Saturday, March 5, 2011

13 First Five Pages Workshop - March, Entry #3

Middle Grade Contemporary by Janet Johnson

Chapter One

Annie waited until her mom buried herself in the bills before sneaking the phone into the hall closet. She pushed aside her sister's faux fur parka and speed-dialed 7. She let it ring once then hung up and called again. Their secret code. It rang twice before Jason answered.

"It's me." Annie was all business. "I've got a body count."

"Picnic?" Jason asked.

"Affirmative. See you in five."

Jason hedged. "Annie, I'll try, but my parents are talking to this lady, and . . ."

"Jason, you're ten. Find a way. This is important." Without waiting for a response, she hung up.

Jason wouldn't find a way. Annie knew. She'd just have to go to his house and get him, like usual.

After listening at the door for several seconds, she slipped out of the closet. With the phone back in place, she peeked into her shared bedroom. Empty. In seconds, she extracted her pre-packed bag from under the bed then poked her head into her mom's room across the hall.

"I'm going outside, Mom."

"Where outside? Is your homework done?" Her mom dropped the pen and rubbed her temple before turning around. She looked more tired than usual.

"To Jason's and then the garden," Annie said. "And yes, homework's done. You okay?"

Annie's mom smiled, but Annie could tell it was forced. "Just going over bills. Have fun, and don't be too long. Dinner's in an hour."

"Will Dad be home?" Annie held her breath.

Her mom's smile got tighter. "Not tonight. He's working late again."

Lately, Mom always seemed to be 'going over bills'---that, or complaining about the price of groceries. And Dad was always working. Two reasons Annie was glad she wasn't an adult.

Annie tiptoed down the stairs of her split-level home. Matt's voice floated up from the basement.

"Aloe is a healing plant with green spiky leaves . . ."

He must be studying for another merit badge. As if he didn't have enough. But Annie wasn't bitter that she couldn't be a Boy Scout. Not much. So what if her dad offered five dollars for every merit badge earned? Or that her brother got to go to Adventure Camp every summer? At least she didn't have to wear a dorky uniform.

Annie waited until Matt and his friend got into an argument about the medicinal properties of aloe before opening the squeaky door. She couldn't afford to be followed. And when you had an older brother and sister, you never could be too careful. The last thing Annie needed was Matt stealing her bag to play Keep Away. Or worse, Kate's sing-songy torment: Going to your boyfriend's?

Because Jason was not her boyfriend.

Outside, she scanned the area for spies. Across the cul-de-sac, Mrs. Schuster (though Annie secretly called her Mrs. Spinster) pulled weeds from her perfect flower garden. Next door, Billy pedaled around on his tricycle while his mom watched from the garage.

The coast was clear.

Annie relaxed. She breathed in the warm September air. Perfect burial weather. When they'd first started the cemetery, Annie preferred rain. She thought it was more dramatic. But practicality won out. Rain turned the holes into mud baths.

Barefoot, Annie bounded down the three front steps and sprinted down the driveway and around the corner house to Jason's. As always, Mr. Parker's beat-up truck sat in front. Lumber jutted from the back as though Jason's dad was headed to his next framing job, but Annie knew he hadn't worked in several weeks. In addition to the truck, a shiny off-white Lexus was parked at the curb.

That must belong to the lady, Annie thought.

She rang the doorbell and put on her best especially-for-adults smile.

Mrs. Parker answered. "Hello, Annie dear. Let me go get Jason. Hold on." A strand of her curly dark hair had escaped her up-do. A brief frown marred her features before she brushed back the stray hair and glided toward Jason's room.

Annie thought Mrs. Parker was the most beautiful woman she'd ever seen. With her olive skin, and perfect hair, she didn't look like a mom. She didn't even dress like a mom. Annie had never seen her in jeans or a t-shirt. Today she had on sleek black slacks and a sparkly pink, short-sleeved sweater that swooned at the neck. Annie tried to imagine herself in such an outfit, but failed. It just wouldn't be the same with Annie's frizzy hair and freckles.

From the doorway, Annie saw Mr. Parker and a skinny, blond-bobbed woman at the table. They both stared at some papers. From the tight expression on Mr. Parker's face, Annie guessed he wasn't having fun. Neither of them looked at her. When Mrs. Parker scooted Jason around the corner, he tried to catch his dad's attention with a timid wave.

"Can't you see we're busy?" Mr. Parker barked. "Now, go play and let us get our work done!"

Even from the door, Annie could see the hurt dripping from Jason's expression as his mom hustled him to the door.

"Now you two go have fun." Mrs. Parker spoke a little too brightly. "Be back in time for dinner, Jason."

When the door closed, Jason's face hardened. He kicked at the porch rail then sulked along beside Annie. But Annie doubted he wanted to talk about it.

