Sunday, September 8, 2019

1st 5 Pages Sept Workshop - Shattuck

Julie Shattuck
Middle Grade Speculative
The Key to the Second Born

I tapped my pencil against the desk. Eleven times. Eleven more. Still not lunch. Unable to wait a second longer, I shifted my awareness from my body and into Step-Sideways—the world Pete and I created to hang out in our minds. Risky talking to him during class, but I itched with the need to know.

“Tell me your riddle again.”

“You’ve got the memory of a silverfish.” Pete’s voice in my head replaced the math teacher’s drone in the classroom.

“It’s goldfish.” I grinned.

“Silver sounds better.” Pete’s eyes gleamed with excitement. “Here you go, you have to solve it to find your birthday present: Look in the library and don’t get lost. What a penny, a dime, a dollar cost. My three parts are close but never will meet. Thirty-four meters converted to feet.”

“I can’t get to the library until lunch, but the second line’s easy: a dollar and eleven cents.  How—” A kick to my shin yanked me from Step-Sideways. Blinking, I slid down in my chair.

The room vibrated with the deafening hush of sixth graders eager to avoid the teacher’s attention.

“We’re waiting, Reah. Your answer…?” Mr. Cole fixed me with a glare, eyebrow raised.

My cheeks burned. “Um, thirty-four?”

A snort of laughter erupted behind me. I flinched, hair falling over my face.

“You find that hilarious, Tony?” Mr. Cole lasered his attention on the boy I worked hard to avoid at school, especially now he spent half the week living in my house after his mom moved in with my dad last month.

The school bell saved us, shrilling out the lunchtime announcement. Mr. Cole shouted the homework over the burst of chatter and crashing of chairs colliding into desks. Kids shouldered backpacks, surging for the exit.

Chin down, I barreled out of the classroom, escaping the bottleneck at the door. Hammering rain hurled against the windows, forcing everyone to cram into the hallways rather than use the outside walkways. The mass of damp, middle school bodies smelled like a mixture of wet dog and freshly dug soil. Both good smells on their own. Combined, not so much.

Walking on autopilot, I reconnected with Pete, who waited in our favorite space—the boat cabin we’d created in our minds in a similar way to how kids made rooms in online world-building games. We picked up the conversation where we left off. “I’ve no idea how many meters there are in feet. I’ll look it up.” I pulled out the battered, hand-me-down phone passed from Mom to big sis Nora, then me. No way was it on anyone’s phone wish list. “Sorry, it takes forever to open a search page.”

“At least you have a phone,” Pete said. “You know I’m living in the Dark Ages.”

“True— Hey, watch it!” I jolted momentarily out of Step-Sideways as someone barged into me in the school hallway, knocking the phone from my hand. Tony loomed before me.

“What’s going on? You okay?” Pete hated his inability to see my world.

“Nothing, just Tony being Tony. You know how he is. I gotta go.” Breaking my mental link with Pete, I reached for the phone at my feet, but Tony kicked it to his minion Jon. I clenched my fists, fixing Jon with a pleading stare.

Jon wouldn’t meet my eyes. He booted the phone back at Tony. It hit the wall.

A pack of kids gathered, hoping for a fight. I dodged them, grabbing my phone, the already-cracked screen now a spider’s web. My stomach lurched when I fumbled to turn it on. No luck, and no way to replace it. The shattered phone meant another connection to Mom gone. I swallowed the lump in my throat. I would NOT cry.

“You broke it.” I held the phone up with a shaking hand for Jon to see.

“I didn’t mean—” Jon began, stepping back. He used to be my friend, before he fell in with Tony.

“It was already broken,” Tony interrupted. He thrust his scrawny neck toward me. His hot breath smelled of ham sandwiches left out too long in the sun.

“Wasn’t.” I gritted my teeth, shoving the phone in my pocket, and gazed at the floor to avoid Tony’s hostile glower.

“Aww, is that a tear, Reah? No fear, Reah. Mommy’s here, Reah. Oh, no she’s not. She’s been gone a year. Hey, that rhymes too,” Tony said, all pleased with himself. He glanced at the crowd gawping at us, lowered his voice, and hissed in my face. “And if you tell your dad I broke it, I’ll tell my mom your stupid dog bit me. You know she wants any excuse to get rid of it.”

