Sunday, September 15, 2019

1st 5 Pages Workshop - Shattuck Rev 1

Julie Shattuck
Middle Grade Speculative
The Key to the Second Born
Eleven-year-old Reah’s forever friend, Pete, lives in another world, but she’d no idea their telepathic connection would cause her mom’s disappearance. On top of dealing with obsessive compulsions triggered by guilt, Reah’s stuck with her dad’s new girlfriend. All she wants for her birthday is her mom back; however, instead of a family celebration, Reah solves a riddle from Pete which accidently brings her to his world.
After uncaring adults imprison her in a tower, Reah learns she’s in a place where nobody ever gets sick—well, no one except second-born kids like her. She uses her psychic link to discover Pete’s confined on the top floor. To evade the guards who make second-born kids suffer for all, Reah has to overcome her fear of heights and climb the building using a hidden shaft. Rescuing Pete becomes even more important when he reveals her mom gave him the riddle. If she finds Pete, she might find her mom.
Reah must harness her obsessive behaviors to fit in with the second-born community, so she can escape the tower. If she can’t conquer her self-doubt to trust herself, she’ll be trapped in a cruel world with no hope of reuniting her family.

First Five Pages:
I tapped my pencil against the desk. Eleven times. Eleven more. Still not lunch. Unable to wait a second longer, I shifted the thinking part of me from my body and into Step-Sideways—the world Pete and I created to hang out in our heads. Risky talking to him during class, but I itched with the need to know.
“Tell me your riddle again,” I said as soon as Pete’s form materialized in my mind’s eye. “I’m desperate to solve it.”
Pete grinned. “Here you go. Remember the answer leads to 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 my sixth grade math class. The expectant silence lasted a beat too long.
“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, my unruly mop of 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 shrill of the lunchtime bell released us both from the hot seat. Mr. Cole shouted the homework over the burst of chatter and crashing of chairs colliding into desks. Everyone shouldered backpacks, surging for the exit.
Chin down, I barreled out of the classroom to escape the bottleneck at the door. Hammering rain hurled against the windows, forcing us all 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, half of me focused on navigating the stampeding herd, the other half on reconnecting with Pete. We’d been best friends forever, and I’d perfected the art of splitting my awareness between my real body in the everyday world and my made-up avatar in Step-Sideways. Well, almost perfected. Today’s mess-up in math warned me to be more careful—after I figured out the riddle.
Pete’s image lounged in the Captain’s chair in our favorite space. We’d constructed the boat cabin for Step-Sideways in a similar way to building rooms in online games. I 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 in front of 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.
I scrabbled on the floor, dodging legs to grab 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.
“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.
“Was.” Tony shot a glance at the crowd gathered round us, hoping for a fight. He leaned in, voice lowered. “Don’t tell your dad I broke it or else I’ll… 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 pulled himself straight and smirked for the benefit of the gawkers. “See ya, Ree ya.” He sauntered off with his fan boy in tow.
I scowled at his back before checking my phone again. Still dead, so I shoved it in my bag and continued along the busy hallway. Tuning out the noisy lunchtime mob, I connected to Step-Sideways, but Pete wasn’t there. He did that sometimes, went missing on me. He must be up to something in his world that took all his attention away from our shared space. Not for the first time, I wished he existed in the same reality as me. Tony wouldn’t dare mess with the two of us together.
Shoulders slumped, I headed for the library. 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 don’t even want to spend a full week with you. I pictured Pete laughing with me.
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?” 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 her load of paperbacks.
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?”


  1. Pitch - Great first sentence/hook Julie! "Obsessive compulsions triggered by guilt" is very vague and confusing. This needs to be defined more - maybe with an example? And you mention it twice in the query. With that importance, there should be some hint of it in the first few pages of your story.
    What is a second-born kid? My thought is that it relates to a sibling, which hasn't been mentioned, or something defined in that other world, which you need to then clarify here.
    Also, how did Reah and Pete meet originally?
    Great stakes noted in the query!

    On the revision, as noted before, I love this Step-Sideways world. But you mention an avatar which makes me think of video-games and needing equipment to make a connection. You mention in the query that it's a mental connection so maybe you could come up with a different term or explanation instead of avatar.
    I love the sensory details of the rain and wet bodies. Nice showing her priorities with school and Pete (being more careful-after solving the riddle).
    I also love the emotional connection you've made between the broken phone and her mom, but her attitude is that the phone is old and she wants to replace it. Maybe change that instead to "even though the phone was old and no one else would want it, it was special to me" or something along those lines.
    The snarky teen attitude and thoughts ("fan boy") are great.
    You've done a fabulous job keeping enough details from us that I defintely want to keep reading to find out more about step sideways and what happened to Reah's mom! Great job.