Across the street, something glinted in the Pierce's window. Annie picked up the pace. "Come on! Before that nosy Lila sees us."

Jason folded his arms, but walked a little faster. "There are worse things than being seen, you know."

Annie stopped and stared at her friend in disbelief. "Are you kidding? We're going to the cemetery," she said. "That would be a catastrophe!"

Jason shrugged. "Let's just go," he mumbled.

They ran to the garden at the side of Annie's house and found their secluded patch between the corn and the cherry tree.

Every spring, with the forced labor of her three children, Annie's mom planted a giant of a garden---one of the biggest in the neighborhood. It spread from the house all the way to the ditch and had a little of everything: two rows of beans and peas, three of tomatoes, one each of carrots, pumpkins, and watermelon, and a box for strawberries. But the best part was the five full rows of corn next to the big fat cherry tree. The combination provided the perfect little hiding spot in summer and fall which Annie and Jason turned into their unmarked cemetery.

This side of Annie's house had no windows, so no one could spy on them from above. And not wanting to hurt the roots, Annie's mom was always careful not to plant anything too close to the tree. The graves would remain unharmed.

Annie dropped to her knees, her bag in front. Reverently she pulled out the dead peanut butter and jelly sandwich and handed it to Jason. Though two of the edges looked like normal bread crust, the center was smushed flat. Purple jelly spots seeped through the now gray bread.

"The two-liter of soda fell on it," Annie explained.

Since they had started the cemetery five years ago---after a tragic incident involving a fanny pack, an orange, rock jumping and several falls---they had scrupulously followed the SPB&J (Smushed Peanut Butter and Jelly) Burial Rules. And rule #1 was clear: Thou shalt bury all smushed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which are unfit for consumption, in the secret cemetery.


  1. Hi Janet,

    So much to love here, especially the take-charge heroine and the premise even more. It's loaded with personality. But for me, the story starts with this line:

    When they'd first started the cemetery, Annie preferred rain. She thought it was more dramatic. But practicality won out. Rain turned the holes into mud baths.

    I'd love to see you use that as the first line, then go into today was perfect burial weather. That way, the bag immediately takes on greater significance. I love her hiding in the closet, but don't get why she has to.

    I felt you could speed up the rest of the house scene. It seemed as though the details (while great) were off in importance a little. I would have loved to see the bills relegated to one line, another line mention that dad wasn't ever home anymore, he always seemed to be working late, and that this gives her extra latitude to sneak off--or whatever she feels about it.

    Love that she's jealous of the brother for being in scouts, but I'd love to see a more interesting badge being explored if you're going to devote that much page time to it. Unless you want us to see that he picks lame badges (in her opinion) or whatever you want us to take away from the situation. That is not nearly as interesting as she is, therefore, it distracts and detracts.

    The situation with Jason isn't clear. Is he worried about his parents and what's going on? Does he want to stay and find out? Or is he unwilling to interrupt to say he's going? Clarify--because it seems too easy once she gets there. Unless this is the way it always is. Again, give us some spin.

    Your voice is there. Your situation is there. Just figure out what really matters and be sure the details you've included are worth the detour.

    Great beginning!


  2. Forgot to say what I picked up. Clearly it's getting late.

    1) Annie's parents clearly have money troubles -- which makes it odd that they are still paying the brother $5 for each merit badge, but that's not a big deal. I don't mean for you to eliminate this in importance. Just don't hit us over the head with it.

    2) Clearly, Jason's parents are also in some kind of trouble. Is there house facing foreclosure?

    I find it intriguing (as an adult) to see when Jason will tell Annie what's going on and how much he knows. At the beginning, kids are going to be more interested in Annie and Jason. They are going to love the dead peanut butter burials, by the time the foreclosure --- or whatever is about to happen -- is revealed, everyone is already invested. Jason obviously knows something and knows it's bad. I love that and you've handled it beautifully.

    I love your description of the grey bread. So awesome. I like the Harriet the Spy kind of vibe and the sense that Annie feels people are spying on her while she is acting so clandestine. That makes the irony of her noticing all the details about Jason's parent's imminent disaster especially great since she doesn't notice Jason's behaviour at all.

    Is he about to tell her?

    One thing that occurred to me is that you may need to quickly provide a new hook to lead young readers on once you reveal there are no actual bodies.

    Again, fabulous start!


  3. At first I thought this was going to be dark and morbid because of all the death references.

    I was a little confused when they started walking through the corn row since I thought they were headed to an actual cemetery.

    With all the talk of bills (and perhaps a divorce)it was to hard to enjoy the lightheartedness of the SPB&J ritual. The concept was absolutely darling though.

    I'm curious what the age of the older sister is, and why she's out of the house at the moment.

    As for the brother,his debate on the properties of the aloe plant made seem younger than Annie,not older. Also, I think boy scouting should have a hands on focus, like geocaching or making your own clothes out of dryer lint, rather than something that sounds like biology homework.

