Sunday, September 8, 2019

1st 5 Pages Sept Workshop - Werner

Name: Sharon Werner
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

I tried to orient myself in the semi-darkness when the crack of the door opening bolted me wide awake. The door flew open and Aidan rushed headlong onto the bed before I could defend myself.

“Nana told me you were here! Can we play a game? Can we?”

I laughed away the familiar clutch of fear and moved him off my chest so I could sit.

“Hi, Aidan. Sure, we can play a game.”

“Can Claire play too?”

“Um…Claire isn’t here.”

Aidan tilted his head. “Nana didn’t tell me. Where is she?”

I hesitated. A four-year-old wouldn’t be able to process what happened. I took a deep breath, trying to force the next words out without choking on them.

“She was in a car accident. She has to stay in the hospital where the doctors can make sure she’s resting.”

“Oh. She’ll be okay, though?”

I nodded, turning away so Aidan couldn’t see the tears and worry on my face. Of course, she would be fine. She was Claire, after all, my indestructible, perfect sister.

“Okay, good. Wait, I forgot Finley.” He jumped off the bed and ran out of the room to get his sheep with the shamrock dimples.

The morning stillness returned for a moment. Whispers gliding through the room reached my ears. I concentrated on the sound, but it faded away. Just stillness.

There! Again. Definite whispering! Aidan wasn’t quiet enough for it to be him. I’m imagining things. Memories of the accident, Claire and the hospital rushed back, and I swallowed the bile rising in my throat. What would happen to Claire? I pictured her lying helpless and battered in the hospital. If only our stepdad had let me see my sister. At least he didn’t get his way in keeping me away from Nana. There was nowhere else to send me.

Aidan rushed back in the room and jumped back on the bed, clutching Finley.

“Can we play a game now?”

He jumped back off the bed, dragging me with him. I swiped away my tears and couldn’t help smiling at his excitement. What an emotional mess I was.

“Whoa! Let me think of a story first!” I said. Mom’s childhood posters of fairies and a castle painting covered the walls and sloped ceiling. A cut-out of the wall enclosed a window surrounded by harp and shamrock stickers. The sunlight coming through the window cast morning shadows, morphing into shapes of whimsical creatures. A fantasy game might keep my mind off my sister. Though Claire would tell me twelve was too old for my imaginary stories and make-believe with stuffed animals.

Whatever. She was sixteen and into boys and clothes. I missed the times when we were little and made up stories of dragons and knights with Dad. Ever since he passed away and Mom remarried, nothing was the same. Well, except for my obsession with the fantasy world.

Hmm . . . Aidan adored dragons. I would be the knight, coming to battle the dragons and rescue the castle.

Mom’s old bathrobe made a good cape. An old twirling baton in the corner stand made a mighty sword. Draping a blanket over Aidan’s shoulders, I bowed to him.

“Good King, I am here to reclaim the castle for your countryfolk once and for all from the fire-breathing unicorns.”

Aidan giggled and made a face. “Don’t you mean fire-breathing dwagons?”

“Oh yes, of course,” I smiled. Jumping on the bed, I jabbed the sword at a stuffed monkey. “Take that, you old dragon! You won’t breathe any more fire in this town! And you wicked vultures, fly away before I slash your wings!”  I jumped off the bed and swished around the room, battling the demons. Aidan squealed and clapped his hands. He grabbed a plastic baseball bat and followed me around the room, swinging his own sword at the invisible monsters. Finley became a handsome prince, waiting to be rescued by the famous knight. Aidan giggled and held back the enemy dolls with fancy sword-swishing. My war-whoop ended in a startled choke as the door whipped open.

“Have you battled the dragons into submission yet?” asked Nana, smiling.

My face flushed, and I dropped onto the bed, panting at my efforts. Aidan plopped down beside me, a mini-me of strawberry-colored face matching our hair. I shrugged.

 “You don’t have to be embarrassed, child! I love your great imagination.”

