Monday, February 11, 2013

1st 5 Pages February Workshop - Nolen Rev 1

Rebecca Nolen
Historical Fantasy/Middle Grade
The Dry /revision one

September 1895

Fact: Wasps live in colonies that form self-contained communities ruled by one queen or foundress.

Chapter One

The early light slipped between smoky mountains, swept across the town's bell tower, and burst bright the edges of everything. Another dry dawn and the town of Jeffersonville, Virginia was slow getting to its feet. At the center of town a tall house sagged in shadow. The sunlight stretched to reach the topmost attic window of this house and peek inside.

The sun gilded a much-repaired counterpane before resting for a moment on a quiet cheek. Dark eyelashes fluttered under this vivid scrutiny.

Awake, twelve-year-old Elliot Sweeney spread his arms to embrace the warmth before tossing his covers aside. He picked up the photograph he had unearthed last night, buried beneath rodent-soaked newsprint in an old cupboard crammed between other discards that shared the attic with him. Who was the boy next to his Uncle Nat? And why was his photograph hidden in the attic?

He pushed the photo into a pocket of his jacket. He had a lot of pockets. Into these he put coins, his string, his favorite marble, a stash of bread, and his father's letter - his father's last letter. Months ago, he had taken the crumpled missive from the trash bin where Uncle Nat had tossed it. With care he folded the feather-soft paper and put it in his jacket's inside pocket, next to his heart.

The skitter-scratch of claws near his feet made his skin prickle. He studied the path through the mounded furniture. His escape. The light had banished the shadows that lurked like dragons in the corners. He was glad for the light. He didn't much care for dark.

There was a lot of dark in this house, several long halls, lots of doorways, and countless deep corners. And the noise - creaks and groans his father told him were natural to an old house - had grown to skittering, clodhopping, and clatter that could not be natural. For though his uncle lived somewhere in the house, he was alone, alone as single Mayfly. Because when his father left for the newspaper assignment, his uncle promptly forgot he was still there and had all the rooms locked. But he discovered the key to the attic door. So he moved up there, and found rag rugs and moth-riddled blankets for a bed. It was all he needed. No, not all. He needed his father.

Heedful to lock the attic door behind so nothing looked changed and he came back and had no where to sleep, he tip-toed down the stairs. As he approached his uncle's study door he heard the 'clink' 'clink' 'clink' and the low muttering of Uncle Nat counting his money. He had reached the steps to the ground floor when behind him the study door opened.

He turned to face his uncle.

As if Elliot were a ghost, the old man's face went deathly pale. Then he blinked and cleared his throat. "Why are you still here?"

"My father hasn't returned."

"Is that my fault?"

"No, sir, but -"

"Nevermind! I'm busy," his uncle said, and closed the door.

It was a dismissal. Elliot stared at the closed door. Why did Uncle Nat make a point of avoiding him, forgetting him, not speaking to him? He didn't understand it. He would never understand. He wiped his sweaty palms on his trousers and ran the rest of the way down the stairs.

In the kitchen he filled his father's army-issue canteen with water, and a glass besides. He hung the canteen with the strap across his chest. He had had to loop it twice and tie it because the original strap was too long.

The back door opened. The cook arrived, wiping sweat from her red face. She motioned to him with a finger to her mouth. He nodded and watched her pull something from her pocket. She grabbed his empty hand, put a wad of paper money in his palm and curled his fingers around it. She bent close and whispered, "For new shoes."

How had she known he needed new shoes? He pulled her close and whispered in her ear, "Thank you. I'll pay you back."

Her eyes were wet, as she shooed him away with her apron.

The front door closed behind him with a sound like a sigh. He clambered down the plank steps to the sapling he worked to keep alive in the deathly dry. Something squirmed at his feet. It was a fishing worm twisting in the dust. He picked it up and laid it under a leaf at the base of his little tree and dumped the water from his glass over it.

"You saved that worm," the man's voice startled Elliot.

He looked up at the gawky man smiling down at him from the other side of the yard's iron fence. Everyone in town thought Morgan Johns was simple. They called him a changeling, but Elliot liked him so he said, "No use in letting something like that die."

"This dry 's just about killin' ever-thing."

"I reckon."

"I got somethin'." The man held out a shiny watch case. "Here."

"I can't take that off you."

"It's mine so I can give it to you."

Elliot shook his head. "But why?"

"I see you go down to the station ever day waitin' for yer paw. You gonna need this watch. Open it."

Elliot took the watch. He popped the case open. All the dials and levers clicked and turned inside the crystal of the watch face. It ticked loudly. But the watch ran backward. It was just about the strangest but most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. He looked up at Morgan John's smooth face, the way his eyes blinked slow over large eyes. The glint of silver in his mouth.

The man nodded. "Can you read the time on it?"

"It says eight o'clock."

"See? I can too. We about the only two people in the world, I reckon, can tell it's time. So you take it."

"Maybe. Okay. Just today."

"You goin' to the station?"

"The train's due at nine. Might be early. Sometimes is."

"Okay. See you again, Elliot Sweeney."

