Saturday, March 12, 2011

11 First Five Pages Workshop - March, Revision for Entry #3

Middle Grade Contemporary by Janet Johnson

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.

Fortunately, today was perfect burial weather.

Annie waited until her mom sat down to do bills before sneaking the phone into the hall closet---the rules required secrecy. 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 and replaced the phone. Tip-toeing to her room, she peeked in---because when you shared a room with your older sister, you could never be too careful. The last thing Annie needed was Kate's sing-songy torment: Going to your boyfriend's?

Because Jason was not her boyfriend.

Annie breathed in relief to find it empty. In seconds, she extracted the pre-packed bag from under her bed then ran down the stairs.

"I'm going outside, Mom!" She bounded out of the house before her mom could protest.

But she wasn't in the clear yet. Spies could be anywhere. Annie slowed to a casual stroll and whistled as she scanned the area. Across the cul-de-sac, Mrs. Schuster (aka Mrs. Meany) pulled weeds from her perfect flower garden. Next door, Billy pedaled on his trike while his mom watched from the garage. The coast was clear.

Annie relaxed. She breathed in the warm September air, hitched up her pack, and sprinted around the corner house to Jason's.

As always, Mr. Parker's beat-up truck sat in the driveway. Lumber jutted from the back as though Jason's dad was headed to his next framing job. It had looked that way for a while now. 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.
It ebbed at the sound of squawking turkeys (unfortunately coming from Jason's backyard), but she'd completely recovered by the time Mrs.
Parker answered.

"Hello, Annie dear. Let me go get Jason." 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.

Mrs. Parker was the most beautiful woman Annie had ever seen. With olive skin, and perfect hair, she didn't look like a mom. She didn't even dress like a mom. Never in jeans or a t-shirt, today she had on sleek black slacks and a sparkly pink 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 in the rear. They both stared at some papers.

When Mrs. Parker scooted Jason around the corner, he threw Annie an annoyed look and jerked away to stand by his dad. "I don't have to go, dad. I could . . ."

"Can't you see we're busy?" Mr. Parker barked. "Now, go play and let us finish."

Annie stepped back at Mr. Parker's anger. He was usually pretty cool.
The one playing catch with them in the yard (the front yard, where there weren't any turkeys) while Annie's dad worked late. She hardly dared look at Jason 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 kicked the porch rail before clomping down the steps. Annie knew better than to say anything. She was almost glad when something glinted in the Pierce's window across the street.

Slugging Jason's shoulder, she picked up the pace. "Hurry! Before Lila sees us."

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

Annie 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, squash, 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 made the perfect 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 never planted anything too close to the tree. The graves wouldn't be disturbed.

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 to eat, in the secret cemetery.

"How old is it?" Jason asked.

"Four days," Annie said.

Jason nodded grimly then performed the inspection. He turned the sandwich frontwards and backwards then slowly rotated it to check all the sides. "I hereby pronounce this sandwich mold free and worthy of burial."

Thanks to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich Jason found squished at the back of his school desk last year, they'd added rule #7: Thou shalt not bury any sandwich with any non-peanut butter and jelly growths in the cemetery.

Some things were just too gross.

With her mom's gardening spade, Annie dug a sandwich-sized hole then winked solemnly at Jason. (Rule #3: Thou shalt not speak during the ceremony, except the official sermon.)

Jason extracted the sandwich from the baggie and held it up with outstretched arms. Before Annie could do her part, he squinched up his face and looked away.

"Time out," Annie said. (Rule #6: If an emergency shall arise, thou shalt call a time out to allow speaking.) "Don't be such a drama king.
I haven't missed in ages."

Jason eyed Annie. "You missed last time it was your turn. And the time before that."


  1. I really like all the mystery and quirkiness behind having a PB & J cemetery. It's just the kind of thing that kids that age would do, and it would be serious and funny all at the same time. Secrecy would be incredibly important to preserving the fun behind it.

    Here's the critique for it:

    • Love the idea

    • The subtlety that you use in not telling anything, but slowly revealing the story through the furtive actions of Annie and Jason totally pulled me into the story and kept me reading. I didn't want to miss a line, and I want to know what happens. Great job.

    • The dialogue moves the story forward and seems totally realistic for the kids.

    • The constant use of parentheses was kind of a speed bump for me as a reader. I would check into a way to present this information without them, because they seemed like too much of an interruption and a reminder that I was reading rather than experiencing the story.

    So enjoyed your excerpt. Best wishes as your continue your writing journey.

  2. You have a very strong MC, which is wonderful. I also still like Jason quite a bit. And I like how you start with the burial weather - great hook. However, I still feel like it takes too long to get to type of burial they are doing. You can still have some mystery in a shorter amount of space. And I still don't know why she had to call Jason from the closet when she knew she'd have to go over there anyway. I enjoy the Nancy Drew aspect of it,and her need to make this a mystery and a secret, which you can do without the phone call. I am curious where they live that he has turkeys in his backyard!

  3. Hi Janet,

    I think you're almost there with this one. A few very small things.

    1) The opening lines, which are so critical, need to be a little more authentically 10-year-old. It's just small word choices for Annie's voice. Preferred and practicality both sound older. You also need to tell us what today's weather really is, and why -- and very briefly give us some classic Annie-perspective on this. You've got time. We're so far on the hook already that we're not about to squirm away.

    2) The first action paragraph:

    Annie waited until her mom sat down to do bills before sneaking the phone into the hall closet---the rules required secrecy. 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.

