Monday, July 9, 2012

10 1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Cook-Raymond

Sarah Cook-Raymond
YA urban fantasy

Chapter One: To Know or Not to Know

“Toby, don’t be rude; people are waiting,” snaps Mom.

​Grudgingly I make my way downstairs. It’s been two weeks since Dad died but relatives I’ve never heard of keep coming out of the woodwork. Mom insists the more the merrier but without merriment it’s just more people, and a hell of a lot more lasagna.

​All they want to do is reminisce. None of them want to talk about the fact that he was killed in the highest security area of the city. Or that he was killed. Or that they haven’t found who did it. But that’s all I can think about.

​“Ohhhhh Toby,” they say in one communal breath, their eyes widening as they take me in. I’m wearing the same recycled Cage the Elephant T-shirt and flannel pajama bottoms I have every other day. I make no attempt to tame my wicked morning fro’ hawk either. I feel like shit, no point in pretending otherwise.

​You’d think I’d been assigned the role of grieving widow in this family drama. My mother is dressed up, her bobble-head nodding along agreeably to everything these people say. I don’t know how she does it. I’ve heard her crying in her sleep but by day she’s someone else, someone pleasant and agreeable and completely foreign to me.

​“Thanks for coming,” says Shelly, shaking hands and hugging people like a seasoned politician. Shelly’s two years younger than me but she’s a mini-me of our mother. Together they’re in on trying to sell the image: family moving on. I’m the only one who’s failing.

     I shuffle around the room, let people wrap their arms around me and stifle cries against my shoulder. But I don’t recognize any of them. Not really. Not even family. It’s like we only have this one thing in common now and nothing more. I want to shout at them, tell them they’re supposed to try to keep it together for us, not the other way around, but I’m drained of everything, even my voice.

     In truth, it feels like I’m underwater ebbing slowly in this tide of people but drowning all the same.

     I turn to escape but get cornered again. “So, how are you doing?” asks a balding man, his gut threatening to send shirt buttons flying everywhere.

​I whisper the lie. “Okay.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the truth. I don’t normally forgo personal hygiene. I don’t know why anyone even bothers asking.

​“Well it can’t be easy,” says beer gut. No shit.

​“How did you know my dad?”

​“Mark and I worked together. Long time ago, before he became a defense contractor. I’m so sorry.” I nod and try to show some teeth. I have no idea if I achieve a smile or a sneer.

​Worst of all is the quiet that follows.​

​“Excuse me,” I say and duck out of the room. I can’t breathe. It’s like someone vacuumed up all the air in this place. Just hearing his name sends a ferocious uprising of grief through me. It reminds me I’m the man of the house now,though I feel anything but.

​…Yet that’s the thing—the thing I can’t shake. My father wasn’t a man. He was a force. He was a Marine, ex-Special Forces, intuitive as all hell, and with the body of a linebacker—because he used to be one. Who would be out of their mind enough to take him on? Who could be skilled enough to win? It doesn’t make any sense.

​How could this have happened to him…to me…to us? I only think the question but it seems to well up in the back of my throat. I shuffle down the hall, looking to my left and right but no one’s around, not here anyway.

     Reaching out, my trembling hand rattles the knob. Polite conversation snakes its way down to me. All this stupid talking but no one’s really saying anything. Not really. No one willeven answer my questions. They’re not even acknowledged, even by Mom. She’s the worst.

     Yet there’s no way they haven’t wondered. It’s as if any talk about Dad is unbearable. As if they’d rather not know. But,for me, that’s not an option.
I have to.

     I push into Dad’s study and close the door softly behind me. The hinge squeaks as I do—like a tiny little cry that only I can hear.

  Chapter Two: Puzzle Pieces

At once it smells like him. I breathe in deeply. It’s that painful ache I can’t help but prod.

     I would never admit this. Especially aloud. Especially because it sounds crazy…but I’m homesick for him. Can that even exist? Is that why I have to do this…?

     I move over to his desk and slide into the chair. I have no idea what I’m looking for or where to look for it. I pull at one drawer after another after another. Only…they’re all empty. His entire desk is.

     I swat at the computer. Maybe Dad kept all of his files electronically. I lean into the leather chair and wait for the screen to change.

