Monday, May 11, 2015

#YayYA Critique Party: Entry #9

Name: Gail Werner

Genre: Contemporary
Title: Chasing Cal
35-word pitch: Eighteen-year-old Chase Winters must use clues from his dead brother Cal's cellphone to rediscover a sibling with another family on the other side of the country now in desperate need of Chase's help.

First 500: 
I'm slouched in a chair in the back row of Professor Monahan's class when I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn and see a flash of Libby's wine red hair.
"What are you doing?" I hiss.
"I had to find you." From her backpack she removes a small white box, dime-sized grease marks staining its sides. "I wanted you to eat this while it was still fresh."
The guy in front of me, the one with undercut hair and Buddy Holly glasses, turns around, flashing us a dirty look.
"Sorry," Libby fires back, her voice growing louder.
Of course I want to know what's in the box. But I hate missing out on what Professor Monahan is saying. Soon the students will debate the finer points of Kurt Vonnegut's Slapstick. Today's the day I finally planned to join them.
I spent the first three months of spring semester sitting outside this class, trying to follow along with discussions about the works of Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors. It was after spring break before Professor Monahan noticed me lurking.
"You might as well join us," she'd said from the doorway, watching me eye college students scurrying past, late for classes they were paying to take. Following her in, I'd parked it in a chair farthest from the front of the room, the same one I've sat my grateful butt in every Wednesday since.
Now I close my dog-earred copy of the book, staring at the blank eyes of a snowman on its cover, trying to avoid the eyes of someone else: Professor Monahan, who's glaring in my direction. She's upset Libby is interrupting her course. One as a high school senior I shouldn't be taking, but want to remain enough in her good graces to come back to, so I follow Libby out the door.
We head for the stairwell, Libby leading the way. She knows the blueprint of nearly every building at Central State University since her parents have taught here since before she was born. It was a given she'd attend Palmer Academy, the two-year, residential high school that's an offshoot of the university, the one with the glossy brochure touting its ranking as the best in Indiana.
Palmer is where I met Libby. She's pretty much the only one of my classmates I've let know me. As in, well enough to know where I'd be at quarter past six on a Wednesday evening.
"Okay," she pants as we reach the fifth-floor landing. "Almost there …"—she leans against the cinderblock wall—"…I freaking hate stairs."
"Whatever treat you brought," I swallow hard, "it better be worth dragging me out of class." I slide down the door to the roof, relishing the feel of the cool metal through the thin cotton of my t-shirt.
Libby's got the white box back out. Facing me, seated with her legs crossed, she roots in her backpack.
"A-ha!" She pulls out two plastic forks, wiping them on her black jeans.

Revision Notes on First 500: Appreciate everyone who chimed in on my first draft. Your comments (the confusion about whether Chase was in college and why he'd leave class for a treat) pulled me back to my original first scene, which hopefully better captures the camaraderie between my protagonist and his BFF. Also, I worked Cal (the doomed older brother) in sooner. In about two more pages, readers learn his fate and the story takes off from there. 

TITLE: Chasing Cal

Genre: Contemporary YA

PITCH: Chase's dreams of a sibling reunion die the same night his brother does. Now he's convinced all Cal's left behind is a cell phone. The clues it offers are about to prove him wrong.

FIRST 500:
A bell tinkles and I look up from the words I'm putting down in my notebook.
Liberty Jones stands in the doorway of the Railway Caf√©, her soft curves filling its frame. About time, I think as she slides into our booth.
"Before you get mad," she says, "my excuse today is actually a good one."
This is our routine; I show up early, buy us coffees and pie (Libby: sugar cream, me: pecan). She shows up late, proffering reasons she can't arrive on time—not even for this, our last study session of our senior year at Palmer Academy.
From her messenger bag she removes a white box, lifting its lid. I can't see what's inside, but my nose is bombarded by the scent of cream cheese icing. It overpowers the fry grease smells embedded in the walls of the Railway.
 “Is that what I think it is?”
“Uh-huh." Libby's grin matches mine and briefly I'm in a Jules Verne novel, on a journey to prove her dimples reach the center of the earth.
"Mom had a class in Indy. She stopped at Cake Walk on the way home." Libby tilts her head, her red curls falling over her shoulder, light glinting off one of her dangly earrings. "You said once the best cupcake of your life came from there."
I can't believe she recalls this gluttonous confession of mine. "Lib, you didn't—"
"Chase Winters," she interjects. "As if I'd forget your birthday."
I push aside my books and our pie. The slices look sad, their whipped topping deflated and watery. "That's … beyond generous of you," I say, reaching for the box.
"Wait!" She motions for a waitress. "Can we get another plate?"
The next thing I know, a red velvet cupcake the size of my head is revealed.
“Dig in," she pronounces satisfactorily.
I'm removing the cupcake's moist paper liner when she slaps my hand. "Wait!"
I exhale loudly. "What now?" Being denied this cupcake is making me hungry and angry—"hangry" Libby calls it.
Reaching into her leather jacket, she pulls out a candle, pushing it into the cupcake's center. From the other hand, a Zippo lighter, her eyebrows crinkling as she catches a flame. Soon her face is bathed in the warm glow of candlelight.
"I almost forgot. You have to make a wish."
I wait two seconds, eyes locked on hers. Then I lie. "Done."
"Nooo!" She shakes her head. "Close your eyes."
We've taken this childish tribute this far so I do as I'm told. Listen to her hum the "Happy Birthday" song. Then make the same wish I've made since my older brother last saw me blow out a set of birthday candles:
Please be the year I see Cal again.
I open my eyes to see Libby's expression has softened. "What you wished for … did it have something to do with your brother?"
Suddenly I'm too choked up to answer, remembering the first time I told her about Cal.


