Saturday, April 2, 2011

14 1st 5 Pages Workshop - April Entry #1

MG Contemporary Fantasy by Joseph Miller

A Forewarning


My name is Avery Mann and if you’re reading this, then I have good news and bad news.

First, the bad news: If you’re a dream-weaver like me, it’s only a matter of time before nightmarish monsters and story book villains hunt you down and make your life a living H-E-double hockey sticks.
That’s just what they do.

The good news is: This book can prepare you for the worst. No, it doesn’t have all the answers, but maybe knowing my story will save your life someday. At the very least, it might help you avoid repeating my mistakes. Like the wish that caused all my troubles…


Chapter 1: Be Careful What You Wish For


I was having the best birthday ever. First, my parents had given me the e-reader I’d been begging for since January. Second, my brothers had disappeared after breakfast, leaving me to read in peace. But best of all, when we arrived at my grandparents’ house, Grandpa handed me the keys to the treasure chest in the living room. The one where he kept his comic collection.

“Have some fun, birthday boy.” Grandpa patted me on the shoulders.
“Just remember the rules.”

“I will.” I rushed to the bathroom and scrubbed my hands until they were squeaky clean. I couldn’t wait to...

“Were you going to say hello to me before or after you’d read your grandpa’s entire collection?” asked Grandma from the open doorway.

“I...” I dried my hands, trying to think of something to say. “I was just cleaning up before...”

Grandma grinned and flicked her head toward the living room. “Go on, I know you’ve been dying to get your hands on those comics.”

I grabbed the key from the sink, gave Grandma a quick hug and kiss, and ran into my the living room.

My fingers twitched as I unlocked the treasure chest and pulled out the box marked “Daredevil.” No angelic choirs sang as I lifted issue
#1 out of its sleeve, but a part of me wanted to shout, “Halleluiah!”

I flipped to Daredevil’s origin story, my favorite part, and slipped into a daydream. What if radioactive goo splashed me in the face? What kind of superhero would I turn into?
With my luck, I'd probably become Ant-Boy. Not that I needed the ability to shrink to the size of a bug. My six older, attention-hogging brothers made me feel small enough already.

What I really needed was a way to stand out.

The doorbell rang.

“I’ll get it!” I jumped off the couch. Maybe one of the kids from school decided to come to my birthday party after all. Although considering last year's stink bomb incident, I couldn’t blame them for staying out of range of my brother's pranks.

I yanked open the door, saying, “Come in—”

But no one was there. Instead, a large 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.”

Where was the delivery truck?

I inched forward into the box’s shadow.

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

Was this one of my birthday presents?

I peeked at the label for a clue, but it was written in some kind of code.

Grandpa stepped outside and frowned at the box.

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.

I opened the door and said, “What is it?”

“Nothing for you to worry about.” Grandpa squeezed through the front door and weaved his way around a knick-knack cabinet full of Wizard of Oz collectibles and a pair of shelves cluttered with books.

“Come on,” I said, chasing after him. “Give me a hint. Please!”

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

“Can’t someone else—” I tried to squirm past her, but she cut me off.

“No.” She herded me toward the dining room. “You obviously need something to keep you busy until your mom is done decorating your cake.”

Grandpa disappeared into the back room, which led to the basement. He closed the door behind him. A moment later, the click of a deadbolt echoed down the hallway.

The strange thing was, until that moment, I’d forgotten my grandparents even had a basement. I must have passed by it a thousand times, but never gave it a thought. How weird was that?

“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 keep a secret.

I decided on my birthday wish right then and there. More than anything else, I wanted to find out what was inside the mysterious box and why my grandparents never let anyone go downstairs.

Maybe once I uncovered the truth, people would stop ignoring me. My brothers would realize I was more than just their part-time tackling dummy. Even better, if I came across something exciting, I might be able to convince someone at school I was friendship material. That alone would be worth the risk of getting grounded for life.

***

After what seemed like hours, Grandpa reappeared. He touched Grandma’s shoulder and whispered into her ear.

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

Grandpa guided Grandma out of the kitchen.

I trailed behind them, keeping out of sight.

They climbed the stairs to Grandpa’s study, closed the door, and turned on the radio.

I pressed my ear against the door. My grandparents seemed to be having an argument, but I couldn’t hear anything over the music. I retreated downstairs. Maybe I could take a closer look at the basement door.

