Sunday, July 21, 2019

1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Thornton Rev 2

Name: Patrick Thornton
Genre: Middle Grade, contemporary
Title: I’m Counting On You (1246 words)


Twelve-year-old Dilla Gilbert loves baseball and video games. She idolizes her father and struggles to keep her anxiety-ridden mother’s spirits up. The day Dad deploys to war with the National Guard, he gives Dilla the video game they’ve been waiting for with a promise of a heated competition when he returns. That game is Dilla’s good luck charm, promising Dad comes home safely. 

The house is burglarized when Dilla forgets to lock a door and her Xbox and the precious game are stolen. With her cyberphobic mom in meltdown and little sis making big trouble, Dilla is desperate to catch the thief and get the game back. She recruits her best pal, a bright, trash-talking goofball, as Watson to her Holmes. Smoke bombs, a homeless camp, a teenage runaway who awakens Dilla’s sexual ambivalence, a boy whose father has abandoned him and a gang of toughs who threaten to kill them are all part of their hunt for the thief.

While the bulk of the story is Dilla’s first person account, Dad’s war experience is woven into the story’s narrative with intimate third-person chapters. Emails between father and daughter tie them together while they are half a world apart.


Stan, my best friend since kindergarten, sits next to me on our front porch. The smell of freshly mowed grass is everywhere. Seventh grade is over and I should be summertime happy but . . .

After a lot of not talking Stan says, “Your dad’s going to be okay.” Then adds, “Your mom too.”

“How do you know?” The words come out angry. Stan looks down at his feet and wish I hadn’t said that, not that way. 

“Gee, Pickle . . .” 

My name is Dilla but everybody calls me Dill. Stan sometimes calls me Pickle. You know, because of dill pickle. I know Stan is just trying to cheer me up. Not happening; Dad leaves today.

“Sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean . . .”

He looks over at me and smiles. “We’re cool.”

Stan’s the best friend a girl ever had. I get to my feet. “I gotta go.”

Upstairs, I sit on the edge of my bed trying not to think about what life will be like tomorrow. The chart I made matching up the two time zones—here in Virginia 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. My computer, the only one in the house, is on my desk under the chart. On the floor next to the desk are the sports team posters I took down to make room for the chart.  
Wish I could turn my brain off, put the war—what could happen to Dad, what could happen to all of us—out of my head. I stand up, rub a hand across my face. Staring at the sweat on my palm, I feel like crying. Can’t do that. Not now. I rub my hand dry on the leg of my jeans and sit back down.

“Think fast!” 

I look up just in time to grab a video game case flying at me before it hits me in the chest. It’s the new Xbox game Dad and I have been waiting for.

“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’ve got some muscles from lots of sports. I’m hardly any version of my mom. She’s pretty and fragile. I’m not. 

My bed creaks when Dad sits down next to me. Tapping a finger on the new game he says, “Practice up while I’m away so I don’t embarrass you.”

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

I can’t hold the grin so I look down and turn the game over in my hands. Dad and I get pretty worked up with our Xbox competition. Mom, of course, stays far away when we do. The Xbox is in the downstairs game room in a cabinet out of sight. It was a special Christmas present that Mom agreed to as long as the door to the room is closed when the cabinet is open. I feel Dad’s arm go around my shoulders but I keep looking down at the game. 


“Uh huh.”

“Your mom is getting better but this time will be harder on her since I won’t be able to call her every day like I do when I’m in the States. 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. Mom wouldn’t have to know.”

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 makes her restless and afraid. She’s okay with the land line phone but cell phones, no way. 

Dad nods toward my computer—the one I had to have for school and the reason Mom seldom comes in my room. “You can email me anytime and we should be able to Skype once I get settled.”  He’s quiet for a second then says, “Remind your mom that letters are on the way and I’ll call her when I can. I know you’ll look after things while I’m gone.”

Gone can mean never coming back. I feel tears working their out of my eyes and swipe a hand across my face to hide them. I cough, bob my head like an idiot and tell him, “Got it covered, Dad.” 

“I know you do.” Dad runs a hand gently over my hair and stands up. “Time to go.” 


“I don’t want to have to arrest myself for being AWOL.” 

AWOL. Dad, Absent Without Leave. 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 even got medals he wears on his dress uniforms. 

As we pass the family game room, I duck in and open the Xbox cabinet. I give the game from Dad 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.

