad. You can count on me.”

“I know you will.” He nods toward the game in my hands “Don’t let anything happen to that and be ready for a serious beat down.”  He gives me a pat on the back and stands up. “Time to go.” 


“I don’t want to have to arrest myself for being AWOL,” he says as we head downstairs.

AWOL. As if.

Dad’s a good soldier just like he’s a good policeman here in town when he’s not on duty with the Guard. He’s got the medals and citations to prove it. 

As we pass the family game room, I duck in to put the new game Dad gave me on top of the Xbox console. I know it’s stupid but I give the game a kiss for luck like people do with a lucky penny or a rabbit’s foot. That actually makes me feel better, like it has a little magic that will make sure Dad comes home safe.

In the living room he puts his hands on my shoulders and bends down just enough so we are eye to eye. “I’m counting on you.” He looks past me into the kitchen. I turn and see Emily hanging on Mom begging for something and, as usual, not taking no for an answer. Emily is wearing a little pink dress that used to be mine about a hundred years ago, before Mom had her first panic attack. Probably the last dress I ever wore. Mom is smiling down at Emily’s pudgy four-year-old face. But it’s a smile that looks like it wants to be something else. Mom is wearing what she calls a sun dress with bright yellow flowers on it and no sleeves. It seems to hang on her like she lost weight overnight.

“Jennifer, you and Em about ready?” Dad calls to Mom.

Nobody’s ready, Dad.

“Let’s go.” 

He puts an arm around my back and Mom slips under his other arm. As we walk out of the house Emily runs past us to the car. 
The ride to the airport is a depressing. Next to me in the back seat, Emily’s talking to a new doll, sometimes wagging a finger at the thing. Dad is talking quietly to Mom in the front seat. I feel like I’m in a weird, bad dream. Kind of floating but not in a good way. Next thing I know we’re pulling into the airport parking lot.

“Dill, come on. You need to keep an eye on Emily,” Mom tells me. 

Right. While Dad gathers his gear it’s my job to make sure Emily doesn’t run out in front of a taxi or a bus or something.
Inside the terminal, lots of men and women are hugging people they’re leaving behind. I want it all to stop. I wish there was a pause button like the one on the TV remote. 

Dad kisses Mom and Emily then turns to me.  He kisses me on the cheek then hugs me. I want to


  1. Patrick, thanks for sharing your work! I see plenty of possibility here. There's the inherent drama of the situation, and Dill's voice works nicely. You definitely establish some clear relationships here at the start, and I like how the time zone chart establishes the center conflict: Dill's dad shipping out. That's neatly done! I'm also intrigued by Mom's "cyberphobia".

    A few suggestions:

    1) I'd like to see some overall tightening of the narrative portion and loosening of language. While the dialogue feels natural, some of the narration could benefit from contractions and trimming out some unnecessary words/phrases. Here's an example:

    I’m sitting on my front porch watching Stan, my best friend since kindergarten, toss a baseball in the air and snag it with his glove. School is out and I should be looking forward to goofing off in the warm Virginia summer and being at the top of the middle school food chain next year but . . .

    This time Stan keeps the ball in his glove and comes over and sits next to me. He falls against me, shoulder to shoulder and says, “So you’ll be man of the house again.”

    I’m on my porch watching Stan, my best friend since kindergarten, toss a baseball and snag it with his glove. School's out. I should be goofing off in the warm Virginia sun, looking forward to being at the top of the middle school food chain next year, but...

    Stan sits next to me, shoulder to shoulder and says, “So you’ll be man of the house again.”

    This sort of small stuff will have a big impact.

    2) I'd also consider some of the minor choices that sound a little stilted, like this one: “'Yeah.' I wish knew that to be true." - Is there a less formal way for Dill to express that (without getting into specific slang)?

    3) About the time zone chart, as I said, it's a great device to establish the situation, but it might be nice to show more strongly Dill's conflicted feelings about it--having this constant reminder of her Dad in danger on her wall--right at the beginning to amp up tension a bit.

    4) Sensory detail would help make setting a bit more vivid. We know she's on the porch, then in her room, then at the airport, but could you give a tiny bit of description of these places--and/or of her family members--to make them more vivid? What does her bedding look like? Is the chart hanging next to a poster or drawing? I'm not suggesting you overwhelm us with detail, but some sound, smell, etc. could bring it to life even more.

    5) Finally, while you don't want to play all your cards in the first five pages, I'd like a bit more detail about Mom's cyberphobia. Maybe a memory-glimpse of one of her episodes? Also, it's a little unclear. Since Dill is okay to email her dad, there's a computer in the house, yes? It seems Mom would have an issue with that (and maybe the Xbox) as well as cellphones. Maybe that's not something that needs to be crystal clear right at the start, but it threw me just a bit.

    P.S. I really like that Dill kisses the new video game case for luck/magic. Sweet detail.

    Nice work, Patrick! I hope this gives you something to consider.

