Sunday, September 8, 2019

1st 5 Pages Sept Workshop - Baron

Name: Angela T. Baron (A. T. Baron)
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary Fantasy
Title: Emerson’s Guide to Playing with Sand

Chapter One - You Can't Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

On the last day of my hospital stay, I opened my eyes to find my mother holding my limp hand. Streaks of mascara ran down her cheeks, and she dabbed at her eyes with a tattered tissue.

I struggled for breath, and her eyes met mine.

"Oh, baby. How are you feeling?"


"Don't talk. You're too weak."


"Your dad says, 'Hi.'"

"Want. To. Sit up," I managed to say.

"Oh, sure." My mom leaned forward and pushed the button on the plastic guardrail panel. The electric motor whined as the top of the bed rose. The rest of the room came into view along with my blanketed feet and then stopped with a jerk as she released the button.

I should have been spending the warm sunny days hanging out at the beach with my best friend. Instead, I was wasting away my body and my summer laid up in a hospital bed in room 314 of St. Cajetan's Medical Center. The sea and surf were replaced with powder blue walls and noisy monitors.

I was getting used to scenes like this. Leukemia had me coming to the hospital for treatments since middle school, but since the beginning of my junior year, my weakened body fell prey to the slightest breeze as malignant blood cells coursed through my body. This was my third visit to the hospital in as many months. The most recent predator, complications from pneumonia, consumed the last week of school and exams. I would take solving Trigonometry questions over frequent blood tests any day.

My mom was religiously by my side. She slept in the crappy lounge chair next to the bed and ate every meal with me—when I could stomach the thought. She only left my side to go to the bathroom, which I assumed was to reapply more makeup. I don't even know why she bothered putting on makeup at all. It wasn't like she had anyone to impress at the hospital. I certainly couldn't outdo her with my pasty skin, bald head, and drool dripping down my face.

"Deanna stopped by this afternoon. She left you another balloon."

I glanced at the explosion of colors by the window. Flowers and plants from family, stuffed toys and cards from friends, and enough balloons from Dee to raise a house off the ground.

I knew they were all from her because everyone was different. She worked at Party Emporium and got a discount. The first day of this current hospital stay, she told me she would keep me supplied with something sweet and an interesting view. The newest balloon was round, pink, and mylar, emblazoned with the words, "It's a girl!" Hell yeah!

"I don't quite understand this last balloon," my mom said as she squeezed my hand. "Is that all they had in stock?"

"No, Mom. She's making fun of my looks."

My mom shook her head in disgust, "That's terrible."

"I love her for it."  I tried to smile, but the oxygen cannula plugged into my nose, pulled on my crusty skin.

It was bad enough that I was cursed with small breasts, but losing my hair was difficult for me to deal with. Dee, being the best friend that she was, did everything in her power to cheer me up in my hours of need.

Before chemotherapy, I loved wearing my hair long and dying it different colors. It was the one thing I could control in my life. The last color I picked was "Violet Vixen." My mom shrieked when she saw my purple head for the first time, but eventually got used to it. I enjoyed the color for a whole two weeks until I pushed my hair behind my ears, and a clump came out in my hand.

Once the rest of my hair fell out, I appeared somewhat asexual. Dee thought I should take advantage of my new guise. She dared me to sneak into the boy's locker room at school and get a peek at the cute guys in their underwear. I chickened out, and Dee blamed it on the fact that I didn't have the balls.

Mom left my side and walked to the window. She picked off a faded blossom from a potted plant. Her wrinkled chiffon blouse and knit leggings hung on her thin frame.

"Your dad's going to come by later. He has to work late." She sighed. "He wants to see you before—" She rolled the wilted bloom in her hand and never finished the statement.

"It's okay." I don't know why I said that. It's not okay. I had been the hospital for two weeks trying to regain lung capacity, but I only feel worse. The doctors say I am getting better, but my parents believe in expecting the worst; that way, they will never be disappointed. Unfortunately, my mom's mood was dragging me down even more than cancer.

God, hospitals are so depressing! People rush around trying to get as many bodily samples from you as they can and then try to make you comfortable because that is all they can do for you. At least I had cable. I filled my waking hours with silly cartoon sound effects to cover the weeping and complaining from neighboring rooms.

A rolling computer cart entered the room, followed by the nurse. Loretta was filling the evening shift and overfilling her scrubs. She was pleasant to talk to, but I never got a lot of time to chat with her. Normally, she wheeled in her equipment, took my vitals, and wheeled herself to the next invalid.

"Hey, honey. How you feelin' today? I heard they had chocolate puddin' for dessert tonight."