Morgan Johns left with his long awkward strides towards the other side of the dirt road. Mule-drawn wagons swayed past. Some loads were the size of small houses. Dust billowed, floating like a red haze. When he looked again, Morgan Johns was gone.

He took off for the station, his mouth dry already. He kicked at small pebbles. He couldn't give in to thirst. The water in the canteen had to last all day. A messenger in an old uniform hurried past. He hoped what news he carried wasn't bad. He would never forget the telegram. Sam Sweeney disappeared, it read. His stomach hurt thinking about it still. When his father disappeared, life went all hard on the outside and squishy-yucky on the inside- like a durned bug. This marked the ninety-first day since he began his vigil. The ninety-second since his father left. But something strange took a-hold of him this morning. He had a feeling deep inside where it mattered most that today something different would happen.

The station looked empty. That meant he had time before the train's arrival to read the newspaper's headlines. He crossed the platform to the news stand. He spotted a drawing of his father's face on the front page. His heart did a double-time thump. What happened? He read the caption:

SEARCH ABANDONED ~ For missing ~ Newspaper man ~Well-known for his campaign ~Against CHILD LABOR

The approaching train whistled and whooshed into the station bringing with it every kind of dust and dry from fourteen counties around, seemed like. Elliot stared at the line of cars, listened to the huffing train engine, sucked in the throat-drying diesel smoke. No. This wasn't right. No! Not even if every human on the face of this old earth gave up on his father, he would not! He would find his father. With a lump the size of a fist in his throat, he bought a ticket and boarded the train.


  1. Where he found the photograph struck me as a bit strange, so I was pulled out, expecting more on why Elliot found it there. (Maybe it's because there's more detail about the discards/the attic than there is about the photograph?) (Also if Elliot's been living in that attic for a while, why is it that he just found the photo now?)

    I think what struck me most about this edit is that I'm still not sure what the main focus of the story is / why you're starting with this. At first I thought it would be the photograph. Then I thought it was his father's absence/his last letter. Then his uncle's strange behavior. Then the watch and them being the only two people who could read it. Then his father again. It's clear that there's a lot going on, but because of that, I'm not sure where the story is headed if that makes sense.

  2. I loved the writing. It's just so beautiful I could read it all day. That said, I wonder if you could still tighten it even a bit more. I know you love that opening, but waking up openings are considered a dime a dozen and just as cliche as that saying. ;D Can you think of another way to start? Perhaps with his Uncle? Then you have a sympathetic situation that sets up the disappearance and all that happens from there.

  3. It's much tighter this time, not nearly as many info dumps!

    A few issues I noticed:

    His uncle had all the doors locked. But he'd discovered a key ...

    You might want to clear up the pronouns there--it sounds like his uncle is sneaking around his own house with a key. :-)

    The glint of silver in his mouth. This fragment threw me off--I couldn't tell if it was supposed to be the end of the first sentence or the beginning of a next one. Make it a comma splice, maybe?

    I like the inclusion of the weird drought conditions. I don't think I noticed it in the early draft. It seems like it'll be important to the story now.

    I agree with Helen and Lisa that it still needs tightening and focus, though. For me, as a reader of (way too much) middle grade, I'd focus the narrative around that watch. That's where the magic and curiosity comes from, for me. Missing dads--yawn--neglectful guardian--snore--unusual watch? Tell me more!

  4. Rebecca,

    I continue to really like your writing.

    Are all of the elements in this opening scene in some way critical for the story? The setting in the opening paragraph, the fact that Elliot lives in the attic, the Uncle, the cook scene, the house description, the photo, the dry conditions (i assume from the title this is) the father's disappearance (seems big) the watch (also seems key) ... I guess what I'm trying to point out is that there is a lot here. While all interesting, if there was a way to clear away some of it, the most important elements might shine more.

    My sense is that some of this is to establish sympathy for Elliot, akin to Harry Potter living under the staircase at the Dursley's? Forgive me if I'm off base here. But if that's what you're going for, I think it can still be done, but maybe in a shorter more focused way which will allow the story to move along a little more quickly.

    Great writing and the story has the makings of a really cool adventure. Can't wait to see where you go next.


  5. Hi Rebecca,

    Love the opening paragraph. I'd suggest working Elliot's age in more organically, like having him tell Morgan Johns how old he is or something, but that's just a personal preference. With the tone of the narration, it fits okay the way you have it.

    I liked the line about the pockets better in the last version, because it described all the things he collected first, then it's kind of like the narrator shrugging her/his shoulders by way of explanation: "He had a lot of pockets." It was pretty perfect and charming in the last version, I thought. :)

    "Rodent-soaked" was so disturbing it distracted my attention for a moment, just thinking about how incredibly nasty that would be. Points for vivid imagery but if it takes other readers out of the story too then maybe there's such a thing as being too vivid? :) Subjective, I know.

    "his uncle promptly forgot he was still there. . .But he discovered the key to the attic door." Remember, pronouns stand in for the last noun mentioned. I think you mean the uncle forgot Elliot was still there, and Elliot found the key, but it technically reads that the uncle forgot he himself was still there and found the key he used to lock all the doors (different story, that). Just something to keep in mind with multiple characters of the same gender in third person. :) Fun, I know.