    All best,


  2. Hi Patrick!!! Excited we're both in first pages this month, congrats. I really enjoyed your excerpt too, it's really lovely. I love how authentic it feels, and I think it starts in a great spot, Dill is having trouble being normal with her friend because of everything going on. The moment with her Dad was really sweet. It works really well :)

    My comments are just little things that either confused me or threw me out of the flow a little. The main one for me was the cyberphobia. I instantly started wondering how they talk to him in Afghanistan if the mum doesn't have a phone? Seems like it would be super difficult to keep a family together with no contact. And if Dill got a phone, they wouldn't be able to text. A lot of apps would be blocked too. I think defence personnel from Australia can use Skype but not other apps, so not sure what the regulations are on apps from the US? Maybe worth checking?

    Another thing that threw me once or twice was that the character spoke like an adult a few times, like "he's got medals and citations" seems a bit older. This also confused me because I couldn't get a gauge of how old this character is meant to be. I know she is probably older than Emily, but I couldn't work out if she was 6 or 14. Perhaps details of her bedroom can give us an indication of age?

    And then just a few super minor details, that are probably not issues, just thought I'd bring them up. The first was that I was reading at the start, thinking she was a boy. Even when she says "since I'm a girl", I was still confused, thinking maybe he is being funny, so was just wondering if it's worth clarifying her gender earlier? perhaps by having Stan call her name? No worries if you don't think it's an issue. I was also curious about the name Dill? As it is a slang term for an idiot and I'm not sure if that is intentional or not? I can imagine her being bullied a bit at school.

    Overall I really want to read more and I think it looks great. Good luck with your revision!

  3. I thought this was pretty good. You set up the conflict early and have a nice visual representation of it in the chart on the wall.

    That being said, there were a few things that stood out. A few pieces of narration seemed awkward and in parts there weren't a lot of detail. As an example,, "This time Stan keeps the ball..." could be changed around a bit to make it clearer.

    Another thing is the cyberphobia that the mom has. You say she's scared of tech things and computers, but the house has an Xbox, which runs off the same parts and allows you to do many of the same things as a computer. If you're tech savvy, you can even turn your Xbox into a PC. So it's a bit odd that she would have one in the house.

    All in all, this was a sound opening, and I'd read more of it. I'd consider a bit more visual details and some tightening though. I'd also consider changing the cyberphobia thing. Maybe the mom is more scared of social media, which is a new phobia. Some people are calling that visiobibliophobia, but that's not exactly an official term yet.

  4. Hi Patrick!

    I enjoyed your first five pages. The premise of your story is clear: the house is going to be different now that her dad is going away for war, and it seems like there's going to be some conflict with her mom in his absence. I find your voice unique and very appropriate for middle schooler. Below are some comments I have.

    1) My main thought is that while the conflict is present, the first five pages don't leave me wondering about much, and I always am driven to read more when I feel like there's a sense of all is not as it seems/I'm missing an important detail that would explain why things are the way they are. I agree with the suggestion to not tell us about her phobia just yet, because reading the line just about cell phones intrigued me a lot. I'm also wondering if our character could think back/worry about some incident that happened in the past but not go into too much detail on it just yet. One place where you do a great job of creating mystery is where the father says she's done a great job and she thinks to herself, "No, I haven't," and that could be a place where she thinks back to "what happened last time my dad was gone."

    2) Super nitpicky, but I think the phrase: "She’s kind of okay with cell phones but will not have one" could be improved with, "but refuses to own one." I will say though if she's kind of okay with them, I feel like she'd own one since they are so convenient so it seems like she's got a pretty strong aversion. This might be personal preference but I wasn't the hugest fan of "fierce" to describe her grin and thought you could take that word out.

    I hope this helps, and I really enjoyed your work!

    1. This is Emily, by the way. I have my name on my account now, but not when I commented on your pages.

  5. Hi Patrick,

    Thanks so much for submitting your pages to the workshop. I like the setup to your story a lot. I think it could be very relevant in today's world where so many family are broken up by military service. I have a few suggestions for you to get the reader hooked fast in these pages.

    First, I feel like the pacing is a bit slow. I'm pretty sure you could tighten your opening up substantially, which would let us get further along in the action more quickly.

    Also, I wonder if there's another point at which you can start your narrative. As it stands, I feel like the opening scene is a bit of a throwaway, intended to let you disclose certain elements of backstory about your main character. I always like to do an exercise with my manuscripts and see how far into the story I can start them. I'm often surprised how much throat clearing I do in the opening pages. The information I put in them I can usually weave in later, which lets me start with more of a bang. If the father is going to die or be injured in Afghanistan, that might be a place to start. Or even after that point (see Sally Pla's THE SOMEDAY BIRDS for an example. Great opening pages in that book!)

    One way you can do what I'm suggesting in a more engaging way would be to open the book with an episode that SHOWS rather than tells that the household has been dramatically changed by Dad going off to war. Maybe it's something that happens with Mom's cyberphobia. Or it's as simple as unclogging a toilet or killing a spider--something that Dad always used to do.

    I know there's a great story waiting to be told here. I'm eager to see what you do with it in the next round!

    All best,

  6. Ah, this is so sweet. When will the book come out?
    I saw Patrick's work on Ms Kathy Temean's website and then googled it, hoping I'll land on an Amazon page. Instead, I'm here. The voice, the details are really sweet.