"I'm really not hungry." The thought of eating hospital food didn't appeal to me, especially when the chicken salad looked the same going in as it did coming out—either end. Lately, I satisfied myself with tropical-flavored lifesavers or the occasional bag of gummy bears if I could acquire them from my supplier.

Loretta took my temperature, checked my monitors, and pushed buttons on the computer display. She changed my intravenous bag and ran the attached tube through the monitor.

I had tubes coming from multiple places on my body. Each port left an expanding sickly purple contusion. I know the doctors needed them to monitor my vitals and fluids, but they felt like plastic shackles that kept me from living. If it wasn't for this disease, I could be getting ready for homecoming, sitting by the poolside getting tan lines from my new bikini. Of course, it would be covered with a long-sleeved swim shirt and shorts to conceal as many bruises and needle marks as possible. I might even get kissed by a boy if one could stand the sight of me. The only bright side to all of this was that I finally lost that pesky chunky body from my childhood. I now had the gorgeous, waif-like figure of a runway model—without the paycheck.

"Pastor Gleason’s on the floor, you wanna have a visit?" Loretta asked over her shoulder.

Mom sighed again and brushed the decrepit plant parts into the pot.

I coughed a muffled, "Whatever." What good would come from talking to a pastor? It wasn't like I committed a bunch of sins while sick. Well, there were those lusty thoughts about boys. "I'm good," I said. "Thanks."


  1. Hi! First of all, I really enjoyed reading this. I love that your MC has so much spunk despite already going through so much. That said, I'm going to suggest that you work mainly on plot in the revision. This is a fantasy? I'm not getting that from these pages. The first pages make a promise to the reader and I believe me I know it's tough to do, but you have to at least drop hints or create the feeling that the fantastic is coming. I should be able to tell what the main problem is from these pages, and right now I'm assuming it's fighting Leukemia, which while worthwhile, is not fantasy. The only line that makes me wonder is the first - that it's her last day of her hospital stay, which I find more confusing than interesting because there's no hint as to what happens. Does she die?
    Also - watch your tense! You slip from past to present in at least one spot, so pick one and stick to it. :D
    So I think the main thing is to make sure we see what the problem is in these pages so we can settle in along side her for her journey. Again - great job on character, and looking forward to the revision!

    1. Thank you, Lisa for your comment. I suspected this chapter needed more of the fantasy in the beginning. It doesn't show in the first five pages, but at the end of the chapter. I considered starting the book with chapter two, but I wanted to show my MC's death early. I have an idea that might work and even draws on other world aspects in later chapters.

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  3. I really like how you intertwine teenage concerns like body image, kissing boys, high school classes, after school jobs, etc. with the reality of being seriously ill in hospital. Your MC's voice comes across well, and I like her humor and strength. The mom comes across well too as an exhausted, but loving presence.

    I felt I was reading the introduction to a contemporary YA, and didn't see any hints at fantasy except for the first line as Lisa has already mentioned. I know I struggled with this for my first pages as I start in the contemporary world before my MC gets yanked to another world. My CPs recommended I revise to start in a place where I could show/hint at the speculative (or in your case - fantasy) right at the get go to help orient the reader to what kind of book to expect.

    Looking forward to seeing your pitch for this next week!

    All the best :)

  4. Hello-

    I like how you portrayed the friend, we all need a friend that keeps it real and makes us laugh. I hope she shows up in the rest of the story.

    I am also wanting for a hint of the fantasy. I kept thinking it would appear at any second as I read through to the end.

    I enjoyed that you wove a character that is worried about more than one thing. Teens (and even middle grade ages) are incredibly complex.

    Can't wait to see what you do with this for next week.
    Best wishes

  5. I like your infused humor -it lightens up a tough subject, though some people might say it isn’t fitting. But I think you’ve done it appropriate to the character’s personality and situation (“chicken salad looked the same going in as it did coming out” lol). The title is interesting, though you follow it with a cliché chapter title. I got a good taste of all the characters personalities you’ve introduced so far. But what is the MC’s name? Just from these pages, it sounds like the story is about leukemia. I didn’t get anything about it being fantasy. It’s important to drop some hint right away for a fantasy story- either weave in some aspect or start at a different part of the story. Focus on what your plot is-what will the MC’s goal be in the story and hint at that. Good luck!

  6. Hi Angela,

    There are lots of great little blinks of humor the MC provides in the story about such a heavy topic which makes it easier to read, but also shows a lot about who she is, her strength and stamina and how she observes and experiences her situation and ordeals. I especially enjoyed the paragraph where her best friend dares her to go into the boys locker room, it adds more levels to her life and her best friend.

    However, same thing as the others- it reads as if it was about the brave fight with Leukemia, contemporary, not a fantasy. I'm very excited to se how you incorporate that, and what exactly it entails.

