Sunday, January 5, 2020

1st 5 Pages January Workshop - Hansen

Name: Star Lane writing as RS Hansen
Genre: Middle Grade Science-Fiction
Title: A Nerf Herder’s Guide to Physics

There’s a war taking place in this galaxy and it’s right here in my bathroom. A war between me and this stupid owl drawing on my forearm. The owl drawing is winning. 

I have no idea how I got a hold of a permanent marker last night—especially in the middle of a dream—but this sucker is not coming off. It doesn’t matter how much soap I use or how hard I scrub with this washcloth.

Ugh, I give up. Maybe if I unroll the sleeves of my sports coat a little more, it will cover it. Which is a good thing because that waft of browning bread coming from the kitchen means Mom hasn’t left for work. And having to explain why I have an owl scrawled on my arm would put me in serious danger of detection on the Mom worry-sensor. Of course, she’s probably already worried about something. She wouldn’t skip a shift at the hospital unless she had a good reason. The only question is what is she worried about?

My hand runs along the painted brick as I creep out of the bathroom and inch down the hallway into our living-slash-dining-slash-kitchen room. Mom is definitely still home because she’s standing in front of the toaster. At least she has her work scrubs on. They’re worn at the seams from constant washing and wearing. They make her look exhausted and she probably is.
“Do you have a late shift today?”

She turns around. “Good morning to you too, Michael. They didn’t need me yet. I thought maybe we could talk a little before you leave for school.”

“Um, Okay.” Talk? Great. That’s basically mom-speak for “something’s wrong.” Yes, the worry is strong with this mom.

The toast pops-up and she turns back to pull out the slices.

I plop down at the kitchen table, next to my laptop that I accidentally left out last night. I quickly swipe it into my backpack before she turns around with two plates of toast. One buttered and the other with that prickly pear jelly she’s been obsessed with since we moved. Hopefully, she didn’t open the laptop or anything. Oh no, what if she did? What if she saw my research and that’s what she wants to talk about?

She sets a plate in front of me and sits across the table with the other. I take a huge bite, almost a quarter of the slice. If my mouth is full, there’s no way I’ll be able to answer any questions about what she may or may not have seen.

But she doesn’t say anything, just takes a bite of her toast and stares at the howling wolf patch on the breast pocket of my—I mean, Dad’s sports coat. A lone wolf. That’s what my dad was, that’s what I am now.

Finally, she swallows. “The weather report says it’s going to be eighty-seven. You sure you want to wear the coat today?”

I finish my mouthful. “Um, I’ll be fine. The library is always freezing during lunch.” That can’t be what she wanted to talk about. I’ve been wearing it every day for a month, ever since that science journal called to tell us about the article.

“So,” she says.

Here it comes. I take another bite, pretty much finishing off the entire piece of toast.
“Have you heard from Ophelia yet?”

I chew slowly and shake my head. Is that what she’s worried about? It was stupid of me to tell Mom that I hadn’t received an email from my best friend in weeks.

Ophelia never responded to my last one, she just dropped off the face of the earth. I didn’t even get a “happy birthday” last Wednesday. Emails suck because you can never tell if someone has read them or has just decided not to respond like you could with a text. But Ophelia doesn’t text. That would require her to use 21st-century technology. She prefers her original Commodore 64. That’s a computer by the way.

“I’m sure she’s just busy or something.” Maybe Mom will buy that, even if I don’t.

“Yes, probably.” Mom takes a sip of her coffee, then bites her lip. “But I’m still concerned about you. You haven’t made any friends in Tucson, I’m barely home. You’re spending too much time alone.”

“I’m fine.”
I get a sigh and the fine-is-not-an-acceptable-answer look.

“Really, I don’t mind. School has been keeping me busy.” Well, maybe not school, but close enough. I stuff the final bit of toast into my mouth, pretending to savor this last salty bite. Then, I feel a familiar tingle on the back of my neck.

“Michael, I just…” Mom’s voice fades out. Her lips are still moving but I can’t hear her words. Crud.

No. Not now. Not in front of Mom. I quickly swallow and cross my arms in front of me, digging my fingers into my ribs until it hurts. Maybe if I concentrate on the pain, it will go away. But the blackness starts to frame my vision. My pulse quickens, I take a shaky breath to slow it down. That doesn’t work.

Pretty soon, the fake-wood table and sand-colored cabinets of our kitchen stretch out, then whirl around like water draining out of a tub until it completely empties and I'm in a black abyss. Then, the door appears.

The door is white and smooth. It looks like the marble counters in our old house, but without the veins of gray running through it. I walk up to it and reach for the silver c-shaped handle. Even though, as always, it will be locked.

From my experience during biology class yesterday and seventh grade lunch period the day before I know that I'm not passed out. I'm probably just sitting at the table across from Mom, and as Mr. Anderson put it, “staring off into space.”

