Saturday, October 5, 2019

1st 5 Pages Oct Workshop - Franz

Name: Jason Franz
Genre: Middle Grade Sci-Fi
Title: Attention Authors of Earth

My heart beats faster than the U.S.S. Enterprise’s warp drive as I clutch the invitation to the young sci-fi writer’s conference. It’s my salvation from the spring break I would’ve spent at home while Mom complained about not getting to spend time with her boyfriend. Tears of excitement cloud my vision as I read my invitation again. A cartoonish drawing of planet Earth is in the middle of the flyer surrounded by dark blue space and white stars. Across the top, in bright yellow font it reads: Attention Authors of Earth! 

The bus rattles as the driver fails to avoid yet another pothole and I groan. Half because of the bumpy ride, the other half because I know I can’t avoid my blank page any longer. It’s the same blank page that’s been staring at me since I boarded the conference shuttle. So I stick my invitation in the back of my notebook, lean up against my window, smoosh my brown, curly pigtail against the cold glass, and try to write a few more chapters of my book.

I close my eyes and, just like I’m in history class, I think about the star ships from my favorite sci-fi movies. In my head I deconstruct an Imperial Probe Droid from Star Wars, mix it with a jellyfish, then multiply the size by a bajillion. When I open my eyes the oval silhouette of my new skyscraper-sized starship is following the bus outside my window. Long whip-like tendrils glowing with an orange energy pump softly, keeping the ship aloft. The whips are attached to something that looks like a massive upside-down metal dinner plate with red eyes wrapping around it. On top of that is a light green basketball-sized glass dome that I can’t see in to. It looks like a flying jellyfish. It passes in front of the sun, but it’s no longer the sun—it’s purple, with gray continents, and black clouds.

Following closely, in what appears to be pursuit, are three smaller ships flying in a triangular formation. They are attached to one another with a thin beam of yellow energy. They rain blasts from their turbo lasers upon the bigger ship, which shows no sign of damage.

The hand holding my pen begins to fidget, my head drops down to my notebook, and I begin to write what I’m “seeing” in my mind.

The dreaded dreadnaught of the Deathlorian fleet blazed across the sky as it left their enemy’s planet in ruin. The surface-dweller’s feeble fleet firing their inferior weapons upon them in a show of “force”. Light glistened off The Deathlorian commander’s metallic skin as he laughed, For the people on the planet surface had only a few days to consider his offer before he returned, either to rule their world, or finish it off.

Usually when I get to this point in my books, I can’t write one more word and I have to start a new project. If I tried writing short stories for magazines they always turned out even shorter because they didn’t have an ending. When I got into online writing contests my dreams died the second the mentors asked to see the whole manuscript, because the sample I’d sent to entice them was the whole manuscript.

The closest I’d come to finishing a story was something I’d turned in for history class a few days ago. It had proper grammar, romance, strong character arcs, and, as with any great story, a villain you loved to hate. And that’s not me talking, that’s a direct quote from Ms. Rathchin. But she gave me an F anyway. Apparently her instruction to make the report our own didn’t include making John Wilkes Booth an intergalactic bounty hunter (Boba Booth), who shot the president of the universe with a laser pistol before fleeing back to planet Marylandar.  She said my imagination overtook the facts. She told me that if I spent all my time in fantasy, I’d miss out on a lot of really great reality.

History teachers. They’re just so logical. If every history classroom in the United States were a system of planets, you can bet Rathchin would be the Galactic Emperor, lightening from her fingertips and all.

Like she knew anything about interesting writing…or interesting anything? I mean history is all stuff that’s happened. Sci-fi is stuff that hasn’t happened yet—the possibilities are endless.
Much like potholes the farther we get from California. The bus tires on my side dunk down into like, the ninety-thousandth pothole. My notebook bounces off my knees, ricochets off my black boots, then slides toward the back. Crap! I get down on all fours and peer under the brown pleather, past the shoes, (and one pair of slippers), of the other passengers. It slides past the tissue that has what I can only hope is a half-eaten Baby Ruth bar, until it stops two seats back.

