Monday, September 5, 2011

7 1st 5 Pages Workshop - September Entry #1

Author: Sara Bautista
Genre: Young Adult


Chapter One

On the day everything changed, before I knew the truth about my mother, my biggest concern was the chemical spill site formerly known as my head. I’d let Greenly convince me that the solution to my boy problems–namely, that there were no boys in my life–was to make myself stand out. Enter Salon Sensations #52 Black as Night. We were supposed to do it together, but when the last day of winter break came around and Greenly was still stuck under eight feet of snow at her dad’s place in Montana, I decided to carry out the plan on my own. So there I stood, alone, dripping wet, hoping the frightening reflection in the mirror was an illusion. Closer inspection revealed the unfortunate truth: that scary thing in the mirror was me. It was the Sunday before the rest of my life, and I was a freak. I was also late for work.

I had barely settled in behind the hostess’ podium in the dim lobby when the entrance bells jangled. I tugged at the hem of my red kimono uniform—as if that would make it longer—and clamped my teeth together in what I hoped would pass for a smile.

A whoosh of cold greeted me, along with a tall, snow-dusted figure. Cliff Crawford. Joy. A little harassment from Neighbor Boy was just what I needed.

“Whoa, Jocelyn, is that you? Did you spend Christmas rescuing baby seals from an oil spill or something?” He laughed and circled around me, inspecting the damage from all sides. “Looks like you missed a piece back here. Actually, a few pieces…”

“Shouldn’t you be flunking out of community college somewhere?”

“It’s called a leave of absence, there, Bettie Page. I realized I haven’t found my calling yet, you know? Decided to move back in with the folks, maybe get a job at the Photo Hut. Pretty sweet deal, eh?”

“Yeah, every kid’s dream.”

A family filed in behind Cliff, crowding the entrance. Mrs. Liu, the restaurant owner, pushed in after them, making her first appearance of the evening.

“What’s going on here?” she squawked in my direction. “This is bottleneck! Your job is move people! You want to talk to cute boys, you work at carwash!”

In the same breath, she turned to the embarrassed customers, and in a saccharine voice cooed, “Welcome to Emperor Wok. Four for dinner, please? Come with me.” It wasn’t until she passed the hostess podium for the menus that she actually saw me. She gasped. For a second, I thought she might start convulsing right there, but she managed to keep walking.

“So where can a cute boy get some take-out around here?” Cliff asked, grinning.

I rolled my eyes and gestured toward the cashier.

Soon Mrs. Liu was back, ranting about the gravity of my hair-don’t. It registered as a Category Four catastrophe in her book, but she didn’t stop there. It was the bony hips (“men want ladies to make babies!”) and skinny arms (“you weak!”). I tuned her out when she started going off about my eyebrows—the center of a woman’s power—which were too light and thin for her liking, but I snapped right back to attention when she licked her finger and starting rubbing the purplish-black smudges tracing my hairline.

I was shielding myself with the podium when Cliff passed by on his way out.

‘You look odd,’ he mouthed.

Yes, yes I did, and I could count on Cliff to point that out. Ever since the summer after seventh grade when he pushed me into the Harrisons’ pool, fully clothed—thus revealing to the whole neighborhood that I still didn’t wear a bra—he had found endless ways to embarrass me.

Although I hated to entertain the idea that I even remotely cared what he thought, Cliff had a point. I couldn’t go to school looking like this. When I got home that night, I went straight to the attic. Among the skeletons of old lamps and ghostly sheet-covered furniture, I found a Tupperware crate stuffed with clothes I no longer wore. I dug through until I found a kelly green scarf. It would have to do.

On my way out of the dusty space, another box caught my eye. Suzanne was scratched across the side in my father’s writing. I paused, glancing at the hole of light from downstairs. It was late, but I couldn’t resist gingerly pulling apart the box’s worn cardboard flaps. A half-knit blanket, still clinging to the needles, topped stacks of paper, albums, and knickknacks. I opened an album at random, and was arrested as always by the sight of my mother. She held what had to be a baby me. My throat caught at her warm, open smile and easygoing stance. I traced her face with my finger before shutting the album with a kiss. As I slid the box back into its spot, a small, folded piece of paper fluttered to the ground. The graceful cursive read “To Jocelyn with Love.”