I swiped my eyes with my sleeve. Tony was right—his mom, Emily, would leap at the chance to send Peggy to the pound or worse.

Tony smirked. “See ya, Ree ya.” He sauntered off with his fan boy in tow.

I scowled at his back and ignored the kids pointing at me. Their laughter loud in my ears, I continued along the busy hallway, automatically avoiding the huddled cliques. Tuning out the noisy lunchtime throng, I connected to Step-Sideways, but Pete wasn’t there. He did that sometimes, went missing on me.

Shoulders slumped, I transferred back into my dreary reality. With only my thoughts for company, I played out in my mind a completely different scene to the one that just happened. I always knew what to say after everything was over, never at the right time: "Yeah, two-home Tony, your mom and dad hate you so much, they don’t want to spend a full week with you." I pictured Pete laughing with me at Tony’s lame rhymes.

Maybe not. Tony’s complicated divorce-housing arrangement wasn’t his fault. But he didn’t have to be such a jerk, especially today. This time last year, Mom celebrated my first double-digit birthday in style. Then we had that awful conversation where I finally told her about Pete. When I woke the next morning, Mom had disappeared with no note, no message, like she’d teleported to another world. Somewhere away from a crazy kid like me.

Sniffing back the tears that welled up every time I thought of Mom, I opened the door to the library. The large, bright room provided secret nooks to hide, where no one would know I was by myself, as usual. So unfair my elementary school friends got sent to the other local middle school. I longed to be back in fifth grade.

“Hi, Reah. Here to help me shelve?” Ms. Angood towered over the shelving cart, more like a basketball player ready to take a shot than a school librarian sorting books. She was Mom’s best friend, back when Mom still worked at Haxby Hills Middle, and she kept a kind eye out for me.

I shook my head. “I’m here to look something up.”

“The library’s the place to be then.” Ms. Angood put down the load she was carrying.

I sat at the nearest computer and wiggled the mouse to wake it up.

Ms. Angood perched on a chair next to me. “What are you researching?”

“A meters to feet conversion.” I typed in my question and scrolled to find a good link. I wished she’d go back to her books, so I could talk with Pete.

But Ms. Angood wasn’t going anywhere.


  1. Hello-

    I want to say you have some very nice instances of voice and I think the riddle is very cleverly done.

    Several times within you refer to "Kids" which I think distances us from Reah's thought since she is a kid.

    for example: when you say "deafening hush of 6th graders."
    I think would be stronger as "Deafening hush of my 6th grade class."

    and the "Kids shouldered their bags" and "To how kids make online …"
    these could be things like: Everyone shouldered their bags or the kind of online rooms created in a Sims game.

    Tony's bratty personality comes through well.

    I like that Ms. Angood is more athletic and is not the typical stereotype we often see.

    Nicely done. Good luck to you!

  2. Thank you Amy. Great points about my word choices sometimes causing distance from the MC, and your suggestions for rewording are very helpful :) Good luck to you too!

  3. Like your voice. Step-Sideways is very intriguing! Definitely a good lead-in that makes me want to read more. Love the playful relationship of Reah and Pete right away. I’m very interested to know the story on Pete and what happened to Reah’s mom. “Pete hated his inability to see my world.” I love that line-so much involved. I love your writing style and good descriptions. You could put more into the secondary characters – Tony sounds like a typical bully to me. And the middle-school setting the way you describe it is very cliché. You’ve got a great thing going with the Step-Sideways World-I think you could reach deeper on the real-world setting. Good luck!

  4. Thank you Sharon - good to hear you liked the voice - I've been working hard on trying to get that working well. Good points about secondary characters and making the real-world setting pop.

  5. I like Step Sideways as well. I'm in as a reader! Watch verb tense. Sonetines it seems we're in the past.

    That bring said, voice of MC is true

  6. Thank you - great to hear you are in as a reader Thompson McLeod :) I'll look at my verb tenses as I revise this w/e - I appreciate you pointing that out.

  7. Hi Julie,

    Looking forward to learning more about Step-Sideways, the concept is intriguing! I also enjoyed how you introduced the relationship between Pete and Reah without giving too much away right at the beginning. They can see each others worlds and hear and talk to each other, but only if they choose to, right?