  2. Julie,

    Thank you for sharing your work with us. I enjoyed the peek into your Step-Sideways world. Here are my thoughts.

    The pitch: Although I find the story intriguing, I suggest you rework your pitch. You have a lot of information that needs culling and organizing. I recommend using a formula such as this: What does my main character want? What stands in their way? What happens if they don't get what they want? Keep this concise.

    As it is now, it starts with the focus on Pete, not your MC, Reah. Give us the MC right off the bat, who she is, and what she wants.
    "Obsessive compulsions triggered by guilt." Why does Reah feel guilty?
    You make the tower sound like a prison. Why does Reah need to fit into the community to escape? How does controlling her obsessive behaviors help?
    I suggest removing "to trust herself," from the last sentence. You already have self-doubt.
    The pitch has me asking a lot of questions, but with a little work, this pitch can be perfected.

    The revision: Your edits improve the clarity of the story. I initially thought that Pete was in Reah's world, but some other classroom or city, and they communicated via their created mental space. Now it makes more sense. Somewhat. When Pete comments about Reah's phone and says, "You know I'm living in the Dark Ages," I still get the impression his world is just like hers, even though it appears from the pitch that it is very different.

    Is Reah the only one in this world with this ability? How did she meet Pete? If he is trapped in this other world, why hasn't he told her? After reading the pitch, I questioned why Pete would never have mentioned anything about his world to Reah if they have been friends forever. I know you don't want to unload everything in the first chapter, but hinting at some of this would be nice foreshadowing.

    From the pitch, it sounds like Reah has a lot of obsessive-compulsive issues, but I only spotted two instances where this is evident: the tapping of the pencil and constantly slipping into Pete's world although the latter could pass for typical teen distraction. You could include more evidence of her condition (any specific ticks, anxieties, or maybe she has to take some medication), especially if she must overcome it to succeed in the story.

    If being a second-born is so significant in this other realm, it might be worth it to hint to her being one in the first chapter beyond the single mention of her older sister owning the phone before her.

    You did a great job of incorporating suggestions into the writing. The italics for Reah's conversation with Pete help orient the reader, and I like that you toned down Tony's interaction.

    Best of luck to you with your book.

  3. Thanks very much Sharon and Angela for the helpful comments. It takes a village to write a pitch and 1st 5 pages! Much appreciated :)

  4. Hello-

    Pitches are hard and not my strength. But I think you can omit "to trust herself" in the line about conquering her self doubt and also really drive home the stakes.

    She must conquer her self doubt to save Pete, find her mom and escape to home or risk being imprisoned as a second born sufferer.

    I can easily spot the areas where you implemented everyone's critique.

    Overall, I think the pages are stronger and present a clearer picture of step sideways.

    Best of luck to you!

  5. Thank you Amy - I agree 100% that pitches are incredibly challenging - your wording ideas are helping me with revisions.

  6. From Lina:

    Hi Julie!

    I like what you did with the revision- especially Tony seems much more realistic and vivid to me. Many passages have improved greatly- well done!

    Reading your pitch, I like where your story is headed- however, there are a few aspects that felt like they contradicted each other, but again I am no expert- just some ideas: maybe there is a way to in the first paragraph to not tell that her mother indeed disappeared because of Reah’s connection to Pete, I loved the mystery about that in your first pages- Reah maybe suspected that it could be connected, but nothing was proven. So does she soon learn that her mothers disappearance was her fault, and that’s where the guilt comes in? I didn’t notice any obsessive compulsions in your pages, but maybe I missed it.

    You don’t really explain in the pitch what second-borns are- kids that have psychic links? Another thing that seemed quite general to me were the “uncaring adults”, and what does it mean that in this world people can’t get sick, but she can? Does that turn out to be an important conflict later on?

    Good luck with your story, I’ve enjoyed getting a glimpse of the worlds you’ve created!

    1. Thank you Lina - you raise really good points about where I need to clarify or omit details - particularly in the pitch. Much appreciated :)

  7. Hi Julie!

    Okay, your pitch: First, let me say that pitches/blurbs can be very difficult. It's so hard to sum up a bazillion word manuscript into less than 150. Here's just a few things I noticed: In your intro paragraph, three of the four sentences begin with clauses. Try to take each sentence and see if you can state it more directly, not needing the fringe. I know you want to add some backstory to ground the pitch, but I think you need to focus on just a few details that really, really matter - character, goal, conflict. Remember, your goal with your pitch is to ignite interest in the agent, publisher, etc...