    Here you have the perfect opportunity to set up her "spy" persona to explain her choice of the closet, which would let you reduce some of the drag later on. Have her look back and forth, tiptoe to the kitchen to see her mother doing bills, listen to make sure her brother is downstairs doing boyscout stuff then, just to be sure, steal the phone into the closet where sound would be muffled by her sister's faux-fur coat. That is so awesome, and you've got it all there. Just play up the sneakiness to showcase her character right up front.

    3) The age. I'd love to see you move that up a little sooner. This would also solve another minor problem. Presumably, Jason knows what the body count means, so I'm not sure he would go through the "Picnic?" dialogue if he couldn't make it. So... maybe jump from:

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

    Jason hedged. "I don't know, 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.

    The rest of the dialogue and the dynamic between them there is great, so don't throw it out. Just save it for later.

    4)The boyfriend thing? Show, don't tell. Have her sister catch her as she's heading out the door. Do the exchange in real life instead of in her head.

    5) The trip to Jason's? I'd love to see her *not* in the clear, I'd love to see all the potential spies that you're introducing us to and how they are watching her.

    6) I'm not sure I care so much about what Jason's mother looks like. She's beautiful. Give us a simile or a single telling detail to hang on, and that's probably enough.

    7) I think you could also reduce some of the description of the garden. Overall, as Lisa said, just scale down some of the things that feel extraneous.

    8) Where did the PB&J come from that she knows it's four days old but got squashed by a pepsi? If it's hers, why didn't she bury it sooner? If it isn't hers, how did she get it?

    Again, I love this. The voice is great, the set up is great. Thanks so much for sharing the revision with us!


  4. I love everything--pacing, dialogue (inner and outer), your style. It's all wonderful. I would disagree with some of the other comments, respectfully, of course, in that I think some telling works here for pace and the amount of time it takes to get to the burials works just fine for me.

    However, I think there's a problem with the expectations set up versus the payoff. The secrecy surrounding this burial stuff had me eating up every word, excited to figure out what they were up to, but the payoff being sandwiches, at least without some really intriguing explanation behind it, didn't seem exciting enough to warrant the suspense. If there IS an explanation for it that increases the payoff, I'd do what I could to get that in early in the sandwich reveal.

    The good thing is that you've worked in such great suspense and mystery over something very subtle into the first pages. If you answer the promises you make in a satisfactory way, I think you'll have readers hooked, because you'll have demonstrated that when you set up something cool, it's going to be as good as they think, if not more. If, however, any readers get disappointed with the payoff not meriting the setup, you've lost the trust that you'll make sure things that SEEM to matter DO matter.

    Once again, you may have an explanation for the sandwich thing that completely satisfies this, but I'd get that into the first pages, or at least a hint of it, since so many agents will make a decision based on them.

  5. I like the new tension in Annie and Jason's relationship. I also like that we now see more of the rules in action.

    I agree with Beth about the many parentheses, and I agree with Martina about some of the word choices being too mature.

    Good job!

  6. I have to say I really like your characters here and the set-up is wonderfully done. The suspense about what they are burying really builds and the writing flows nicely. That said, I'm still disappointed at the end about the sandwiches. I'd think they'd be burying something that, if they got caught doing, they'd get in big trouble. The stakes are just not high enough. Of course, this is just my opinion and others may feel differently. I did think burying sandwiches was cute, but for a younger audience, say 6 to 8 maybe?

    All and all, this revision is wonderfully done. :D

  7. Thanks everyone for your comments! I appreciate you taking the time. :)

    Definitely gives me something to think about.

  8. Janet, I've been thinking about DHE's comments and some of the others about the stakes. I think I've been bringing two things to my reading: 1) the knowledge (or suspicion at least) that there is a big revelation coming from Jason that is going to try to tear them apart. 2)The spy thing that you've set up which gives her a love of drama that makes everything larger than life

    I am (personally) looking forward to seeing how she handles real drama, so I am willing to give her the exageration, but I wanted to see more of that up front, more clearly, so that when we got to the revelation of the PBJ burials, the set up for it would be clearer. And I do think that would be enough.

    BUT -- I'm going to echo what the others said. Unless you find a way to make her melodramatic tendencies clearer and bring in the real stakes right away, you may disappoint some younger readers. It is definitely worth considering!


  9. Since Martina commented again, I'm going to also. :D I assume (which we all know can be a problem) that based on the MC ages (10) you ARE in fact aiming for an audience of around 8 or 9, which makes the sandwich thing work better. But if this isn't something that's carried throughout the book, I would actually drop it. If on the other hand, it IS part of the remainder of the book, well..obviously you have to keep it. Only you know for sure! And just to clarify, I'm sorry if it was confusing earlier, I meant that you should speed up the revelation only because of the potential "let down" of finding out it's sandwiches they are burying. Hopefully that makes sense.

  10. I really like this. I think it's cute and the tension for drama is there. Jason's family problems will provide enough stakes so I think that's fine.

    I like the idea of getting to the burial sooner, but I also like the idea of showing why Annie is so paranoid. Love the idea of her sister actually saying the going to your boyfriend's line. The whole show thing that I need to work on in my first 5 pages, too. I can't really help you pick which way to go, so I'm sorry I'm not much help there.

    I don't think you need the parenthesis around the rules (loved them, btw!)

    I hope some of this feedback is helpful!

  11. Thanks for the additional comments! You're making me wish you could read the rest of the chapter. The real stakes (already hinted at with the scene at Jason's house) are at the end of the chapter. But yes, this little ceremony comes into play again, so I need to keep it.

    I know there's no explaining with submissions, so I'll have to think about what you've all said and see what I can do to bring it up to snuff.

    Thanks again! I really appreciate your input. :)


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