As long as mom keeps lecturing me about my lack of friends, I might be able to cover for this. Oh no, I have one of my graphite pencils in my pocket. If I start scribbling an owl on the table or worse on my sleeve, there’s no way she isn’t going to notice.

How did I come out of the dream yesterday? I do remember beating on the door. I try that. I pull at the handle. Thud—thud—thud. Pound some more. Then a quiet voice calls out. I press my ear against the door’s cool surface.

“Michael?” It’s a yell, muffled by the thick stone. “Michael!” A little louder this time, and I recognize it.

My heart pounds harder, I almost choke on her name. “Ophelia!” I call back.

“Where are you?”

“Here, I’m here!” But then the door disappears. This has never happened in one of the dreams.
Where the door once stood, is a swirl of blue. Not just a single shade of blue, but a ton of hues, from the darkest ebony-like shade to one that almost glows in contrast. They spin together in a fusion of color that looks strange, but also familiar—like a van Gogh painting. Then eight pinpricks of light burst through. The lights are scattered randomly across the blue swirl. Four of them form a small curve, above that, another three are unevenly spaced in a diagonal line, with the last thrown to the side. 


  1. Dear Star,

    Your writing is fresh and lively. Very engaging.

    In this sentence, I think the flow is interrupted by hyphenating the words. I also feel that the word “room” should be after dining, rather than after kitchen.
    My hand runs along the painted brick as I creep out of the bathroom and inch down the hallway into our living-slash-dining-slash-kitchen room.

    In this sentence, I don’t really see how the “work gloves” can make her look exhausted:
    They make her look exhausted and she probably is.

    Thank you. It was very intriguing, I’d like to read on.

  2. Hi Star,

    I really enjoyed the voice and pacing of your piece. I thought the opening was funny and Michael was sharp and likeable. I also liked the lines about the living-slash-dining-slash-kitchen room, the detail of the prickly pear jelly, and "Yes, the worry is strong with this mom." Yes!

    When the mom asks about Ophelia, it would be nice to get some kind of emotional reaction from Michael. Right now, he's just responding to his mom's questions, but is he worried about his friend that he hasn't heard from in awhile? If not, why?

    Later on when you introduce the door, I think that sentence might be stronger if it was - "Then, as always, the door appears." Adding "as always" would reinforce that this is a repeating dream AND echo the sentence, "Even though, as always, it will be locked."

    I tripped up on the paragraph below because even though oh no is written, there was no exclamation point or emotional reaction tried to it.

    "As long as mom keeps lecturing me about my lack of friends, I might be able to cover for this. Oh no, I have one of my graphite pencils in my pocket. If I start scribbling an owl on the table or worse on my sleeve, there’s no way she isn’t going to notice."

    It might help to move the first sentence to the paragraph before to isolate his reaction to the pencils in one paragraph.

    Awesome start!

  3. Hi Star,
    Immediately I am engaged with your character's voice and I want to continue on. I'd like to hear more about this abyss. :)

    At one point you have "Mom is definitely still home because she’s standing in front of the toaster." We already determined she's home because of what you put in the previous paragraph, this felt repetitive.

    I agree with one of the previous comments about her scrubs make her look exhausted. Maybe she's un-tucked or adding some physical description, maybe her stance, slouching or hair out of place, or bags under her eyes would make us see she's exhausted.

    I like the paragraph on the laptop but I feel it could be re-arranged. Add the "Oh no" just after he sits at the table and spots his lap top and add his worry, then end with him swiping it into his bag. Just a thought.

    The part about biography class tripped me up, it felt out of place. I believe you are trying to show how it's happened before but I think it could be placed earlier. Maybe a little re-arranging of these paragraphs would make it flow a little smoother.
    Also at this point he's panicking, seeing swirls and the abyss but then is thinking of his pencil and his mother. This slowed the action and the intensity for me. Maybe re-arrange this order too.

    Looking forward to the revision!

  4. Hi Star,

    Thanks for sharing your story. Here are my thoughts and impressions:

    • First let me say that I really like the voice. I think its perfect for MG.

    • My initial reaction to your first three sentences was confusion. When I re-read, it made sense, so maybe it was just me?

    • I like the build-up that you establish with the mom skipping work, the mom's worried, the mom wants to talk, etc. And you have some great lines in there!

    • the mysterious research on the screen left me intrigued but it feels like Michael's reaction is more nonchalant rather than truly worried. Might be a way to emphasize his reaction a bit more.

    • I like the mystery around Ophelia as well. I found myself wanting to see more of Michael's reaction to her being gone/not communicating with him. How does he feel about it?

    • The transition to the black abyss was nice and unexpected. Definitely want to see where you go with that.

    • And hearing Ophelia's voice was the perfect fifth page cliffhanger: I definitely want to read more!

    Hopefully this was helpful. Looking forward to reading more.


  5. Hi Star,

    Thanks so much for sharing your work with us!

    I agree with the others that this is quite voicey - excellent work. I'll disagree though and say that it felt very YA to me. Michael sounded at least 15 or 16 IMO.