Unfortunately, my brothers had other plans and ambushed me on the bottom step. Bill and Mike, who were home from college for the summer, hooked me under the arms and dragged me outside. They dumped me in the backyard and the rest of my brothers formed a circle around me. On the count of three, everyone shouted, “Happy Birthday, Luckster!”

I winced. My nickname would’ve been great for someone else, but not for me. I didn’t have a lucky bone in my body. The only reason my brothers called me Luckster was because I was born on Friday the Thirteenth.

Dave handed me a present wrapped in newspaper and duct tape. “We all chipped in for this. Hope you like it.”

I sniffed the present. It didn’t stink. I shook it. Nothing exploded.
The contents shifted around like loose clothing. I glanced at Rick and Charlie.

They pinched their noses shut. Not a good sign.

“Don’t pay any attention to them,” said Dave. “I made sure they didn’t slip in any surprises.”

My nose twitched at the memory of last year’s stink-bomb-in-a-box, the evacuation of Pizza Castle, and a whole year of being called “Stinky Cheese Mann” by my classmates.

Prepared for the worst, I peeled off the newspaper and opened my present to find… an extra large football jersey with the number 13 and the name “LUCKSTER” printed in bold letters.

14 comments:

  1. Hi Joseph,

    This has so many charming elements, and you’ve covered a lot of territory. We know that Avery has six brothers who make him feel insignificant and invisible. We know he’s introverted, a reader, a dreamer, and he blames his brothers somewhat for not having any kids at his birthday. However, as readers we also know that he couldn’t have any close friends, otherwise they would have come to the party no matter what kind of a prank his brother’s pulled the year before. I’m not sure what to think about that yet—whether it’s a defense mechanism or a bit of slight of hand on the writer’s part that may not work very well.

    The “best birthday ever” paragraph reminds me of the “best morning of his life” narrative that precedes the zoo scene in Harry Potter, but for me it’s a bit less successful. Where in HP, it was followed by a description of what the rest of us would consider a horrible morning, in this instance, the birthday description is neither fun enough to be fascinating for most young boys, or bad enough to show that your protag’s life is awful and needs to change.

    Similarly, the comic book collection feels a little off or misleading, or perhaps just extraneous. I’m not positive about his goals/needs yet. Is he longing for some special ability to make himself feel less insignificant? Or is he attracted to the idea of helping people specifically. Either way, if this is important to him, I’d rather see him bring something with him to his Grandpa’s house or get a gift that shows his fascination is known by others, even if they don’t know it’s psychological (inner) significance. Maybe he gets the e-reader so he can read the graphic novels he loved, etc.

    As it is, you’ve done a great job of drop-kicking us into the day and hints of action, but I’m left with a sense that I don’t know quite where to turn, and also that a few too much of what we know centers on the grandfather rather than on Avery himself. Even the tone of the story, “Luckster”, for example, has a bit of an old-fashioned feel.

    Tighten up your writing (avoid words like “seemed,” and cut down on adverbs and adjectives), and focus on giving us a bit more of your MCs words and unique take on the world and what he’s experiencing.

    Some things that worry me a little about the overall direction:

    1) Is the comic book collection just a way to introduce the idea of wishing he was a superhero, or at least someone special?
    2) Is the focus on the superhero idea that he wants to help people, or is it that he wants to be unique and extraordinary (impossible to overlook) in some way?
    3) How does the birthday wish connect to the dreamweaving and the superhero thing and whatever is in the box? Is the introduction of a supernatural delivery service named after a Roman god meant to foreshadow the involvement of the gods? (GREAT tagline, btw!)
    4) What does the basement have to do with any of it? (My first thought was that this is somehow where grandpa keeps a secret identity :D.)

    If all of it doesn’t somehow all tie in together, then there may be too many elements. And it may be that the comic book thing is misdirecting.

    The intro is intriguing; I like the dream weaver reference and the idea that we know where the birthday is heading. But, I wonder if, for some editors, the pattern of the intro (my name is, and …) might read a little too much like other submissions they’ve seen. Based on the charm of your writing style and your facility with detail, I’d like to see you try to run the scene without the intro -- not positive that would work better, but I’d love for you to try and see if you like it. Maybe you’ve already done that?

    Overall, consider the different elements that you’ve brought up and their relative importance, and ensure that you’ve brought them to us in the most current, magical, active way that you can. Sorry I don’t have any concrete suggestions for this one. This is a case of it being good the way it is, but with a little focus and extra personality, it could become even stronger.

