Nov 15, 2009

Sample pages - In The Clouds - young adult

Sanity is overrated, and being followed everywhere by a forty-year old Algebra teacher surely wouldn't diminish my credibility as a member of the 'mentally stable,' except for the fact that I witnessed his death twenty-four hours ago.

"Mrs. Hendrix," I called to the dean. She was shuffling at top speed down the deserted hallway when I caught a glimpse of the back of her head. She turned quickly, her eyes darting around for the source beckoning her.

I ran past the long row of gray lockers.

"Miss Rollings, what are you going to tell her?" Schuster asked, his long legs easily keeping stride beside me.

I needed him to shut up before I went crazy. I screeched to a halt in front of the dean and she jumped when her eyes dropped down to see me standing right in front of her.

Her face relaxed into a small frown and she put a hand on my shoulder, "Jaycie, how are feeling today?"

The concern in her voice was the complete opposite of the sharp tone she had a couple days ago when I sat in her office accepting a handful of pink detention slips.

"Actually I wanted to ask you something." I had to catch my breath and force out a more casual tone, "I heard you tell Mrs. Lancer that I might be able to talk to someone about everything that happened."

She patted my shoulder and nodded her head, sympathetically, "The grief counselor."

"Yes." My eyes dropped to the floor.

"Of course, Jaycie. His name is Dr. Cooper and he's in room 312. You can go on up and I'll give him a call to let him know you're coming."

"Thanks." I finally lifted my eyes to meet hers.

She stepped closer and pulled me into a tight hug, my cheek pressed against her white blouse. She did this yesterday too. "Let me know if you need anything else Jaycie."

"Thanks, Mrs. Hendrix." She released me and I turned and headed up the empty staircase leading to the third floor.

"What exactly are you trying to accomplish?" Schuster asked in that sneering tone of his. The sound made the already churning acid in my stomach move like the washer's spin cycle.

"It's bad enough I had to listen to you all night. I haven't slept more than a few hours in two days. Can't you just shut up for five minutes?" I snapped. I couldn't look at him but I'm sure his face had that twisted angry, purple look to it.

Well, maybe not purple anymore.

I shook my head trying to focus on sanity. I needed sanity to get my questions answered. Otherwise who knows where I might end up? I knocked on the door of room 312.

"Come in," a man's voice called.

I opened the door and saw Dr. Cooper hanging up his phone. I stepped inside the small office. Too bad I couldn't slam the door in Schuster's face.

It wouldn't do any good.

"Have a seat Jaycie." Dr. Cooper pointed a hand at the empty chair across from his desk.

I didn't slam the door, but I did make sure it was securely closed before I sat down. The last thing I needed was to have an eye witness account of me being in this office. I'm sure there were already hundreds of rumors flying around after yesterday's big event.

"How are you feeling, Jaycie?"

Dr. Cooper looked pretty young, maybe thirty something. Younger people are usually more open-minded. Maybe he could handle something far-fetched.

More like something crazy.

"I'm okay, well actually I'm a little freaked."

He nodded like Hendrix did, the sympathy filling his eyes, "I can imagine. What was your relationship with Mr. Schuster?"

"He's been my Algebra teacher this year and I was supposed to serve detention with him before school for the next two weeks."

My eyes darted to Schuster. He was scanning the row of books on the shelf against the wall.

"So what did you want to talk about, Jacycie?"

I took a deep breath. I needed to start with something normal, "I feel terrible about what happened to him and he was angry with me and I . . ."

"You feel guilty, responsible," he guessed.

"Signs of schizophrenia usually manifest in the teen years. Why don't you go ahead and tell him everything." Schuster gave me his Doctor Evil smile, "This man is a waste of tax dollars."

I bit down hard on the inside of my cheek, forcing myself not to react, "Yeah I feel really guilty."

He reached across the desk and patted my hand, "It's survivors guilt. You did everything you could to help him."

"But going to his class today, it'll be so weird."

"Is that what's bothering you?" he asked.

I shook my head, dropping my eyes to my hands, "I keep thinking I'll see him again when I walk in the classroom. Does that ever happen?"

He released my hand and sat back in his chair, "Everyone who experiences death has that feeling of seeing the lost person again. Images or memories flood back."

"Like hearing them talk?" Uh oh, bad choice of words. I might as well have just admitted to hearing voices.

"Maybe, the full weight of death takes time to sink in. Part of your mind wants to put things back the way they were."

"What if I'm grieving so much that I can actually see Mr. Schuster, like in my bed room yelling at me to stop kicking the soccer ball against the wall?"

Verbal diarrhea rears its ugly head, and at the worst moment possible. Damn sleep deprivation!

He sat up straighter and narrowed his eyes, "Have you been sleeping much?"

"Actually I couldn't sleep at all last night," I admitted.

"Are you familiar with the word hallucination?" Dr. Cooper asked.

"You just earned yourself a ticket to the school psychologist, Miss Rollings. Can't say I didn't warn you," Schuster laughed and the sound echoed off the walls.

I wanted to scream loud enough to drown him out. I must be crazy, "Yes, I am."