    Sharon's on to something with her observation of Tony, he is a very typical bully at the moment, maybe there is a way to add a layer of diversity to him. It might be possible that Reah noticed a crack in his armor or something unusual about him, since they see each other in school and at home... just ideas, there's already a lot of info about the characters and the (mysterious) disappearance of Reahs mother which draws you in right from the start.

    Overall well done, good luck!

    1. Thank you Lina for your helpful comments. You've pointed out some areas where I need to add more clarity for sure. Reah and Pete can't see each other's real worlds. They can only see each other in Step-Sideways which is a shared world they've created through their telepathic connection. They can't communicate with each other outside of it. Imagine an online game where two people come together in avatar shape. They can see each other and talk, even touch, but they can't see outside of that virtual world to where the person's real body is sitting. That's how I visualize it.

      Good point on Tony too - that's definitely a theme in these comments. I need to give some thoughtful attention to how I present him to the reader in the first few pages.

      Much appreciated and good luck!

      All the best.

  8. Julie,

    Your MC voice comes through wonderfully. I like the Step-Sideways world the friends share. Can everyone do this, or just Reah and Pete?

    It appears you worked with the text here to form particular harsh and soft sounds. “The school bell saved us, shrilling out the lunchtime announcement.” This might be written better as “The shrill of the lunchtime bell saved us from further embarrassment.” I love the alliteration in the next sentences.

    Tony appears to be a classic bully which is over-done in children’s fiction. You can change this by giving him a little more depth. Even the antagonists can be faceted.

    I am very intrigued by this story. I want to read on to find out more about what happened to Reah’s mom. Keep up the good work.

  9. Thank you for your helpful and positive comments. Reah and Pete are the only who can interact with each other in the place they call Step-Sideways. There's a twisty twist much later in the book that explains why that is :)

    Your point about Tony is well-taken. I will relook how I introduce him to the reader and work on him not being a one-dimensional bully stereotype.

    Much appreciated!

  10. I love how you jump right into the classroom and her conversation with Pete. I'm confused about how she sees him. She can see his eyes, but can she see all of him, or just his face? He can't see her world, but can he see her? This all may be revealed a bit later, but since it's the opening scene, you might want to clarify what she's experiencing.

    Tony is established as a sort-of stepbrother as soon as he's introduced and when he blackmails her, and I think you can capitalize on that. Maybe Reah can refer to something Tony did or said at home last night or last week, something that strengthens this awkward connection they have. I was waiting for him to call her "Dia-REAH" because MG kids can pounce on anything!
    I'm very worried about her mother. I can't wait to read more!

  11. Thanks Leslie - the DiaReah pun comes later in the book - it's a good one! Great idea on when/how to add additional information about Tony/Reah's relationship.

    The easiest way I think to explain how Reah and Pete see each other is that's it's a telepathic connection where they interact with "bodies" like an online avatar in a game. So they can see each other's representation (avatar) of themselves in Step-Sideways (their made-up world) but cannot see each other's real world. It's a lot to try and squish into the first pages without telling, but I will work on clarifying. Much appreciated!

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  13. Hi Julie--

    I enjoyed reading this! You do a nice job introducing the Step-Sideways phenomenon, particularly the way you lead us into it and then ground us back in her world when she comes out of it. I also liked the way you wove in her backstory, like the disappearance of her mother, by giving us little snippets as they were relevant to her actions instead of piling on backstory.

    I also loved the concrete details--the way the school bell shrills, the hurling rain, the smell of the hallways. It helped pull me into the story.

    I agree with the other comments that Tony feels a little cliché, possibly over-the-top. I think there's a lot of potential in the step-brother tension, but for me, he stopped feeling real when he made fun of Reah's missing mother. I think we get enough to establish him as a bully from the way he breaks her phone and then threatens her if she tells her dad. It seems like, unless a kid is an actual sociopath, something like a missing (possibly dead?) mother is a really low blow. I did like the way that Reah corrects herself when she wants to make fun of Tony for his two-home situation, recognizing that her mental teasing isn't quite fair. I'd like to see her recognize some of that complexity in Tony at other points too.