    Martina

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  2. You have a very fun middle grade boy story here! I’m intrigued by the title “Dream Weaver”. In all honesty, I would take out that opening however. It pulls you out as the reader, and may come off a bit too much like the Lightening Thief, especially since you mention Mercury’s Messengers, which is great btw. Love the “speed of now” line.

    I would tighten up in general. Cut anything unnecessary - words like, “Unfortunately”. There’s a lot of telling her overall. I think if you take the time to show what’s happening instead, you’ll find more opportunity to add a unique voice to your character as well. I want to know your MC better. I don’t even know his name for starters! :D

    Let’s look at an example:
    “They climbed the stairs to Grandpa’s study, closed the door, and turned on the radio.

    I pressed my ear against the door. My grandparents seemed to be having an argument,”

    What’s he doing while this happens? Does he press his ear to the door only to hear the static of the radio? How does he respond? What makes him think they’re arguing? Do their voices sound different than usual? Incorporate his feelings, senses and thoughts while giving the stage direction.

    I see a lot of potential here. I love lines like, “A chill crept up my legs and back as if an army of centipedes were marching over them.” Use senses and imagery like that all the way through.

    Hope that helps!

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  3. It's so hard commenting after Lisa and Martina because they seem to nail it all!

    I definitely see potential for this...I like the main character and found his voice compelling. But as above, I feel there are so many elements, I couldn't tell what was significant.

    I found the first five lines of dialogue to be a bit distracting. They didn't tell us much about the characters and just seemed to slow the story down. If the comic books are important (as per above comments), I would rather see him run and wash his hands without being told, passing his grandmother with nothing more than a nod. We can hold off on dialogue with his grandparents until there is something significant to say.

    Confused about the mother...is she in the kitchen decorating the cake the whole time? Through the fight and everything?

    Does the grandfather actively prevent anyone from going in the basement? Or do they just not see it? The difference is significant.

    I had trouble with the line:
    "Maybe once I uncovered the truth, people would stop ignoring me." I'm not sure why he thinks finding out what is in his Grandfather's basement would make any difference to the kids at school. The line felt like a bit too much of a stretch -- "finding out this secret will change who I am." I think finding out a secret is motivation enough for any kid. There doesn't have to be an explicit tie to the internal/external conflict.

    You have some great description and details "weaved his way around a knick-knack cabinet full of Wizard of Oz collectibles and a pair of shelves cluttered with books."

    I'm looking forward to reading the next version!

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  4. Hi Joseph,

    I enjoyed reading your piece. Personally, I liked the beginning where you introduce your narrator, ala the Lemony Snicket series. An upfront warning--a challenge of sorts for the middle grade reader, is a promise that the reader's in for a good time!

    Where I got pulled out of the story was in the first paragraph when the family goes to the grandparents house on the narrator's birthday. I kept trying to envision why and how--with all those brothers, and where and how long the trip took. Then, once the narrator got to his grandparent's house, and was given permission to delve into the comics, the doorbell rang. The mc, leapt up the answer it. With all those people around, his reaction surprised me. I felt like he'd want someone else to do that while he luxuriated with his favorite comics.

    You've done a good job hinting to us with the comic, the treasure chest, the box, the locked basement, etc, but I'm wondering if it isn't too much too fast. As a reader, it's hard to know what to keep track of. All the above is fodder for a great story. I'd probably pare that information down and really focus on the most important aspect of this day. Avery's made a wish, or is making a wish. If it has something to do with the box and the basement, then I'd be careful not to place too distractions in the way.

    Hope this helps. I'm looking forward to reading your next version.

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  5. Hello All,

    Thanks for your comments. I’ve been struggling with this beginning for some time. I wanted to show Avery’s “normal” life and family environment in the first chapter with hints of things to come. The reason I wanted to showcase his relationship with his family is that once the inciting incident occurs (in chapter 3) there isn’t much time to dedicate to them. However, Avery’s feelings for his family will play an important role in the decisions he makes, especially his relationship with his mom and grandma.

    Another purpose of this chapter is to set up Avery’s desire to be special, to stand out, instead of being lost in a sea of brothers. I’d say he’s more interested in the special abilities of heroes than in being a hero himself (though he has the potential). And the older brothers are meant to highlight this feeling of insignificance and invisibility.

