Monday, May 6, 2013

First 5 Pages May Workshop - Campen

Name: V Campen

Genre: Upper Middle Grade

Title: Riding Double

The screen door slammed behind me and in two strides I was off the porch and running toward the truck, where Dad sat waiting.

“About time, Sunny,” he said as I climbed into the passenger seat. Our tattered map of Los Angeles County lay spread out over the steering wheel, and I leaned in to look.

“The pony is in Flintridge,” Dad said, pointing. “Sounds like a good deal. Even better, the seller doesn’t know beans about horses. We can use the dead pony story on him.”

I sighed and thumped back against the seat.

“Aw now, it’s just a little play-acting to get the price down.” Dad grinned and handed me the map. “All part of the horse-trading business—right, partner?”

“Right, partner.” I tried to sound cheerful. Dad had to buy horses cheap, horses he could spend a few weeks re-training and sell at a profit. I knew that. But Dad’s play-acting sometimes meant outright lying, and when there was a pony for sale, I was part of the act. I wanted to ride the horses and quit acting like a kid, but Dad needed me for the ponies.

The truck stuttered to life and rolled forward. I felt the bump of the stock trailer against the hitch and then we were bouncing down our long ranch driveway with a plume of dust following behind. Dad twisted the radio dial until he heard twangy guitars and a woman singing about her broken heart. He started singing in a fake high voice, and pretty soon he had me laughing and singing along. It was hard to stay mad at him for long.

An hour later we pulled into the Hillside Riding Club and parked in the shade of an oak, beside a large riding arena. We cranked our windows down to wait. It was barely nine o’clock and I could already taste the June heat in the air. Above us, a mockingbird hidden in the tree belted out his songs, switching from chickadee to mourning dove to what sounded like a croaking frog.

In the riding arena six pokey old lesson horses trotted in a dusty circle, ridden by girls my age dressed in stylish riding breeches, clean white shirts, and velvet hunt caps. None of them could ride worth a hoot; they jerked and bounced, elbows flapping like chicken wings.

I wore old blue jeans and a pink tee-shirt, and my hair was braided in pigtails. On horse-shopping trips Dad wanted me to look like a child, even though I’d be in eighth grade next September. Sellers got soft-hearted about girls and ponies, and a price might drop fifty dollars if I acted sad when Dad said a pony cost too much. Dad had a lot of ways to get a price down. He might spend a long time looking at a horse’s legs or teeth, not saying much but frowning and shaking his head. He might talk non-stop, until the seller was too confused to argue. If the seller liked to talk, Dad would listen, nodding and smiling until the seller thought they were best friends.

A fancy station wagon drove past us and parked near the barn at the other end of the arena. The driver got out and headed toward our truck, stepping carefully around a pile of horse manure that lay in the dirt. As he got closer I noticed he wore khaki pants and, instead of boots, loafers with little tassels on them. Dad saw it, too.

“Dead pony story, definitely,” Dad said and jumped out of the truck, smiling like a goof. “Hi, I’m Joe Coogan, and this is my daughter, Sunny.”

“James Smith.” The man shook Dad’s hand. “The pony’s this way. We bought her two years ago and now my daughter’s lost interest. She hasn’t ridden in months.”

Dad started his act. “Heck, I wish Sunny would lose interest. I don’t know much about horses, I grow oranges.” Another part of the act; it was our neighbors, the Frantelli’s, who owned an orange grove. “But she wants a pony,” he continued. “She had a great one, a real trooper. He died last week.”

I recognized my cue and looked down, dragging my boots in the dirt and pretending to feel sad about a pony who never existed.

“I’m sorry,” Mr. Smith said. He placed his hand briefly on my shoulder, which made me feel bad for real. He seemed nice.

We walked behind the barn to a small dirt paddock. The little mare inside pricked up her ears and watched us. She had knots in her mane and mud caked on her side, but she was cute, a bright chestnut color with four flashy white socks. She stood at least fourteen hands high, a large pony, which was good because I took after Dad in height.

“Here’s Cricket,” Mr. Smith said, but didn’t make a move to open the gate.

