Monday, February 18, 2013

1st 5 Pages February Workshop - Nolen Rev 2

Rebecca Nolen
Historical Fantasy/Middle Grade
The Dry /revision two
September 1895

Chapter One

There was a lot of dark in the house in Jeffersonville, Virginia, several long halls, lots of doorways, and countless deep corners. Shadows lurked like monsters waiting to pounce until morning light shattered them.
Elliot Sweeney liked mornings. He spread his arms to embrace the sun's warmth. 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? If it was his long lost cousin, why was his picture hidden in the attic?
He pushed the photo into a pocket. Then he gathered string, his favorite marble, a compass, and an empty fountain pen, and put them in other pockets.
He folded his father's letter and put it in an inside pocket, next to his heart.
He had a lot of pockets.
The skitter-scratch of tiny claws on wood made his skin creep. His father told him creaks and groans were natural to an old house. But when his father left for the newspaper assignment several months ago, the creaks and groans grew to a clodhopping clatter that could not be natural.
Now, he made it his business to leave the house every day, and stay away all day.
He tip-toed down the stairs. As he approached his uncle's study door he heard the 'clink' 'clink' 'clink' of coins and the low mutterings of Uncle Nat counting his money. As he reached the landing, the study door opened behind him. He turned to face his uncle.
The old man peered down at him. "Why are you still here?"
"My father hasn't returned."
"Is that my fault?"
"No, sir, but -"
"Never mind! I'm busy." His uncle shut the door.
Elliot stared at the closed door. He didn't understand. He would never understand. He 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.
The back door opened. The cook arrived, dabbing sweat from her red face. She motioned him nearer. "Is today one of your business days?"
"Yes, ma-am."
She took a small loaf of bread from the pantry and handed it to him. He stuffed it in a pocket and said, "Thank you."
She put a finger to her mouth. "You know not to disturb your uncle."
He nodded and watched her pull something from her apron. 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. Twelve-year-old boys are growing boys."
How had she known he needed new shoes? He pulled her close enough to smell the tar soap she used and said in her ear, "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 eyelids 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 its 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. Disappeared. Just like the children he went looking for. His stomach hurt thinking about it still. 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 would be different.
The station looked empty. That meant he had time before the train's arrival to read the newspaper's headlines. It was good to practice reading. 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. Why? 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. Elliot stared at the line of cars, listened to the huffing train engine, sucked in the throat-drying diesel smoke. 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


  1. I love how clearly your narrative shows Elliot's quirks. His voice is just so strong! However, the beginning took me by surprise. "Elliot Sweeney liked mornings. He spread his arms to embrace the sun's warmth. He picked up the photograph he had unearthed last night..." was a bit of a sudden change from the abstract to what he was actually doing. (I think specifically from him spreading his arms to picking up the photograph.) Sometimes Elliot's seem to change a bit too fast (i.e. the water in the canteen -> messenger hurrying past), but that may just be me. Also, how close does he live to the station?

    The line about him needing to leave the house/stay away - perfect! There's a lot of strange things happening around Elliot, but I've got a much clearer sense of what's driving him forward now and where the story's headed. Also, I still think that the questions that Elliot has about the photos don't fit as well with the rest of the piece and Elliot's determination. I think it's the specificity that makes me think you will address those issues ASAP, when it seems that the story is more focused on the father's absence.

    Great work :).