     Only it doesn’t.

     I power it on and off. I control + alt + delete. I pray to the Norton Antivirus gods. But it doesn’t work. None of it. It’s just a black screen.

     A black screen with one flashing—taunting—white bar.

     F-U-C-K Y-O-U, I pound out on the keyboard. Suddenlyeven the white bar disappears. My heart sinks. Even the computer won’t talk to me.

     I swing the chair around and scan the room. I haven’t been in here many times. It’s Dad’s own version of a man cave.

     I get up and head over to the bookshelf. Half of it is filled with baskets full of old newspapers. Dad used to joke that in another life he was a historian—that’s why he keeps all these stories. Sometimes they’re even the same story, just different papers.
I move up to the next shelf and run my fingers over the couple of books housed here. An encyclopedia. A dictionary. Boring.

     My eyes scan the room and settle on the only thing that’s left. My Mom, sister, and me. The three of us. Left behind. Ireach out and pick up the photograph, my fingers digging into the corners of the frame as I do. I can’t peel my eyes away.

     We’re in Annapolis. It’s summer certainly. But what year?I know this. I should know this… The harder I seek it,however, the further it seems to get. A groundswell of frustration builds. Angrily, I yank open the back of the frame for the answer.

     There’s another picture in here instead, carefully tucked behind the other. Slowly I pull it out and hold it before me. It’sfaded with the corners curling up but there’s no mistaking it. It’s my father and another man, both in uniform.

     "Toby?” the door rattles in a knock.

     My heart jumps. “Yeah?”

      “What are you doing in there, dear?” asks Mom. “Are you okay?” she whispers.

      “Yeah, fine. I’ll be right out.”

      “Oh, okay,” she says quickly.

      I stare down at the photograph, at the dark figure beside my father. I don’t have to try to memorize his face; it’s alreadyburned in the back of my mind. Quickly I tuck the picture back.

      I grab Dad’s laptop and tuck it under my arm as I go.Under the door I see Mom’s feet. A long, shallow sigh escapes my lips but I force myself to move towards her, and to face the strangers in our house once again.

    “Whatcha doin’?” asks Mom. Only she’s no longer asking about Dad’s study but the computer I’m clutching tightly to my side. The one she’s practically talking to.

     “Get caught up,” I try to say casually. I may even shrug. I don’t know. I’m a shit actor and an even worse liar.

     “Maybe even go back to school tomorrow.” It’s meant as a total kiss-up, bullshit answer but as soon as I say it, I mean it. I need to see Simon. I need to get out of this place…

      “Please?” I add. I don’t mean for my voice to snag, but it does…just a little…right at the end. Mom doesn’t point it out.

     Instead, she reaches towards me. I expect the laptop to be ripped from my arms. I end up in a deep hug instead.

     “Of course,” she whispers into my hair. “Whatever you want.”


  1. Hi, Sarah! I like the mystery in this story. The fact that dad was such a Tough Guy makes his murder more shocking and questionable. I’d like to read on to find out what happened to him.

    However, I’m having trouble identifying with Toby, and I think the reason is that I feel like I’ve been dropped into the middle of his story. Michael Hauge, in Writing Screenplays That Sell, says that the current trend of “grabbing the reader” isn’t advisable because, for the most part, people don’t like to be grabbed; it’s jarring and unsettling. Instead, people want to be seduced. And this is the purpose of the set-up section of a story--that first roughly 12% that shows us the hero in his before world. For me to really feel Toby’s loss, I need to see what it is that he HAS lost. Right now, I don’t get that. In the case of your story, show us Toby’s before world by starting with his last interaction with Dad before Dad’s death. Show either their great relationship that is about to be destroyed or their dysfunctional relationship that’s going to haunt Toby throughout the story. (Bonus: include a clue or two to the mystery here that will be fleshed out later). Granted, you don’t want a long drawn-out start; just include a short scene between the two of them so we can share in the emotions Toby feels when he’s with his dad. Then we’ll be shocked and grieved when Dad dies. THEN, we will identify with Toby and feel his pain after Dad is gone.

