Monday, December 5, 2011

8 1st 5 Pages December Workshop - Haynes

Marilee Haynes
MG Contemporary

            I felt more horrible than any other person had ever felt. 

Even though I was in my favorite looking at the world spot – the window seat under the giant picture window in our living room where I could see from one end of the block to the other – and I was in my favorite watching-the- world position – standing on my head with my feet resting on the side wall for balance – I still felt absolutely, positively rotten. 

My lips started tingling, so I lowered myself down and settled back in with my knees tucked up under my chin, I saw that nothing had changed.  Nothing at all out of the ordinary was happening on Succotash Lane.

I looked exactly across the street and saw Mrs. Baumgartner looking back at me.  She waved and gave me one of her special big smiles, the kind she mostly saved just for me.  I fluttered my fingers a little and tried to make my lips curve up but I was pretty sure it didn’t work.  She traced a heart on her picture window with the hand that wasn’t holding onto her cane and blew me a kiss.  Mrs. Baumgartner knew that sometimes a kid can feel just horrible and it was okay not to pretend to be cheerful. 

            I cranked the window open slowly, trying not to make it creak, and let the breeze come inside.  It had rained overnight so the outside smelled clean but somehow kind of wet.  I stuck my nose right up against the screen and breathed it in as far as I could, trying to fill myself up with that clean air.  Then I heard it.  The rattling, banging sound that meant one thing.

I craned my neck to the left and looked two houses down from Mrs. Baumgartner’s.  I could see just the tip top of a pile of not combed that day black hair.  It was Wheeze.  Well, his real name was Weatherby St. James, but everybody called him Wheeze.  He was sitting on his porch playing Boggle.  By himself.  Like he did every single day. 

In the middle of me feeling the teeniest bit sorry for Weatherby St. James for always having to stay on his porch on account of his bad asthma and always playing by himself because no other nine-year-old kid – including me – wants to play Boggle all the hours of the day, a thought jumped into my head.  Right when I finished thinking that thought, I made a gasp so big it turned into a cough and then a choking fit.

            I heard the curtains pull back and felt a hand clomping me on the back.  I peeked over my shoulder and saw it was my dad.

            “Amelia, are you okay?”

            I nodded and tried to say, “uh huh,” only nothing but another choking sound came out.  Then all of sudden the choking turned into something else kind of like crying.

            My dad nudged me over and sat on the window seat right next to me, close enough to put his arm around me.  He didn’t say anything else; he just sat there with me and hummed a hum really soft. 

One of the very best things about my dad – and there were lots of best things – was that he was restful.  He wasn’t going to pepper you with questions when something was bugging you.  He’d wait until you were ready to talk about it.  He was the exact opposite of my mom.

            The crying sort of stopped by itself after a couple minutes and I took a few extra deep breaths until I got one to go all the way down and back up without making a hiccupy noise. 

            I peered out the window again.  Mrs. Baumgartner was gone but I could still see the tip top of Wheeze’s sticking up hair.  And I could hear the rattle clomp of him starting a new game of Boggle. 

            “I have a problem.”

            “Okay.  Is it a problem or is it a problem-o?” my dad asked. 

            “Problem-o.  Definitely.  Grade A, super-duper, extra bad problem-o.” 

A long time ago when I was in second grade and life wasn’t exactly rosy for me, my dad and I came up with a system for deciding how big a problem was.  Some, like forgetting to do the back side of my math worksheet, were just regular problems.  But the big ones, the worst ones my dad called problem-o’s.

After giving me one last squeeze, my dad stood up and held out his hand and pulled me up, too.  “Marshmallows?” 

And because he was exactly right and marshmallows were exactly what I needed, I shuffled along behind him into the kitchen and slumped into the chair that he pulled out for me. 

My dad rummaged around in the cupboard and pulled out a mostly full bag of jumbo marshmallows.  He tossed it to me and then grabbed two bottles of apple-grape juice out of the fridge.  After he twisted the caps off both bottles, my dad flipped the chair across from me around so it was facing backwards and straddled it. Then he looked at me with his whole self and made his eyebrows go up so high they disappeared under the floppy front part of his brown hair. 

“I only have 13 days left to make a friend.”  After I said it, I stuffed two marshmallows in my mouth to take away the taste of saying something so awful. 

Now my dad’s eyebrows came back down, all the way down, until they were resting in a squiggly line just above his eyes, almost touching each other. 

“Because of Caroline?” 

“Kind of.”

My dad’s mouth was full of marshmallows and apple-grape juice, so he did that sideways wave thing with his hand that meant for me to keep talking.

“Well yes, it’s because of Caroline moving away, but the problem isn’t just that.”   I crammed two more marshmallows in and tucked my chin down so far it touched the top of my favorite lime green and white striped t-shirt.  “It’s that there’s no one else.”

“Amelia?”  My dad reached across the table and captured my hand, the one that was sitting on the table like a dead fish. 

I took a deep breath and said it.  “She was my only friend.”

“That’s not true.  I know she was your best friend, but you have other friends.”  My dad’s voice sort of went up the tiniest bit at the end.  I don’t think he meant for it to sound like a question, but it did.

I shook my head and drew figure eights on the table with the water that was forming on the outside of my juice.  I remembered learning last year in science that it’s called condensation.  I shook my head to get rid of that thought.  I had a problem-o, I didn’t have time for thinking about science. 

“I know it’s hard when a friend moves away, but I know when you think about it – really think about it – you’ll see that you have lots of other friends.  Especially the other kids in your class.”

