Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Public Slushpile Winner #4

TITLE: Home Base
GENRE: Contemporary YA

As soon as the plane touches down at Awa Dance Airport, I feel my shoulders relax. Up until now, I hadn’t even realized that they were tense. Twenty-four hours ago, I was all bummed out about leaving my teammates – my “homies” – in Atlanta, disappointed that I wouldn’t be hanging out with Rico and Jamal anymore, and that I wouldn’t be third batter in the season opener.

But now, after three years in America, I’m back in Tokushima. I’m home. And even though I’ve never been to this brand-new airport before, everything looks familiar – the islands off in the distance, the palm trees waving “hello,” the flight attendants bowing as Okaasan, my sister, and I gather up our stuff and get off the plane.

I stride down the gangway, my duffel bag bouncing against my hip. I should be tired, what with the fourteen hour time difference and not sleeping on the plane, but I’m not. I could sprint to Baggage Claim, if I wanted to. I could hit a ball clear across the runway.

Momoko stumbles along behind me. She made a lot of friends in America, so she was really sad about leaving – maybe the saddest of all of us. Nobody ever tried to beat her up over there. She cried during half the flight. During the other half, she was writing in her polka dot-covered diary, or flipping through photos in this little album she had, no doubt reliving her glory days as Elementary School Science Fair Winner.

Just ahead, there’s a guy in a navy suit, chattering into his cell phone. To my left, a young mother talks to her little girl. And then there’s some sort of high school sports team, everyone in matching jackets, coming back to Tokushima from a tournament in Tokyo, I guess, and they’re all jabbering away in the local dialect. The weird thing is that I understand what they’re saying. Every single word.

I learned to speak English pretty well in America – better than Okaasan, almost as well as my brainiac sister and Otosan – but I still missed a lot of words. Even when people spoke loudly, as if I was deaf, or super slow, I only understood about seventy percent. I kinda got used to not understanding, so this is nice, for a change.

We go down the escalator to get our suitcases, and then through sliding glass doors, into the Arrivals lobby, where there’s a huge mural of festival dancers in pink summer kimono on the wall.

“Okaerinasai!” Welcome home! Otosan is right there to greet us. He doesn’t hug us or anything. Nobody hugs in Japan. But he smiles, and reaches out for Okaasan’s bags.

He came back a couple weeks ahead of us. Momoko and I wanted to stay in American school until spring break. That means we’ve already missed the entrance ceremonies at our new schools here in Japan. But it’s no big deal. Everybody’s Japanese here, so we’ll fit right in.

“Where’s Ojiisan?” I ask, looking around for my grandfather. I figured he’d be all anxious to see us. We live in the same house, so it’s not like my dad would have had to go out of his way to pick him up.


  1. There are some opportunities to tighten up the prose here, and there's a bit too much description (of the airport) for my tastes. I'm not sure if this is your intention, but I never really feel grounded in your MC character. I think perhaps it's because there's a lot of setup and explaining before we get to any dialogue.

    I'm not sure I'd read on. I love the setting, and I remember being interested in your query. The writing is fine, but I just wasn't grabbed by your first 500.

  2. So I am SUPER EXCITED about this one, since I'd love to see more Japanese settings in YA! There were just a few things that took me out of it a bit.

    I'm not too sure about the Japanese words here without context - you clarify that "Ojiisan" is grandfather, but people unfamiliar with Japanese might not realize at first that "Okaasan" and "Otosan" are his parents. One of the strengths of this passage is the way your protagonist is seeing the nuances of his culture from the outside for the first time, so if you wanted to introduce some Japanese words, maybe you could do so through your protagonist readjusting to his native language (and maybe comparing it to the English he learned)?

    And as I mentioned before, the reverse culture shock aspect is strong, but there were a few lines that took me out:
    - "The weird thing is that I understand what they're saying." I know what you meant here, but it reads a little strangely, because of course he understands.

    - "Nobody hugs in Japan." This sort of feels like you stepping out of character to explain Japanese culture to the reader. Again, maybe you could emphasize this by having your MC contrast it to his experiences in America?

    - "Everybody's Japanese here, so we'll fit right in." Again, I know what you meant, but it reads strangely. I think you can find a better way to convey this same idea.

    Good luck! I think you've got a potentially great story here!

  3. I remember really being grabbed by your query for this project so if I had been an agent I would have been asking to see some pages. But, your first 500 don't draw me in. I think the problem is that there is a lot of focus on arriving - but arriving in and of itself is an unintersting process unless we have some feeling of what the person is leaving or what the person is coming to - and why that's critical or emotional etc. We don't have that here. There is also a plethora of other characters that confuse rather than give color - we still don't know the MC well enough and that is what should be foremost in our mind at this point before others are introduced. I find the voice problematic and will be a challenge for you going forward because it sounds very colloquial for a person who is not fluent in English. I understand there is a convention that the person narrating - even if they are of another language - conveys their thoughts in a natural way. But, you are losing the idea of another culture or being trapped between two cultures because he just sounds way too American for me right now.

    I think you need to refocus your opening on the MC and what his fear/conflict/journey is or is going to be and that level of exposition is best accomplished in a quieter setting than a busy airport terminal.