    There are a couple of other smaller things, but I’ll leave it at this for now, because starting in the right spot is a hugely important thing. You’ve done a good job creating an interesting scenario to grab the reader’s interest, but you also need to grab the reader’s emotions. If you can accomplish both of those things, you’ll have a strong start that’s sure to keep people reading. Thanks for sharing your story with me.

  2. The mystery here is strong and certainly leaves the reader wanting to go along on the discovery journey with Toby. Some of the description is wonderful -- for instance, bobble-head nodding, Shelly being a mini-me of the mother, and, of course, the great description of his dad. Love that. But I have trouble connecting some dots. It's been two weeks since the father died, but the gathering seems like a funeral. I can't figure out how old Toby is. In some ways he seems quite young, but his language seems much older. If his father's study is his man cave, wouldn't his son have spent more time in there? The fact that the desk has been cleared out and the computer scrubbed doesn't seem to worry Toby very much. I think it adds greatly to the mystery, so I would expect him to be really freaked by that. I think you are really on to something here. Mysteries are always fun for kids, and this one seems to have the possibility of being a thriller/mystery. Good luck with it.

  3. Sarah, I very much enjoyed the way you developed the mystery by including clues and giving Toby reason to want to question where things went wrong for his father. When Toby's mother walked in on him snooping, I was startled and feeling as though he'd been caught.

    I agree with Becca that I wasn't emotionally vested in why Toby cares enough to really dig for the truth and feel so devastated. We know it's his father but we need to know the type of relationship they had so we're empathetic. I think that you could achieve that via small flashback snippets in this scene possibly, or as Becca says, starting in another place. Even if his death comes at the end of the first chapter so you're starting on the day that's different, I think she raises a valid point that we need to see more of their relationship.

    I enjoyed your protag's voice and can't wait to see where you take this next week!

  4. I agree with Becca and Marissa in regard to hinting at what type of relationship Toby had with his father. I'm also wondering what kind of gathering it is two weeks after. I'm not that surprised that the office is cleaned, and I would have thought people would be in there looking for financials, forms, etc. that are often necessary after a death. If you're implying that nobody would have gone in there, maybe you could have the door locked by code--a code that Toby knows for some reason or another.

    We had a death in the family last year that I'm still dealing with, so this situation overall is a little too close to home for me to judge the writing much. But at no time did I skim or think it was dragging. I sensed his emotions based on his actions and reactions, but they were just a little too vague to connect wholeheartedly to his character. Part of that is his state of being numb, and I get that. But I think you can push it even more.

    Looks to be an awesome and unique plot for YA!

    Love the last sentence of the first chapter.

  5. There's mystery here, but it reads more like a contemporary than an urban fantasy. Even if this is a kid thrown into another world, I think some of it should start to bleed in from the first few pages. Otherwise, the reader's under the impression this is a different story than you mean it to be. (Although, the back copy usually ruins that notion ... so take this comment with a grain of salt.)

    I wasn't 100% certain of this character's sex. I believe it's a boy, but it could just as easily be a girl. I had a friend in HS named Toby who was a girl. I've had friends who rocked the 'hawk and were girls. This being an urban fantasy, a girl with these qualities would easily fit in.

    Your dialogue reads as authentic. It's moving things forward.

  6. Hi Sarah:

    (Ack! The blog is eating my comments. I have to post in 2 parts. Here goes part 1!)

    I’m definitely intrigued by the mystery here. You’ve sprinkled in enough hints to keep me wondering: what happened to Toby’s father? How did someone kill an ex-marine? Why is the desk empty? What’s with the hidden photo?

    That said, I have a few suggestions for your consideration on making the opening even stronger.


    I had a hard time connecting emotionally with Toby. I get that he’s angry and grieving, but it felt like he spent more time *telling* us he’s angry than *showing* us by his actions and thoughts. I don’t have a clear sense for what he lost (was he close with his father? Intimidated by him? Distant? Living in his shadow? Putting him on a pedestal?), so it’s hard to gauge his emotional state and what, as the novel progresses, he might be willing to risk in order to solve the mystery.