    I'm really curious about Pete--is he part of the mystery you're exploring in the story? I want to know who he is (what he is?), where he is, and how Reah met him. If uncovering this link is part of the story, then you can ignore this. :) If it's not, I do want to know a little more at this stage--I at least want to know how Reah thinks of Pete, if she's never met him. Does she even know who he is? How old he is? Is he another kid like she is? Or does she see him as an older brother? I'm not sure if I should be seeing their relationship as fun and intriguing, or possibly creepy (your analogy of an online chatroom makes me think of older predators). Can you give us just a little more about how Reah thinks of Pete without giving away the full mystery? For instance, knowing how she sees his "avatar" would really help me. So far, he just seems like a disembodied voice in her head.
    A couple little things that pulled me out of the story for a moment--Reah's correction of Pete when he says silverfish. I know that memory of a goldfish is a saying people sometimes use, but a silverfish is a real thing (a kind of insect) so it was a little confusing to me that Reah treated Pete's answer like a joke. (Also, did you know the common belief of goldfish is wrong?

    The other time I got pulled out a little was when Reah tried to Side-Step in the hallway after class. You did such a great job describing the hustle in the hallways that it seemed, frankly, dangerous to try and step out of her body in the middle of that. Can she still see what's going on when she's in Step-Sideways? Maybe clarify a little what's going on--either she moves out of the way of the crowd, or she can still observe what's going on around her. In class, it seemed like when she was in Step-Sideways she was oblivious to everything else going on.

    That said, I'm curious to see where you're going with the story. You've set up an intriguing situation with some good mysteries. Good luck with the revision!

    1. Thanks very much Rosalyn. I really appreciate your input on how to improve these pages. I'm looking forward to digging into my revision this weekend.

      Pete is a big part of the mystery of this story. To add to your who/what he is, a major plot point is the kids figuring out where he is. Reah and Pete have communicated in their heads with each other for as long as they remember. They don't understand it, it's just part of their life. The reader learns the reason behind the connection as Reah figures it out.

    2. That makes sense! I think you can still explain what Reah knows of him (that she's heard him as long as she can remember, that he's about her age) without spoiling the overall mystery.

    3. Thanks, I'll work on weaving that in :)

  14. Hi Julie! Thank you for allowing me to read your pages. I'll comment as I read. Here goes...

    I really hear voice in this piece, and I like the way you've set up the story. You've definitely drawn me in. I can't help but wonder what the Step Sideways is all about - totally reminded me of the Upside-Down. :) And I'm looking forward to finding out more about this Pete. Who is he? Why is Reah so comfortable with him,
    yet seems to keep her distance from others.

    A few things: There's something about your word choice for the opening paragraph that feels off. I think it has something to do with 'shifted my awareness'. It doesn't sound like the voice of the rest of the piece. Maybe something more direct like 'thoughts'. Be careful of adverbs and over describing a scene, person, action, etc... It pulls us out of the story you're creating, which gets more intriguing as it goes. Tony is obviously a jerk. But what I'm hoping is that there's a deeper reason for that, especially his aggression toward Reah. And can Reah see something in Tony that he can't see yet? Most MG novels have a bully. There's lots writers can do with that. I'd encourage you to give Tony a quirk that is his and his alone. Maybe tie it into your third act. Also, I have to wonder why her fellow students gather around them. I know you're trying to give the reader insight that shows Reah is a bit ostracized, but why would they bother? Is it more because they like to watch Tony be a bully, or because Reah is shy or quiet or had a bathroom accident
    in third grade? Of course, I just made that up. But I wanted you to see what I was thinking as I read, and where you could possibly deepen the opening of Reah's story.

    I agree with Amy's point about telling the story as Reah, the 6th grader, would think about it. Very wise advice. Put yourself in Reah's shoes and just speak. See how it sounds and feels slightly different. I also like Ms. Angood. Can't wait to see what you do with this! Best of luck!


  15. Thanks very much Sheri. It's such a good experience to have this feedback on what's working/not working in my first five pages. I really appreciate you taking the time to read my story and point out concrete areas I can work on to improve and to highlight strategies to help me with revisions. Looking forward to pulling all these great comments together in my revision.