Sunday, November 6, 2011

7 1st 5 Pages November Workshop - Entry #5

Max Brunner
Middle Grade Fantasy

Chapter I: The Spit Wad

A ball of wet paper slapped the side of John’s face. He caught himself before falling out of his chair but was powerless to stop the hot blood that shot into his cheeks. Craig and his friends exploded with laughter. Cold saliva began to run down his cheek and John swallowed hard to keep his lunch inside his stomach. The spit wad had caused him enough embarrassment for one day.

Craig Menning was one of the biggest kids at school and a real bully. He would punch you in the stomach if you ever said that to his face and he would punch you even harder if you ever called him Craig. His nickname was Dice. John didn’t know why and he really didn’t care. He would call him whatever he wanted as long as it meant he would keep his fists to himself.

Unfortunately John Davy was the skinny new kid who liked science: the perfect target for bullies like Dice. He might have been able to avoid him in the hallways, running from class to class and fleeing school the second the final bell rang but even that would only help so much. John’s test scores had placed him in classes advanced for his age, the same classes the older bully was forced to repeat, which meant Dice and his friends could pick on him every day.

“Just what is so funny Mr. Menning?” asked their wrinkled teacher.

“Nothing, Ms. Jessup,” Dice replied as he fumbled to hide the straw shooter.

The instructor marched toward him. “What is that you’re hiding over there?”

John looked up from the book he had been pretending to read to avoid the stares of his classmates and wiped the moistened projectile from his face, “It really was nothing, Ms. Jessup. A bird flew close by and almost hit the window is all.” The small-framed boy glanced over at the bully. He knew he could expect a pounding if Dice didn’t like his answer.

“Now how would you know what’s been going on outside that window, Mr. Davy?” She asked, glaring at him through a pair of glasses that would be too small if her eyes weren’t so beady. “You haven’t done anything but keep your nose in that book since the beginning of the period.”

She snatched the paperback out of his hands. “Just what is so captivating that you cannot seem to pay attention in my classroom?”

Ms. Jessup held the book away from her face so her old eyes could read the title but before she could get the letters focused Dice chimed in. “Another crazy book about UFOs or something,” he said, inciting a giggle from his classmates.

“The Hutchison Effect,” John said softly.

“What was that?” asked Ms. Jessup, “Speak up boy!”

John shifted in his seat before lifting his deep brown eyes. “It, it’s about the Hutchison Effect and the Bermuda Triangle and how—”

“The Bermuda Triangle?” Ms. Jessup snickered. “Preposterous. I’ve lived on this island in ‘the Triangle’ for more than 35 years. I’ve seen more storms here than you’ve had birthdays and I have never seen anything, ANYTHING out of the ordinary.”

“I read hundreds of ships and planes have disappeared in the Triangle and even Christopher Columbus saw strange lights when he sailed through here. My dad says—“

“Mr. Davy,” She interrupted. “The Bermuda Triangle is no different from anywhere else in the world and anyone who says otherwise should have his or her head examined. The laws of science are the same here as they are everywhere else.” She held John’s book in the air and spoke loud enough for everyone to hear. “I have studied science my entire life and I can tell you these kinds of books do not contain fact. They do not teach; they entertain. This book is full of idiotic theories by people with too much time on their hands too lazy to get real jobs. Reading things like this is a waste of your time and a waste of good paper. I would have thought you were smart enough to see that, John.”

“Now,” she continued, “put that thing away and let’s see if we can teach you some real science. I don’t know why on earth a bright boy like you would waste his time reading such a ridiculous book.”

“Because he’s just as nuts as his old man,” Dice chuckled and it seemed to John the whole class laughed with him.

Sefi wasn’t laughing, however. “Knock it off, Dice!” she said slamming her fist into her brother’s arm.

She brushed her dark, pink-streaked hair away from her eyes to steal a glance at John but the boy had his head down again, this time focusing intently on the corner of his desk.

Ms. Jessup carried on with the rest of her class and as his tormentors began again, John let out a quiet sigh. Dice had labeled him a nerd on the first day of school and he had been treated as an outsider ever since. Many days he felt totally alone, like he had a disease and everyone was afraid if they came too close he would infect them. No one seemed to understand him. What made John feel even worse was that no one had even tried to understand him.

When the bell rang the children quickly crowded the classroom’s exit, eager to leave the school behind them. John stayed in his seat. He knew if he left now Dice would be there to meet him.

The room was nearly empty when Sefi walked over to his desk. “Sorry about the spit wad. Dice can be a real jerk sometimes.”

John didn’t respond. He frowned at the cover of his textbook, waiting for her to leave. All he wanted was to be left alone. He didn’t want to talk to anyone, especially Dice’s sister.

The boy winced as she slammed her palm onto his desk, her skull-covered bracelets rattling menacingly.

“You know why he pushes you around?” she huffed. “Because he knows you won’t push back.”

Sefi stood in silence, waiting for the boy to reply but when no answer came she pushed his book to the floor and stormed out of the classroom.


  1. I like the story and the writing a lot, but I think that the new kid in school story line is used to often.

  2. Hi Max,

    Your writing shows great skill and you start your story with interesting action. It's easy to get a handle on your characters and plot.

    In fact, your writing is so strong that I have little to say, but the one main comment I have is not small. One reason it's easy to get a handle on your characters is because they do not seem very fresh at this stage. You've got the big bully, the nerdy, picked-on MC, the sympathetic girl, and the out-of-touch, stern teacher. Honestly, I think with your skill and just a bit more deepening, you can make these characters seem different from the standard fare, even within the first 5 pages.