I stretch my arm out until my bicep is burning. I’m almost touching it when some grubby, little, thieving hands lifts it from the floor. I’m about to shriek something accusatory when a quiet, shaking voice stutters from somewhere near the back of the bus. “Did um, did, s-someone lose a uh…um,” there’s a quick clearing of the throat before the sentence finally concludes, “a notebook?”

I nearly give myself whiplash as I pop back up from the floor and land on the seat with my knees. The person who had only picked up, not stolen, my book—the person I was sure had to be such a cretin, doesn’t look like a cretin at all. He’s a boy my age in a blue plaid shirt (that I’m kinda jealous of), with dirty blonde hair. He’s standing, trying to find the owner of the book, he is still looking down, but not like he’s looking at my notebook, more like he’s afraid to make eye contact with, like, anyone.

I raise my hand. “That’s me,” I say softly as though I’m trying to get a baby deer or squirrel to eat out of my hand.  

The boy’s eyes bounce up, then back down, followed by a sheepish smile. He scoots out of his seat, keeping his eyes glued to the floorboards as he approaches me. Maybe he’s just clumsy and worries he’ll trip or something if he doesn’t watch where he’s going. But he keeps looking at the floor even as he loiters in front of me, drumming his fingers against the cover of my book without a word. Kinda creepy. Finally I can’t take it anymore. “Thank you,” I say.

The boy chuckles, clears his throat, and chuckles again. “Ok, well it was n-nice talking to you, I’ll l-let you g-get back to your b-book now.” He places it on my backpack even though I’m reaching for it, then he hurries back to his seat. He watches the other passengers out the corner of his eye. That’s how he catches me looking at him. His blue eyes get real big then he sinks down in his seat until I can’t see him anymore.

A light bulb flickers on inside my head. Awwww! He’s not creepy, he’s shy! I rise from my seat, tie my black and grey plaid top around my waist so as to display my “Tribbles ate my homework” T-shirt, and walk toward the boy. “Hi,” I say when I get to his seat, in which he’s hunkered down like a WWII fox hole.


11 comments:

  1. Hey, I'm Kelsey! Happy to be critiquing with you.

    So, I think my biggest critique is that the story picks up A LOT when we get to the paragraph that starts "The closest I’d come to finishing a story was something I’d turned in for history class a few days ago." From then on, I'm eating up the words, I get a real sense of voice from your character, and I'm very intrigued by the shy boy.

    However, I realize that the first paragraph is likely important in that its introducing this idea of the invitation, and your characters goals of finishing a work to attend. That being said, it does feel a little forced, like you are really trying to show us "look how unique my character is" where as in the later paragraphs after the one I mentioned, it feels more natural, and I am the one going "look how cool your character is", rather than you forcing it upon me. Does that make sense? Anyway, I think my biggest suggestion would be that maybe there is a way to take the information about her goals (I read pigtails, so I am assuming girl) and the struggle with the writing stuff, and find a way to trickle that information into the scene with the notebook sliding. Maybe she drops it as she slides the invitation inside. Maybe as it's sliding and someone picks it up, she fears if someone will read her crazy imaginings about X. I think there are a lot of different ways you could add in that information to the later pages, and keep up that strong voice and interest you get later on.

    Good luck & happy writing!

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  2. I'm so happy to be on a journey right from the start. That a promising open, definitely. I'm happy to see a clock set, too. We know this story is going to be set during spring break and we know the character is leaving behind adults. All of that is good stuff.

    It does start a big slow, though. That's the sense I get. While I like the premise a lot, I'm not sure it needs to be given in the first paragraph. I'd rather get into the action. I'm trying to write. I'm on a bus headed to Sci Fi writers camp, my own version of heaven. I stare out the window, conjure and amazing space ship, which is a combination of... hit a pot hole, vision disappears. All I want to do is write, but the bus is bouncing so much... boom, the notebook is on the floor. We meet the shy boy...

    That's a wonderful incident to kick off the story. Getting away from mom and boyfriend and history class where she's not appreciated can come (and should come, because its great stuff) eventually, of course, but feels like background rather than prime story, present action, that will suck the reader in. My inclination is to have you focus on the present action to kick this thing off.

