Monday, September 5, 2011

6 1st 5 Pages Workshop - September Entry #3

Sheri Levy
Middle Grade

Chapter 1

My dogs and I made so much noise playing tug of war in my bedroom I thought for sure Momma'd fly up here any second. I said, "Sit." The dogs sat, tilting their heads sideways, eyes glued on mine waiting for my next command. All was quiet. I gave the release word, "Okay."

It's not my fault they're so loud. They're just normal, active dogs. I should've taken them running this morning, but I had things to do, like packing for our beach trip. I glanced at my watch. Panic shot through me. Ooooh! One hour till Dad hollers, 'Trina, load em up'.

I tried to lift my wooden desk chair, but it was heavier than me, so I slid it backwards into the closet and climbed up. My duffle bag sat on the top shelf daring me to grab it. Ah. Crabs! Will I ever grow? I stood on my tiptoes and bounced. The ring of the phone startled me, but my fingertips touched the handle and held on.

“I’ll get it,” I shouted, yanking the bag to the floor. “It’s probably Sarah.” I rolled it to the phone. Sydney, my fourteen-month-old, Australian shepherd, followed me out and sat at my feet. “Hello?”

Sarah never even said, “Hey,” or “How are you?” She just started yakking, "I've out grown… Mom took me shopping … wait till you see…"

I ran my fingers through Sydney's long hair like a comb, listening, waiting, wanting to get a word in. I squeezed the phone to my ear with my shoulder and continued packing. Sydney, never more than inches from my legs, panted. His floppy ears drooped. His gold eyes gave a saddened look. He'd already learned that the suitcase signaled a trip somewhere and he wasn’t always invited.

Jake, my Black lab, flopped in the middle of the floor. Only his eyes followed me. If I got close to him, his long tail thumped. He worried, too.

During the moment Sarah paused to catch her breath, I blurted out, “I’m not taking so many clothes. I’m going to swim and play in the sand. Aren't you?”

She ignored my question and jabbered on. "We'll meet boys....”

This time I interrupted. “You want to do what?” I looked at the phone receiver as if it spit out a different language. I had pictured Sarah with her black and white Springer spaniel, Darby, with my own dogs having the adventure of a lifetime, running up and down the beach, splashing in the waves, making sand castles and who knows what else. Sarah definitely had different ideas about our beach trip. Instead of arguing, I cut her off. “Mom’s calling me. See you in an hour.”

With my last items packed, I rolled the bag to the back door. As I sat on the soft top, air whooshed from the zipper. What in the world had gotten into Sarah?

My dogs each plopped their favorite toy, a red ball, in my lap. I patted their heads and asked, “Are you guys going to be good at the beach?” Sydney cocked his head. “I know you can swim in Mrs. Brown’s pond, chasing her geese, but Jake." His ears perked up. "You haven’t learned a whole bunch since you’ve arrived.”

After my very first dog died last spring, I swore to my parents, "I never, ever, want another." My grief kept me weighted down and unable to do anything except go to school. No riding horses. No Sarah time. When Momma, she's a vet tech, brought home three puppies that needed to be hand fed, I told myself, "Don't get involved." I struggled to stay away, but my curiosity pushed me towards the laundry room where the furry bundles whined.

Dad sat on the floor feeding one tiny pup with a very small bottle, while Momma used an eye dropper. One puppy, all alone, cried waiting to be fed. That was the moment the fight went right out of me. I crawled over the gate and fed the helpless baby.

Momma explained, "These puppies are promised to a Service Dog Kennel and will be raised by foster families." After a week of caring for the puppies, I felt lighter, better. Before summertime, I researched Puppy Raisers, and decided it'd be the perfect way to never have another old dog and never get attached. How hard could it be to train a puppy for eighteen months and then give him to his special companion?

Dad was a little resistant to the idea, but Momma was easy, so it was two against one. We drove to the middle of the state to pick out an eight-week old puppy. Sydney's gold eyes glowed from a corner in the room. As I approached him, his red-haired little body with brown specks wiggled and bounced. I knew then, he was the one. We looked the same, accept for the eyes. Mine are green and don’t glow.

Four months ago, Jake, a friendly stray, blew in with a late spring snow storm. Hungry and wanting company, he played all day in the snow with Sydney and me and followed us home. We spent weeks trying to find his real owners. In that amount of time I changed my mind, again, about never having another “forever dog.” Convincing my parents and trainer I could still train Sydney and care for Jake took a little finesse. I guess I'm supposed to be with dogs. I certainly understand them better than girls my own age.

Worrying about our trip, I continued tossing the balls. The dogs returned them to my lap, dripping with white, foamy slobber. We did this over and over until my cutoffs stuck to my knees and my fingers wrinkled from the slime.

I carried their dog bowls to the car. Sydney’s eyes never left my hands. He woofed to Jake.They darted back and forth barking at Dad as he packed the car. Dad smiled and said, "I guess, T., they've figured it out."

"Shhh.” I grinned. “I haven’t told them, yet." They hurried after me into the house. “Are you ready to go, Momma?” I tapped my flip flop on the hardwood floor as the second hand on my watch ticked, ticked, ticked. "Any moment Dad's going to call us."

Momma walked through the house one last time. “Trina, Honey, have the dogs pottied?”

“Yes, yes!” I pushed my wild curls behind my ears. “Sarah’s probably outside waiting for us and I’ve already put Syd’s cape on and all their stuff is in the car.”

Dad called, “Okay you two. Load ‘em up.”

