Monday, February 4, 2013

1st Five Pages February Workshop – Nolen

Name: Rebecca Nolen
Genre: Middle Grade
Title: THE DRY

September 1895

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

Chapter One

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.

As usual Elliot Sweeney lay sprawled among books and broken toys. These were his treasures. The light banished the shadows that lurked like dragons in the corners. He splayed his fingers in the warmth. Perhaps today he would see his father again.

He tossed his covers aside. Last night he had found photos in an old cupboard crammed between other discards that shared the attic with him. A spark crackled as he touched first one and then another photograph, as if each held some secret that couldn't wait to be revealed. The new light was enough to dissect bits in the pictures he'd missed. He touched the face of a much younger-looking Uncle Nat, and his aunt – she'd been dead for some years – but who was this boy between them?

The boy's wispy fair hair stood on end. Bony wrists poked from sleeves. The boy's lopsided smile was a mirror image of Elliot's smile. In fact, the boy looked very much like Elliot. They could be twins. Except they weren't. The photographs were old. The boy would be older than twelve by now. He knew of a cousin lost after the war. Why did he get lost? And if Uncle Nat cared for his son, why were his pictures hidden in the attic?

Elliot had been living with his Uncle Nat ever since his father went to investigate the disappearance of a group of children from a coal mine in West Virginia. Most people paid little attention to the poorest of the poor at the coal mines. That's where his father was different from most people. His father told him there were four-year-old mine children picking slag from the coal until their hands bled and turned black with the coal dust that worked its way under the skin. There were children pushing and pulling coal bins and sometimes getting crushed between them. The stories just got worse from there. He was proud that his father paid attention. His father wrote the stories in the newspaper. His father told him about the sacrifice of one helping the many. Elliot didn't understand, though his father told him he needed to understand.

A week after his father left a telegram arrived. Sam Sweeney disappeared, it read. Disappeared. And Elliot was frightened. This big house was full of strange noises at night. Noises his father told him were natural to an old house. Without his father the skittering, clodhopping, clatter grew. After three months the nightly disturbances were monsters he could not get rid of. Not without his father.

His uncle owned this big old house. No one else lived here except his uncle and his uncle had forgotten that he lived here. All the rooms in the house were kept locked. Elliot found one key. It fit the attic door. The attic was freezing. With a thick rug, plenty of old blankets, and a drawer for his belongings, he had constructed a place of his own near the one window for light.

A lady from down the way came in to make meals for his uncle. She would shush Elliot, or she would wave her arms and shake her head when he came near. The fright in her face made her eyes widen until he wondered if they would pop out. He knew he had to keep quiet – something about helping Uncle Nat concentrate – but he couldn't understand why the cook never spoke. She left food for Elliot, hidden in the pantry. He was cold but not hungry.

And during the day the house rang with silence.

His uncle used to work for the railroad. He never saw him leave the house. Wherever he used to work he made a pot of money because he stayed home counting it. That was all he did. All day.

Elliot stuffed a good bit of day old bread into a pocket to keep from being too hungry at the train station. He added bits and pieces from his collection to other pockets. Coins, his marble, string, his father's letters, his cousin's picture. He had a lot of pockets.

In the kitchen he filled his father's army-issue canteen with water, and a glass besides and went out to the front porch. 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. 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 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 turned and left with his long awkward strides towards the other side of the dirt road. Loaded wagons were already swaying up towards the center of town or down towards the train station. Mostly mules drew the wagons. Some loads were the size of small houses. Dust billowed as high as their reins and stayed there, floating like a red haze.

Elliot had to get one more thing before heading for the station. He tugged the big front door open without making a noise and tip-toed up the stairs. From behind his uncle's study door he heard the 'clink, clink, clink' of money being counted. He dashed up the stairs to his attic. There he found the scraps of paper that he'd rescued from the trash bin. Quick, before anything else happened, he left. The big front door closed behind him with a sound like a sigh of relief.

Yesterday his uncle came out of his study as Elliot slid past. The man's eyes were sunken in as if he hadn't slept for days. Upon spotting Elliot, first the man's face went white and then almost green before he let out a roar. "What are you still doing here?"

Today Elliot was free and out in the noisy open. He took off at a fast pace for the station. This marked the ninety-first day since he began his vigil. The ninety-second since his father left. He had a feeling deep inside where it mattered most that today something would happen.

The station looked empty. That meant he had time before the train 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. He read the caption:

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

The whistle of the approaching train forced a decision. Even if everyone else had given up the search, 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. Interesting beginning! I love the hint of magic with the watch that runs backward.