    A word like "Heedful" might be a bit too formal for modern readers (I hate the word "stilted" because I read it with such a negative connotation, so when I say "formal" I mean stilted minus the stigma). I think because of the tone you can get away with a lot of formality but be careful not to push that license too far. Subjective? Of course!

    I like the new details about Morgan Johns -- I think you meant "eyeLIDS blinked slow" but great detail along with the "glint of silver in his mouth".

    Watch its/it's. "can tell its time" is correct (possessive).

    "Maybe. Okay. Just today." Love that. He's so humble. I love Elliot already, for that and the worm-saving. And the pockets.



    The ~s in the newspaper headline sort of distracted -- like -- reading -- telegram STOP. I know that's probably what you intended but I think it might have better effect to use it just twice or so rather than four times.

    "The approaching train whistled and whooshed into the station bringing with it every kind of dust and dry from fourteen counties around, seemed like." I love this description up until the "seemed like". If you want to tie it close to Elliot's perspective, I think that's fine, but the seemed like part reads like an afterthought. Start with Elliot's imagination moving into overdrive maybe. . .about the places this train has been, places he might soon be!

    I missed my other favorite line, about his father telling him he needed to understand. I hope it at least finds a place in a later chapter. :) I'm still not crazy about the opening fact. I think the first paragraph is stronger on its own.

    I think overall this is an improvement over the last version. We have more steady forward motion of the story. We have the maid helping him in a knowing selfless act (could even slip in a few more details about the maid and her relationship with Elliot, maybe. Has she always been supportive of him/his father?)

    We have a strong and decisive decision from the MC at the end of the chapter, and the beginning of a journey. I'm excited to find out where it leads him!

    You'll notice most of my feedback is nit-picky, because I'm just mesmerized by the prose. . .I think the new passages can still be refined and polished a bit further but it's not worth spending that time until you've got all the story elements in place, which you're still tightening a bit more.

    I think you've got the structure about 70% there if not more and now it's a matter of making sure every paragraph and sentence is in the right place, every nuance to the relationships is spelled out in a way the reader can pick up on and every close observation of Elliot's that's worth mentioning is mentioned.

    I totally want to read this book!

    Jude :)

  7. I want to thank everyone for their comments. There is a lot to think about now.

    Jude, I appreciate the things you liked and tried to work them in but I agree that though the missing father is important (Elliot has to have a reason to begin the journey) I have to downplay him somewhat. What the father said is part of the puzzle in the book and so I will include in a chapter soon.

    I know the neglectful guardian is cliched but he is only mentioned a few times in the entire book but is representative of the other adults who sold children to the mine (and lost their souls). Suggestions here?

    The light and dark play huge roles in the book (most of it takes place underground) and Elliot's fear of the dark and everything else has to do with his character arch. But I agree that waking up at the beginning is cliched, too. DARN! He could stay up all night nursing his lantern until the sun comes up. Does anyone have further thoughts on that? He could spend the time digging through the discards looking for more blankets ... why he finds the picture...

    The watch is explained in great detail in the next chapter.

    The wasp facts do distract but (And a very wonderful person suggested I do this) the world Elliot will soon discover is ruled by gigantic insects. And the wasps don't really show up a lot until the finale so I want the reader to learn a little something about the army that ends up helping Elliot although they presently work for the bad guy. Think of the wooly-hatted soldiers working for the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz.

    I don't want to seem like I'm defending so much as explaining (okay, yeah, that sounds weak). I'm willing to change anything. This baby is still forming in the womb.

    So I'm to downplay neglectful guardian, fix pronouns, fix fragments, fix its-it's, I can leave missing father until the end,and tighten everything.

    Thank you all again. You are all wonderful. Have a lovely Valentine's Day!

  8. HI,

    I'd love this for the opening sentence:

    There was a lot of dark in the house in Jeffersonville, VA, several long halls, lots of doorways, and countless deep corners.

    Or something like that. Starting with setting is dangerous, unless you can bring us character with it. That sentence (bravo) brings us character, setting, mood, tone, urgency, and tension.

    I also love this paragraph:

    Awake, twelve-year-old Elliot Sweeney spread his arms to embrace the warmth before tossing his covers aside. He picked up the photograph he had unearthed last night, buried beneath rodent-soaked newsprint in an old cupboard crammed between other discards that shared the attic with him. Who was the boy next to his Uncle Nat? And why was his photograph hidden in the attic?

    I'd bring that in next. Modify it a little, obviously, tweak it.

    I'll leave the details to the others, but your writing is glorious. As a writer, this excites me. But remember that your readers aren't as excited by that as we are, so you need to give them movement and a reason to care about what's going on with your mc. The reasons are here; you've got this. Just consider where you can pull the conflict into more prominence so that it hits your readers quickly and engages their attention. You'll have plenty of time for character building and setting once you've established the story question and the type of story that they are going to read.

    Looking forward to seeing you really making this even stronger!