  1. Great concrete details all through here - Libby's wine-red hair (immediately suggests character, nice touch), grease stains on the box, classmate's Buddy Holly glasses, cinderblock walls, plastic forks.

    I think you could hold back on some of the explanation (e.g. regarding where they are and why, where they met, how well they know each other) to let the sensory details build a nice clear snapshot. You could start with them already outside, for example, with Libby presenting the box and the forks, with your MC's anticipation/nervousness (not sure if I've read that right from "swallowed hard"). Details about classes, exclusive school, etc. could follow later, or maybe suggest them in bits and pieces through dialogue.

    Hope this is helpful!

  2. So my first thought is how rude she is to be pulling him out of class for something so seemingly trivial. Especially a class he's worked hard to attend and shouldn't be in. I'd really like to know why besides just bringing him a treat. Now they concrete details are really quite nice. The dime shaped grease spots her wine red hair.

    As for a lot of the rest, there is a *lot* of backstory here. I get that you want to show that the class is important to him and why, but I'm betting there's a succinct way of doing this. One nice loaded sentence about why this is important to him would probably do the trick. Now I spent most of this wondering if it was really YA since it's obviously set in a college setting which is more of an NA thing. It's only when I got that he's a senior taking college classes that I understood. Maybe you can bring that up earlier so we have a really good sense of who your character is and where he is. I also don't think you need to go into why and how he knows Libby. It's obvious he knows her and that she's important enough to him to skip out on a class he's really looking forward to.

    I do really want to know what Libby's about. What's in the box and what her reason for pulling him out of class are, so good hook there. I am unsure how it relates to the premise of the novel however, thought maybe that's less important.

    Good luck, and I hope this helps.

  3. Starting from the top!

    Genre: Contemp, huzzah!

    Pitch: Normally I'd say cut Cal's name but, since it's in the title it's good to stay. What does need to change is the pacing of the sentence. Consider breaking it up into two sentences. The "rediscover a sibling with another family" is hard to read AND confusing. Is it a step-sister? Is it a brother that was given up for adoption? Rediscover indicates Chase already knows this sibling exists which means chase would know the relationship so clue us in. Also, I'd rather have concretes. "In need of Chase's help" is vague, what kind of help can an eighteen year old be? Medical donor? Financial? Give me the stuff that makes your story not like other peoples, and if you're worrying about giving away the end, pull back the scope so you're pitching just finding out that there's a sibling that makes Chase question what's true or something. (Only, you know, with stakes.)

    Text: I'm going to echo the above notes on this. There's a lot of backstory, not a lot of character. A lot of description which is lovely, but unnecessary. I don't know who Chase is, why I should care about him, or what he looks like, so what the guy in front of him that shushes him isn't as powerful. I'm looking for hints as to whether or not I want to be stuck in Chase's head, and all I know about him is that he's got stalker tendencies toward Vonnegut.

    In all, I'd suggest finding a spot in the early part of your story that puts us closer to Chase than this. It reads well, but it doesn't read as a YA story introduction. I'd prefer to see something that shows me where the pitch is taking me.

    Standard caveats apply! My suggestions are only to give you a new set of eyes. I am likely horribly wrong in any advice, but it's done it's job if you've seen a new way to look at the issue!

    Best of luck!

    -Lana (@muliebris)

  4. The pitch has all the important information in it, but I'm wondering if the wording could be smoothed out a bit? Sounds interesting, though!