    All of that said, I'm really into the voice. Your narrator is funny, zippy, notices and names interesting things. The POV seems exactly right for what you're up to. We want this girl talking to us. I think if you start her out in more of an action rather than so hung up in thoughts, life details outside the trip, memories, this voice is going to leap off the page. Let the quirks come out slowly rather than laying them on so thick at the very front.

    Very excited to see what you do with this!

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  3. Hi Geoff, and Kelsey. I've been reworking a bit and was wondering if I shortened up the paragraph about history class and the teacher, and put it between the time when she loses the notebook and when she gets on the floor to look for it if you think that would take the reader out of the action too much? Originally I had this information in chapter 4 and a CP of mine thought it should be earlier to show what Paige's problem is to show her arc early on. So I'm trying to compromise :)

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    Replies
    1. It could work, as long as its not too long or heavy. Show us for next week!?

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  4. Hey Jason!

    Firstly, I teach middle school and I think the premise of this story is right down my students' lines. I can easily see them being entertained with this. I really feel that your first paragraph would captivate their minds right from the start!

    My suggestion would be to withhold some of the background information and protag's characteristics until a little later in the story. I think this would keep us on the edge of our seats and it would help with the pace of the beginning.

    I think if you could find a way to weave some of your protag's characteristics from the 2nd paragraph into the other parts, it would do away with a chunk that seems to slow it down a little.

    Another portion that I think is unnecessary and slows things is the part about the history teacher...and not because I'm a history teacher--I teach English :) ... I think this part takes away from the heart of your narrative.

    Overall, I really enjoyed reading your beginning and I'm looking forward to seeing what it becomes!

    Best wishes,
    Taelor

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  5. Hi everyone, thanks so much for your comments so far! I'm learning what's working and what's not. I know what I have to do. There are some little darlings about to go out the way of Spock at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Cue the bag pipes.

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  6. Great job here! I think the premise is very interesting. You have great action and conflict right from the start.

    I agree that the backstory in the beginning should be sprinkled in later than in the first paragraph. Focus on the action and the conflict.

    I think you have great character building as well with the shy kid but I think your main character could have a bit more character building. Besides the pigtail and shirt at the end I'm having a hard time picturing her. Maybe a few other subtle details and a bit more voice would help her come to life a bit more for me.

    I'm also wondering if some of this reads a bit high for middle grade? I'm not sure if a child of this age group would be riding a bus to a conference on their own. Some of your word choice reads a little high as well.
    For example:
    Usually when I get to this point in my books, I can’t write one more word and I have to start a new project. If I tried writing short stories for magazines they always turned out even shorter because they didn’t have an ending. When I got into online writing contests my dreams died the second the mentors asked to see the whole manuscript, because the sample I’d sent to entice them was the whole manuscript.

    I'm not sure of the age you are going for but I'm not sure how many in your target audience would be using words like "project" or "manuscript" or "mentor" or "sample" even if they were on their way to a writer's conference. If they do use these words I feel like the tone of this section reads older than middle grade.

    You've definitely drawn me in here. Good luck with revisions!

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  7. Hi Jason, I'm a fellow mentee and I really enjoyed the sheer imagination of your MC! I could totally picture them being on the bus, imagining the Deathlorian (love your names! Ms. Rathchin and Boba Booth! I laughed at that one, although as I write this, what's the MC's name? Did I miss it?) being attacked. Their frustration at not being able to finish a story…that hit home, as my daughter had piles of unfinished stories when she was younger. The reference to John Wilkes Booth, which is taught in 7th grade where I live, nicely establishes this as MG. I connected with Ms. Ratchin and her comments about the MC missing out on "a lot of really great reality"! The only little bit that tripped me up was the comparison of sci-fi having endless possibilities …like the potholes. I know it's intended to set the scene for the notebook bouncing off their lap. But I wondered if it was necessary? It might be just as effective to have the bus hit a pothole and launch the pad, without the comparison immediately before it. I love the way the MC meets the boy, although I got a slightly different vibe, not that he was shy (but I totally understand why your MC might interpret his actions that way). Something about the way he would not meet other's gazes made me think he was possibly autistic? Or perhaps it was because he's shown missing several "cues" that other kids would pick up on -- like recognizing it's not a book, but a notebook, for writing in, not reading? Actually, now that I go back, you use both terms (I'm guessing she's written her book inside it), so maybe some super-brief description of it -- is it spiral-bound? Like a school notebook? Or one of those really nice writing journals, with a hard cover and binding, that might be mistaken for a book? I loved the end of the page, with the WWII fox hole reference, and how your MC approaches the boy to say "Hi." As I finished reading, I found myself hoping your MC and the boy catch a ride on the Deathlorian at their writing conference!