    What sets your characters apart from anyone else? What details breaths new life into them? Can you envision them in a slightly different way to make them seem more real? For example, instead of being the big, dumb bully, could Dice be the reigning geek who doesn't want his turf usurped and so has turned bully? I don't know your story, so cannot really suggest specific changes. It may take something as simple as a fresh way to describe them, or it may require a more serious reworking. It's hard for me to know at this stage. You may have them completely fresh later, and it's just not coming across in these first 5 pages.

    Also, while your first paragraph is great action, you then go into two paragraphs of telling. I think some of this can be woven into action and dialogue as the story progresses.

    Here's a few small things that stuck out to me:

    This little detail may just be me, but when I first read your line "the hot blood that shot into his cheeks, " I thought you meant that the spitball had hit him hard enough to make his cheek bleed. I had to reread to understand that you meant blush. I think maybe the word shot is a bit too strong for blushing.

    You could just say "cold saliva ran down his cheek" rather than "began to."

    When you said, "The instructor marched toward him," I initially thought you meant toward Dice as he was the last person mentioned. Also, if you want to keep this in John's POV, instructor doesn't sound like the word a kid would use.

    Your story so far is good in deep POV except for one glitch - "She brushed her dark, pink-streaked hair away from her eyes to steal a glance at John but the boy had his head down again, this time focusing intently on the corner of his desk." With this, you step out of John's head and switch to omniscient.

    Again, I think your writing is very strong, but I would like to see some freshness about your characters. Please keep in mind that these are just my opinions. Others may think differently. I hope you get some good comments below, and I look forward to reading any revisions you choose to make!


  3. I'll agree that the nerd vs. bully trope is perhaps a little too static here. Beyond that, I'd like some hints about the hook of the book. I'm sensing that it's the Bermuda Triangle; they're in Bermuda, and John's father is one of those "crackpot scientists." I assume that the adventure will involve that. I just wish I had a sense of how John feels. He's reading about it -- I imagine that he cares about his father, and agrees with his theories. I'd also like some more conflict. Right now, he's just trying not to make waves. He covers for Dice's spitwad, he knuckles under to his teacher's insulting remarks, and the scene peters out with Sefi telling John he gets picked on because he does nothing. I don't know how this scene really ends, or how much further it goes on, but I'd like to see something more of a hook, something that propels us forward or hints at future conflict. Perhaps addressing how to make this a little less conventional would help solve that problem. I'll look forward to seeing your revisions.

  4. I like your writing over all, but I think John is a kind of flat character. (Also the teacher, who seems so heavy-handed, felt one-sided to me.)

    This story reminded me of something I read in Les Edgerton's book 'Hooked.' He uses the movie 'Thelma & Louise' for some of his examples, and said that when Thelma decides to not tell her husband that she's going on a trip with Louise, that's a pivotal point because up then, she's always been dominated by men. Without even thinking it through or realizing it, she's making a decision to do something different and break out of that trap. It's where her story begins.

    Right now, it doesn't seem like John has decided to break out of the trap of being continually bullied yet, so even though there's conflict, the story isn't moving forward very much. Does that make sense? I'm not explaining it very well. (For an eloquent explanation, just real Les Edgerton's book! : ) )

    Can't wait to see what you do next. : )

    John, as a character, seems to

  5. I think Ms. Sipal nailed it. I don't mind the new kid routine. Or even the crackpot scientist. And if you can make your characters compelling, no one else will either.

    That said, even though John may not be into rocking the boat, give us a reason to see that he has some spine, some spark.

    "What made John feel even worse was that no one had even tried to understand him." --> stop after "tried"

  6. Firstly, I love how this is related to the Bermuda Triangle. I've always been interested in that mystery, so mentioning it here is a really strong hook for me. I also like how you bring it up in the first chapter. For a first chapter it's pretty strong; we get a sense of the MC, the situation he lives in, and the hook for the larger story. Well done.

    Unfortunately, like the other commenters have said, the characters do feel a little caricatured. John's such a quiet nerd that I actually don't sympathize with him much at this point.

    Also, I really don't understand the teacher. Why is she so keen on ridiculing one of her brightest students? Normally a kid like him who gets moved up a couple grades would be a kind of teacher's pet, not someone to be laughed at. While I like that it gets across the idea of the Bermuda triangle, I think it's a little unrealistic that a teacher would be that nasty to that kind of student.

    One character I did like was Sefi. I liked how she looked kinda punk and was very much don't-mess-with-me, but was still nice enough to go over and apologize to her brother. I'd definitely be interested in reading more about her.

    All in all, I love the Bermuda triangle premise but I think the characterization can use a little work in order to move away from the stereotypical boy-is-bullied-both-by-his-peers-and-by-his-teacher sort of thing.

  7. Max Brunner said:

    I am humbled to be able to take part in this workshop. Your comments are insightful and I am excited for the opportunity to address them and get even MORE feedback.
    This is my first attempt at writing a novel and I obviously played it too safe with the characterizations, at least this early in the manuscript. To be honest Ms. Jessup and Dice are only in two scenes and play such monir roles so I hadn't given them much thought, but characters without depth or conflict make for a boring read. I am excited to make changes and I hope the revisions I have been working on will add both depth and flavor.


Tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you! :)