I give the game a gentle pat before I close up the cabinet and follow Dad to the living room where Emily is hanging on Mom begging for something and, as usual, not taking no for an answer. Emily’s little pink dress used to be mine about a hundred years ago—probably the last dress I ever wore. Mom is smiling down at Emily but her smile looks like it wants to be something else. She’s 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. We need you here. I need you here. You think I’m brave and strong and can take care of everybody when you’re not here but you don’t know how hard . . .

“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. On the way to the airport Emily sits close to me in the back scolding and wagging a finger at a doll. Dad is talking quietly to Mom up front. I feel like I’m in a bad dream, floating but not in a good way until we pull 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 people with suitcases are run-walking while others sprawl on chairs or the floor. The place smells like air conditioning, sweat, sugar and coffee.  When Dad hugs me I want to hold onto him, squeeze him so hard he can’t pull away, can’t leave. Then we’re not hugging and Dad is waving goodbye.  


  1. Patrick,

    WOW, that pitch is an attention grabber! It promises a real roller coaster of events! I'd definitely be intrigued enough to request more.

    You've done some excellent tightening here-especially right at the start. I also really like that Stan actually calls her Pickle. Nice shift to showing.

    I can see lots of strong but subtle tweaks (for example the description of Dill's room). One suggestion, maybe a specific sports team or two for the posters she took down.

    The tightening and sharpening you've done have really picked up the pace in these five pages; you've successfully introduced bits of detail without bogging down that pace (example, the cough/head bob to show her emotional state).

    I'm impressed with the way you've polished this. It's been a pleasure seeing it evolve, and I wish you all the best with the submission process!


  2. This might be an example of when an agent seizes on one word choice (possibly erroneously), but I am confused by the reference to Dilla's "sexual ambivalence." I found it jarring to see anything about sexuality in a MG pitch. You don't typically see anything beyond crush-level in MG.


  3. The pitch: I think it's solid for the most part. The first paragraph gets the basic conflict across well. The second paragraph could do with some edits though. Some of the sentences are longer and more convoluted than they need to be, most notable is the smoke bombs one. I'd trim it and break up the sentences a bit. Sexual ambivalence is a bit strong.

    The story: I think you did well with the revisions. Most of the sentences are tight and easy for a middle grader to understand. A few minor tweaks would help though. just a few edits here and there.

    One thing I don't understand is if the mom stays in the car, because if she has technophobia, I don't see how she's going into an airport.

    The Xbox game might could do with a name if it's that important to the story. I understand wanting to avoid copyrights and potentially dating the piece with a game that's old by the time the novel comes out. But i'd consider making up a game to play. Just a thought.

    A few of the fragmented sentences are a bit off-putting and seem to come off as too sharp and mean. That makes me think Dill might be rather surly.

    It's a good story though, and I think you've definitely got something here. A lot of the writing is good and everything is clear.

  4. Hey Patrick! I love that this is an adventure story and we get to see that now in the pitch. Sounds so fun.

    I had a few comments about the pitch. First, wondering if you can spice up the first line and give it a hook. Do we need two sentences of backstory before we start with the plot? Wondering it could be something like... Twelve-year-old Dilla loves playing baseball and video games with her dad and can't bear to think about him going off to the war. That includes some of her emotions and ties straight into the plot.

    Also, I think it's worth sticking with third person narrative throughout, so the third paragraph takes us out of the story and doesn't seem to fit. Also don't think we need to know that emails are part of the story. A better use of words would be to give some more of the plot.

    I also found I didn't get what the stakes were of the story in the pitch. The goal is there - to find the game. What's at stake if they don't find it? The stakes are generally what comes in the third paragraph and I think if you rework that paragraph with the stakes, you should get some good agent attention :)

    Regarding pages, I love the way you ended it. It ends on a hook that leaves us wanting more. I can see you've trimmed it a bit. I just found it a little jarring in some points, such as where you've removed the 'I's. E.g. 'his feet and I wish I hadn't', 'It's not happening.' 'I wish I could turn my brain off.' 'I can't do that.'

    In the pitch, we also hear that this game she is given means the world to her as it connects her to her dad. But she doesn't have an emotional response to receiving it. I think adding some internal monologue straight after receiving, showing us how much it means to her, will match with your pitch and show the reader that this game means something early on.

    Also agree to give the sports posters actual or made up team names. Anywhere you can be more specific draws us into the story more.

