Sunday, January 5, 2014

1st 5 Pages Jan. Workshop: Rose

Name: April C. Rose
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Title: Winter on Brimstone Hill

I roll over to check if the milk is frozen. It is. It’s going to be a bad day.

I pull the sleeping bag over my head.  Maybe, just maybe, I’m
hallucinating. If I pretend to fall back asleep and go through the
whole process of waking again, then perhaps there’ll be a fine icy
film over the milk and nothing more.  It’s worth a try.

I almost convince myself it’s going to work, but when the sleeping bag
comes down, the day looks pretty bleak.  The milk, neatly stacked in
three crates of glass bottles, is solid.

I could pray that the bottles won’t break as the room warms with
daylight. I could pray, but I won’t.

In any case, there’s no use wasting energy over frozen bottles.
What’s done is done.  I can’t control the temperature any more than
the wind or rain.  If it’s going to get cold, it’s going to get cold,
and all things—milk among them—freeze. There’s a life lesson for you.

I pull the folded clothes from my nightstand into the warmth of the
sleeping bag.  I am the salamander that used to live in the cellar.
Joseph and I used to amuse ourselves by enticing it with earth- or
mealworms.  It shot from under the stone long enough to bite down on
the morsel before retreating.  The salamander couldn’t guess we
weren’t going to hurt it. It didn’t need to move fast, but I do.
Otherwise, my body heat will escape.  The chill will never leave me

At least my bedroom isn’t as damp as the cellar. That’s something.

When I was little, I learned that sleeping in my clothes provided me
with extra warmth and a better night’s sleep.

One overheard conversation during middle school made me stop.

“Did you see Sarah’s shirt?  It’s so wrinkly it looks like she slept in it.”

That was the last time I did.

If I’m being honest here, it was the first time I noticed I wasn’t
like everyone else. Now I can’t forget it.

True story: middle schoolers are cruel.  Those who were smart enough
to understand refused to, and everyone else couldn’t.

How’s this for a conversation starter: Hey guys, I swear I don’t dress
like this on purpose. It’s just that my parents don’t have the money
to dig a deeper well or install a working water heater. It sure makes
washing a pain. So yeah, that’s why everything looks like I picked it
off the rack at Salvation Army. Oh, by the way, I did.

Try telling that to a bunch of thirteen-year-olds—or sixteen-year-olds.

I’m not jaded—I swear. It’s not like my parents are to blame or
anything. They once had dreams. Maybe somewhere along the way they got
thwarted, but it happens. We can’t all live the dream. It’s more that
I have a realistic view on what it takes to get through the day, so
that’s what I do. I get through it.

My hand gropes for the boy’s aviator frames I call glasses. They
hearken back to Tom Cruise and the 1980’s, but they work.  Why someone
would beg her parents to spend twenty dollars extra to buy girl’s
frames when she can have her peers make fun of her for wearing
outdated and gigantic frames is beyond me. I mean, what’s not to love?

The clock reads five a.m.  My glasses let me see that.

I don’t have to be in the kitchen to know my father sits at the head
of the table with a coffee cup in one hand, and Mom sits to his right
with a deck of cards in hers.

Grace will sleep a while longer, being too young for chores and
school, and it’s another hour before Joseph wakes to tend the
chickens. He’s lucky; throw some scratch down and refresh their water
and they’re fine.

In the kitchen, it’s exactly as I anticipated. My parents listen to AM
radio, the steady tick tick tick of the electrical fence interrupting
the radio waves.  They listen to the morning show with DJ Dan with
such frequency that he might as well be family. The only other noise
is the burble of the coffee pot on the wood stove and Mom’s cards
flicking onto the table.

I press my feet into my muck boots and shrug into Mom’s oversized wool jacket.

I’m turning the doorknob when my father speaks. “Not going to say
‘morning,’ are you?”

“Good morning,” I say, chastising myself for the slip. Being caught up
in my head is a perpetual problem of mine. I don’t pay attention to
things around me. I should.

“It doesn’t mean anything now that I had to tell you to say it.”

“I’m sorry.”  My voice is soft, little.  It’s not my real voice; it
doesn’t belong to me. He inspires this voice; it belongs to him.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he says.