I fidgeted around, finding a sudden interest in the baton. “Bill tells me make-believe is a waste of time, and Claire makes fun of me,” I mumbled. I peeked at her. “How did you know they were dragons?”

“Oh, just a hunch, not to mention you yelled loud enough for the neighbors to hear. And those pesky dragons won’t stay out of this room,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye. “I for one am glad we have a strong, brave girl like your cousin staying here to help get rid of those dragons. Don’t you think so too, Aidan?”

“It’s SO cool, Nana!” Aidan gave me a huge hug. I smiled again, thinking Nana was cool too.

“Any word on Claire?” I asked.

“Not yet. It’s early and you got in late last night. We’ll check soon. Come down for breakfast. You too, Aidan.”

Aidan ran after Nana. That kid always put a smile on my face, and he had it harder than me, having lost his mom to cancer two years ago and never knowing his dad.

Grabbing a brush off the dresser, I combed out my waves and tied my hair in a quick ponytail. I pushed on my face, wishing my freckles would disappear. A movement behind me in the mirror caused me to whip around. The closet door stood open. I know it was closed. I shuffled over, brandishing the brush as a weapon. (Can you bristle someone to death?) Pushing open the door all the way, I peered in. Nothing. I shoved aside the clothes and leaped back. Nothing. It must be the stress over Claire. I pushed the door mostly closed and walked to the bedroom door. Hearing a click behind me, I turned. The closet door had fully closed itself. I ran to the kitchen, stumbling over my feet to get out of there.

“What is wrong with you?” asked Nana.

“Yea, you’re all panting and white-faced,” said Aidan.

“Noth…nothing,” I said, glimpsing at Aidan. It’s all in my head. It’s all in my head. I took a deep breath.

“Look!” said Aidan. “Nana made Irish Freckle Bread!”

I smiled and the three of us sat together to have breakfast. Nana read the paper, and I tried reading the comics to Aidan, but my thoughts kept drifting back to creepy closets and Claire. I glimpsed a headline I’m sure referred to Claire’s accident, but Nana turned the page quickly. My food got poked around but not much was eaten. Helping Nana clean up, my thoughts kept drifting to the accident.

“We can head over to the hospital to check how your sister is if you’d like, Nora?”

I nodded gratefully. “What about school?”

“A family emergency can keep you home for the day. I don’t think you’d be much good in class anyway,” she said, reaching into the trashcan to pull out a plate I must have thrown out by accident. “I’ll call the school and let them know. At least Aidan doesn’t have pre-school on Wednesdays.”


  1. Hello-

    I enjoyed that your showed us bits of your main characters personality through her actions. She plays with Aidan without being made to - through that we get to know her. Nice.

    On your first sentence- I'm not sure it quite works. "orienting herself" and being "bolted awake" seem in contrast to each other.

    It seems the stepdad (being painted as the evil step parent) and the older sister (being painted as the perfect older sister) are common clich├ęs - which isnt' bad on their own- make sure to make them yours.

    I enjoyed the hint of whispering voices. I would like more of that.

    Best of luck to you!

  2. I love the relationship you build between Nora and Aidan (my MC's sister is called Nora - great name!) and her protectiveness and care of him at a time when she is under a lot of stress. Great job slipping in the children's ages and descriptions as part of the narrative. I really can visualize this bedroom and scene.

    I had some questions as a reader which is good - makes me want to read more. One is "where is the mom and why is the step-dad making the decisions?" I'm assuming mom wasn't in the car accident as Nora'd be upset about that, but maybe you could slip in a thought that let's the reader knows mom's status - if that's appropriate this early on in the story. The other question had to do with the whispering - nice job setting up a feeling of anticipation around that. Also - who's Bill?

    A couple of smaller points - maybe mix up the verbs a bit as you use jump and giggle a few times - e.g. show Aidan's bouncing around with another verb. You use present tense when we see Nora's internal thoughts - "I'm imagining things" "Can you bristle someone to death" "It's all in my head." Can you set off those internal thoughts with italics?

