Monday, October 13, 2014

First Five Pages Workshop - Clement Rev 1

Name: Benjamin Clement
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy Adventure
Title: The Fearsome Lumberwoods

The sun fell through a spray of red like a man shot. Its last panting breaths fell heavily on the back of Douglas’s neck. Still, he was thankful it wasn't as bad as the summer past, when it was so hot every hen in the county laid hard boiled eggs. Pushing his hat back on his sweat-slick, cornsilk hair, he weaved further into the trees. When he figured there was enough forest between him and his parents’ picnic to grant him some privacy, he undid his britches to relieve himself into a dry creek-bed.
Douglas gave furtive glances over hunched shoulders as he hurried his business. Not a leaf stirred nor did a branch creak, and the solitude made him uneasy. He didn't enjoying being out-of-doors, but his father insisted he come along on the picnic to hear the big news. News which had left Douglas with a load of dread heavier than an armful of bricks. Every morning of his fifteen years, he had woken up in the finest home in Hazelwood, and now they were setting out to live in some frontier town on the other side of the continent named Seattle.
Buttoning up his britches, he felt the creep of someone watching him. The beady black eyes of a crow stared down at Douglas with keen interest as it sidestepped along a branch.
"What are you looking at, you old crow?"  Douglas whispered.
The crow cawed like axe chops in the silent forest. Douglas flinched, and then felt foolish for it. Eager to get back to the meadow, Douglas spun around to find a man leaning against a tree, staring at him with yellow eyes underneath a low derby. Leaping back, Douglas slipped and fell into the dry creek-bed and the mud he had just made.
The man chuckled. "Sorry to sneak up on you. Would've announced myself but didn't want you dribbling on your slacks." With his smile peeled back over mean teeth, the man looked like a dog set to bite. Unbuttoning the coat of his brown wool suit, he stepped down into the creek-bed.  “It’s a scorcher,” he commented pulling back a collar lined with brown fur, that matched the stubble on his cheeks and chin. 
Douglas scrambled to his feet. The malice he felt coming from this man crawled up his spine like spiders. He backed away from the stranger, until his heel struck the opposite embankment, sending him once more on his backside. 
"I just came to apologize," the man told Douglas as he picked dirty fingernails, sharp as cat’s claws. "I really have nothing against you personally, but Crow says you’ll ruin things. So... she asked to take care of you.”
"T-take care of me?" Douglas stammered, as he got back to his feet. If this man thought he could talk to birds, he must've had more hay in his head than a scarecrow, and kept the same company. "I'm fine, thank you."
The man tilted his head back and laughed in little yips. "Indeed,"  he said, wiping a little bit of drool from his lip. "I mean to fix it so you aren't."
Something shuffled among the bushes behind Douglas. He whipped his head around to see a thin tree leaning to the side with a groan, as something big bumped against it.
"Besides, I can never refuse getting up to a bit a mischief," the stranger whispered.
Douglas could smell the copper tinge of his breath, but when he looked back, the stranger was gone. Behind Douglas, a growl deeper than dirt resonated up his shins and sent his knees a-quivering. Through tears of terror, he saw something roughly akin to a bear, but rounder emerge from the bushes. Its fur seemed to be missing. Only brown-black, rubbery skin stretched tight over its rotund frame. The only hair it had were two bushy eyebrows and a tuft hanging from its chin, dripping with spit below a mouth full of teeth that would surely tear Douglas into forty-two pieces with one and a half bites.
Breaking from the trees, Douglas tried to scream, but fear dragged the air from his throat on every ragged breath. The beast crashed through the woods, gaining quickly. Its rubbery skin gleamed slightly in the feeble light of the early evening, so tight that it scarcely quivered as it ran. The field of grass between Douglas and his parents stretched out forever. He knew he'd never reach them.
The rumble of the chase came over the cracks and pops of Mr. Webb's fire. His content smile fell as he saw what was salivating at his son's heels. Mrs. Webb yelped in surprise as her husband jumped to his feet and bolted to the rifle on his mount. Ichabod, Douglas’s horse, spooked by all the sudden action, took off at a gallop.
"Douglas, to the side!" Mr. Webb shouted. 
When Douglas turned from his aim, Mr. Webb didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. The bullet ricocheted off its rubbery skin and slammed back into the stomach of Mr. Webb. 
The screams of Mrs. Webb flooded the grassy meadow into the dark trees shaking their branches and twisting their leaves. She took a burning stick from the fire, and gathering up her skirts, sprinted across the grass. 
Watching his mother pass by, Douglas tripped over his own feet. He whipped around onto his back in time to see his mother hurl the flaming stick at the animal. Its skin ignited as if it were drenched in kerosene and erupted in a fireball. His mother looked back, and Douglas could see the sorrow in her eyes before she was consumed by the rush of flame.
A powerful gust of air lifted Douglas from the ground. The world roared and tumbled around him before the confusion of it all faded away into blackness. 
The sun had buried itself in twilight and the world along with it. Douglas awoke to Ichabod snorting in his ear. He sat up coughing, gripping his aching shoulder. He pulled himself up and limped over the small flames that crawled over the grass.  In the blackened crater, his mother was gone. He could not breathe to cry out, he couldn't cry out to once again breath. There was a torrent within him that would not be cast loose. Hunched over and heaving, he squeezed the blasted earth between his fingers, choking on the hollowness beneath his lungs, his stomach and miles below. 
When he heard his name he realized his father had called him several times. Ichabod walked with Douglas stumbling against his flank, leading him to his father. His fists still clenched with dirt, Douglas stood over his father. He was swallowing too much, his breaths too shallow and Douglas was unable to look at the man soaked through with his own blood. The dirt fell from his hands and Douglas was unstopped. His agony came down like a flooded river; rising over the sides and pulling everything along with its muddied water. He shouted and wailed, refusing what his world had become on the other side of his closed eyes.
"Douglas, take me home," his father demanded in a weak voice. 

