Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Public Slushpile Winner #2


“Hey kid! You, with the red hair. Yeah, you! We’ve got a creamed corn emergency on our hands! Get down to the storeroom and fetch me a big can, quick now!”

I’m Josh Brannon, the kid with the red hair. I had cafeteria duty, on account of an incident involving a wad of chewing gum and Patty Anne McGinty’s chair, which I had almost nothing to do with, no matter what that tattletale Patty Anne says. Mrs. Kuchen, the lunch lady, was waving a big, gloppy spoon in my direction.

The truth is, Mrs. Kuchen freaks me out. She’s as big as an offensive lineman and her face is always bright red and sweaty. Her uniform has these weird stains on it that are never the same color as what we’re eating that day. Plus, her hair net makes her look like an alien. I don’t think she likes kids much.
Mrs. Kuchen snarled, “Stop daydreaming, kid!” and I headed for the storeroom at the back of the kitchen.

The door opened with a creak, like you hear in horror movies. Serling Heights Intermediate School was built way back in the thirties. They keep adding on to it, so it looks like a bunch of different buildings stuck together. Kind of like Frankenstein’s monster. The cafeteria is in the oldest part of the school. The storeroom is about what you’d expect—cobwebs, damp stone walls, a sour, barfy smell. Yuck city.
I flicked on the lights and it didn’t seem so bad, not that I was scared or anything. A long flight of metal stairs led to a dark basement. Lunch Lady Kuchen yelled, “Move it!” and I took the steps two at a time.
It was cold down there, like I had descended a lot farther than twelve steps. Rickety shelves lined the walls. Cans as big around as hubcaps filled the shelves. There were boxes of instant potatoes the size of tombstones. I found the corn on a bottom shelf at the far end of the storeroom, where the ceiling got lower and a big, greasy stain covered the floor. Time for the Health Department to pay a visit, I thought.
Something else caught my eye. In one corner, half-hidden behind a cabinet that had sagged sideways, was a little wooden door. It looked way older than the school, which I knew was impossible. A sign on it read KEEP OUT. Underneath the sign someone had scratched a skull and crossbones into the wood, and beneath that THIS MEANS YOU! Now I had to see what was behind that door.

I dropped the canned corn and reached for the rusty handle. It turned, just barely, with a scraping metal sound. I pulled hard but nothing happened. I gritted my teeth, grabbed it with both hands and really yanked. Nothing. I was about to give up when I leaned against the door to catch my breath. It flew open, pulling me after it!

I tumbled through the air and landed with a plop in something soft and sticky.


  1. The overall voice is great here, but it seems a little uneven--I can almost hear the adult voice behind the kid's voice in parts.

    There are some opportunities to make your transitions from one subject to the next a little smoother, and there are some punctuation issues that stand out.

    I like your query much more than I like your opening 500, which may be problematic if others feel the same.deg

  2. I LOVE your descriptions - the lunch lady, the storeroom... I love the line about the boxes of instant potatoes the size of tombstones.

    The only two parts that tripped me up was:
    1) the use of the phrase "cafeteria duty" because you usually think of adults having cafeteria duty
    2) the line about how the door handle pulled him inside felt too abrupt.

    But, in general, I really liked this a lot! Good luck!

  3. I like this concept but this voice reads like Upper MG (if not older) and chapter books are for 6-9 year olds. This left me rather confused about the age of the main character which you may need to make more evident by throwing in his grade or something like that.

    Good luck!

  4. You're missing a comma in the first sentence.

    This is really cute, and I love the voice. You need to tighten it up. Every word must have purpose and an impact. If it doesn't, toss it. Also, you switch from present to past tense. For example, your MC "had" cafeteria duty even though you had set it up to be present tense.

    After another revision or two, I can definitely see this in my son's library.

  5. I agree that there were a few moments where the voice seemed a little too adult. Most of the kids I know in this age range would just call the monster "Frankenstein" rather than realizing that Frankenstein was the scientist. I know I didn't read the book until high school, but that might just be me.

    The Health Department reference seemed a little adult. Also, since this is all Josh's inner monologue, I don't think it's necessary to put "I thought" after it.

    Overall, the voice is great, though, and it seems like a very fun concept. Definitely something my twelve year old cousin would love. Good luck!

  6. This is super cute and clever. However, some of the wording makes me wonder if this is supposed to take place decades ago, so you may want to update your slang or maybe clarify your setting time-wise.