    Similarly, the family dynamic felt a bit forced. Not because it isn’t believable, but because there was more telling than showing. Rather than telling us about the family dynamics (e.g., ‘All they want to do is reminisce.’ ‘she’s a mini-me of our mother. Together they’re in on trying to sell the image: family moving on.' ‘No one will even answer my questions. They’re not even acknowledged, even by Mom.’), see if you might craft more active scenes that show these dynamics (and the characters’ quirks & personalities) unfolding naturally. In other words, instead of believing that Toby’s Mom avoids talking about Dad’s death simply because Toby said she does, I’d love to see him ask her a question and have her totally redirect, brush him off, break down… something that shows us the state of things. With the reminiscing relatives, if you give us a peek at one or two of those memories, we'd get a better sense for Toby’s dad and what his death means to the family.

    Overall, if you incorporate more showing through active scenes, readers will better connect with the characters and will ultimately be more excited to go on the journey with them.

    (end of part 1)

  7. (And here's part 2!)


    The opening chapter is fairly quiet, and it doesn’t do the all-important job of hooking (or even seducing, as Becca said!) the reader and setting us up for the book-length conflict. I see what Becca’s saying about being disoriented – we’re dropped in the middle of things without knowing much about Toby’s relationship with his father or anything else about his life. But for me, it goes back to the inciting incident, and I’m not sure what you’re intending that to be.

    For example, if the inciting incident (also referred to as plot catalyst – the event that forces the character to get involved in the book-length conflict) is the death of Toby’s father, then I would agree with Becca’s suggestion to open the novel just before the death, let us see a glimpse of their relationship, and then let us experience the shocking news of the murder right alongside Toby.

    On the other hand, if the death is now just a part of Toby’s ordinary world, and something *else* is meant to kick off the book-length conflict, then I would suggest the complete opposite: start later, cutting at least the first chapter and weave in the details about Toby’s father’s death, his profession, and the mysterious circumstances as you go. Currently, the post-funeral family gathering feels too tame for an opening chapter, and I’m not sure anything important enough happens in that scene to warrant its star placement as chapter 1.

    Overall, the most important thing that happens in these five pages, IMO, is Toby swiping the laptop. If that’s true, you might even start with Toby already snooping in the man cave, avoiding the family. I would also slip in a few hints that orient the readers to the fantasy right away—even just a quick clue or foreshadowing so it doesn’t read like a realistic contemporary.

    Have you read HOOKED by Les Edgerton? As with all craft advice, take it with a dose of skepticism and a willingness to experiment, but I do like some of his suggestions on crafting strong openings.

    Thanks for sharing your pages with us!

    -Sarah Ockler

  8. Hi Sarah -

    I love the fact your MC is male - and he has a fro-hawk in the morning! I can picture him physically and that's great. What I'm not getting, as others have stated is sense of who he is. Other than the fact he is traumatized from the death of his father (which is to be expected) there is not much more about him to make him real to me. I have a better sense of who his mother is right now - you've done a nice job of capturing her grief - I would love to see you do that with him.

    It looks as though there is some mystery here about who his father really was and I suspect this will come as a surprise to Toby. I want to be surprised with him so I need to know a bit more about he and his father's relationship. It doesn't need to be a ton - even a simple fishing trip or sports event they attended together could go a long way into showing us their relationship and how his father was seen by his son as just a normal dad.

    Last little thing - how does he notice the second picture in the frame? Does the frame feel thicker when he picks it up? Is a piece of it sticking out where he could catch sight of it?

    Thank you for sharing!


  9. Hi guys. Thanks for the feedback. I'll certainly try out a new opening scene for next week to better ground the reader and we can see if I'm getting any closer.

    Because the "fantasy" in my book isn't other worldly I'm trying to hint that something's amiss with Toby's father's death, the circumstances, etc. so when the big reveal happens, the reader doesn't find it too jarring. The "urban" component comes in as it's set in present day Washington, DC and the "fantasy" component comes into play because Toby's about to inherit his father's super powers and learn that his father was part of a covert government defense contracting agency (think Jason Bourne meets X-Men). I'm certainly open to ideas of how to better alert the reader of the genre in the beginning if you have any thoughts to share.

  10. Personally, I don't think you have to alert the reader to the fantasy element just yet. Look at Spiderman. He was just a normal kid in a normal world until something happened that made him extraordinary. I think Toby's feeling that something is off about his father and his father's death is enough foundation so when we find out he's more than he led on, it's not a shock.


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