    The beginning is kind of slow, though. Reading through it, I think you could start with him waking up and looking at the photos. Then skip to him saving the worm and go on from there. No need to detail his father's work and disappearance--the one newspaper headline summarizes that neatly.

    Also no need to explain his weird uncle--the clink of money and his uncle's face, and yell about "what are you still doing here"--that says it all.

    Trimming out the exposition paragraphs would speed up the story and free it up to really go somewhere special, I think. I'm really interested to see what you do with this! But then I'm a sucker for MG. :-)

  2. I’m intrigued by the title and excited that this is historical. MAY B by Caroline Rose was one of my favorite reads this year, a MG historical in verse. SO good.
    Also enjoying the mood setting in the first paragraph, although I think you could smooth it out a bit in revision – really follow the light as it moves.

    The line “Perhaps today he would see his father again” jolted me out of the mood, though. It’s sort of stuck in there, unexplained and then left hanging, cutting between the descriptive scene-setting and the following (slightly confusing) expository background information about Elliot’s aunt, uncle, family history, etc.

    You have a lot of interesting information here – his father’s crusade, the children working in the mine, dad’s disappearance – it’s good stuff! But I would very much like to experience something happening to the MC as I read, rather than hear all about the background. His uncle locks him in the room. Wow! That’s creepy. Can we see that happening? Maybe you could start with Elliot finding the key, and realizing he could escape to go save his dad? Maybe begin with the creepy cook slipping him his food? Or even just slipping the things in his pocket that made the cut – photos, letters, coins – you could slip a little bit of that background info in as he “packs” to run away. You have so much coolness to pick from, so many interesting tidbits you could flesh out into a compelling opening scene.

    Note: There’s a very rough transition here – “Elliot stuffed a good bit of day old bread into a pocket to keep from being too hungry at the train station.” I had to go back and re-read it, since I wasn’t certain why we were talking about a train station all of a sudden. (I got it later, but had to re-read twice.)

    I liked the scene with Morgan Johns. Maybe you could lead with that, since the title is The Dry? I was curious about when that concept would come back, seems important.

    The flashback to “Yesterday, his uncle came out of his study,”etc., was confusing to me. But I like the ending, with the newspaper story – and you have some gorgeous language here – red haze of dust, etc. I would be careful with some of the language. (Be precise. Can a face turn white, then green in anger? I could see red, purple, but not green.)

    I promise I have NEVER suggested this before, as I think giving advice on POV is annoying, but… I kept thinking how I would do this, and I kept wanting to put it in first person POV so there was a greater sense of immediacy and suspense with the running away. You can also do this in third – I love how Elliot’s sense of magic is revealed in the way he thinks of the noises as night monsters, etc. But it might be an interesting exercise to try first person.

    Note: How old is Elliot? Can you smoothly work that info in, so we know? I was wondering.
    I am VERY excited to see where you go with this!

  3. I agree with most of what's already been said. I think the writing is absolutely gorgeous, and I loved the imagery of the beginning, but after a while, I was wondering where you were going with the story. It seems like something will happen when Elliot goes to the train station, or at least maybe Elliot will understand the watch better? Either way, up until that point, I didn't feel like the story had advanced much, and I particularly worry about that, since this is for middle grade readers. More on Morgan Johns would be nice too. Given how much description there was of the other characters, it took me aback how little there was on him. Also, the uncle's character confuses me a bit. He's very shady, but he's taken in Elliot, and I wonder why, especially if he forgets about Elliot and yells at him for still being in the house.

  4. First of all, your writing is beautiful. I wonder though if it's enough to keep a middle grader's attention. My daughter picks up and discards books so fast it makes me want to scream. I think the interaction with the neighbor really is a great place to start. Then have him go back up to the attic, pass the uncle who comes out and explain a bit, then take out all his stuff, thinking about his father. You can definitely trim the backstory as was brought up, though it's interesting a drop or two here and there can be more powerful especially at the opening. Enough so we aren't confused, but not too much. It's a tricky balance!

  5. Thank you all for your gracious comments. I knew it was slow at the beginning. Will work it like crazy for revision time.

  6. Rebecca,

    I really enjoyed your writing. Your descriptions at the beginning are beautiful. I also liked the backwards watch and the foreshadowing when Morgan says, "You gonna need it." It's a great way to hint at the adventure to come.