  7. Overall, excellent. Loved the descriptions such as the stains bearing no resemblance to what they were eating. I think it reads MG and not a chapter book. But that's an easy adjustment.Your strength is definitely in the descriptive aspects of your writing and - given where you are going - that bodes well for the book as a whole. Also, the narrator has a lively and energetic style of relating what's going on so I really appreciated that because I am sure I would not tire of the voice. I appreciated the little homage to Twilight Zone by naming the school Serling Heights - bravo!
    I would definitely read on with enthusiasm based on what I have read so far.Watch for repetition like the word "shelves" in close proximity in two consecutive sentences. But, in my opinion, an A+ all the way around.

  8. I don't write YA, but I do read chapters books with my kids, and I thought you did a great job of packing both voice and action/intrigue into your first two pages. We'd read on!

    I agree with the others that the MC's voice was sometimes inconsistent. You might try looking at each piece of dialogue and description through your character's POV--would he use those exact words? (e.g., cobwebs vs. spiderwebs) Notice those specific things? (The Health Department, hubcaps, and tombstones threw me... but the door with the skull and crossbones was terrific.)

    You've got a fun story here--love it!

  9. I love this voice in this! I smiled and laughed at more than one place. BUT i also think that that voice gets you into trouble in spots. You don't list the age of the narrator, but assuming and intermediate school is the same as a middle school, i assume he's somewhere between 11-14. There are some references here that come off much older. The health inspector bit, knowing the school was built in the 30s as opposed to it just being really old, saying it felt colder than just the twelve steps he descended. These and a few more were all spots where i was pulled out of the prose because i was wondering if a kid that age would have those thoughts.
    I would just go through and really examine the references and really try to get into the mind of a kid.
    Otherwise, though, this was hilarious and had a great pace. I would've kept reading

  10. I think your second paragraph is a stronger opener than the quote. You could move the quote after the first paragraph, since we don't know who's talking, and it seems better to get the character's voice right out of the gate.

    While I appreciate the detail the school was built in the '30s, would a kid know that? Something less specific but that a kid could compare to as a really long time ago would suffice - maybe even an absurd comparison, like in the time of the dinosaurs.

    The concept gives you so much to work with, I think the focus needs to keep with seeing it all through the eyes of a child without over explaining things that a kid might not be aware of.

  11. I LOVE this idea, and the first two or three paragraphs totally worked for me. After that I thought it slowed a bit, but my biggest problem was with some of the wording. It didn't fit the age of the character (I'm presuming 10-12ish?)

    I have a 10 year old myself and anything in the 1900s might as well be the 1600s. It wouldn't be "the thirties" to him. Also, what would he know (or care) about the Health Department?

    That stuff would be a HUGE problem in getting this to market, and if there are (at least) two examples in the first 500 pages, I'd expect to find a lot of them in the book. And it would make me assume you didn't understand your audience or have the ability to write to the age group.

    I really hope you do because this would be so awesome.

  12. This story made me chuckle a few times; it's really cute and funny. I think the narrator sometimes breaks from sounding like a young kid (see examples above). And I don't think it works to say that a door looks like it's older than the school--what does that mean, that it's rotting or that the style is really odd or what? But some of the descriptions really made me laugh (like the stains that don't match the food, the box that looks like a tombstone).

    Other than that, maybe you could take better advantage of opportunities to flesh out the main character. For example, he gets in trouble for putting gum on a girl's chair--that's not very original and doesn't say much about the mc's cleverness or any other trait. A more creative stunt would really tell us who he is. And maybe he could say a little more about the actual duties he's required to perform--what cafeteria chores does he really hate? Which ones does he maybe secretly like to do? I think this mc could be a really fun narrator, especially if we get to know him a little sooner.

  13. The character of the lunch lady kind of annoyed me because it such a cliche character - the large, gruff, loud & scary lunch lady. I think I have seen that character countless times. It would be great to have something more original in the opening.

    I agree starting with the second paragraph would be much better.

    And I think the narrator sounds fun - my favourite was his line about needing to see what was behind the door.

  14. This entry held my attention with its conflict, vivid characters, and suspenseful ending. I also liked the use of concrete detail.
    However, as someone said above, the reading level is well above that found in chapter books, which are for beginning readers to read by themselves. MG might be more accurate.
    Also, I would move the last sentence of the 2nd par. to the end of par. one. It's really more the "she said" of that dialogue.