    I have concern that for a young reader, the beginning is heavily detailed with specifics from her family situation, which I think should be incorporated later. Like, when she leaves the house, she can notice her brother is working on something for boy scouts, but not explain how he gets bribed $5 for every merit badge (which I think defeats the purpose of being in boy scouts) or how she's glad she doesn't have to wear a uniform.

  4. You have a very intriguing premise here. I loved the whole burial thing and the secrete the two friends have. I was disappointed that they were burying peanut butter sandwiches. I thought it would be small critters, like a mouse, cricket, spider, or the like. Don't get me wrong, I did think the whole demise of peanut butter sandwiches was cute, but almost to young for MG.

    I wonder if a child would use the word spinster? Maybe something like Mrs. Meany or something more appropriate for the age.

    With that said, I think you have a wonderful story. I agree with Martina (cause I have this habit too) get us to the burial sooner and make sure you're using age appropriate words. I <3 Annie already!! :D

  5. Hello! Thank you for sharing your story with us! Here's what I know after reading those first pages:
    1. The MC is a real pistol of a girl, which I LOVE. But there were a couple of issues including (as Brenda pointed out) the use of the word "spinster" which caught my attention as well. I would like to see more interaction/thought regarding her siblings as well. I like how she hides in the closet to call, but wasn't sure why all the secrecy when she then announces her intention to go to the same person's house? Love Jason. Want to see more of him and what's going on there.
    2. The secret graveyard is the main thrust of the story. That's what I'm picking up here because of the build up. And because of that, I had certain expectations about it, including that it would in some way be something "secret worthy" meaning more than just sandwiches, which although clever, and cute, was a tiny bit of a letdown. NOW, understand that my stuff is very dark, and older, so this may well be a personal issue. :D I guess I want it to include a tiny bit more danger or mystery?
    3. The writing itself was great! I was pulled right into the story, I just think you might want to consider the parts/details that you focus on.

  6. Omigosh, so cute! SPB&J Burial Rules - LOL! I absolutely loved the voice here, especially at the beginning of the excerpt. I felt like we lost it a little bit after she left her house.

    I have to agree with others above about the $5/per merit badge. It absolutely defeats the purpose of Scouting (my son is a Cub Scout), and if the family is having such intense money troubles, would they really use their hard-earned money on bribery for something that's extra-curricular?

    I suggest starting with the burial and leaving all other observations for later. I don't necessarily mind that they're burying sandwiches rather than critters, but I agree that it seems like a letdown after all the secrecy buildup. Starting with the burial might take care of that problem.

    Overall, very nice. It's not easy to show so much voice so early on in a story, and you did that marvelously!

  7. Thanks for all the comments and suggestions! I appreciate them. :) Now to work to make it better!

  8. I love your voice - which is oh so important. And I loved the twist - that the burial is for smashed pb&j sandwiches. I thought it was for a small critter, too, but laughed when I realized it was for a sandwich.

    Not to repeat the others, but I would try to increase the pacing a little and get to the burial a little sooner.

    I really enjoyed this! :)

  9. Loved Annie - I have to confess, she reminds me of me at that age. I definitely remember the secret agent phase and being completely oblivious at the same time. LOL

    I agree that starting with the sentence about cemeteries is a great opener and I liked the twist that it's for PB&Js. My kid calls them PJs. LOL

    Have to agree, it's a bit odd they're paying the older brother, BUT if it's a telling point about the value they place on scouting or boys, keep it. Parents do some weird stuff about boys, even today.

  10. Thanks Nicole and Vicki! I appreciate your comments. :)

  11. I agree with whoever said about reducing the comments about the money problems. I think it's a bit too obvious at the moment, and as Annie is our anchor for the story, it seems a bit of a stretch that all those details are given but she hasn't really noticed/figured it out.

    I love Annie as a character and I want to know more about her, but as this extract goes, I'm a bit confused what the story is about. The PB+J thing was ace, a bit twee yes, but I loved it anyway. However, it felt a bit like a punchline to a joke, and now the joke has been told...

    I definitely want to read more, and obviously five pages isn't really enough space to give a total sense of the direction of the story, but I would like to have a bit more inclination about where this is going next!

    Great style though, great interaction between the characters, and plenty of interesting set up to explore :)

  12. WOw this great writing! I agree with the commenter who said the story starts with the first reference to the cemetary. You could mention that sooner, becaue I really liked the way you started the story with the secret phone call and the great detials like the fake fur coat. :)

  13. this is totally enjoyable and a great start. i have a crazy idea if you feel like it, re-write the first couple of pages in first person (annie) and see how it feels... i just feel like you have the ability to nail her voice and for my money (and this is completely subjective of course) she would really take flight as a first-person character. then again, feel free to ignore completely.
    great work!
    tommy greenwald


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