Wednesday, January 23, 2019

January Secret Agent #23

TITLE: The Last Time You Died
GENRE: YA Contemporary Fantasy

It’s my first time back at school since Ben died and I don’t know what to expect. Will my friends understand and support me or will they turn their backs and trash me? Can I hold it together?

I step into the classroom and familiar sights and sounds crowd my senses—kids laughing and talking, our advisor, Mr. Davis, shuffling papers at his desk. A wave of panic creeps up my chest, lodges in my throat. I draw a deep breath to calm down and it gets worse—musty books, dry-erase markers, cheap floor wax—normal school smells, now linked forever to painful memories. It sucks, but I had to come or everyone would have said: Gemma’s lost it and won’t leave her house.

Nothing’s changed since last spring. The same movie posters hang on the slate-grey walls. The same scratched metal desks arranged in a semi-circle—Greek theater-style. The same anti-drug flyers and list of classroom rules posted on the bulletin board. Arrive on time. Respect yourself and others. Users are losers.

Kids zone out on their phones. Two boys chase each other around the desks, laughing and trading insults, while in the front row, two girls braid each other’s hair.

It looks the same, but it feels different. I turn my eyes away from the empty seat against the blackboard where Ben used to sit, cracking jokes, touching my hand when nobody was looking.

“Gemma, over here.”

Micaela and Caleb wave to me from their seats. I smile and wave back.


  1. My biggest suggestion is the questions at the beginning. I think it weakens the introduction to your character and the rhetorical questions don't hold as much power as they would if we knew better what was going on. There a strength in the moment of her thinking about him touching her hand when nobody was looking -- I would almost suggest cutting the first paragraph and seeing if there isn't another place or two you can drop a hint at what this loss means to her rather than flat out telling us in those first few sentences.

  2. I feel like the fourth paragraph could be tightened and become part of the second paragraph. Overall the setting and the issue of Ben dying has captured my interest.

  3. I love the voice. It’s perfect for YA.

    I love the description of the school, setting; it’s very realistic and well done.

    I like the way the MC’s name is introduced
    When I got to the part about the boys chasing eachother around a desk, I immediately thought, “Aren’t they too old for that?” Same with the girls braiding each other’s hair. Perhaps the boys throwing things at each other and the girls taking “bored in school” selfies or putting on lip gloss?

    Natural transition to Gemma going to sit by her friends.

    Overall, a pleasure to read. ;)

  4. I had the same thoughts as above, about the boys chasing each other and the girls braiding each others hair. Something about it reads very young and I double checked if it was MG.

    Other than that, smooth read.

  5. I like the first sentence, but I also agree that the questions afterward are probably not needed-- we can understand she's thinking this from what comes after that.

    I like the brief flashback of Ben touching her hand-- it reveals a ton about their relationship in a single sentence. Though maybe move that brief flashback up to where she first enters the room and looks around--get that reaction in there a bit more quickly, maybe.

    Overall, though, I'm intrigued and want to know moe about Gemma and Ben and how he died.

  6. Strong opening. It makes me care to find out how Gemma's brother died. I do agree with the others on the flashback scene. Maybe save it for a future chapter. Quick nits: used to is passive, so say sat. And say looked instead of was looking which is passive too.

  7. Honestly I think that your opening is really the beginning of the second paragraph. Bring me right in. Weave in the death after. But I like the premise and the description of the school! I would read on!

  8. I wonder if there’s a more “show” way of saying “will my friends support me or trash me.” I don’t know what to expect. How my friends will respond. How I’m going to hold it together. Let us wonder what the bigger story is with his friends.
    Same for the “Gemma’s lost it and won’t leave her house” section. This is a bit too much telling.
    Are text books really that musty? Are they in an old library? Do dry-erase markers smell that much? Can you smell floor wax that much? I think there might be a simpler way to convey what you’re trying to say here. I think you did it beautifully in the paragraph that begins “it looks the same, but it feels different,” referencing the empty chair.
    Braiding hair and chasing around desks feels a bit juvenile. How old is our protagonist?
    Overall, I'd suggest just a bit more subtlety.

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