“To milk the goats.”

“How many times have I told you not to mumble?”

Mom stops dealing the cards to the piles on the table.

“Sorry,” I say.  “I was going to milk the goats.”  I put more force
behind my words, but they still come out tight.

“Look at me when you speak to me.”

My eyes dart up to meet his.  I don’t want to stare into the green we
share, but I have to.  I can pretend I’m stronger than he is.  This
time, my words carry.  “I was going to milk the goats.”

He turns back to his coffee, Mom’s cards flick onto the table, and I
escape to the barn.

Chapter Two

It doesn’t matter that, when I massage the goats’ teats with bag balm,
I also liberally apply it to my own hands. They become chapped by the
time I finish the milking.  There’s no relief through simple friction.
 Rubbing only aggravates the broken skin.

My parents aren’t in the kitchen when I set the bucket of milk on the
stovetop and turn on the gas.  I light a match and hold it to the
burner until the flame spits.  Then I toss the expired match into the
sink.  It wouldn’t do to start a fire.  At the match’s sizzle, I
stopper the sink.

The heat from the woodstove behind me entices me, summons me, but I
ignore it to skim the hair and dirt from the milk.  The milk’s
temperature rises. Burned hair and animal stink fill the air, and I
fight down my gag reflex. That’s how I know the milk is nearly done.

The moment the red bar reaches 165 degrees, I count. “One banana, two
banana, three banana….”

When my count reaches fifteen, I remove the steaming milk from the
flame and place the bucket in the sink to cool.  My movement is too
quick. The cold water splashes.

I step backwards, but not fast enough. The water runs down my front
and onto the floor.  I inwardly curse my clumsiness and grab a towel
from the formica countertop.

I finish mopping up the spilled water and turn back to the cooling
milk.  This time I curse aloud.


Water wasn’t the only thing that spilled.  In my jump from the
displaced water, I must have set the bucket down wrong.  Milk clouds
the water.

“Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap,” I say, rushing to drain the cloudy
water.  If I am quick, I can refill the sink with clean water. No one
needs to know.


  1. Hi April,

    Things that are working for me:

    1. I’m really intrigued by your first line. How does she know that it’s going to be a bad day, just because the milk is frozen? It makes me want to know more about her, and the type of situation she’s living in.

    2. You have a really nice tension happing in the little scene between Sarah & her father. I cringed while reading it because it felt so REAL and so believable and it really made me feel for her.

    3. I love the atmosphere you’ve created. I get this whole Winter’s Bone vibe from these pages—I can just picture Sarah as a surly, goat-milking Jennifer Lawrence. It feels very real and gritty and ugly, in the best possible way. I’m curious to see how this environment impacts Sarah.

    Things to think about:

    1. The paragraphs that start with “True story…” and end with ”…I do get it though” come across as really tell-y and I’m not sure that you even really need them. It might be a case of less is more, but have you considered leaving it at “Now I can’t forget it” and go straight into “my hand gropes?” To me, that’s a stronger image than the four paragraphs of backstory.

    2. Watch the telling instead of showing, in general. There are places where it could be really beneficial and give us a little more of Sarah — like when she puts on her glasses, for example. Is there a better way to show us what she’s seeing? Or when her hands crack as she milks the goats — I’d love to see that. To feel that.

    3. While I really feel for Sarah, I’m left a little unsure of what she actually wants. I don’t really have a good idea of her as a person, besides the fact that she’s poor and tends to goats and her dad is a big jerk. What does she want?

    Hope that helps!


  2. Hello, April!

    I'm glad I read Jenny's comment first because most of it is a direct echo of mine. I'll try not to repeat any of her comments.

    The first thing that stands out to me is that I can't actually picture anything until you get to the kitchen. That one paragraph of her parents listening to AM radio is the first stage setting we're given. And it's a great one, brief and perfectly evocative, that just needs to happen sooner. Right now there's a girl in a sleeping bag waking up in a bare frozen room where she's apparently sleeping right by crates of milk. I can't picture the room in any way, can't imagine why a human being and crates of a liquid that have to be kept cold are sharing space overnight, and I can't imagine a house layout that makes that set-up practical. Which isn't to say I don't buy it, just I'd appreciate if it gets painted a bit for me.