    One thing I’m getting from your comments is that perhaps I’m trying to do too much with this first chapter. I’m cramming too many details (comic books, treasure chest, super hero talk, mysterious box, etc.) into the beginning and it is dragging the reader’s attention in too many directions because they don’t know what to focus on. Instead, I should focus on the most important elements and dwell on them more so that they have the attention they deserve.

    I’ll have to consider how to approach this revision because it might require a good deal of scrapping (and replacement) as opposed to polishing. However, I look forward to doing this because I’ve been iffy about this chapter for a while and needed some fresh eyes on it to help me figure out what wasn’t working.

    Thanks,
    Joseph

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  6. Joseph, a very famous author (so famous I can't remember who it is right now) once said that he writes the first chapter first, writes the rest of the book, throws away chapter 1 completely, and then writes chapter 1 fresh. Chapter 1 is always the hardest! So you are not alone.

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  7. Jenna,

    Actually, I have been pondering doing the same thing. I feel like my other chapters' voice, characters, and plots are so much better than what I have in chapter 1, which is frustrating. But perhaps you're right. This chapter is really there as a placeholder at the moment and a better one is going to come along... either because of this workshop or after I finish the book and start my revisions.

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  8. Hello All,

    I had a quick question. You all mentioned liking the voice... at what point in the first five pages did you feel the voice hit its stride? Was there are particular moment where you "got" the voice? I'm just trying to figure out where I went right with the beginning. Was it once I got to the mysterious box? Earlier than that? Later?

    Thanks,
    Joseph

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  9. Joseph,

    I loved the line "My fingers twitched as I unlocked the treasure chest and pulled out the box marked “Daredevil.” No angelic choirs sang as I lifted issue #1 out of its sleeve, but a part of me wanted to shout, “Halleluiah!”

    I also liked "I sniffed the present. It didn’t stink. I shook it. Nothing exploded.
    The contents shifted around like loose clothing. I glanced at Rick and Charlie.
    They pinched their noses shut. Not a good sign."

    For me, the voice is shining through in these sections because I think you are really getting into Avery's head and actions, without trying to tell us something specific. And yet you accomplish so much. In the first, you show us how excited he is about these comic books... the reverence, the unobtainable obtained. In the second, we learn how suspicious he is of his older brothers' pranks (and rightly so) without you having to spell it out.

    Hope that helps!

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  10. Joseph,

    I liked the voice here, the humor: I flipped to Daredevil’s origin story, my favorite part, and slipped into a daydream. What if radioactive goo splashed me in the face? What kind of superhero would I turn into?
    With my luck, I'd probably become Ant-Boy.

    I also like the fact that he's cognizant of his age--he's eleven, and that's important to an eleven-year-old: Why didn’t she trust me? I was eleven now. I could keep a secret.

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  11. Jenna and Heather,

    Thanks for your comments... I find them very enlightening. I originally had the first chapter start with the comics, but then I came up with the idea of the Forewarning and gave the beginning a bit more set up.

    Maybe I should start with the comics again (one of my favorite parts) and go from there.

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  12. I'm not a huge fan of the list intro at the beginning of the first chapter. The best birthday ever thing, I mean. I think it would be much stronger if you just focused on the comic books. At this point, the E-reader just seems like an unnecessary detail. But I love the idea of focusing on the magic of the old chest and the awesome comic books kept within it.

    As for voice, I think you really hit your stride in this paragraph: My fingers twitched as I unlocked the treasure chest and pulled out the box marked “Daredevil.” No angelic choirs sang as I lifted issue
    #1 out of its sleeve, but a part of me wanted to shout, “Halleluiah!”
    This also seems to be where the story really starts. Anyway, this seems like a really fun story and I really want to find out what's in that box!

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  13. Btw... if anyone has suggestions for a good nickname besides Luckster... then feel free to share ;)

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  14. I really enjoyed this. The voice is very strong and I though brilliant at points. However, I had a problem with the Chapter One opening. The first, second, best of all lines aren't eye catching. I liked the comic book portion, it showed how truly excited your MC was, but then I'm not sure how real that emotion was because of the way he just dropped the comic for the shiny new box and we hear nothing else about it. Did he put it away? Get in trouble for leaving it out? I really like the premise and think you've really got something here. Can't wait to see what the revisions look like.

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