"There are a number of reasons people see or hear things that aren't really there, lack of sleep being one of those. I'd like to set you up with an appointment with Mrs. Freeman. She's our school psychologist."

I groaned, but didn't protest. Maybe it was a good idea.

"Getting help during a difficult time is nothing to be ashamed of, Jaycie. I'll talk to Mrs. Freeman and see what she has available."

"Do you think I could go home and get some sleep maybe and try and talk to her tomorrow? I'm already feeling a little better."

He beamed obviously pleased he was able to help me, "Of course. You should definitely try and get some sleep."

I left his office with a polite goodbye and headed quickly down the steps and crawled underneath the stair case on the second floor. It was my favorite hiding place and I couldn't go home to my big empty house with Schuster in tow. It was less eerie being surrounded by people, even in hiding at least I knew they were there.

Matt must be worried about me. I hated to freak him out after he was so great yesterday. But I didn't want him to see me like this. I huddled with my knees to my chest and pulled out my phone to send him a text.

"Forgot I had a dentist appointment. Be in before lunch."

"I warned you about saying anything to Dr. Cooper," Schuster ranted on. I could see his giant feet pacing back and forth in front of the staircase, "You would never listen to a teacher would you Miss Rollings? Of course not. With that thick skull of yours I'm surprised you can make it through an entire school day without a handful of detentions."

I couldn't.

Maybe this was my punishment for being such an academic loser. The past two days my life had taken a small turn for the positive. I got a taste of success, but it was wrong to claim honesty when several incidents of lying and cheating were involved.

Was this really what I deserved? Watching a man die right in front of my eyes, and being condemned to have that man's voice ringing in my ears.

I was there when it happened, the only one in the room. I shouldn't have been there. If I just let things go like usual and not allowed Matt to help, I wouldn't have been there that morning. Three days ago I was dreading walking in to this school building and facing Schuster alive, but now I would take that day over this one in a heartbeat.

Everything started Monday morning. I should have pulled the covers over my head and never left my bedroom.


Julie said...

Rick, Thanks for posting this. Is there a secret to keeping the paragraphs from getting messed up when I email? I used the rich text format and spaced them myself, I noticed this happens when I've gotten replies from agents as well. I look at the query pasted in to the email and its all messed up?

gj said...

I got stuck on individual sentences, rather than getting pulled into the story (which is a common occurrence for me, with my tendency to copy-edit as I read, so it's not just you, but in your case there's an easy fix for what's tripping readers up).

You've got the stimulus-response units all mixed up, so it's hard to follow what's happening and who's doing what where.

The way our brains expect things to happen is: first, there's some sort of stimulus, then there's a reaction. Action and reaction. And that's the same timeline that a sentence should follow, so the reader can keep track of what's going on in the order it happened, the order our brains expect things to happen.

The standard example is:
WRONG: I answered the door (reaction) after the doorbell rang (stimulus).
RIGHT: The doorbell rang, and I answered the door.

The action/reaction confusion really gets going in the second paragraph (although it's implicit in the first paragraph, where the cause of the narrator's thought -- seeing a dead person -- follows the thought about sanity):

<<"Mrs. Hendrix," I called to the dean. She was shuffling at top speed down the deserted hallway when I caught a glimpse of the back of her head. >>

So, as written, the narrator calls out to the dean BEFORE seeing a her.

Fixing this, it would be:
I caught a glimpse of the back of the dean's head as she shuffled at top speed down the hallway. "Mrs. Hendrix," I called out.

Even better would be some sort of transition between the glimpsing and the calling out. Something like, "I needed to get her attention before she disappeared into a locked office. 'Mrs. Hendrix' ..."

Then, introduce Schuster (and consider whether you want to keep that name, given the association with the teacher in the tv show, Glee) BEFORE he talks, so the reader knows who he is and where he is before he talks, because otherwise the reader will think it's the dean responding to the previous shout-out:

Even as I ran past the lockers, the late Mr. Schuster kept stride beside me. "Miss Rollings," he said, "what are you going to tell her?"

This is good: "I needed him to shut up before I went crazy." It's the reaction to Schuster's comment (the stimulus). And screeching to a halt is in the correct timeline.

But then: "the dean ... jumped when her eyes dropped down to see me standing right in front of her."

Standing in front of her is what causes her to jump, right? So it's: "the dean saw me standing right in front of her and she jumped in surprise."

I stopped there, but it's a consistent issue that needs to be addressed so the sentences aren't getting in the way of the story. For a more detailed explanation of this issue, check out Jack Bickham's "Scene and Structure" or Dwight Swain's book (I always forget the title, and I find Bickham more accessible). There may be some information on this topic at, but I don't recall for sure.

The good news is that this is an easy fix, once you're aware of it.

Rick Daley said...

Hi Julie,

I can fix the paragraphs. Anything that comes through in the email ends up with formatting issues, I've been considering taking that option away. Normally I take the time to fix them all, but this one got through the cracks.