    The real stand-out thing in this opening is the scenario. Poor young girl fretting from the moment she wakes up about things normal girls don't fret about, doing chores most of us don't do. Those things need a bit of color to bring them to life. You do it perfectly when she's heating the fresh milk, describing the routine of it through her eyes. We just need more of that.

    And I do love the tension with her father. That line about her small voice belonging to him is brilliant. :)

    You do switch to telling over showing in some strange places, and the bit about kids she went to school with seems to be out of place.

    All in all it's a great start, though!

  3. Hi! First of all, great character. I love your MC and really feel for her. The scene with the father in the kitchen was amazing! I thought "I don’t pay attention to
    things around me. I should." was very contrary to what we'd seen in her mind so far though. It feels like she is pretty darn observant to me. My biggest issues were two fold. 1. It starts with someone waking up. Darned if it isn't still interesting, but still a big stigma to it that may make an agent or editor move on prematurely. Maybe your story doesn't start here? Maybe this is mostly backstory and that's the "telly" issue someone mentioned above? Find where the problem starts. YES we absolutely need to get to know the character first, but we also need that conflict, which is why that scene with dad was so good. It did both. See? 2. I didn't really get into it until you mentioned the aviator glasses to be honest. That really made me smile and feel for her. I thought it was a very original touch. I guess it all boils down to, keep your wonderful tone, voice and writing skills, just make sure you start at the true beginning. :D

  4. I'm a big fan of contemporary so I especially liked this opening. I already feel for your character. There was just enough dialog with her dad to let us know that something isn't right. He's a bully, mom is a wuss. Great stuff. I also felt cold when I read your descriptions, which is great.

    The only thing I'd say is that it might need a bit of a light moment. Maybe she sleeps with a cat or dog? If so, she could show compassion for the animal. Or maybe she's close with one of the goats? Gives her favorite a name? Something like that that isn't "down." Know what I mean?

    One more quick note: the part where she jumps back to middle school kind of pulled me out of the story. I think it could work if the transition were a bit smoother.

    Otherwise, great job.

    1. Great! I **love** this idea. You're right; it definitely is a dark opening. I have (what I hope is) just the thing!

  5. Hi April,

    This is beautifully written. I love her voice and the way you describe Sarah’s world. You also do an excellent job of pulling off first person POV, which is hard to do. I attended the SCBWI conference this past summer and many agents said they are looking for contemporary MG and YA. They said they’re looking for stories about regular everyday kids, without any magic or fantasy. Good news for you, not so good for the rest of us.

    But, sorry there’s a but, there has to be something compelling going on. Something unique about this character. I had a tough childhood. I can relate to Sarah and maybe because you’re writing is so beautiful and your writing a contemporary novel opposed to fantasy, the same does not apply, but I’m going to give you the advice I’ve been given and what I’ve heard countless times as I study the craft.

    I have rewritten my first chapter so many times that I’ve lost count. I too started with my MC waking up. Then I moved it up in time a whole thirty minutes, first thing in the morning, the family is introduced and you see the family dynamics and how Kati doesn’t fit and how horrible her life is. Well, and I hope you don’t mind this style of critique, I just rewrote my first chapter, again, because apparently a beginning with family introductions is not a good way to start either. And it looks like I still have a lot of work to do, but I nailed that first line! YAY!

    So the advice I have for you is this. Think about what your character wants. Right now all I’m getting is she wants to be warm. Not to be picked on at school. To have a more loving family and not have the chores she has. I thought this was enough, too, but realized it wasn’t the very best opening for my story. Also try to think about at what moment things are put in motion to force a change from Sarah. The inciting incident. Is there a place where you can start this story that will show what’s at stake for Sarah or put her in action? Doesn’t have to be true action, but making a decision about something big and acting on it.

    Then again I may not have a clue what I’m talking about. I’ve just recently learned what I thought I’d understood after the conference and didn’t, literary. Your writing is beautiful and appears to me to be literary, and then all bets are off, so I’m not sure. I really hope this helps in some way. I’m not sure after rereading if it really offers much.