    Great work, and good luck with submissions!

  5. Hi Patrick!

    Really enjoyed reading your pitch and pages. My comments are below:

    The pitch:
    1) I think it'd be nice if the first sentence could get more to the action and set apart what makes your story unique, rather than the fact that she has interests that are relatively common.

    2) This is probably just personal preference but there were a few places in the pitch that felt awkwardly worded to me. I'd prefer just saying "her father" rather than dad. Also, while I know "little sis making big trouble" is a play on words, it felt vague to me and I think a specific example of the kind of trouble (especially if its really dramatic) would be useful. In addition, I'd rather know if they are tough guys or tough kids rather than just toughs, because it doesn't give me a great idea of who Dilla is up against.

    3) I saw this has already been noted but the pitch is probably better off without the sexual ambivalence part just because she's so young.

    4) The last paragraph in which you say what the POVs are isn't something I've seen in sample query letters before and I think may not be necessary to your pitch because I don't think it does much to set it apart.

    The Pages:

    1) A nitpicky comment, but the thought "Stan's the best friend a girl ever had" feels like a thought an older person might have, not a twelve year old.

    2) Now that I know how big of a role in the story this Xbox game is, I think it needs to be played up even more in the first pages. The most helpful thing would be to give the reader more details about it. What is the game? Is it a sports game because Dilla likes sports or something quirky she and her dad love? (I'm guessing it's not Call of Duty since her dad is going to war...) I'd also love to know a bit about how long they've been waiting for it and why. Did they play the sequel to it and are waiting for the next installment? Do they each relate to a character in the game? An idea I had is that perhaps the game even involves a girl and a dad, and they save each other, and Dilla is worried that if she can't play the game and save the dad in the game, then she won't be able to save her dad in real life...but that's just a thought and me getting excited about your story.

    Additional thought:
    One thing that I think is something to look out for as you write is to make sure Dilla isn't the type of girl who is "not like other girls." It's totally cool that she's a tomboy, I think that's great. I just think that sometimes female characters with those traits tend to shame/look down upon women who have more feminine traits. The one place I thought I saw a glimpse of that is when she talks about her mother and says "She’s pretty and fragile. I’m not." It's definitely okay for the mother to be both things, I just worried that it was reading like the two were connected, and that feminine beauty is being associated with fragility. One way to get around this (and you may already be doing it) is to have Emily who wears pink dresses be a force to be reckoned with and not at all fragile while being much more of a girly girl than Dill.

    I've enjoyed seeing how much your pages have improved and taking part in this workshop with you. Good luck with everything and thanks for your feedback on my writing :)

  6. Hi Patrick,

    Thank you for working hard and sharing your revision with us today. I'm sorry for the lateness of my comments!

    Your pitch has good structure, and I'm interested in this story. I love the game as a metaphor for her dad's safety. That's very MG. That is the very first part of your story--it's what grabs my heart. I would strongly consider an opening that is focused on this connection...on the game, on how important it is to her, and a slow reveal to the reader of WHY.

    It's that WHY that will keep us reading. We want to know why this matters so much to her, and we want to know if her dad's going to be okay or not. I want to see and feel that meat of the story earlier. There's a chance you're still starting the story a bit early, but once you get in there your query shows me you have the stuff for a solid narrative. It's very common to cut your opening chapters, fyi. I do it on almost every draft!

    Others have said, but I will reinforce that "a teenage runaway who awakens Dilla’s sexual ambivalence" is startling bc sexuality is not often a focus in MG...or at least, the way it's explored is in a very MG mindset, whereas the word sexuality feels more teen or adult. You can indicate what you want here, just say it in another way.

    I would also cut the POV/letters mention in the query--the query needs to end with a nice punchy line about the stakes and the consequences if Dilla doesn't reach her goal. Leave us worried and wanting to know if she'll find the game...and ultimately, if her father will live. We need that sensation of life or death in your closing line.

    One potential plot hole: why does this particular copy of the game matter so much? Couldn't she buy another one at Gamestop? Gotta make sure the logic holds up there or readers won't buy in.

    You have a lot of great moments in your pages, and some areas that need smoothing, but I would not fuss with line level edits right now. I don't think you have your opening yet, but you're close. Try a few different things, and refer to your favorite dozen MG novels...we need an opening that grabs our attention and raises that very heartfelt story question that will keep us reading.

    My best,
    Melanie Conklin
    First Five mentor