Monday, November 14, 2011

6 1st 5 Pages November Workshop - Entry #5 - Rev 1

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 flooded his cheeks. Craig and his friends exploded with laughter. Cold saliva ran 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. He took a deep breath and reminded himself that they wouldn’t be laughing much longer.

Craig Menning was one of the meanest kids at school and even though he had his friends do his dirty work, he was a real bully. He would have someone 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 his friends would keep their fists to themselves.

Unfortunately John Davy was a skinny kid who liked science: the perfect target for a snake like Dice. Most new kids would come into a school and make friends. Dice stole his. He had moved in two months ago but all it had taken was one day of teasing from the cool new kid with the leather jacket and John’s friends had abandoned him.

The teasing hadn’t stopped there. Ever since Dice had learned who John’s father was, his tormenting had become relentless. He might have been able to avoid Dice in the hallways, running from class to class and fleeing school the second the final bell rang but that could 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. They were even part of the same after school science program.

“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 woman marched toward him. “What is that you’re hiding over there?” The class shuddered as she passed. It was impossible to tell how she would react to the spit wad. It was impossible to tell how she would react to just about anything. One minute she would be laughing and playing with the kids in her program and the next she would assign you detention for sneezing. She was like one of those dogs you always see on television, the ones that look up at you and let you pet them then suddenly leap up to take a chunk out of your face.

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, “I-I-It really was nothing, Ms. J-Jessup.” He took a breath and tried to get his stuttering under control. “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 and his friend didn’t like his answer.

She spun on her heels and locked John in her sights. “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 you came through that door.”

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

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.

“T-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.”

“My dad told me hundreds of ships and planes have disappeared in the Triangle and even Christopher Columbus saw strange lights when he sailed through here. He 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. John, you are too bright to believe in this hocus pocus.”

John clenched his fists and held his tongue. She would be eating those words soon enough.

“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 nu-nu-nu-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 he had his head down again, this time focusing intently on the corner of his desk.

Ms. Jessup carried on with the rest of the program and as his tormentors began again, John let out a quiet sigh. Ever since Dice had moved in, John had been an outsider. 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 what this was doing to him. What made John feel even worse was that no one had even tried.

When the program ended for the day 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.”


  1. Most of the first four paragraphs tells me things I'd rather see in action, in the scene.

    You might consider doing an exercise where you write this as if it were a play: if you wanted to get all this information across, but you could only do it in stage direction and dialogue, how would you? I'm not saying that you should cut out exposition altogether, but right now I think you're leaning on telling me what you want me to know and how I should feel about the players in the scene. I'd rather draw my own conclusions based on what you have happen in the scene. The exercise helps you be a little more creative when it comes to showing.

    I also feel that you're still clinging a bit to the stereotypes: even though the teacher now seems bi-polar, it still plays a little pat. And John still feels a bit too passive.

    That said, I enjoyed the line "...reminded himself that they wouldn't be laughing too much longer." That had me wondering: why? What's going to happen? A little more of that threaded throughout the scene in would be great. What does he know, that we don't? YOu don't have to say, but the hint of a secret, and a dangerous one, is an excellent hook.

  2. Hi Max,

    I agree with everything Cathy said. I feel that you're attempting to make your characters come more alive, seem more fresh, by telling the reader more about them from the beginning. But, in my opinion, it's not that we need to know more, but we need to see something different, what makes them unique, through how they interact and talk to each other.

    It's the standard "show, don't tell" but also the choice of what you decide to show that I'm getting at.

    Years ago I heard a writer speak at a workshop where she talked about descriptions and she said if you're describing a closet, don't tell the reader that it's dark and crowded. That's standard for a closet. Instead, show your character encountering something unusual in this particular closet.

    And that's what I think you need here. You've got an interesting set-up with John's interest in the Bermuda Triangle while actually living there, I'm very intrigues with that part, but I'd like for your presentations of your characters and their interactions to be just as intriguing. And I think you can get to this not by telling us all about them upfront, but by showing us through action and dialogue what makes each character unique.

    One other aspect -- this version seems to employ more omniscient narration than your prior version where I thought you were mostly using deep POV. While either choice of POV can work well, I think you should be stronger in your choice. I'd recommend that you spend some time reading about deep POV online if you're not that familiar with it, then decide which type of POV you wish to use, and then make sure you're consistent. Please forgive me if I've misunderstood and you've already done that.