I held the thin paper to my nose, hoping to get just a touch of the elusive fragrance that lay somewhere on the edge of my memory. The note smelled of nothing but dust and faint mildew. Still, I savored it.

Downstairs, as I ran the water for another shower—I had to get a head start on those twenty-eight washes if my hair ever had a chance of looking decent again—I unfolded the note.

In contrast to the sparse writing on the outside, sketches covered the inside. Flowers and vines laced with six-legged creatures lined the edges and twisted to encircle the small square of writing in the middle, almost concealing the words.

My dear Josie, pocket full of posies,

I miss you more with each day that passes. The good news is that I should be back soon. I can’t wait to give your sweet little self a big hug and a kiss. In the meantime, I’ve been catching bugs for you. See? Here’s a beetle and a cricket. I hope you’ve been finding lots of worms, and that you’re taking good care of Daddy.

Love you more than you’ll ever know,

A date, barely visible, hid among the sketched foliage. June 24, 1980.

Once in the shower, I stood blinking, watching the cascades of dull grey water pound the shampoo bottle that had slipped from my hands. June 24, 1980.

My mother couldn’t have written a note on that date. By then, I would be two; by then, she would be dead


  1. Hi Sara,

    Lovely piece of writing, and I love the voice as well. I definitely get that there's a mystery; I'm grounded in her life; and I have a brief introduction, I suspect, to all the the main characters who are going to be inhabiting her world. The letter is particularly intriguing.

    Overall, I'm going to start with a few questions for you to consider for your first revision.

    1. Is there enough here to let us know that we are in the past? Until I get to date of the letter and discover that she would be 31 (now, even older once the book is published) I didn't get a good sense of that at all.

    2. Is it necessary for it to be set in the recent past? Recent past is hard. There isn't necessarily enough that's different to hook a reader, but it isn't current. It can sometimes introduce more problems than it presents solutions. Could you accomplish the same thing without showing the date -- something along the lines of a "my eye caught on the date, because that date was impossible." and then your brilliant closing line.

    3. Can you delete the first part of the first sentence and start with, "The day I learned the truth about my mother," or something similar?

    4. Can you rephrase the first graph to avoid echoing "truth" or are you doing that for deliberate emphasis?

    5. Are your opening setups as original as you can make them, or might they sound familiar to readers/agents/editors? The snarky neighbor boy, the overly-critical mentor who worries about her marriagability (although LOVE the skinny arms/weak part), have been done quite a bit. You do them very well, but I wonder if there is anything else that you can bring in to make them truly unique. Especially if you are going to end up with the neighbor being the love interest. Or maybe especially if that's not where you're going, since given the setup, I naturally assumed that's where this is headed.

    6. The letter setup is great, but could you benefit from a little bit more hunting in her own closet for a scarf first before she heads for the attic?

    7. Does the sentimentality of the kiss ring true for this character, at that point in time? If so, then could you perhaps slip in a clue or two ahead of time to let us know that she thinks fondly of her mother? If she was two, she likely doesn't remember her at all, and thus far she hasn't come across as very sentimental.

    Again, really strong writing. I'm looking forward to seeing where you take this next week.


  2. Hi! Wow, well it's clear to me that you are a talented writer. You've done a great job with voice and character (although it's worth considering Martina's points about the cliches since you only have a brief time with agents/editors eyes). Two main issues popped out at me. Again, Martina touched on both, but I will give my two cents and see if it helps.
    1. This transition paragraph was rather jarring to me:"Although I hated to entertain the idea that I even remotely cared what he thought, Cliff had a point. I couldn’t go to school looking like this. When I got home that night, I went straight to the attic. Among the skeletons of old lamps and ghostly sheet-covered furniture, I found a Tupperware crate stuffed with clothes I no longer wore. I dug through until I found a kelly green scarf. It would have to do."
    You've spent time setting up everything else and I feel like we suddenly jump into the attic. This is an important moment, can you make the transition more fluid?
    2. The date. I didn't even consciously "get" it the first time through. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that you are using the timing of your own adolescence? Perhaps because you feel you know from where you speak? Maybe not! IDK but there was nothing to give me a sense of a different time/place in the opening narrative. And I was perfectly happy to accept that she was a modern teen. Is it necessary to the plot? If not, I really think you should consider changing it to modern day. If it IS then I suggest rethinking this opening to indicate the time. The second option is trickier though because you don't want to force info in to sound like you're trying too hard either. And the nineties aren't that long ago that there's much you can say...

