Saturday, April 9, 2011

1st 5 Pages Workshop - April Entry #1 Rev 1

Middle Grade -- Joseph Miller

My fingers twitched as I unlocked the treasure chest in my grandparent’s living room and pulled out the box marked “Amazing Spider-Man.” As I lifted issue #1 out of its sleeve, a part of me wanted to shout, “Halleluiah!”

I couldn’t believe Grandpa gave me his Spider-Man comics. It was the best birthday gift ever!

I flipped to Spider-Man’s origin story (my favorite part) and slipped into a daydream. What if a radioactive spider bit me? What kind of super power would I get?

With my luck, I'd gain a useless one like the ability to transform into a common household spider. No thanks! The last thing I needed was the power to shrink into a daddy longlegs. My six older brothers made me feel small enough.

What I really wanted was a way to stand out (in a good way).

Of course, that was hard to do when my brothers had already beaten me to all the cool stuff. Awards and trophies crammed their shelves.
Football Championships. Science Fair Ribbons. Young Writers Contests.
You name an activity or talent and one of them excelled at it. The only thing I was better at than them was being unlucky.

Odd accidents and strange mishaps followed me around like a couple of frisky black cats with extra sharp claws. They pounced at the worst possible moments, too. Not exactly something to celebrate. Although I had gone thirty three days without an incident, which was a new record!

The eerie calm of the last month gave me an irritating sliver of hope that this year might be different. I didn’t want to be the butt of people’s jokes anymore. There were only so many times I could listen to my brothers (or classmates) say something along the lines of, “Knock. Knock. Who’s there? Avery. Avery who? Avery-body run for the hills!”

Ha, ha. Very funny... the first time I heard it.

Anyway, back to my point. I needed to find something I was good at.
Something my brothers hadn’t done before me. Something eye-catching and trophy-worthy.

But first, I needed to read some comics... for inspiration.

The doorbell rang.

“Avery,” said Grandma from the kitchen. “Get the door!”

I banged the back of my head against the couch. Couldn’t I have five minutes of uninterrupted reading time?

“Avery, did you hear me?”

“Yes,” I said, setting the comic on the couch. “I’m going.”

The quicker I got this over with, the faster I could get back to reading. I rushed to the front door and reached out for the handle.

My hand stopped short.

What if my brothers were back from their super-secret birthday gift mission? I shuddered at the thought. Last year, they gave me an unsolvable 5 x 5 Rubik’s cube. The stupid thing drove me nuts for hours, until I figured out they’d switched some of the stickers.

Did I want to let them in? No. But would my brothers bother ringing the doorbell? Not likely. They were more of the pound-on-the-door-until-it-opens types.

My parents on the other hand... they rang doorbells. Maybe they’d finished making my birthday cake (Spider-Man theme!) and needed help bringing it inside.

I grabbed the handle and yanked open the door.

No brothers. No parents. No cake. Instead, a huge cardboard box stood on the front edge of the porch. Stamped on its front was a winged-hat logo that read, “Mercury’s Messengers: Delivery at the Speed of Now.”

I peered around the box.

Where was the delivery guy?

I yelled back into the house, “Grandma, you got a package!”

“Bring it in, dear,” said Grandma.

“It’s huge!” I said.

“Frank!” said Grandma. “There’s a—”

“I heard!” said Grandpa. “I’ll be down in a minute.”

While waiting for him, I inched forward.

The box’s shadow stretched over my feet.

A chill crept up my legs and back as if an army of centipedes were marching over them.

Was this another birthday present for me? My mind buzzed with the possibilities of what was inside. A model rocket kit? A remote control helicopter? The world’s biggest jig-saw puzzle?

I peeked at the shipping label for a clue, but all it offered was a mixture of letters, numbers, and strange symbols.

I ran my finger over the code. What did it say?

Grandpa stepped outside and frowned.

I couldn’t remember the last time I saw him without a grin. “Is something wrong, Grandpa?”

“Get the door for me.” He lifted the box off the porch like it was filled with feathers.

“What is it?” I asked.

Grandpa squeezed through the front door. “Nothing for you to worry about.”

He weaved his way around a knick-knack cabinet full of Wizard of Oz collectibles and a pair of shelves cluttered with books.

I chased after him. “Come on, give me a hint. Please!”

Grandma stepped into the hallway, blocking my way. “Stop pestering him and help me set the table for lunch.”

“But—” I tried to squirm past her.