  6. Strong voice. Really tight writing. Nary a word out of place. Great use of “space”…
    And a “likable” character for sure, already. She (and this voice) will surely carry a whole book. Well done, for sure.

    A possible suggestion for Draft 2 is to tighten even more. There were a handful of moments that sounded like Sarah was over explaining. Making things too obvious:

    Ie: I’m not jaded—I swear. It’s not like my parents are to blame or
    anything. They once had dreams. Maybe somewhere along the way they got
    thwarted, but it happens. We can’t all live the dream. It’s more that
    I have a realistic view on what it takes to get through the day, so
    that’s what I do. I get through it.

    Just seemed too spot on when – otherwise – she’s being honest and subtle and genuine in her delivery. I imagine these are themes/ideas that’ll plat out anyway from what she does, sees, describes. IF it seems like she’s “explaining” something, I’d look at chopping. Her comments on how rough schoolmates are; how to tighten and make more indirect? An offhand comment, more so than a here-is-exactly-what-happened description. The writing/voice IS strong enough that the explanation is being done. You’ve done some really nice things (subtle) with her interactions with her parents and living conditions, etc. Let those carry the scene 100% without any outside help. It’s all there!

    Minor tweak: I’d delete “In any case, there’s no use wasting energy over frozen bottles.”  sounded too much like “no use crying over spilled milk” which may have been intentional; if so, make more so if you wanna keep. But simply going from “I could pray, but I won’t.” to “What’s done is done” is fine!

  7. Hi April,

    First I want to say thank you for your thorough comments on my story. I really love your enthusiasm for this workshop and your willingness to help others with their stories :)

    You have a real talent for writing and I love the connection between your title and the elements we have seen in your story so far. Given my current sinus infection and the weather outside it makes me want to curl up under my blanket.

    I really only have one issue and that is that I am not exactly clear on what the conflict of the story is going to be. I think it's going to be related to her growing up poor and the relationship with her dad. I would like to see how she is going to overcome this or whether that's the central conflict to the story. As of right now it seems like a young girl just going through a regular winter day, but I want to know what about today is different from the rest?

    ~Maria M

  8. This is a compelling start, April. I can feel that you have a firm grasp on your main character and the setting--cold, stark, poor--is strong. Here are a few more specific thoughts.

    The kitchen scene. For me, this is where the story takes off. The waking up scene feels a little bit less grounded—as if you’re feeling your way into the setting and the story--and I’d be worried that readers will find the frozen milk and basement references more confusing than establishing.

    Names. We know that the mc’s siblings are Grace and Joseph but we do not know her own name. Is this a specific choice? If not, perhaps having the father invoke her name when he reprimands her might be an easy fix so that the absence of this name isn’t missed. Because the opening feels ominous, mysterious somehow, my inclination would be that giving the mc’s name would help ground readers.

    School versus home. While the bits about how her school experiences give her perspective on how the world sees her, they are all told in flashback form, which feels a bit info-dump-ish. I might be inclined to save this stuff for an actual school scene and let it happen in real time.

    Plot logistics: You might want to establish a few things, such as the day of week (school day or weekend?), whether MC has anywhere to be after chores, whether this is an ordinary or extraordinary day. Who does the MC love/need/want to protect? While we feel for her dire financial situation, readers may need something more to connect with her—to want to go with her on whatever journey she’s about to take. This one sounds silly but: Is goat milk an important plot element? If so, why? If not, consider trimming this for the opening pages as it gets kind of technical. Finally, it’s been noted in other comments but I feel it’s important enough to briefly revisit here: While we get a sense of bleakness, foreboding, we do not know what the MC wants/needs or any active details that might foreshadow the main plot line of the story.

    Two suggestions: 1-It might be helpful for you to try to write an “elevator pitch” for this book. This is a 1-3 sentence summary of the story as you might describe it to an agent or editor if you were together for a brief elevator ride. I write many “elevator pitches” in the course of developing a novel. I jot these down just below the title of the ms so I can see what I think the book is about, plot-wise, as it evolves. 2-Read SAVE THE CAT, an excellent novel on plotting and its relationship to character development.

    Keep up the terrific work!