    The opening has a lot of good details, but it does come off as a bit tell-y. It's hard to find the balance between giving enough details to make the setting feel real and overwhelming the reader with details. Also, I'd like more of a sense from the opening where the story is going.

  5. Well, the concept seems cool to me, and I love a guy who likes vonnogut... but sadly I'm not really hooked. The writing is solid, I just don't really have a reason to care. Libby is obnoxious, Chase is slightly rude, and ditching on a class to open some mysterious smudge box isn't really compelling enough for me to be dying to read on. I think the problem is that Chase doesn't care about what's in the box, his motivation to leave is not being rude, which, while noble, is kind of boring.

    So I'm guessing in the next few pages Libby is going to have some great spell binding information that will kick this story into high gear. Maybe it's something in the box, or maybe it's information, or maybe they'll just be out in the hall when the story actually starts, but if so, I'd like some hint early on. I want that hook to be what prompts chase to leave the class. I want Chase to care about something that we the reader can also care about.

    Like Kyra said, we need more of a sense of where the story is going, some hint, like there's a phone call from your mom, or I know who you really are, or something.

  6. Hey Gail!

    You’re a contemporary writer, yay! Hugs for everyone :)

    Things I like:

    1) I am loving the powerful details (like everyone else…teehee). Libby’s hair, the grease stains, plastic forks, black jeans.

    2) I like that these characters feel real, especially Libby. I don’t know if she’s a sister or a girlfriend or what, but she’s got spunk: she’s charming enough to bring you food, and entitled enough to make you hop out of class to eat it. Also, I love the “I freaking hate stairs” line. Don’t we all, Libby. Don’t we all.

    3) The setting is very clear. Classroom. Stairwell. I can envision where we are, and am not disoriented at all.

    Something to think about while revising:

    1) I agree with Lana that it seems like there’s a lot of backstory too soon. The bits about how Chase joined the advanced class, and how he met Libby seem to all attack us upfront, when I barely know the characters much at all yet, and I just want to see how they’re interacting in the current moment.

    LOVE the concept of the pitch :D. I get the feeling that some inciting incident is coming up in this scene too.

    -Molly (@mollycluff)

  7. I really enjoyed your pitch. Sounds like a very interesting concept. One thing though, I was a little confused by the latter half. Rediscovering a sibling that lives across the country sounds very intriguing, but perhaps you could reword it so the sentence isn't as awkward.

    Moving on to the first 500, you have a very strong writing style. I think you would benefit though from cutting out some of the backstory. I like Chase, and Libby seems interesting, but I don't think we need the history of their relationship right on the first page. You do a great job of providing details about the characters, i.e. Libby's hair. I just have a question though, if he's a high school senior, how did he spend half of the previous semester sitting outside of a college level course?

    One last thing: "One as a high school senior I shouldn't be taking, but want to remain enough in her good graces to come back to, so I follow Libby out the door." I know what you're trying to say with this sentence, but it's a little confusing. Maybe revise it so that it flows better.

  8. I think I like the concept here, but I admit the pitch has thrown me a little. I don't want to be redundant but I agree with the above criticism regarding clarity. You do an excellent job with descriptions, beginning with the wine-red hair. I have a difficult time with Libby coming in to interrupt his class, though, I must be honest. When I was in college, a professor wouldn't just let some random girl come in and start chatting with a student without asking why she was there or telling her to leave, so it didn't ring true for me. Also "since her parents have taught here since before she was born" is awkward. Eliminate the first "since." Either replace it or create a new sentence - "Her parents have taught here since..."

    I am compelled to keep reading, which is a good thing :) I want to know what's in the box, and if it's something that requires forks how it can possibly be important enough to risk getting him tossed out of class - unless she's just the careless type who doesn't think about others before acting? I like knowing that he hovered outside the class for weeks before the professor invited him in - this little bit of info sets us up for so much, in terms of knowing who he is as a person in addition to telling us where he is and why. We know who he likes to read, we know he's got at least one subject that greatly grabs him, we know he's not the most popular boy in school (since so few kids know where he is after school), etc. You do a LOT to set that up in a short time without it feeling like over-exposition.

    Overall, between the pitch and the excerpt I feel this is the sort of book I'd be interested in reading, but it definitely has some awkward wording in need of edits before it can really grasp me.

  9. I agree with all the above, the pitch is interesting, just reword the second half to flow smoother.
    You're descriptions are awesome and I can envision in my head the people and setting you are laying down. If today is finally the day he planned to join him is he pissed at Libby for taking that moment away from him?