    Ooh, you cleaned up the opening paragraph to your pages. Nicely done! One suggestion - maybe use lunchtime instead of lunch because she's actually referring to the time period of lunch not the food itself.

    I really like how you showed their head-talk. Flows well. Reah's voice feels easier to me, too; although it was good in your first draft. And I like how you left a crumb about her mom during the phone incident. As a reader, it makes me wonder what's up with her mom. This entire piece is written much tighter and makes me feel empathy toward Reah. Last thing: ask yourself some questions about these characters and the world(s) you are creating. What more could you show the reader in this opening to entice them even more?

    I really enjoyed this piece. Best of luck to you with it!


    1. Thank you so much Sheri for taking the time to read my writing and provide helpful comments on how I can improve. I need to mix up my sentence structure for sure in my pitch and simplify what I'm saying: character, goal, conflict. Very helpful and I will work on that this weekend. I'm very happy to hear you like my revise pages - this 1st 5 Pages Workshop has been extremely helpful!

  8. I like the revisions here--the writing is tighter, and I have a much better sense of the relationship between Pete and Reah. I like how you wove in her mom's disappearance too. The pages are a nice balance of humor and pathos; I really feel for Reah here, both her loneliness and her missing mom. Well done.

    I would still like to know how much Reah knows about Pete. Does she think he lives in a parallel world to hers? Does she know that he's trapped? What does she know about his world? And most importantly, does she know that her connection is the reason her mom went missing? Because that's the first thing mentioned in the pitch, it makes it seem like she does already know that, but since nothing is mentioned in the pages it has me questioning if she knows or not.

    I think you might be trying to fit too much into the pitch--it really just needs to get readers into the story; it doesn't need to tell us everything. I usually try to focus on what the character wants, what's getting in the way of what they want (the primary obstacle) and what's at stake if they don't get it.

    For example, "All Reah wants for her twelfth birthday is to get her mother back. But until she can solve the mystery of her mother's disappearance, she has to contend with her obsessive tendencies, her dad's new girlfriend (and the girlfriend's obnoxious son). Her telepathic connection with her friend Pete, who lives in another world, is the only thing that brings her relief.

    But when solving a riddle from Pete accidentally pulls Reah into his world, Reah finds herself in a place where second-born kids like herself are imprisoned. More, she discovers that Pete might be linked to her mom's disappearance. If she can evade the guards who patrol the tower where Pete is imprisoned and conquer her fear of heights, she might just be able to free Pete and find her missing mother. If not . . ."

    You can probably word the pitch better than I did, but I think a lot of the details in the pitch (like second born kids getting sick when others don't, or cruel adults imprisoning her, or how she's going to climb the tower, aren't relevant to the heart of the story. Try to focus on the most important bits, and let them tell your story.

    Good luck!

  9. Thank you Rosalyn! Your showing me how I can rework my pitch has put a huge smile on my face this morning, and I'm walking taller, no shoulders slumped here :) I really needed to see what to leave out of my densely-packed pitch. I appreciate you taking the time to help me, and I cannot wait to get going on my revision!

    Great question about what does Reah know about Pete - she doesn't know much about his real life/world as he keeps it a secret from her (and why he does that is revealed at the mid-point of the book). So, in Step-Sideways, Reah is the talkative one and Pete the listener most of the time. They hang out as kids do - accepting and enjoying each other's company. However, I can see from the feedback in this workshop that I need to drop some bread crumbs in earlier about this. In terms of her mom, Reah doesn't know why she went missing, but she has put two and two together and made a much higher number than four. As the last time she saw her mom was when she told her about Pete, she assumes it's her fault her mom disappeared and whether she is right on that assumption or not is revealed later in the book.

    I have enjoyed this workshop so much and learned a lot. Thank you for your willingness to help writers who are working on ways to improve.

  10. First off, thank you for sharing your work. It’s always brave to open yourself up to critique, but this is how a manuscript gets better. Just remember that each person’s critique is so subjective.