  15. Funny, charming and well-written! I loved this excerpt, although I agree with some of the prior commenters that the more "adult" references (the thirties school, the Health Department) don't fit the tone of the story. Otherwise, the prose was clean and tight, and I think it would have mass appeal for the intended audience!

  16. This is funny--good characterization and descriptions. But I wouldn't say the structure is at chapter book level, rather middle grade. The sentences are way too long and the vocabulary too advanced (I think) for chapter book. Maybe you should market this as a MG novel?

  17. I remember reading your query for this and thinking how awesome it was, but I feel a little let down by this opening. I agree with the others that voice seemed a little older in places, like thinking of the Health Department when he sees the stain, I would think a kid would think something died there. Also, I know "Frankenstein's monster" is acurate, but most kids don't realize that Frankenstein was the doctor, not the monster.

    I loved the voice in the query and I just didn't feel like that voice was as strong in this excerpt. It is a great concept though and I wish you the very best.

  18. of the 5 winners here, i found this entry the most compelling.

    what grabbed me?

    well, i liked the opening hook and the MC's POV. more importantly, i wanted to read on because i felt i was in the hands of a natural storyteller. there's a unity of voice and action here, nothing showy, nothing overly clever, just a good story percolating.

  19. I loved your opening and really want to know what was behind that door. My son would definitely read on! I liked the voice and while it did have some adult references, what doesn't these days? My favorite of the entries! Good luck!

  20. Voice sounds more MG than middle grade. Some references adult-health department visit, for instance.

    You've painted a clear picture of the school and the store room. I shy away from exclamation marks and starting with dialogue. The dialogue works okay, but then the back and forth is jumpy.
    Dialogue, background, dialogue, school info. . .try to get this information in more smoothly or let some of it come later in the book.

    How the door pulled him in is a little confusing.

    I would keep reading this one.

  21. I agree that the voice is inconsistent. He sounds like a kid, but then says things that a kid probably wouldn't, that are more adult. Others have mentioned them.

    I though you did a great job of getting to the point and you left us with a nice page turner.

    On the down side, is the scenario even possible in today's world? Would a school be able to put a kid in this position of working for the kitchen staff? It's a bit of an SOD breaker.

    But overall, it sounds like a lot of fun.

  22. I like the voice, I could almost hear Josh talking. I like the way you keep feeding us more interesting little tidbits that lure us deeper into the story. The last line in the second paragraph made me stumble. Maybe another shout from Mrs. Kuchen but still include the "waving a big, gloppy spoon...". Nice work! I'd read more.

  23. I like this a lot. i would have kept reading.

    There were two lines that I thought could use a little tweaking.

    — "Mrs. Kuchen, the lunch lady, was waving a big, gloppy spoon in my direction." I liked the line. It just seemed out of place. It made more sense as the very first line of the piece, although they may not be how you want to start.

    —"They keep adding on to it, so it looks like a bunch of different buildings stuck together. Kind of like Frankenstein’s monster." I like the idea of this and I know what you're saying. It's not quite there for me yet. Your words would be better, but to connect the two something like —They keep adding to it, a bunch of different buildings stitched together like Frankenstein.

    Great, great, job!
    Bill Scott

  24. This was vivid and colorful and fun. It drew me in and I wanted to read beyond the last line.

    I do agree with what's been said above about 1) some of the wordchoices being too adult for a children's book and 2) the syntax and story structure being too complicated for a chapter book. And yet... I do worry the premise is too young for an upper MG. It would take some work to add slightly older elements, but you could make a shift to upper MG, I think and keep this style of writing.

    I had a little trouble picturing the actual entry into the storeroom. He's at a door at the back of the lunch room... he describes the storeroom (before turning on the lights)... but then he's going down steps to the basement. So I can't picture whether the storeroom has steps at the end leading to a basement or if the stairs start at the door and the basement is the storeroom.

    The last few lines of the handle-pulling paragraph felt rushed to me also. I wasn't sure he'd tried long or hard enough to actually be winded. And I was having trouble figuring out how he planned to pull open a door that's half behind a shelf or how he'd fit through the opening... I guess I'm imagining the door much smaller than it is.

    I sort of agree with the comment above about the lunch lady stereotype. I had a thought that it might be interesting to make her something of a sprite... maybe a secret denizen of lunch lady land who is sending him down to the storeroom in the hopes he'll be sucked in... unless she is, in which case, nm.

    Interesting story, though, and ignoring the adultisms creeping in, the voice was fun and whimsical.