    I like the set up and I want to know what she's about to tell him, because it feels like there's about to be an interesting conversation that has a lot more going on then what they are about to put in their mouths from that box :)
    Did he only follow her out to only to escape from the teacher being angry or is he truly interested, it feels if he spent so many months wanting to get in he would balk a bit more at being interrupted too :)

  10. oops I meant them, not him. As in planned to join them in the discussion :)


  11. Hi Gail!!

    I'm going to crit your entry thoroughly, but remember that all advice is subjective in the art world and you are more than welcome to burn mine if it's totally opposite of what you think is best for YOUR story! :D

    Okay, so your pitch sounds solid. I don't really see much that needs to be fixed there. I love how your title is a combo of both guys' names :D

    Okay, your 500: This just may be nitpicky on my part, and maybe it is, but I've done a lot of research on writing the male voice as a girl (had to, if you see my entry it's dual male POV), and some of the things that Chase notices I'd expect Libby to see, not so much him. For example, her hair color. If he knows her, he's not likely to think about this, or the color of anything else he's used to, unless he makes a connection with it. And instead of wine red, just say red. I know exactly what shade you're talking about here, but guys tend to be less specific with colors, unless they're artists.

    I also love how he's sitting in on the class by invitation, and how he doesn't want to cross the teacher because she let him in.

    I think some of the sentences could be less clunky. "She's upset that Libby is interrupting the class." I think instead of telling us this, put something like, "She gives Libby a meaningful 'please leave' look." Or something like that. Obviously that sounds like me and not Chase, so alter accordingly if you so wish :D

    One thing that takes me off is that Cal isn't mentioned once. I concluded this is because he hasn't died yet. If that's the case, then maybe this isn't the right place to start. My suspicion is, and I could be totally wrong on this, that Chase is about to be notified of his brother's death. If so, then maybe crop this scene so that that notification shows up within your first pages. If NOT, and he is already gone, then maybe mention that in Chase's thought processes.

    Anyways, that's all for now. This is a fascinating concept and I think it can really go far :D Yay for you!!

  12. Hi Gail!

    So much has already been said and I don't mean to be too repetitive but yes--such fun details, really nice precise images, and some backstory that could probably be cut/relocated. I was so drawn into this guy's voice that every time he veered off to explain something I felt myself getting impatient for the scene to continue. I would stay present with him in real time. It makes it more visceral for us. Also--I agreed that there was something odd about him caving in and leaving for a treat when he cares about the class. I could almost see this part of the scene just happening through a classroom door with a window in it--with Libby motioning to him until the professor notices and he apologetically steps out. That way he doesn't know that the reason is seemingly trivial… Just a thought.

    Your pitch was very clear in terms of premise, but it was a bit of a mouthful. Maybe there's a way to break it up. Sounds likes it's going to be a great story!

    Hope this helps :)


  13. Dido for what many others said. You have a nice cynical feel. One quick comment. Would a teenager understand the Buddy Holly reference? The Kurt V. reference is good because you explain it, and surely you want your audience to learn more about what you MC likes. If they don't know who he is, they learn w/o being lectured.

  14. I LOVE your title! I like contemporary, but I also think the mystery element in your pitch is makes me want to know more.

    Just a couple of quick comments or suggestions--

    I couldn't figure out how he was sitting outside this class when he should be in his high school class. Then, you tell us that it is a night time college course, but I think you should mention that the class is at night, earlier on.

    Maybe Libby isn't the type who will go away and that's why he leaves class for her. If so, I think that should be mentioned. Otherwise, why would he leave something so important for a snack?

    Most other things have already been mentioned.

    Overall, great idea and I love the writing. The details. The voice.

  15. Focusing on the pitch:

    Great improvements! It's clearer that Cal was the estranged brother! It's got a lot more clarity, but, it needs a bit more tension. I need to know more about Chase than I do about the cellphone. And if you could be less vague about what's at stake it would be stronger. I think you said in the original something about family. If you tighten the tension between "a single cellphone leads to a family he didn't know he had" (only way less tropey) then you pick up words to help us know who Chase is, i.e. "Seventeen-year old Vonnegut fan Chase"

    You're definitely moving in the right direction. Keep tightening, keep clarifying and then get the voice back in by swapping out the words for those Chase would use.

    Good luck!

    1. Thank you Lana! This is good stuff!

  16. The Jules Verne reference to her dimples sold me. I really love the beginning. It does seem like it starts losing some energy at the end, the line where he almost chokes up seems a bit too telling and forced. Id rather he want to change the subject, or show us by his actions that it's an emotional thing for him, rather then tell and flashback. But really that's a tiny issue. I really like the start with the wish, and the way you've shown their relationship and history without backstory, and again, I'd read further based on the Jules Verne description of her dimples alone.