    My concerns with this opening is that a lot of the information seemed to come out of nowhere. You've clearly thought a lot about the world building and I can see you're going in a super interesting direction. I wonder if it might be better to start with the dream/portal and then have Michael come out of it sitting at the table with Mom. She could be staring at him, comment on the jacket, ask about Ophelia, but then we as the reader know why (sort of) why she hasn't responded and why he is reluctant to talk about making new friends, and why he might want to cover up the owl on his arm.

    I also think you can tighten this, remove some of the description and use the dialogue or inner monologue to move things forward.

    Just a few thoughts--looking forward to seeing the next revision!


    1. Thank you Christina!

      I feel the audience for this would be on the upper end of MG. Similar to the Rick Riordan presents series of books. I will have to make sure that I don't get too out of MG realm though.

      I appreciate all comments, and will be revising heavily!

  6. Hi Star,

    Thanks for sharing your pages. (And sorry for my late notes--it's been a crazy week!)

    I was definitely drawn in by the time I got to the end of your pages, and I'm eager to see where this story goes. Something strange is definitely happening to Michael and I want to know what! I'd certainly read on to see what is going on with that door.

    Here's the thing that needs some work in my opinion--you have too many head-scratchers thrown into a very short spread of pages. There's the drawing of the owl, the sport coat, the research M had on his laptop, and, of course, the black abyss. These are all mysteries that you are asking the reader to follow and it just feels like a bit too much. I think if you focus on the episodes Michael has been having recently, and work in the rest of the stuff later, your readers will be drawn in even more strongly.

    Beyond that, I suspect Michael's mind would be more on the strange episodes he's been having more than whether his mom is worried about something or will see what's on his laptop.

    In my mind, the central issue in these pages should be the abyss episodes. You might want to think about how the narrative around this runs in your opening. If I were doing it, I'd probably simplify the how things to reflect the idea that M is stressed about the episodes and wants to hide them from his mom and then another one happens during breakfast. That's it. I'd lose the real estate devoted to the laptop and the coat (and maybe Ophelia as well--Mom can ask about her, but I'm not sure we need to read about her technophobia right up front). It will, I think, feel a lot cleaner and clearer that way.

    Also, and this is minor but probably worth addressing, there are a few turns of phrase that give me pause and kinda pull me out of the story. Right in the beginning, "this stupid owl drawing on my forearm" made me think that there was an owl that was drawing on your character's forearm. And a "waft of browning bread" seemed like an odd way for a kid to describe the smell of toast. A couple of others are in there as well if you look for them.

    So overall, I feel like you have a really compelling story to tell--I'd just like to see the primary thrust of it shine through a bit more clearly in your early pages.

    I'm excited to see your next round!


    1. Thank you Rob! I completely understand your concerns after reading this, and agree. I will be making some heavy revisions and cutting out some stuff for this next round. Thanks again!

  7. Hi RS
    You deliver tremendous impact with this opening scene. Your narration is very active and dramatically punctuated in a way that kept me involved throughout. I also appreciated that you deliver the central dramatic situation in way that is simple and therefore has maximum effect. The missing friend trapped in an otherwhere and the central character’s sudden involuntary trips to that other ‘dimension’ make this a sort of portal fiction. I wonder if you’ve read Marge Piercy classic Woman at the Edge of Time, which works on a similar premise – I’m especially thinking about the fact that the “trips” are involuntary. Would it be worth looking at how she introduces things, just in terms of structure, though her themes and audience are different?
    Toward the close of the scene I wondered whether you had given away some potential drama and opportunity for reader identification by making this one scene rather than two. Could the first scene be an expanded version of your character waking up from the initial blackout and discovering the evidence on his body? This might give you more time to focus him, his world and his character. You could then focus the second scene in the kitchen with Mom on the Ophelia situation only.
    There was something that didn’t quite ring true about Ophelia’s absence. If these two are in seventh grade together and haven’t seen each other in nearly a week (“birthday last Wednesday”) surely there would have been some interaction/information at school, or one Mom calling another? I just needed a bit more detail or explanation in order to be convinced.
    The deferred information about Dad’s jacket and “the article” felt a bit like it was left hanging there. This is a delicate balance, and I can see that this hints at something that can unfold dramatically and carry us along as we go. It isn’t the intriguing hint itself I’m pointing out, just that it could be woven in a bit more with another, very brief, earlier mention of Dad or “the article” perhaps?
    In all, I thought this showed a real feel for character narration and scene pacing. Most importantly your character situation and the substance of the drama are clean and crystal clear at the outset, which is so important.
    Good luck with this!

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  9. Thank you Meredith! I appreciate your comments and will be making quite a few revisions. I agree that I need to find the right balance of providing info, but at the right time, and without leaving it hanging there. It's so hard! Hopefully, my next revision will be a step closer.

    I will also check out Woman at the Edge of Time. I have not read that yet.

    Thanks again!

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