By the time he pushed and pulled his father into Ichabod’s saddle, his arms and legs were shaking with fatigue. He mounted behind, and held him in the saddle for the long ride home with arms that felt like wet rope. At every hoof fall, Douglas hoped the ground would swallow them, and damned it for refusing.


  1. Hi Ben--

    I keep wanting to call you Douglas :) I think you've made some great changes here. The beginning is more clear, as is the ending, and you've accomplished that without losing the great imagery and atmospheric feel of this work. I also really like the dialogue--not sure if I mentioned that the first time.

    I have two main suggestions.

    1. Try to eliminate some of the wordy constructions. I know you're going for both a rustic and poetic feel with this, but I think you can keep the tone and flow and still smooth out some of the potentially awkward places like:

    "Douglas gave furtive glances over hunched shoulders..." Why not "Douglas glanced furtively..." It occurs to me that maybe you've written the sentence to avoid usage of an adverb, but changing furtively to furtive isn't any stronger. "No adverbs" is just a guideline. Every book has plenty of adverbs. When it's problematic to use them is when you rely on them as a crutch or for lazy writing. If you wanted to eliminate the adverb all together you could do something like "Douglas's neck snapped from side to side as he glanced over his shoulders, worried someone might catch him..." Or similar. Other prose constructions that felt awkward to me included:

    "The screams of Mrs. Webb flooded..." Why not "Mrs. Webb's screams flooded..."

    "In the blackened crater, his mother was gone." I would rephrase to something like "Where his mother once stood, there was only a blackened crater." Or similar.

    2. Go through all of the figurative language, the similes in particular, and make sure they're adding to the story, not distracting. I will admit I'm not one who reads a lot of super-poetic novels with similes on every page. I'm also not one who reads books where the authors use extremely hyberbolic figurative language like "My skin hissed and sizzled, peeling back from my bones and falling to ashes at my feet" if what's really happening is just that the main character has stepped out onto a beach and is hot. Some people write like that and are very successful, so in the end you have to be true to your voice. But for me these pages have too much figurative language, enough that it's distracting in places. I think less is more, particularly with the more conventional images like "heavy as an armful of bricks" or "crawled up his spine like spiders."

    Some of the figurative language bits I really love that I feel add to your story and tone as opposed to feeling overdone are:

    "If this man thought he could talk to birds, he must've had more hay in his head than a scarecrow, and kept the same company."

    "At every hoof fall, Douglas hoped the ground would swallow them, and damned it for refusing."

    "The crow cawed like axe chops in the silent forest."

    Though I would revise the third one slightly because cawing is a verb and axe chops are nouns so it feels off to me. Consider: "The crow cawed, the noise sharp like axe chops in the silent forest."

    Overall great revision. Exciting start!

  2. Hey Benjamin,

    I really like this! It feels like you put so much more into these few pages. To my ear, it reads a lot more smoothly. I didn't notice it on the first read, but this somehow reminds me of an early Truman Capote short story, when he was writing southern gothic fiction, or even something by Faulkner. Really. You have a great sense of time and place that feels old and dusty, like a sleeping town and dry creek beds. If that even makes sense.