    As far as the pitch goes, the only thing, for me, that's missing is the stakes. Why does he need to know his brother? And you might want to consider changing the order of the first sentence of the pitch so it starts with Cal's death. Like When Cal dies in front of him, Chase's goal of reuniting with his brother are as smashed as the car that killed him (or however Cal dies). Now lead by the clues left in Cal's cell phone, Chase uncovers (x).. like that

    Either way, best of luck.

    1. Thank you Sheena—I loved that Jules Verne line when I wrote it, so I'm glad to insert it back in this new (old) version of the beginning! And agree the pitch still needs've given me some solid clues to get started!

  17. Okay, for your pitch, I like the clever wording of the first half, but where it falls flat for me is the second half. It's pretty vague on the stakes. I realize this is contemp and sometimes the drama is a little less on the shock and awe factor, but what terrible thing happens if Chase doesn't track down the clues in Cal's phone. With pitches it has to usually be When thing A happens character X must do thing B or terrible thing C will come to pass. So what's your terrible thing C. Find that and work it into your pitch and you should be golden.

    As for the revised 500, I like it a lot better it's way clearer what's going on. Liberty and Chase's relationship is solid. I'm assuming though he lists her as his best friend she's actually the LI since she has attractive curves and Jules Verne dimples (btw, that metaphor is so gorgeous.) I do think you could work on not jumping directly into a flashback on page three isn't necessary. I think that we could get the same effect by just leaving us wondering who Cal is and why Chase hasn't seen him in so long. Let the reader wonder about that rather than spelling it out. I hope this helps.

    1. This is great feedback on the pitch, Jessica—thank you! Definitely need to still keep working on my pitch–this aspect of writing is so hard to nail down, but feedback from writers such as I've gotten here is a HUGE help!

  18. Read through once and I'm totally hooked. Voice is great! Will read again and add some more comments.

    1. Thank you Jenny—that means a lot!

  19. Agreed that you've made great improvements here! Also seconding the recommendation to hold off on telling us who Cal is and what the backstory is there. Finally, some picky suggestions in one section:

    “Dig in," she pronounces satisfactorily. [I think this should be "in satisfaction"? "Satisfactorily" sounds more like she's pronouncing something well on a language test).]

    I'm removing the cupcake's moist paper liner when she slaps my hand. "Wait!"

    I exhale loudly. "What now?" Being denied this cupcake is making me hungry and angry—"hangry" Libby calls it. [Suggest striking this line and go straight to her pulling out the candle.]

    Reaching into her leather jacket, she pulls out a candle, pushing it into the cupcake's center. From the other hand [maybe "From another pocket comes", a Zippo lighter, [strike from here to...]her eyebrows crinkling as she catches a flame. Soon her face is bathed in the warm glow of candlelight.[]

    1. These are great suggestions Amelinda. Having made them, reading through and seeing how nothing was lost, I completely agree with you! If you're ever on the lookout for a CP exchange, count me in! [gail [at]]

  20. Pitch: This sounds like a really intriguing read! My only suggestion is to make the stakes more clear. I’m guessing the stakes are something like “If he can’t unravel the cell phone’s clues, he may never see his brother again.”

    First 500: Great job creating suspense with a very engaging opening scene. Just the right amount of backstory. I like the name Liberty Jones! Cute line about the Jules Verne novel. You do a nice job of putting sensory detail into your work- the tinkling bell, the scent of cream cheese frosting, the fry Greece embedded in the walls. Because of these details the scene really springs to life. I also enjoyed the interaction between Liberty and Chase. They obviously have a long-standing friendship and I’m wondering if it’s more . . .

    Are you by any chance looking for a CP? If so, I’d love to keep reading CHASING CAL. My email is: If not, no worries. I’ll just be a fan. ☺

    Jenny (VANISHED #4)

  21. Hi Gail,

    Sorry to be so late to the party and hope you see this at some stage. Well done, I think you’ve done fantastic work on your revisions.

    Your new pitch is much clearer. The first line works very well and is very clear, though an adjective to describe Chase could make it stronger. The next two lines are also clear but could probably do more in terms of offering mystery and stakes. Overall, you seem very close to a very strong pitch.

    I love your new 500 words which give so much visual and sensory detail. We have a much stronger sense of the characters and the story flows beautifully. I think you have done a fabulous job. One small thing I might add to Amelinda’s suggestions is to strike “We've taken this childish tribute this far so”

    Super job and the best of luck with it!