I peeked up at my dad through my too long bangs that were the exact same dark brown and the exact same floppy as his hair.  He was smiling a smile that looked like it hurt.  It was the smile I remembered from when he was teaching me how to ride my bike without training wheels and I’d fallen down at least 753 times.  It was the smile he made when it seemed like I was hopeless at something. 


  1. Hi Marilee,

    SO much to love in this piece. The character is really alive and the family is warm and unique. It's great the way you set out that there is a problem, and then draw us in to find out what the problem is. My only concern is that it reads a little long and meandering before we get to the conflict the way you have it now, and while everything on its own is delightful, there is too much page time elapsed so that we lose track of the problem in the introspection and the interaction with the neighbor. I would suggest shortening this by maybe a quarter or twenty percent, and then integrating the problem more organically--a trickle--into her thoughts and feelings.

    You've included some wonderful details and made this very vivid. Hopefully, shortening will bring us more of the problem, and that will let us see where you are going with this more clearly. I'm really looking forward to that! GREAT job.


  2. I think I'm in love with your character. Your voice is amazing. <33. I agree you go on about Wheeze a bit long, but I suspect he's going to be the "friend" we'll see. But either way, I think you're missing just a simple internal line that connects her feeling bad for him to her own situation before she starts crying. Otherwise it's totally unexpected and might read as confusing. I forgive you because of the VOICE. :D How old is Amelia? This reads as a younger MG to me. Did I mention you had me at her being upside down?
    Other than that, the biggest thing I caught was a repeat of the word "exactly" in this line: And because he was exactly right and marshmallows were exactly what I needed, I shuffled along behind him into the kitchen and slumped into the chair that he pulled out for me.

  3. Marilee,
    I kinda sorta was getting into the voice... I think it's pretty good. I do like that we get a good sense of the character. I think that the conflict is a common one. The old "I don't have any friends" dilemma. I certainly went through that period in school... probably why I'm such a loner now... lol... but I digress.

    This opening does meander a bit for me... and I'm not sure that the conflict/ dilemma is pulling me or driving me as much as I want it to

    I suspect this will be on the *quiet* side, as stories go. Just make sure that there's some sort of tension in every scene... that's moving the story forward.

    Hope this helps.


  4. Can I just say that I love the name "Wheeze" for a character?

    Anyway, so far I like this in that your main character comes across as very kid-like and real to me, like someone I would have known or could have been as a kid. (Having had a best friend move away right before junior high, I can understand her concerns, too.)

    • Some wording is awkward, and I had to read it more than once to understand what you meant. (I.e. "I could see just the tip top of a pile of not combed that day black hair.")
    • Tears didn't seem to quite fit this character to me.
    • I thought the first line sounded weak compared to the rest of the piece and seemed like a missed opportunity to hook the reader.

    Can't wait to see your first revision. : )

  5. Yeah, Clementine and Ramona rolled into one great voice. You've nailed it. Bravo! Because you've done such a nice job, I'll have to nit-pick! I'll agree the first line isn't working for me. I feel like the word "person" is too adult. May I Suggest: "I felt more horrible than any other kid ever felt." I don't think you need "had." Also,I'm going to disagree with Beth's critique of Awkward, because that's the voice and how kids talk. I love Junie B. Jones, Clementine and Ramona books and that's, I believe what sets them apart. I will agree with a bit of the meandering part. I love the father and their relationship and the marshmellows, and the "problem." Nice work. Good luck revising this! Shelley

  6. Hi, Marilee!

    I enjoyed the kid's dialogue. She sounded like a kid to me.

    The opening was a little blah. I just didn't get drawn in. Also, I don't see my students relating to a mc who cries from the get-go. I get where you're at: she's miserable. Yes, I understand. But to start out being in the dumps is a downer most kids just don't want. Can they relate? Of course, all kids feel like this. But they open the book wanting to get away from troubles, too, and be someone else. Is there another place in the story where you could start? Maybe as her friend leaves or when the first big event happens in the story? Also, the watching out the window and the wet-smell outside made the setting really melancholy, which might've amplified the slow start.

    The part I didn't get about the dad was the hand-holding. I can see this from a mom, but for a dad, it seemed a little odd for me. Nothing wrong with it--just I haven't seen many dads react this way, even to tears. Plus, I don't know many kids this age--girls or boys--who would allow their parent to hold their hand!

    I loved Wheeze and the Boggle-thing. So sad and touching! I think if you shorten this scene a bit, and start with something juicier, you'll nail it! Hope I said something useful.

    Best wishes!


  7. Thanks everyone for your thoughtful feedback! I'm looking forward to keeping it in mind as I go through my first revision.
    One point of clarification is Amelia's age - she's 9 - well, according to her 9 1/3, but nine just the same:)
    Thanks again!

  8. I love your first sentence, but I kept waiting for something bad to have happened. Though "sometimes a kid can feel just horrible," the fact that it was the most horrible she had ever felt made me feel like there was no pay back for the first sentence... until she started crying and I understood that maybe there wasn't something she was mentioning-- though she had said that nothing had changed in the neighborhood... Perhaps you can connect the emotions sooner so that it isn't confusing at first? Or connect Wheeze being alone to the reason why she starts crying (or that's why I'm assuming that happens)?

    Also, though the voice is strong, I'm not sure I got the sense that she was a girl -- well, not until I saw her name. But even after I found out, her perspective didn't seem so girlish. I don't know if it needs to be as strong in MG as it does in YA or if it was just me, but maybe you can add something in that clarifies that a bit?

    Otherwise great job! I loved the interactions between Amelia and Mrs. Baumgartner and Amelia and her father. Can't wait to see your revision!


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