    And I agree with Cathy. I love your hint of a secret. Would love to see if you can weave just a bit more of that into your beginning, though that's not absolutely necessary.

    Good luck!

  3. Hi Max,

    I like the idea that you're going with for the Bermuda Triangle. When I was a kid, I read about it because I thought it was so mysterious and I wanted to fly planes, so it had a draw there, too. Kids like mysterious stuff.

    I like the first paragraph which begins with you showing John being bullied. You can feel his unhappiness at being bullied. Only thing there is that someone mentioned last time that the blood in his cheeks sounded like he was actually bleeding, and I agree.

    The next three paragraphs of telling with backstory telling caused me to lose interest. I think if you showed this through actions and dialogue in a dramatic way, it would be way more effective.

    It's been awhile since I've been a kid in school, but although I had one ogre teacher I remember in particularly, none were quite so schizophrenic and arrogant as this one. She's so over the top, she feels unreal to me. In 'Hooked' by Les Edgerton he talks about writers finding the drama in the subtle and quieter exchanges. It think that could work for you here.

    This is little, but the word "program" kept catching me. I don't think kids call it that. It's class or teaching, but not a program. Also, when you talk about the children quickly heading for the exit at the end of the program for the day, that all sounds like adult-speak. Kids are reading this, and they think of themselves as kids. They are children, but I don't think they call themselves that in their own minds.

    I like how you're bringing out the character of Sefi at the end when she's challenging John to stand up for himself when Dice picks on him. Wondering how he's going to do this and what's going to happen next. : )

  4. Just a thought. What if you began the story where he actually stands up to Dice?

  5. Firstly, it's been a week and a half, so I don't remember your first revision all that well, and I can't pick out the places where you made changes, so I may well say the same things again.

    One thing I do like is the foreshadowing, where John thinks about how they won't be laughing at him much longer. Why is this? Is it because he's going to prove them wrong? Is he going to do something terrible to stop them from laughing? It would be nice if you could expand on this point a little bit because it would give us a sense of John's motivation. Right now he just feels like this poor little smart kid who's getting picked on. Give him a goal-- prove his entire school wrong-- and he suddenly gets a lot more interesting. You could do this so easily, just add 'He would show them they were wrong' at some point. This would do a lot for the tension of the story as well as for John's character which, frankly, I'm not too invested in at this point.

    Another smaller point is that you don't introduce Sefi properly. I checked, and you just drop her in with "Sefi wasn't laughing." This is the first time you mention her, so you have to give a little bit more background. Mentioning her earlier is probably a good idea.

    I remember saying this last time, but I still think that the Teacher is too nasty. How old is John? Grade 7 or 8? I seriously doubt that a teacher would be so discouraging to a student that age. Have you considered just making her sweetly condescending, instead? For a boy like John, her telling him "That's nice, John. I'm glad you enjoy reading about this. You really should be reading something a little more intellectual though," or something like that would probably hurt him more than outright mockery.

    My last critique is that there is too much backstory. You begin with a bit of a bang, then go on for a couple paragraphs describing a really typical victim/bully scenario before jumping right back into the scene, which feels a little abrupt. I'm not sure you need the backstory here. Dice is obviously the school bully. John is obviously a nerd. I saw that one of the other commenters suggested pretending it was a play, and I think that was a great idea. What we really need is more detail, more show and less tell.

    Also, I'm curious about the setting. From the teacher's speech is sounds like they actually live in the Bermuda triangle; is this true? If so, you've got a really unique, awesome setting on your hands and you should utilize it more. Your Bermuda triangle hook is the biggest seller for me right now, so I'd love more info about the setting. Try to distinguish this from a normal north american classroom; maybe there are palm trees waving outside the window, or John can't wait to get out of school so he can take a walk by a volcano. Whatever it is, I suggest you give us a grounding in the setting from the very beginning.

    All in all, I still really like your idea. I'd just want a bit more sense of character, and you could make your setting and conflict even more obvious.

  6. I'm still a bit worried about the slightly stereotyped characters (the science nerd, the bully...) even though you do sketch them in decisively and quickly. I do like Sefi - I'd like to know more about her and her tricky relationship with her brother.
    I think you need to find a way of weaving the backstory into the scene more thoroughly. I sometimes find it useful to retell scenes or plots from the point of view of another character, even a minor one. How would this scene have gone from the point of view of Sefi, for example? Or even Dice?


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