“Let's go, boys." My dogs pounded through the back doorway. Sydney slid into his learned 'Sit' at the car door and waited for his next command. Jake watched him and copied his ‘Sit.’

"Syd, you’re going to train at the beach,” I announced. “For a whole week!” His ears moved backwards. “And Jake, I expect you to learn, too. “ He wagged. I opened the car door. Both dogs rushed to get in. “Silly boys. Sydney, Wait…Jake, in you go… Good boy!”

My eyes locked with Sydney’s. Pointing my finger at his face, I counted one thousand-one, one thousand-two, one-thousand three in my head, and then said, “Okay!” Sydney leaped to the seat. I beamed.

We drove across the street to Sarah’s house to caravan. I blinked. I couldn't believe my eyes. What the heck? Someone's taken over the body of my best friend.


  1. Hi Sheri,

    Lots to love about the setup here. I adore the background of the puppy raising, and I'm intrigued by the promise of conflict between your mc and her best friend as they stand on the knife-edge of adolescence. As a reader, I know I am in for an interesting ride wondering whether your mc will change to keep up with her best friend, or whether the best friend will reluctantly drag her into situations she isn't ready for while they are stuck together. That's a great recipe for conflict, growth, and humor.

    I do have a few questions:

    1) Is all the dog info and backstory necessary this early on, or can you weave it in through action a little later? Can you avoid the brief flashback that disrupts the forward flow right at the beginning?

    2) Is there conflict that will arise out of Jake's disobedience or failure to be trainable? If so, could you have him actively impede his packing, or do something else that sets this up more strongly?

    3) Can you show her lack of interest in clothes and girlish things more actively?

    4) Does everything in this piece sound authentic to the age and POV of your mc?

    5) Is there a way that you can avoid the jarring tense shifts that you've introduced by showing her thoughts this way?

    This is a lovely premise, and I'm eager to see how you answer these questions in your revision.


  2. Martina keeps beating me to the punch today! LOL. I like your character. She's certainly got her own voice. But I did notice the tense shifts, which distracted from the story. Example: "It's not my fault they're so loud. They're just normal, active dogs" is present not past as you've established. In any case, the other thing that I noticed was that the info about the dogs was a bit much. I like dogs, and if this is a book primarily about them, I guess it still works. But if this is about your MC and they are one (albeit large) facet of her life, I think you can tone it down a bit and add info throughout. I guess I wanted a balance between the trip, who she is, and the issue with her friend, as well as the dogs. Maybe it's also that a lot of this time is spent with her thinking about things. It's hard when you're trying to set up so much, I know, but a touch more action would be good. And I don't mean ninja's with swords or anything like that, just her doing and interacting. It might be interesting to see how she balances the interaction between the dogs vying for her attention and a parent or friend. Just a thought.

  3. Great voice. I was hooked. Then it slipped into telling and back story and you lost me for a bit. Do we need to know Mom’s a vet tech yet? It’s breaking the fourth wall to tell the reader in that position. I wonder if you should start with her going to get the first puppy from Puppy Raisers and explaining a bit about her answer to her grief then. Then bring in Jake. Four months later and we’re all going to the beach. Make it all happening in the now instead of filling us in with a lot of back story in the first chapter.

    I love the premise that she’s still dog crazy and her best friend has become boy crazy. With that and the emotional impact of letting the one dog go at 18 months shows great promise for the conflict, escalating tensions in the rest of the story.

  4. I loved the dog characterizations - they definitely ring true and were endearing. I also thought the ending was a great hook, and am intrigued to see what happens. A few thoughts -

    -I thought the "Will I ever grow?" seemed a little out of place, even though I imagine this concerns the mc...maybe there's a better way to include this issue?

    -I wanted a stronger clue as to what Sarah said on the phone. I felt I knew more about the dogs, their emotions and motivations more than the people.

    -I'd leave out some of the 'housekeeping' stuff (telling how people are getting from point a to b, etc) - I think you could omit the whole section at the end from "Shh" i grinned..." to "..copied his sit" without losing anything.

  5. I like the "getting ready for vacation" feelings that this scene brings up in my memory. I think that your readers will draw from that in their own experiences as well.

    Will the dogs going to play a large role in the story or will it focus more on the relationship between the girls... or a bit of both? I really enjoyed the dogs but felt that there was a little too much telling about the dogs' stories. If they aren't going to be part of the central story, I think the focus on them here could be reduced so that the reader has an idea of what to expect. I agree this could probably be worked in throughout the story, maybe in short snippets.

    Maybe the scene could focus on the girls and the dogs interacting in order to show what the "before" scenario looks like?

    I think this sounds like a concept that a lot of kids this age have to deal with as friends mature at varying levels.

  6. Hard to tag in when the good ladies above have it nailed. The tensing is jarring. The backstory on the beasties could likely wait page or two. Good reference in the proper terminology ("release", etc.). If you’re going to focus immediately on the dogs, I’d like to see a few more aspects of their personality. I know that well-trained dogs will behave in a similar fashion, but their personality quirks always kick in too. We had a lab that would do the tip-of-the-tail-thump when told to sit and would sit perfectly but he’d hang his head low like a martyr while sitting. At the same time, we also had a borzoi that needed a quick whirl around prance with an excited snap of her teeth before sitting prettily. One of your dogs is obviously the “saint” of the pair, and the other obviously has more innate bounce and more of an ornery streak. Show us more of this.

    Also agree that we need more of a balance of info on the friend. Could show the MC looking at a picture of the two of them together somewhere… it will give you a little more of a lead in to the drastic change that’s coming.


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