The best bet for avoiding formatting issues is to use plain text. You should use that when you to agents, too. If you use rich text or HTML you never know how their email client will interpret it...but plain text is always plain text.

Victoria Dixon said...

Well, your opening line is great, if a little long.
However, you're missing lots of detail throughout the scene. I'm not in the character's head enough to know - without being told - what sex she is. I'm not seeing the people who supposedly surround her and I'm barely seeing the school itself. I need to hear, see, feel, taste and smell. Take a tour of your local high school if you need to. For instance, I thought it odd Mrs. Hendrix didn't notice her immediately because they're the only two (visible) people in the scene from my pov. And my pov is supposedly your character's.
When your characters speak, I can hear what you're capable of and I think you've got a good start on a novel. If this is a first draft, you've got a great start.
Good luck!

Roni Loren said...

Hey Julie,

Having read your previous version of this, I'm still not sure you're starting in the right place. The conversation with the counselor is a lot of telling and recounting. We don't want to hear about the teacher yelling at her in her bedroom the previous night, we want to see it.

Start with the most interesting moment--is that the teacher's death or when he shows up in her room? It sounds like at teh end of the chapter you're going to rewind and tell us, but I think it may be more effective if we feel like your character is experiencing everything real time, rather than recounting past events.

I love your story idea and your MC, so I know the first chapter can hook us, it's just finding that sweet spot of where to start for maximum impact.

Julie said...

gj - thanks for the tips I will make those corrections right away.

Victoria - thanks for the reminder to add that description. I tend to dominate with dialogue sometimes and forget add those scenic elements.

Roni - I get what your saying and yes I'm going to flash back with the next chapter being titled "72 Hours earlier" But I start further in than I previously did. The teacher dies around page 50.

I could start with him dying and then go back but he's not a ghost until page 68.

I suck at first chapters! I'm going to try something different and read all the first chapter blogs again.

AmyB said...

I think gj's advice is spot-on, and it's funny because I have to untangle my own writing in exactly the same way. When I write a draft, I think "So-and-so does THIS because THAT," and I write it that way. But that's not how readers engage with the text. Readers need, "THAT happened, and in response so-and-so did THIS." So when I revise, I have to reverse everything. The good news is that doing that reversing also forces me to get a little deeper into the protagonist's head. Instead of thinking from the high-level vantage point of the author, I have to see things as my character sees them, and have her react accordingly.

The other issue I had was that I really didn't get a sense of who the protagonist was, even macro-level stuff like age and gender.

I think the setup is interesting. I think I would have liked Mr. Schuster's dialogue to be a little more character-revealing. He is hostile to the protagonist, sneering and making rude comments, but I'm trying to tease out just what his issue is with her--because it's fun to try to read between the lines when you're getting to know the characters--but I'm just not picking anything up. I guess I want more hints.

dolorah said...

Julie: Sorry it took me so long to read this. I hope you're still accepting feedback after this long.

I really love your opening sentence; the sentiment behind it anyway. It is too long, and could be broken up into two stronger sentences. But the sentiment is awesome. The problem is, the rest of the scene does not live up to the "sanity is overrated" assertion.

There are several great sentences if read by themselves. But they seem to me to be for shock effect, not for inherent story progress. Dare I say you are good at one-liners; but supporting action - no supporting emotion - is lacking.

In the first few paragraphs there are several names mentioned, but their roles in the story is unclear. It was not until the end of the first page (I printed it out to read in comfort and it is 4 pages long in a word document) that I put together Shuster as the ghost that follows Jaycie. And, I've read other chapter submissions.

"Jaycie" and "Rollins" are never put together to form the identity "Jaycie Rollins". It may be only my own quirk, this need to have first and last names put together.

I also felt your tone was flat, unemotional, and there was no clear "voice" between speakers. I felt the tone of the scene was hurried; as if the author needed to get introductory info established and move on.

The pacing is too fast. We go from her declaration of insanity, to meeting someone who referrs her to a counselor, to someone who refers he to a psychologist, and then she hides in a stairwell to whine about - well, wrong place, wrong time maybe?

The lack of strong voice, too quick pacing, and flat affect caused me to feel the characters were underdeveloped.

The ghost, Mr Shuster, was the only character I felt drawn to because he had "personality". Clearly, he suffered a terrible, untimely death, is angry about it, possibly blames Jaycie (who he obviously never liked when he was alive). He is the only character that seems "real" to me.

This rewrite is for the first chapter, correct? To me it reads like a second chapter. Add some emotion to your characters and setting and it would work for me as a second.

Also, I noted a lot of mechanical errors: lack of punctuation creating run on sentences, abrupt transitions of concepts and paragraphs; unnecessary dialogue tags; that sort of thing. I wouldn't focus on those too much though. You'll edit those out in revision.

Shameless plug: I still like the last version of the beginning. Thanks for sharing this chapter, and I hope the feedback isn't to late, or too brutal.


Julie said...

too late Donna. You're right I need something else or just a tiny blurb of this to set up the paranormal aspect and then jump right into the old version though slightly shorter.

Julie said...

sorry that last comment was supposed to say "not too late"