    As others have stated, however, I felt like I wanted the story to start with more of a bang. One thought that I had was maybe to start with the telegram. Maybe Elliot has kept it in a special place and he takes it out to read it. The first line of the story could be "Sam Sweeney has disappeared." And taking it from there. Just a thought.

    In general, I wanted to stick more with Elliot through these opening pages. I wanted the tension to buiId more and I feel some of it was lost with the backstory sections. I think Nikki's idea of first person is interesting, but it can also be done in third person by making sure you stay more limited in the POV. The backstory takes the reader out of that tight POV.

    Overall, I really enjoyed it and looked forward to reading the next version.

  7. I agree with the consensus that the writing is just lovely. My favorite lines: "Elliot didn't understand, though his father told him he needed to understand," and "He had a lot of pockets."

    I really like the way the light moves in the opening paragraphs. Since it's sort of like an honorary character I think it deserves to be "The early light" rather than any old run-of-the-mill "Early light."

    I thought the mentor character was quite interesting, and wouldn't mind a bit more description about him. I like the way he talks, as well.

    I didn't catch any link between the opening fact and the rest of the chapter. Is it because the father is missing? I don't see that it adds much intrigue above and beyond the narrative itself, but that could just be my personal preference.

    As for Elliot, well, any kid who runs around saving worms has my sympathy. I want to feel more of what he feels; if you don't want to change it to first person as Nikki suggested (and I tend to think third works better for a historical in this era, and avoids the problems of a very young and limited narrator, BUT I could well be wrong - you could probably rock it either way), you can always add more close thirdisms.

    Some of the backstory you can hide in action or even mention later.

    For the last paragraph, I like the urgency of the whistle, but I wasn't crazy about the wording that it "forced a decision". Let the decision spring from Elliot's own soul, let it be spontaneous and surprising to him as to the reader, and we step on that train with him and away we go!

    Am I right in expecting time travel if not magical realism? :)


  8. Hi Rebecca,

    Echoing what everyone else said, your writing is beautiful and I could happily lose myself in the imagery and the musicality of your prose. Already within these five pages, you have enough to let me know that this is something that I want to keep reading.

    That said, I think there are some things you can do immediately to get your kicka$$ story to the forefront:

    1) Show more, tell less. For example, take a hard look at the three paragraphs beginning:
    Elliot had been living with his Uncle Nat ever since his father went to investigate the disappearance of a group of children from a coal mine in West Virginia. Most people paid little attention to the poorest of the poor at the coal mines.

    and ending:

    She left food for Elliot, hidden in the pantry. He was cold but not hungry. "

    There is tons of great conflict and interesting information in those paragraphs and you aren't letting us experience any of it. Some of the information is also unclear. When did his father tell him the noises were natural to any old house, for example? Wasn't the father gone? What do you mean by his uncle had forgotten that "he lived there?" That the uncle lived there? Or that Elliot lived there? Does Elliot live in the attic? Was he locked in?

    2) Your writing is lovely, but it is writerly sometimes at the expense of clarity and foreward movement. (See above.)

    3) I personally enjoy the writing so much that it doesn't bother me, but I suspect your pacing is a bit slow for modern readership, especially for an MG audience.

    4) The omniscient POV coupled with the telling tone of the narrative create distance between Elliot and the reader and hinders a strong connection with him.

    To solve most of these problems, like Nikki, I would recommend either going with a deep third person POV or maybe switching to a first. In essence, they would result in the same thing, a very close observation of what Elliot sees and thinks and feels without a lot of telling or filter words that add distance. Not knowing your writing history or your decisions up to this point, I hesitate to second guess why you went with omniscient, but if you haven't worked with deep POV before, here's a post that provides some details and a link to a book I love:

    My general feeling is that switching to a deep 3rd person would let you leave some (not all!) of your beautiful descriptions and gorgeous narrative bits and let you zoom the camera lens in and out. You could, of course, bring us right into the thick of things with first person, and I often find that a useful exercise to help me find the voice of the character before switching back out to 3rd.

    Whatever you do, refocus on creating scenes with a genuine beginning, middle, climax and end that propels us into the next scene. How could you show what you tell us in those three paragraphs, for example? That's where I think you should start.

    Looking forward to reading your rewrite and more of your beautiful, beautiful writing!

  9. Thank you all for your wonderful insights. I will study the deep point of view and go there. I will write it in first person to see what happens, thanks Nikki! But the rest of the book has other POV characters, too. It is fantasy but there is no time travel although time does go quicker on the outside of the world;-} Lots of work for this weekend!!!!!!!!