  2. Oh, yay! I'm so pleased with what you've done. Truly, this is so much more compelling. It's hard to cut that glorious descriptive language, but worth it. And you still have enough of it to set the tone.
    I think, in your next revision pass, you might consider smoothing things a bit. The interaction with the uncle isn't smooth for me - the uncle seems cardboard. I think, with just one sensory detail (breath that smells like onions no matter what time of day? fingers that don't stop moving, like he can't stop counting money even when he's talking to his nephew? or something) I would "believe" him.
    Also, there are some pretty rough transitions (to be expected in a revision!). One example:
    "He hoped what news he carried wasn't bad. He would never forget the telegram. Sam Sweeney disappeared, it read. Disappeared. Just like the children he went looking for."
    I think you need to split the first sentence from the second, and identify the telegram he would never forget, ie: the one that had come after his dad was lost.
    The first and second paragraphs (as Helene pointed out) also have the same sort of jumpiness. So, re-read with an eye to flow.
    But it's all doable! And now you have the pattern set - a faster-moving, action focused narrative line - and evocative language only when you need to draw out the moment... I really feel drawn to Elliot now, and am intensely curious about his quest for his dad. What a great job you've done, Rebecca! I'm terribly impressed. I can't wait to find out what happens to Elliot - and what happened to his dad.

  3. Ooh, I'm liking this evolution much better! I notice we've gone from the sunlight lighting up the town to the dark shadows crouching in the house. I like that much better--and how Elliot embraces the light.

    I think Nikki and Helen already picked out the parts I'd thought needed a bit of work. The only one that still trips me up is, They called him a changeling, but Elliot liked him so he said, "No use in letting something like that die."

    It seems breathlessly-run-on to me. Maybe a period after "Elliot liked him"?

    The scattered images of the opening--the photo, the cook's money, the watch--all seem disjointed right now, but I'd love to keep reading to see how it all comes together later in the book. I love stories where the characters have a pocketful of weird things that come in handy later on.

    1. Thank you so much, Kessie!

      I agree with all of the above and will work at getting this much smoother. Cutting those run-on thoughts, too.

      Just a note on "changeling". I'm such an advocate for special needs people. So I was amazed that in that era they were called 'changelings'. I just had to include it. And it will be important.

  4. Rebecca,
    I really like how this has changed. This moves along much better now. And now that it is laid out better and some of the extraneous language is gone, I've rethought my earlier comments about there being too much going on. I don't think so any more. Instead, what I think makes it feel that way in some parts is the wording. So while I know we aren't supposed to be line editing, in my opinion that is really mostly what's left to do here. I hope you don't mind, but I actually took a shot at going through the whole piece. I'll probably incur Martina's wrath for taking up so much space ... (Sorry Martina!) Obviously it's just my take, but maybe some of the changes will resonate with you (maybe not :)). I love your writing and where the story is heading. Best of luck with it.


    whoops it was too big. let me know if you care to see it and i can email. sorry!

    1. I do care to see it. Thank you so much for taking the time to help me out with it.

    2. Steve, no wrath incurred :) Go for it. Just post it in several steps. That's what I do.

  5. You really have a gift for description. I agree that the pared down version is better and still has that beautiful voice. I also agree that smoothing the transitions from one thought to another is the next step. It's most likely because initially it was one smooth thought as you put it down, but now you've been picking it apart (our bad) but that's all part and parcel of this writing stuff. :D I have no doubt you'll do a great job!

  6. I agree with everyone else. This is almost there--you've handled things in a way that makes it active all the way through and engages us while filling us in on what we need to know. The next step is about guiding our readerly eye from one thought to the other. Some of that is as simple as reparagraphing to make it easier to transition or not letting us have an extra pause between thoughts. You've got this though!

    I'm so proud of you!!!! Good luck with this. I have no doubt I will be seeing it on the shelves soon. :)

  7. Hi Rebecca,

    This is just beautiful. The pockets line is perfect again, and I love how he cradles the worm in a leaf before wetting it down, and how he never wants to take anything from anyone. Great description of the watch. . .it all flows so well now!

    You might add some more depth to the uncle's character. . .why is he disengaged? Is he losing money in the stock market and obsessed with getting it back? Drinking? (cliched, right? :S)

    You've pretty much got it down. I'd say one more editing pass then it's about time to move on with the train and come back to tweak the opening again after the book's first draft is finished (if it's not already).

    Great work!