“She’s a pretty little thing,” Dad said, picking up a halter that hung on the fence and handing it to me. “Can Sunny bring her out?”

Cricket acted like a brat, yanking at the lead rope and pawing the ground while I brushed her. She pinned her ears and threatened to bite when I tightened the girth on her saddle. It didn’t bother me. None of the horses we bought were perfect—that’s why we got them cheap. Some of them had been mistreated, but most had simply been mishandled, allowed to act rude for too long. Dad said that horses are geniuses at figuring out who’s the leader, and if you don’t act like a leader, they’re happy to take over. It didn’t mean they were bad.

I led Cricket and we all walked toward the riding arena, where the riding-class kids had lined up at one end of the ring to take turns trotting over a small jump. I heard the clunk of lazy hooves hitting the wooden jump pole as the lesson horses ambled over it. Cricket jerked her head and tugged at the reins, trying to walk faster.

Mr. Smith stopped and leaned on the arena fence while Dad walked inside with me. “This pony is half-wild with boredom,” he said in a low voice. “She’s gonna act up—let her. And if you happen to fall off, so much the better.” He cupped his hands and gave me a leg up.

Cricket zoomed off like I’d lit her tail on fire as soon as my butt hit the saddle. It didn’t seem fair to start working her right away, not after she’d been cooped up in her tiny paddock for months. I gave her a loose rein and she cantered a half-dozen fast, large circles before stretching her head down and snorting, a sign she was starting to relax. I stroked her neck, took up the reins, and asked her to listen to me. She tossed her head but obeyed, slowing to a trot. We circled to the left and to the right, halted and backed up, then cantered again.

Dad arched his eyebrows in a silent question as I rode by. I nodded and settled down to business. This was the part I really hated. Fooling people was one thing, but fooling a horse seemed downright puny. Horses never lied, or pretended to be something they weren’t.


  1. Loved it. Loved the descriptions of both the people and the setting. Loved the set-up. Loved the dilemma.

    I think it's ready to go. As is.

    See if anyone else here is more useful than me. I'll be your cheerleader instead, but--honestly--I thought it was perfect.

  2. Well, I'm sure glad Ann weighed in first, because now I don't feel bad about saying I can't find anything to suggest revising. Strong, well-painted characters right out of the gate, an interesting conflict, great dialogue...what's not to love? And p.s, "...fooling a horse seemed downright puny" gave me a case of writer's envy. Loved that!

    I say cut, print, and let's move on to Chapter Two.

  3. I loved your writing, pulled me into the story immediately. I felt the characters personalities and the pain of lying for Sunny. Yes, horse people can stretch a story, either buying or while selling. I'd love to read more...

  4. I loved your writing, pulled me into the story immediately. I felt the characters personalities and the pain of lying for Sunny. Yes, horse people can stretch a story, either buying or while selling. I'd love to read more...

  5. I agree, you immediately set up what was going on- dad buys his horses through swindling and who the characters are- without being to expositioney (we'll say that's a word), it all felt organic to the story. I knew immediately what the dad is like and what the MC is like, which is great.

  6. Thanks all, for the comments. I can see edits I need to make -- putting this up for review really sharpened my editorial eyesight!

  7. Hi,

    This is lovely. Your voice is spot on, and I'm a horse lover who grew up in LA, so this is right up my alley. You definitely conveyed distinct characters in a unique situation, so I found it fresh and inviting. My only suggestion is that you perhaps you started a bit soon here, and as a result the initial paragraphs felt a bit telling compared to the rest. There was a lot of information that you can convey through action rather than narrative, and a some that we would grasp just from the scene once they arrive to look at Cricket. At least as an exercise, try starting with "We pulled up to the Hillside Riding Club" and then include some of the twangy guitars and stock trailer details, and jump right into the action. Let the reader try to figure out what is going on with the looks from her father and her reluctance to comply. We'll get it, and we'll be more invested in the story as a result.

    Can't wait to see what you do with it!

  8. That was an easy read and I hated to come to the end of my share. Why is a large pony, 14 hands, a good thing? I would expect the seller to be concerned about a girl riding his wild horse and possibly run into the ring and try to stop the horse. What makes her so confident, a hint would be nice.