She herded me toward the dining room. “No buts about it.”

Grandpa disappeared into the back room, the one which led to...

The click of a deadbolt echoed down the hallway.

My brain short-circuited. What had I been thinking about? I forced myself to focus. The back room. Where did it led to? The answer popped into my head like a cartoon bubble.

The basement!

How could I forget my grandparents had one? I must have passed by the back room a thousand times, but never gave the basement a second thought. How weird was that?

Grandma dragged me over to the table.

I asked, “What’s in the basement, Grandma?”

Her eyes narrowed and she pointed me toward the silverware. “Fewer questions, more place setting.”

I grabbed a bunch of knives. Why didn’t she trust me? I was eleven now. I could handle the truth.

As I slapped silverware on the table, my birthday wish became crystal clear. More than anything else, I wanted to get inside my grandparent’s basement and find out what was in the mysterious box.


After what felt like hours of setting the table and peeling vegetables, Grandpa reappeared. He touched Grandma’s shoulder and whispered into her ear.

The color in her cheeks drained away. Her smile crumpled. She looked like someone had just run over Cheshire, the stray cat that hung around their house.

“Avery,” said Grandma. “That’s enough carrots. Go read your comics.”

I dropped my peeler in the sink, washed my hands, and escaped before she could change her mind.

I grabbed for the comic on the living room couch.

The echo of my grandparent’s footsteps drew my attention upstairs.

Were they going to talk about the mysterious box? I put the comic back down and crept up the steps to Grandpa’s study.

I pressed my ear against the door.

The music from the stereo drowned my grandparent’s conversation in a sea of blaring horns and booming drums.

A whole minute passed without hearing a single word. I almost gave up, but as I left the song died down.

“...know what happened to Demetrius?” asked Grandma.

I stopped.

“No,” said Grandpa, “They found him...”

A trumpet solo played over his answer.

Oh, come on! Couldn’t the band be quiet for one minute! Who was Demetrius? What happened to him? What was his connection to the mysterious box?

I tried to tune out the trumpet, but it was no use.

The door vibrated against my ear, then stopped.

Grandma’s voice cut through the unexpected silence. “...don’t want him in our house.”

“And where do you suggest we put him?” asked Grandpa.

“If it was up to me I’d...”

The music swelled, again.


  1. Ooooh EXCELLENT revision!! It's much less cluttered now, and the voice and story are coming through better. :D I like Avery and I'm already rooting for him.

    I'd cut lines like "Anyway, back to my point." and "(Spiderman themed!) which draw us out of the immediacy of the story.

    I'm wondering if it's so important to him to find something he's good at, why his birthday wish would change to exploring the box and the basement. Maybe connect the two in his mind? Maybe whatever's in the box would help him do that. Give him street credit with his brothers? Also Grandpa picking up the box and it looking like it contained feathers was great. Curious - would it be heavy to other people? Is this a clue about Grandpa? If so, have Avery try to lift it and be unable to. If I'm imagining this - have him instead think "Well I guess that means it's not filled with (insert heavy object that might have interested him)" Just a couple of ideas, no need to take them. :D

  2. Again, the writing has a lot of charm and Avery is lively and interesting. His voice comes through well in many places. The reference to the box and to Demitrius is intriguing, and the emphasis on the box and the basement is much clearer. I do think that the priorities are set now, and as a reader I have my focus in the right spot.

    We can now focus on some additional issues. The main problem is the big chunk of telling at the beginning. I love narrative when it is well-done, and I believe it can be more effective and appropriate in certain situations. But for me, the common denominators of "good" telling come down to asking several questions.

    1) Is the narrative delivered in a specific voice with the personality, age, and world-view of the narrator coming through in every line and every word?

    2) Is the narrative "telling" something that can't be shown, summing up quickly to let us skip over something we have already "seen" previously, or summing up so that we quickly get a sense of the same old past before focusing in on the "day that is different"?

    3) Is the narrative conveying, through tone, irony, or metaphor information that gives us a heads up that something we will "see" needs to be examined closely?

    Of course, there are other situations. But what I'm getting at is that I believe the revelations about the brothers and Avery's status are better shown and felt than narrated.

    I do also feel as if the voice here lapses into a much older kid now and then. Not often. And there are great moments. I love the new start with the comic book. I adore the "I was eleven now" line. I love him thinking his parents were the type to ring doorbells and your insertion of the Spiderman Theme! in parens. (Although why didn't he just look through the keyhole or window?)