    Looking forward to seeing the pitch for this next week and maybe finding out what's in the closet!

    All the best :)

    1. Thank you for the great feedback, Julie! Bill is the step-dad. I'll try to make that more obvious.

  3. Hi Sharon,

    From the beginning Aidan as a character (same as the main one in my story, what are the odds?), especially the more vivid observation like the MCs: "a mini-me of strawberry-colored face matching our hair", was beautifully done, I instantly fell in love with his energy. However, this may just be my personal feeling but Noras voice sometimes seemed a bit too old for me for a twelve-year old, she has these motherly airs about her and, if I hadn't known her age, I would have put her as a late teenager. Also reflections like "What an emotional mess I was"- I'm not sure twelve year olds express themselves like that.

    Right from the beginning I had some trouble understanding the the family connections, from their close relationship I assumed Aidan to be her younger brother, then due to their close relationship that her mother was dead, then, learning that she's Aidan's cousin and they are at their grandmothers, but indeed Aidan's mother is dead had me all a little bit confused. Where is her mother? Why won't let her stepdad see her sister? How come Aidan had been told by Nana that both Nora and her sister had arrived last night?

    Lots of questions, then again the mysterious hints at the fantasy are nicely introduced with the whispering. I also love the Irish setting with the "sheep with the shamrock dimples" and other little references and am curious whether the fantasy aspects of the story will be in relation to that.

    One thing that made me laugh was "(Can you bristle someone to death?)", although it was a bit odd to have what sounded like a later humorous reflection of Nora's in the middle of this scene where she is, as later described by Nana due to her appearance, extremely nervous, stumbling over her feet and "panting and white-faced".

    Very intrigued to know what is whispering and operating closet doors, and reading your pitch next week!

    Strong beginning!

    1. Thank you, Lina! I had a little concern about Nora's age in her voice-I'll work on that. Most of the relationship questions do get answered later but I'll see if I can make it clearer here.

  4. Sharon,

    I love the relationship between Nora and Aiden. You do a great job of sprinkling in the descriptions of the characters and their ages. Although, I struggled with the family structure for a bit.

    I agree with Amy; rework that first sentence. It’s your opening line and could be so much more.

    I suggest you work on Nora’s voice. “’Any word on Claire?’ I asked.” This doesn’t sound like a twelve-year-old. There are a few other instances, and they pulled me from the story.

    The whispering was a nice touch. I hope that continues to develop later. Nora’s personality comes through great. I enjoyed the “Can you bristle someone to death?” comment, but it would make more sense if she thought it while curious and guarded rather than scared.

    I am curious as to what happened to Nora’s mother and the particulars of the car accident. I would definitely keep reading.

  5. Thank you, Angela! I'll work with your suggestions!

  6. Hi Sharon,

    There's a lot to love in this opening. I loved Nora's relationship with Aiden, particularly her dialogue when she starts telling him the story. I thought it was a lot of fun. I liked how you established us in place with the description of the room, and I appreciated how you used Nora's game (and the room) to drop hints about the fantasy genre, even though nothing supernatural is happening yet. I also thought you used humor well to balance out the scary situation of her sister being in the hospital. (I also loved the "bristle someone to death").

    There were two potentially creepy moments in the scene that I think you can build up a little more--both the whispering and the closet scene happened fairly quickly for me, and the whispering, in particular, was over before I really had a chance to register what was going on. Maybe you can show us more of the whispering--does she hear words? Or just sound? How does she know that it isn't Aiden? The closet scene is built up more and so it was more effective for me--but I'd like to *see* Nora close the door, so the reader as well as Nora knows the significance of the open door without her having to tell us. I think that would help give the reader that little jolt of fear and adrenaline that Nora is feeling.