    I think there are a few places that can be smoothed out. For instance, I think you can revise the first few sentences because you have the word "fell" two times in a row. My editor calls these "echoes."

    Paula makes some great points and I would echo many of them.

    My first love is literary fiction, which is full of figurative language and metaphor. BUT, if you want to write for kids and teens, you may want to really go through your story and use it sparingly. I have to say, I do love: My skin hissed and sizzled, peeling back from my bones and falling to ashes at my feet"

    Anyway, very nice revision.

  3. LOL: My skin hissed and sizzled, peeling back from my bones and falling to ashes at my feet"

    I thought that was in your excerpt but Paula just used that as an example! Ha! I went back and re-read: "Hey, where is that cool line she quoted?"


  4. I love Southern gothic, and this - as Ronald already mentioned - definitely has that Faulkner feel to it. Very strong opening. "Fear dragged the air from his throat" - excellent. "Douglas tripped over his own feet as he watched his mother rush by" would be stronger than the passive structure you use, I think - and there are a few more instances where the passive element makes the movement less smooth than it could be if they were made active. Paula noted "Mrs. Webb's screams" rather than "the screams of" but I'm wondering too why you don't refer to his parents as "his mother" and "his father" throughout rather than Mr. and Mrs. I think there is something more urgent about "his mother's screams" rather than "Mrs. Webb's screams." I'm interested in finding out why they were going to move - and why Crow thought he (or his family) were going to "ruin things." Definitely want to read more!

  5. Hi. I agree with the above comments, there was an abundance of similes and metaphors,,,although I would hang on to those for something, gothic poetry maybe. I was slightly confused when the world went black and then he awoke. Did he pass out, fall asleep or was he in shock after his mother's death. Nice pacing, it kept me hooked even though I knew there was going to be some dying going on. I also love how he fell in his own pee mud. Just made me chuckle. I do want to find out what the yellow-eyed man is...

  6. Benjamin, you've made some excellent changes here! I especially like the addition of the parents and their plans to move. Added some conflict early on for Douglas. I also like how you added more emotion when his parents are injured/killed.

    A couple of things I noted:

    Malice from the man: I really didn't match "malice" with the man's initial connection with Douglas. That's a great place to "show" rather than tell. Instead of telling about the malice, let's see it.

    When the bullet hits Dad, let's see more of that. Does red bloom in his chest? Does Dad grunt? How does Douglas react to that? Does he run toward Dad out of instinct?Seeing your dad get shot by his own bullet is a big moment. Let's play that out.

    When Mom catches fire, I also thing it's a good place to add more. Let's see her skirts catch fire and spread. Let's see her horror as she tries to tamp down the flames. Let's hear her cries of horror. And let's get inside Douglas' head as he watches this and panics. Another big moment. It doesn't have to involve long passages, but just enough to make us feel for him and Mom, and to worry about them.

    I do agree with the other comments, that there are plenty of places where this can be trimmed down. Perhaps think of the figurative language as spices to be added here and there, used sparingly for more impact. Then they'll stand out in the reader's mind.

    You definitely have a gift for language, and I'd love to see those important moments pop. You're on the right track here! Great job.

  7. Hi Benjamin,

    Definitely some strong revisions here. I agree with the others, you've totally nailed that Southern Gothic, Faulkner feel. All the little details and word choices nicely set the tone of the story, and I would definitely read on.

    I also agree with the others on the figurative language thing. You have some really, really fantastic lines in there that you should definitely keep, but overall this is a bit heavy on similes and metaphors for a YA piece. You might want to consider keeping only the really strong ones and pruning some of the others out.

    The introduction of the man was good, but I think it could be even creepier. Really show us that he's a sinister person right off the bat with his appearance, body language, and Douglas' reaction. He seems like a strong character that we want to see more of, so I think you can really drive it home.

    The parents' deaths are much, much better. We get more detail and I like that we get to see more of that aftermath, it makes the deaths matter a lot more to the reader. I think you could get even more detail in there, though - Douglas' parents are presumably pretty important to him, and both of his parents meet their end in a single sentence without much fanfare. What does it look like? How does it look? Give us details, this should be a very visceral moment. The more real you can make this, the more I'm going to care that they're dead.

    Great work, there's lots of improvement here! Can't wait to see the next revision!

  8. The description is great and I love where your heading with this, but honestly, it doesn't read as YA. It's too flowery, I guess, making it read as more of an adult novel in style. It's like reading Tolkien when you're aiming for a Lewis audience, does that make sense?
    The rest is great. The concept is definitely intriguing.