    Hope that was helpful! I can't wait to see your revision!

  3. Hi Martina and Lisa, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments! You've certainly given me a lot to think about. In response to your points:

    Martina 1/2. and Lisa 2. The plot could be set in the present now that I think about it, and in fact the widespread cell phone/Internet use in the present could solve some plot challenges I'm facing now. (And you're right Lisa, I chose this time frame because it feels familiar to me) Hmmm...this is something I will definitely think about changing! It will alter the whole manuscript but that might not be a bad thing. Thanks!

    3. maybe! =)

    4. I hadn't even noticed the double use of "truth" - thank you for pointing that out - it wasn't intentional!

    5. This is very useful commentary, Martina, thank you! I'm trying to read as much YA as possible, but I didn't realize these characters were that cliche. And yes, Cliff is the love interest! (Though someone else gets in the way first). Do you think it's a good thing or a bad thing that this is obvious at this point?

    6. Yes, and this gets at Lisa's comment #1 as well.

    7. Hmm, something to think about.

    Again, thank you both for your suggestions. So, how does this process work? Are rewrites posted here in the comments or somewhere else? Also, did you happen to read the email I sent (regarding posting novel bits online....)?

  4. Love the ending cliff hanger. Some good voice throughout.

    A bit uneven in tone that some tightening should fix. A little too much info dump in the first paragraph. The main idea is she ruins her hair. Maybe have her doing it and thinking this should’ve been a together thing to work in the absent BFF.

    I don’t know the Bettie Page reference and got confused about that being her name. Does Mrs. Liu play a large role in the book? She seems a bit flat and stereotypical.

    Feels like the story starts with the letter. Maybe the middle parts can happen later? I’m sure she won’t get all of the color out of her hair no matter how many times she washes it this one night. Could this be a stronger scene if she was dazed as well as hair challenged at the restaurant? I would think she’d look for the scarf before setting foot outside of her house for the first time.

    The shampoo bottle slipping through her fingers has to be a delayed reaction as she wouldn’t be reading the letter standing in the shower with the bottle in hand. That delay bothers me. Might not bother others.

    Great concept. Interesting hint of mystery.

  5. I really like the way we are dropped right into the action of the story. The banter with Cliff hints at some interesting scenes to come. It gets the reader wondering what his role in the story will be, subtly building tension.

    I didn't get the Bettie Page reference, and while Cliff seemed to work in the restaurant scene, Mrs. Liu didn't grab my attention as much.

    I agree that the letter is the strongest part of the hook. It helps the mystery unfold and definitely grabs the reader.

    What would happen if she found the letter in the midst of dyeing her hair before going to work? It could naturally make her late, and she would have more than enough angst/emotion to bring to the table during her interactions with Cliff and everyone else.

  6. I concur -- Love the immediacy, and I did get the Betty Page ref. My biggest problem is that I wanted more (but obviously you had to stop where you did). Also agreeing with Jessi on the letter. If your hands are wet, would you be holding a fragile, special piece of paper? Wouldn't you take more care with it? Didn't quite catch the time issue until the end, but after the others brought it up, it is a little confusing. I did notice a few transition bumps, nothing major. I do think that Ms. Liu could be sketched out a little better. For a character with such interesting possibilities, she seems too quickly dismissed. I think I would like to see a stronger opening paragraph, but I'm at a loss as to how to tell you to tighten it. The best I can do is say that my eyes/interest sort of "slid" past it. Grab me. The opening line, while conveying a great deal of info, seems rather hurriedly thrown out there.

    All in all, your story got my attention quickly, but you don't have me locked in yet. The good news is that you are very close. There are some cosmetic changes that can be made, but all in all, good effort and good voice.

  7. Hi Sara, I enjoyed your writing and your story's conflict. You have so many elements in your 1st paragraph, I became confused. It might be fun to see your MC butchering her own hair before she goes to work. I'm also assuming Greenly is her best friend. I love Cliff's 1st comment on her appearance. Why would she go to the attic? Great mystery set up. Sheri


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