    On your pitch – I like the premise of a telepathic connection to another world (Stranger Things!). The pitch raised a lot of questions though – so many questions that it made me wonder if there were too many unconnected elements going on here. This concerns me because if the elements don’t connect well, then it might cause an issue with suspension of disbelief. I see many fantasy novels in my inbox that throw in everything but the kitchen sink, and are just too muddled because of it - you have to ask yourself if your story would be better served by focusing on a few key elements. (From the pitch and the pages we learn that you have all of the following going on - grief, OCD, bullying, telepathic powers, fear of heights, family/stepfather issues, etc - that's a lot of issues.) The very first sentence sets up a serious question with the plot – she’s had this friend ‘forever’, yet somehow their telepathic connection has only now caused a problem, her mom’s disappearance. What changed? Why now? Why didn’t someone disappear into this other world sooner? (We learn from the pages that it’s somehow connected to the fact that she told her mom about Pete, but that’s not what this pitch is saying.) And in all the time they’ve been friends, Pete never mentioned anything about his world? Not that he was sick or imprisoned in a tower under guard?
    I take it from this part, “make second-born kids suffer for all”, that you’re trying to convey that these second-born kids are locked away in a tower and somehow given all the sickness in this world, but how do the ‘uncaring’ adults accomplish this? Uncaring also seems like a bit light of a term for that kind of evil.
    This line is also confusing - Rescuing Pete becomes even more important when he reveals her mom gave him the riddle. Did Pete not know when he told her the riddle that it came from her mom, or did he withhold that info? You also say, “If she finds Pete, she might find her mom.” Again, does Pete know or not know where her mom is? If he doesn’t know, that’s fine, but then the line should read: “If she finds Pete, he may be able to lead her to her mom.” Or, “Finding Pete may be the key to finding her mom.”
    Hope this helps.
    Best of luck to you!

    1. Whoops! Forgot this part!
      On your pages – I like where these pages began, right in the action with her entering the Step-Sideways, the whole idea of this telepathic connection, and the introduction to the riddle. (I did wonder if it should just be called the Sideways though.) I also think it might work better if the reader knows right away that Pete is not in her same world – we don’t find that out until further down in the piece which may throw a young reader. I especially liked the voice in these first pages. Again, my biggest questions surround the plot - I was a bit surprised that her mom had only been gone a year and the dad seems to be already replacing her with a new girlfriend who’s moved in. This line, “Tony wouldn’t dare mess with the two of us together” definitely makes it sound as if Tony knows about Pete and this other world, which seems a bit strange that Tony would know this. I do like the voice here, but I think the plot may need a bit of fleshing out.
      Good luck with it!

  11. Thank you very much for your feedback on how to improve my pitch and first pages. This workshop has been excellent in helping me see where I need to focus my energy in my revisions. I appreciate you giving your time to read my work and provide helpful comments to move forward with my writing.

    All the best.

  12. Hi Julie,

    Thanks for sharing your work with us! Sorry I am late, but I just turned in a revision myself.

    re: your pitch

    You have a lot going on in this story, which is great, but in a pitch it needs to be condensed to the hero's main journey. I would try to focus on the central story problem as early as possible and avoid giving a summary of events. We need to know Reah's goal and the complications she must overcome to succeed without being overwhelmed by plot twists and details.

    Regarding your pages, I enjoy your opening. It's easy to follow and well paced. There are moments when the voice sounds like an adult rather than an 11yo, such as this phrasing:

    "I’m desperate to solve it."
    "Everyone shouldered backpacks, surging for the exit"

    The name of your alternate world, "Step-Sideways," is also a bit confusing and clunky to read. I'd think about having a place with a singular noun name that is easier to read and understand.

    There are also places where you could slow down a touch and clarify things a bit more thoroughly, such as:

    "especially now he spent half the week living in my house after his mom moved in with my dad last month."

    This is important info. I'd consider breaking up the sentences and giving the reader time to take the info in...such as:

    "especially now that he spent half the week living in my house. Of course, that wasn't my choice. My dad was the one who'd asked Tony's mom to move in with us."

    Something like that expands a little bit and gives us a more nuanced view of Rhea's opinion of the situation. That way the detail sticks in our minds.

    I would encourage you to give us Rhea's opinions on her world throughout. The following paragraph is rich with details, but none of them seem personal to Rhea or give us any insight on her character:

    "Chin down, I barreled out of the classroom to escape the bottleneck at the door. Hammering rain hurled against the windows, forcing us all 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."

    You have a complicated premise here, but your opening scenes are very accessible and easy to read. I applaud your "showing" of details throughout...very well done. You have a great voice and it is well suited to middle grade, though the contemporary writer in me wishes you would stay in this world and explore this conflict with Tony! It's so rich for story.

    Best of luck,
    Melanie Conklin

  13. Hi Melanie,
    It's great to get your detailed comments - thank you for reading my pitch/pages and giving such helpful feedback on areas I can improve. My pitch needs a major overhaul - that's for sure, and I'm lucky to have all this help making it better :) I like the rewording suggestions you have.

    All the best,