  4. You have a huge name soup. It's always best to introduce characters gradually because your readers don't know who any of those people are.

    Your prose is your strength, but I think the pace is a touch slow for YA. It's fine for the books I read, but I read a lot of literary and upmarket fiction.

    I like the descriptive touches you give, but I think they overshadowed your MC. I don't have any sense of him at this point other than he adjusted quickly in America, he's back in Japan, and he's a good ball player. These are all important facts about him, but who is he?

  5. I feel like there is way too much telling here. You need to learn to show us his reaction versus his sister's rather than just coming out and saying it. Also, don't recite what he sees in the airport unless it has a real purpose. For example, does seeing that team make him miss his own team ( something you could show by having him wear the team jacket from his old school, for example)? Whatever you do, make sure your 500 words are grounding us in him not his setting.

    Good luck!

  6. While I enjoyed the excerpt, I agree with Holly above that there's a little too much "tell" versus "show." Your MC should be reacting more viscerally to the situation, instead of just listing his observations. A little more internal dialog might help so as to give us more of a sense of the MC's character.

    With that said, the writing is excellent and I think you've got a great story here. Best of luck!

  7. I love the set up of this, and you do a fantastic job of introducing us to the MC's world. But I didn't get a clear enough sense of the MC's voice, and there was a tad too much description.

    Still, the writing is good and I like that you don't stop to explain every Japanese word b/c no native speaker would actually do that. Readers should be able to pick up the meaning through context, and I think for the most part, that's done well.

  8. I did not read your query first, so I was unaware that we were in Japan for a while.

    I also have to agree with Holly that you've got a lot of "telling" going on here. We're given so much background information that we don't feel like we are really there in the moment with the character. Think about releasing pieces of your story as you go instead of dumping so much info right away.

    I did go and read your query after read the opening page, and I have to say that a story about a Japanese boy who returns home after three years in America is certainly an interesting premise. I'd keep reading based on that, but the "telling" would have to end soon in order for me to stay interested.

  9. While I eventually began to like this-- being a Japanophile and all-- the beginning about "homies" really really put me off.

  10. The overall essence of the beginning is good. Your intent (if that what it is) to introduce culture shock of coming home after being away for an extended time period is solid. I did get confused by the conglomerate of names and exactly who they were. If you can clarify those and tighten up some of the rest of the writing (make EVERY word count) you'll get to the good stuff that much sooner.Example: As soon as the plane touches down... could be tightened to : As the plane settled on the runway, I felt my shoulders unexpectedly relax. After twenty-four hours, Awa Dance Airport, Japan was real and my teammates Rico and Jamal and my position as third batter in the season opener in Atlanta were a lost dream. OR something like that.

  11. I like this overall and I like the voice of the character. But there's too much detail and info for me.

    Tightening would help, big things like losing all that unnecessary info in paragraph five, or all the doors and escalators in the airport, relocating some of the details that aren't necessary to understand the character or the scene, like all stuff about the others' experiences in America

    And little things like "I should be tired" I dunno, young people are kinda resilient like that. Mine never seem to be tired when I want them to be. ;) You could keep the info by just saying he's not tired in spite of [whatever]. Saying what things shouldn't be or aren't vs. what they are isn't usually the best way to present info.

    That would vastly improve the pace, which is really slow. But otherwise I think this has nice potential.

  12. This a great, fresh idea for YA--I love that it's set in Japan. I think if you want to grab teen readers, you're going to have to focus more on the characters' feelings instead of just relating information about his situation and backstory. If a teen can relate to this situation (even a teen who's never returned home to another country) then you've got an invested reader. I'm having trouble relating to this mc because I don't really know if he's in turmoil or really excited or what. I only know facts, and that can make this story feel a little distant.

  13. I would watch out for filler words like almost, really, even, all. You can usually take out "I feel" and just say how the character feels (example: my shoulders relax). Having a character say "I was all bummed out" sounds natural, but it feels clunky as inner dialogue.

    The first page is your chance to show where the story's going, so some of the backstory about learning to speak English can come later. What's happening right now to this character that propels the story forward?

    You have great elements to work with that can improved by tightening the writing and pushing the plot forward.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. I understand you're wanting to use Japanese to better show your character, but most people who read this have no idea he's referring to his mother and father when he says "Okaasan" and "Otosan." The (very picky) thought of "Why doesn't he use a Japanese term for his mother but not for his sister?" also passed my mind.

    The first paragraph or so was very tell-y as well. Just let me absorb where the protagonist is instead of him telling me everything that happened recently. Pacing is just a bit fast, too.

  16. What I most liked about this entry was that it is a "real life" story, not fantasy. While I like fantasy as much as the next person, I think YA readers, as well as younger readers, should experience a variety of genres.
    I found this entry somewhat hard to read. I feel provincial saying this, but I was quite confused by the names--until I read Becky M's explanation about the Japanese words for mother and father. I had thought the references were to siblings! I would expect younger readers to be similarly confused and not willing to slog along to figure out the relationships.