    I still don't understand why the box fills him with chills. It seems creepy, and then he assumes it's for him. Then his birthday wish is going to be about seeing what's in the box, which means he no longer assumes it's for him? A little logic lapse that needs to be addressed.

    Overall though, this is coming along beautifully. And props to you for ditching the "Mercury's Messengers" line, which we all loved, because it didn't fit in your piece. That takes real guts!


  3. It's me again! I just want to echo what Martina said about the beginning. Showing is always better than telling. And a little telling is okay in the right places, but in your opening it may be too much. Having one of the brothers there, taunting him with that line about his name, and him responding that it was funny the first time. Something like that. Okay I'll stop now!!

  4. Joseph--really enjoyed reading the changes to the front of this chapter. It's so much stronger now. You start off with a real bang!

    The only issues I have are with pacing and voice. Below I mention a few places where these could be tightened.

    After paragraph with "six older brothers that make me feel small," I'd get rid of everything up until the mc's in the moment again. You can fill in Avery's internal thoughts about his brothers in future chapters. Right now the reader needs only a hint.

    I'd pick up with "I needed to find something I was good at. Something my brothers hadn’t done before me. Something eye-catching and trophy-worthy." For me, this paragraph says what the above 3-4 paragraphs were saying only in a much tighter fashion. That way you can keep the pace moving.

    Sentence with "irritating sliver of hope that this year might be different," is too adultish. Careful here of going from a thoughtful eleven-year-old into an adult voice.

    Very strong until the three stars. I feel like pacing really slowed down here. Almost too much attention was paid to the box. I agree with some of the other comments. His feelings about the box need to grow--not start out with so much dread.

    Great changes! Heather

  5. It's cute, but some of your word choices puzzle me. I think you overstate the Spider-Man obsession (though you get bonus points for spelling it correctly as most people smush it together into one word without the hyphen)

    And while "said" may be the go-to word for dialogue, it's not the only viable choice. When someone is calling from another room, they're not simply speaking.

    The deadbolt "echoed" down the hallway doesn't really sound right, either. It's not a loud enough sound to echo, and the line doesn't come off as dramatic hyperbole.

    I think your biggest issue is the voice. Writing as a kid is a delicate balance and you're not quite there, yet. Right now this reads like an adult trying to sound like a kid rather than the natural cadence of a child's thoughts.

    Minor nitpick -- no way would a kid who calls himself unlucky, and who is obsessed with Spidey leave a #1 out in the open on the couch for as long as he did. Your description of that scene creates an unresolved Chekov's gun - you set up Mr. Unlucky, give him something of exceptional monetary and personal value, then have nothing resolve from the set-up.

  6. I think this is greatly improved! I'm really getting a sense of who Avery is - what he wants. how he fits into situations. I love that you've set this at his grandparents' house because it really SHOWS us what sort of kid he is - obedient, but very curious.

    I agree that there are places where the voice felt a little too old. Like Heather mentioned, the line "irritating sliver of hope that this year might be different." Seemed much too old for an 11 year old. I like Lisa's idea of having him try to lift the box before Grandpa arrives to collect it. If Grandpa can lift it easily after Avery discovers it's heavy, it would really add to it, make us more curious. On that same note, I agree that having him shiver and then guess at what bday present it might be for him seemed a little strange. Maybe have him tremble with excitement or something instead? Just a thought. Anyway, this is great. I can't wait to see what you do next week!

  7. Fantastic job with the revision! Much more focused and the voice is a lot clearer.

    I think the dialogue with the grandparents is so much better. It has purpose now and goes a long way to conveying mood. Well done.

    I'll echo a bit of the comments above. I think you could trim a few sentences regarding how he feels in his brothers' shadows. Tell us once, maybe twice, and then leave it to develop later. I agree with Heather's suggestion for cutting it down a bit.

    I felt a little pulled out by so many rhetorical questions. Maybe some of these can be reworked to statements. And watch the use of exclamation points. I think it's fine for "Oh Come On!" but not necessary for "new record" or "No thanks".

    Loved the line "They were more of the pound-on-the-door-until-it-opens types."

    Overall, this is so much better!

  8. Thanks everyone for your comments, they've been very helpful. I'll keep working on nailing down the voice and making it sound more elevenish (as opposed to older kid/adult). If you have any more examples of where I go astray or right with the voice, then feel free to share them because it'll help me see what's working/not working.

    Best Wishes,


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