    A strong voice, and nicely descriptions of her surroundings- her moms makeup, her bed as it moves, the nurse- as well as her dreams and hopes.

  7. There is a lot to like about this right away: the main character's personality is really shining through. Despite everything that she's going through, she's got a sense of humor, a desire to be a normal teen, and a lot of spunk. That's awesome. I also get a really good feel for her best friend's personality, which I love.

    You have a lot of great description that grounds the reader in the setting, too, so that is working well in these first pages here.

    I would say that my biggest critique is the plot and along with that genre. First, I get no sense that this is a fantasy. It's possible that the first line is alluding to her dying soon, but that alone isn't enough to suggest fantasy here. I need some element right away to ground the readers in the genre as well.

    The other plot concern that I'm having is that the first few pages need to give me a hint of what the story is going to be about. The main problem. I feel like perhaps overcoming or living with her cancer is going to be a big part of this, but that doesn't really show me the plot of a YA fantasy. So I really need a sense of that to come through in these first few pages.

    Also, on the lighter side of critiques, there are some switches in tense as well as from first to second person (and honestly that latter one might not be a big deal depending on how you're doing her voice and how much fourth-wall breaking you want to do).

    Another thing to watch out for is that there seems to be a lot of repetition of words and phrases in any given paragraph. So polishing that up will help with the word flow of the piece. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you, S.D. for your comments. From what you and others say, my MC has a strong voice, and I worked hard on that.

      As for the fantasy, I considered starting with chapter two of my story after the MC dies, but I wanted the readers to get a feel for her while alive. I plan to tweak the genre with my revisions and hope it helps.

      Thanks again for your suggestions.

  8. I think the writing in this sample is quite strong--I have a clear sense of the character voice, and I think you do a nice job balancing the potential darkness of the setting (hospital, dying of cancer) with her black humor-I loved the line about wasting away her body and her summer, and though gross, the line about chicken salad looking the same going in and coming out made me laugh. I also love that she (is her name Emerson? It's not stated in the pages) has supportive family and friends.

    As others have said, I don't get a clear sense of the genre. Based off setting clues, I'd expect a contemporary romance with some complications due to her cancer, a la The Fault In Our Stars. Clearly, this isn't that, so you'll want to consider what reader expectations you want to raise in the first few pages.

    I'd like to have a stronger sense of the MC's mother--aside from her makeup obsession, I don't have a very good read on her personality.

    Something else you may want to consider as you revise is the issue of body image. There were a couple of things that stood out to me--the paragraph where the MC talks about losing her hair and looking asexual pulled me out of the story a little, because I couldn't help thinking about how that might be read by kids who are dealing with hair loss (alopecia, cancer, etc.), or even kids who id as trans or nonbinary. It seems to me to suggest that looking feminine is good, looking asexual is bad. If that's not what you meant to suggest, I think you can get around this by leaning into the character's perspective--i.e., it's not so much that looking asexual is a bad thing, it's just not how she thinks of herself and she's struggling with all her physical changes.

    The other moment that stood out to me was at the end, where she thinks about finally losing her "pesky" baby fat--this seems to reinforce pretty stereotypical ideas of beauty (as does the concern with being feminine v. asexual), and you may want to think about how it would read to readers who have body issues (as is true of a lot of teen girls). Obviously, you can't write to please every reader, but I find it helpful to think about different ways my writing might be perceived, so that I can determine which ideas are critical to the character and the story, and which ones I don't necessarily need.

    Final thought on body image related stuff--I feel like a lot of the first five pages did deal with how the MC felt about her body, in varying ways (her attentiveness to wasting away, the bruises on her skin, thinking about how she'd appear on the beach, etc.) But from things you've said in the comments, it seems like the MC is going to die soon, at which point she'd be disembodied? So much discussion about body image suggests that this might be a central theme you're developing in the story, but I'm curious how relevant body image actually is if she's going to wind up a ghost? (On the other hand, if this was all intentionally done, I'm impressed with the level of attention to theme!)

    It's clear to me that you're a strong writer, and I'm definitely curious where you're going to go with the story if the MC dies so early in the narrative. I look forward to seeing what you do with the revision!

    1. Rosalyn, thank you for your critique and suggestions. You guessed correctly about Emerson's opinion of herself. Her transformation after death is an issue she deals with and has to accept. This was one of the reasons I chose to start with this chapter while she was alive.

      As for the genre, as Lisa Gail Green said above, it is hard to get those hints in at the beginning of the story, but I hope my revision will fix that. It's a shame we only have 5 pages to do it in.¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    2. Sometimes genre can be suggested through word choice--a ghostly whisper in the room, Emerson's thoughts about death and what life will be like after that, etc. Good luck!