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  8. Hi Jason,

    Thank you for sharing your work with us!

    It's always fun to step into a new MG world and get to know the character. Your character is a heartfelt, funny, and self-conscious middle grader that kids will love to read about. Your attention to the character's inner monologue and feelings is great--often, I see work that has a lot happening but no insight into the character's hopes and dreams, but we need to know those in order to cheer for them!

    That said, the very opening pages are a bit slow. I love the idea of writing under deadline, and with such a great prize on the line, so I suggest starting from a clean sheet of paper and writing the opening again. Put us there. On the bus. Pencil in hand. Heart beating. Let us take the ride and find out why it matters a few sentences or paragraphs in...

    And speaking of why it matters, I'd really like to know more about that. There's one quick mention of Mom's boyfriend in the opening paragraph, and I suspect that is the beginning of your character's emotional arc, but I want to know more. I want to know why this competition matters so much. Will the prize money get them out of a bad situation? Will the recognition make your character feel loved by mom again? You don't need to tell us this point blank, but we can infer it from your character's reasoning.

    For example:

    Your character is trying to finish writing a chapter before the bus gets to their stop. They're panicked, bc Mom's boyfriend hates their writing. They know they don't have enough time, but they really want to enter this competition, and the entry is due in two days. They let us know all of this because they're thinking it as they try to decide what to do--to write faster, or to pack it in...every small moment is a choice, and your character's deliberations SHOW us the pressures, opportunities, and fears in their life.

    So, your character deliberates, worried they shouldn't even try to get this done then bc it's too risky, but they decide to try anyway--and then they drop the notebook. And the panicked scramble. And the new friend..or is it an enemy? And how does that meeting factor into the overall scene goal? Character wouldn't just stop thinking about writing...they would deliberate again, and perhaps make a new choice.

    Showing us how each of those choices feed into the next builds momentum and story. Being privy to your character's deliberations makes us empathize with them, and love them.

    One other note, on a line level: many of your sentences share a similar structure (dependent clauses, compound), and that repeated rhythm kills the momentum. Read aloud. Vary your sentences. You start to do this later in the selection...which in my experience, indicates that cutting some things may be a good idea.

    You have all of the necessary pieces to build a strong opening scene; they just need to be shuffled into the right order.

    Good luck in your revisions!

    Melanie Conklin
    First Five Mentor

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  9. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for submitting your pages. What a great start. It feels like middle grade. The voice is natural and the rhythm is good, two things that are hard to nail.

    The first paragraph opens with a bang. Nice job. I do think you can cut a little of what he’s imagining with all of the ships and the chase. (What’s his name, anyway? Did I miss it?) We don’t need too much descriptive info to see it along with him.

    Instead of his hand beginning to fidget and then dropping his head, this might be an opportunity to ground your reader in some real sensory details. You’ve got the bus driving over potholes, which is good, but what else is there? Lots of noise from the screaming kids? Exhaust fumes from the bus? Is the bus old and damp and gross or is it new and clean? This can help us fall into the story.

    I also think a lot of kids (including twelve-year-old me) can relate to the teacher and her admonitions of fantasy and sci-fi being a waste of time. That’s a great way to relate to your kid reader, who may have heard the same things from some people.
    ##

    I raise my hand. “That’s me,” I say softly as though I’m trying to get a baby deer or squirrel to eat out of my hand.
    Nice line.

    I’m curious about this kid he meets.

    Nice job, Jason. Looking forward to seeing more.

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