  17. I love stories that take place in other countries, so yours immediately interests me. However, I wonder if some of these musings and backstory could be presented later, and start the story at a more active point.
    I was a little confused by the names: It says at one point that Okaasan is the MC's sister, but then this: "better than Okaasan, almost as well as my brainiac sister and Otosan" Is the brainiac another sister? Give her a name? And I'm wondering who is Otosan. You tell us later, but not knowing at this point stops me.
    Another thing I noticed: if the MC is back in Japan, is he/she thinking in Japanese? (I assume since MC didn't pick up English that well.) Some of the internal dialogue has English slang or idioms such as "I figured." I wonder if these should be eliminated to reflect thoughts/narrative in Japanese(?)
    I get the tone of the story and the MC's voice. I don't expect ACTION!!! and all that--it doesn't seem that type of story. But maybe start your story with more "action" and less backstory. Good luck!!

  18. I remember this query, too, but like the others have said, I just didn't feel connected to the main character. There is a lot of desciption and backstory, but I have no sense of who this person is or even what gender the MC is. The first paragraph refers to male friends and being third batter, but a lot of girls have male friends and softball is just as likely as baseball.

    We certainly need more racial diversity in YA, but this opening needs tightening and more of an emotional connection for me to care about the character and his story.

    Best of luck!

  19. There is a lot of good scene setting here. You definitely get the feel of the MC's excitement across. He's got energy after such a long flight! He's excited to be home. All good stuff.

    I think where this goes a bit awry is in trying to give us way too much information in a very short space. We don't have to know the details about the sister(s)? right away. For some reason I was confused how many sisters there were. The first paragraph is a huge info dump. I think you can perhaps give us the information that he was sad and where he lived and who his friends were in some other way. He can remember something one of them said to him when they said good bye perhaps? In other words, a more organic way to tell us rather than just telling us.

    I think the premise is golden. You have a winner if you can figure out how to slow down, not rush, let us experience the story.

    Good job!

  20. I like this one, would be interested in reading more. It did take me 2 paragraphs to get the feel for your MC. I wasn't sure if he'd rather be in Atlanta or Home and I'm not so hot on geography-I didn't know that Awa Dance meant he was in Japan.

    I like the little details about his sister, how he talks about the language barrier, and the baseball references throughout.

  21. I really like this one - but like everyone else, was confused by the names and who they referred to. I think you could start this MS at a different spot - maybe his first day back at school, working in the backstory while comparing the difference between American and Japanese school. Maybe your character forgot a few things about how the Japanese school operates and the awkwardness of his readjustments is backstory. Or his classmates pester him with questions, etc.
    Good luck with this - I think it'll find a home.

  22. I liked the voice of the MC here, but it felt like far too much description of the airport. Unless a woman with a child is important to your story line, I would leave details like that out.

  23. Having watched my fair share of anime, I knew what the Japanese words meant, but I can see how they might be confusing. Maybe try introducing the Japanese in dialogue (as you do with "okaerinasai" and "ojiisan," which works really well), where it's easier to slip in a bit of context.

    "Homies" being in quotes seemed weird because I didn't realize until the next paragraph that English isn't the narrator's first language.

    Overall, I have two main issues with this opening: one, it doesn't give me much of a sense of the narrator's personality (as others have said). I feel like I know more about Momoko than I do about Satoshi. Two, it doesn't reflect the story you told in your blurb (which was very interesting, by the way). Is this the right place to start the story? If the main conflict is Satoshi clashing with various people in his hometown (his old friends, the coach), I would expect the story to begin there.

    I would read on, but I would want to see more conflict soon. (Maybe build up Satoshi's excitement about seeing his grandfather a bit, so that the revelation about his grandfather's condition - I assume that's coming soon, anyway - will carry more weight?)

    As I mentioned, the blurb for this one sounds really interesting. I don't normally read contemporary YA, but I would pick this up. Best of luck!

  24. I love the idea of a YA book aimed at boys and set in Japan- great concept.

    I had trouble with too much information being thrown out at me at once- and like someone else said, the "hommies" didn't work for me.

    Also, you might try reading it aloud- some of the prose is awkward and reading it aloud will let you hear it (the first paragraph for example).

    But nice work, you have something here.

  25. It's well written and I would read on.
    My first thought, however, was that there were too many unfamiliar sounding names that all begin with O. Makes for confusion.

    I also found it hard it believe that a young person immersed in an English language environment for three years only comprehended 70% of dialogue. That is remarkably low, unless he has a hearing impairment or something. Three years is more than enough for him to think, speak, and read English like a native - and be close to age level with his writing! (I speak both as a person from a migrant family, and who has worked in schools with a high number of migrant kids). It sounds more like he'd been in the US for three months.

    Adults are much slower than children at acquiring a second language; kids' brains are wired up for bilingualism, they catch up quickly.

    My other crit is that there are missed opportunities for internalisation, eg, you tell us he's diappointed about not hanging with his mates. You might show us this instead (eg, by him thinking about what his team would be doing now).

  26. Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to read this and for your helpful comments. Lots to think about here! And thank you, Authoress, for this wonderful opportunity. Write on.