    There were a couple spots where the ordering of details struck me as a little odd. One was the first line, as others have noted. As written, we get Nora's reaction and then the action (the door opens)--it might make more sense to reverse that, and give us the action and then show Nora trying to orient herself.

    Similarly, I was a little confused when Aiden asks Nora to play a game and she responds that she needs time to think of a story. It's not until after her response that readers find out the connection between the game and the story. It might help to move her dialogue to after the paragraph where she looks around the room and thinks about how a game/story might take her mind off Claire.

    Like others have mentioned, I also found her voice a little old for twelve, particularly when she observes, "what an emotional mess I was." (I have an 11, almost 12 yo daughter who is pretty self-aware for her age, and even she wouldn't say something like that.)

    As you revise, you may also want to watch for repetition or unnecessary words--Nora "jumped" on and off the bed several times. You can also deepen the point of view by avoiding words like "know, hear, think, see"--they remind readers that we're listening to someone tell a story rather than experiencing it. For instance, instead of saying that Nora is "thinking Nana was cool," you can simply say "Nana was cool." Instead of "whispers gliding through the room reached my ears," you can say "whispers glided through the room." (You can also google "deep POV" if you want to learn more about this.)

    Finally, two small things that pulled me from the story a bit. When Aiden first shows up, Nora laughs away a "familiar clutch of fear." I wasn't sure what she was afraid of, or why the fear was familiar. Later, we learn about the accident, but if it's fear related to the accident, it would be a new fear, not a familiar one. We also learn about the whispering and the closet door, but it's not clear to me if this has happened frequently before or not--is this the fear she refers to?

    When you describe Aiden as Nora's mini-me, it threw me a little. I'd thought they were cousins, but this description had me rereading the earlier paragraphs to see if maybe they were siblings since they looked so much alike. I also spent some time trying to picture strawberry faces that matched their hair--most redheads I know blush in very different shades than their hair (myself included!). I love the way the line sounds, but it didn't quite work for me.

    You have a lot of good things here--I think a little polish can really help the story shine. Good luck with your revision!

  7. Hi Sharon,

    Thanks for sharing your pages. I'm eager to see where you take them over the course of the workshop.

    I really like the connection you develop between Aiden and your MC in these opening pages--it definitely makes her sympathetic and likeable. I, like one of your other readers, had some trouble understanding the complex family relationships in my first reading. Between the various stepparents and deceased parents, and Aiden and Nora being cousins, not siblings, I worry you're going confuse a lot of middle-grade readers. (I think I confused myself just writing that sentence!!!)

    The bigger issue for me is that these pages feel a bit like throat clearing to me. I'm not sure what the main thrust is going to be yet, and in the MG world, you need to get there pretty fast. As it stands, there's a lot of focus on the imaginary game the kids are playing and, unless that game is directly tied to what your main narrative/conflict is going to be about, you may be better off trimming it or losing it altogether. If, as I suspect, the closet and creepy whispering will be at the heart of the story, you might be able to get us there in a more efficient way. You'll want to hook your audience as fast as possible, and I'm not sure fighting imaginary dragons is the way to do that.

    On a related note, the issue with having a four-year-old driving action in the opening pages is that I fear readers age 8-12 are going to find that kind of imaginary play "babyish," much like your MC does. That might turn them off.

    You may be able to shuffle elements around a bit to give your readers a bigger hook. For example, rather than being awakened by Aiden, what if your MC is awakened by whispering in her closet? Or the closet door closing. Then, before she can examine it too closely, Aiden bursts in and she needs to focus on him. That way you'd set up a mystery right from the beginning and you could use Aiden to forestall getting answers to that mystery. Just a thought.

    I feel like there's a great story in here--I'd just love to see you get more of the compelling early hints of it much more front and center within the first five pages.

    I look forward to seeing your next round!


    1. Thank you for the feedback, Rob! The game does tie into the bigger narrative but I like your suggestions about hooking more with the whispers.