Monday, November 10, 2014

First 5 Pages November Workshop - Towle Rev 1

Sarah Towle
Young Adult Historical Fiction

Chapter One: Meet the Plant Hunters

It's not every family that can claim to have an asteroid named after them. But mine can. The flying rock is called Jussieu. That's my last name. My first name is Laurent. It’s an old family name I share with several ancient ancestors who lived and made history hundreds of years ago, but who were then forgotten by all but their decedents.

You can call me Larry, most of my friends do. They think they know all about me: that my parents were born in France, but that I grew up abroad, a “citizen of the world”; that I was schooled in English and am 100% bilingual. But what they don’t know is a lot more interesting, and that's the story I'm going to tell you now.

It’s the story that was passed to me by the forgotten de Jussieus. The family legend that I grew up with and enjoyed, but that I refused to believe was anything more than a tall tale until I learned that we were famous enough to deserve an asteroid. That’s also about when I sawIndiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for the first time.

I recognized in that modern-day archeologist the same drive and bravery that my real-world ancestors were said to have possessed. Until then I’d only pictured them as grizzled old guys with over-sized green thumbs, the so-called fathers of modern botany and the plant classification system. But their stories also spoke of great adventures and terrible sacrifices. By the time they reached me, these men, three generations in all, had turned into giants. They were said to have risked life and limb at the service of their kings, first to create the great gardens of Versailles, then to save the same gardens from certain destruction.

I now understand that these men, along with their forebears, made history, that theirs is a tale worth sharing with the world. And so I give you this homage to my ancestors, the Plant Hunters – buccaneers of the botanical world – as it was passed down to me by my great, great, great grandfather, Antoine Laurent de Jussieu.

If the tale is to be trusted, old Antoine Laurent was there, at Versailles, eyewitness to the day the 800-year-old French Monarchy teetered and fell. Forever

Chapter Two: The October March of Women

By late afternoon on 5 October 1789, the King’s Garden at Versailles had been pelted by a most uncommon storm. This was no ordinary squall from the heavens, but a gale of humanity. And it would change to course of history forever.

The women of France were starving. Their children and aged, alike, were starving. A hailstorm had wiped out the country’s wheat crop that year. Now all but the richest lacked daily bread, their main—and sometimes only—source of food. Their hunger—and the quiet rumblings of those wishing to fan the flames of revolution—had whipped their hunger into fury.

That morning at Paris’ central marketplace, Les Halles, the women’s shared outcry over the high price of bread erupted into a volatile demonstration. They charged City Hall, Le Hotel de Ville, demanding food. They beat drums and brandished kitchen knives, encouraged by the revolutionary agitators who joined them.

Their cries for justice attracted more and more women until their numbers swelled to as many as 10,000. They surged through the gates of the Hotel, ransacking its stores and weapons. But they wanted not just one meal. They sought assurance that bread would once again be plentiful and affordable to the masses. Rather than answer the women’s anguished appeals, however, the city’s governors merely fled.

À Versailles ! To Versailles!” someone shouted. “Let’s petition the Queen! Surely a woman and a mother will understand our torment.” 

And just like that the women were away, on foot, ready to march the 23 kilometers to the king’s Chateau.They set out to persuade Queen Marie-Antoinette to leave her gilded cage and come to Paris to witness their suffering. Sprinkled among them, dressed as women, the furtive revolutionaries had another motive: They wished to take advantage of the women’s misery to force the king, his court and governors—The Assembly—to leave Versailles and return to Paris once and for all.

I was compelled by my colleagues at the King’s Garden in Paris to outrun the women if I possibly could. Upon arrival at the Chateau I was to go immediately to the aid of the palace gardeners and under-gardeners. They had no knowledge of the tempest that approached to threaten their masterpiece: the lush tapestry woven from nature over the course of 150 years. We could not allow the mob to lay waste to this legacy. It had to be safeguarded.

Born into a wealthy family, I knew only an existence of privilege. I had no knowledge of riots and starvation. I had never been in company with such people as these. I jumped at their cries for justice or blood. I flinched each time one of them brandished a makeshift weapon.

All along the route, I watched as more women dropped their washing and their brooms and left their children to join the fray. I grew more consumed with apprehension with each fretful step. Sweat dripped in rivulets from my brow. I wondered what I could possibly do to help calm a cyclone of humanity gone out of control.

Just stop now, my subconscious argued. No one will ever know if you never reach Versailles. And yet I kept advancing toward the torrent that surely lay ahead.

I knew not what would happen to the gardens, or to me, in the hours that ticked down to minutes faster than the ever-increasing beating of my heart. But I did understand this: Everything royal was under threat that day if the king and queen failed to do the crowd’s bidding. Even the soil that had been cultivated these 150 years to raise the crops intended for the king’s table.

Indeed, the yields of its furrows could well prove the salvation of the starving throng.

That was the answer!

I steeled my nerves and picked up my pace. I had to move quickly. The future of the King’s Garden depended on it.


  1. Hi Sarah,

    It was really interesting to see what you did with the revision! It was neat to meet a contemporary character to introduce things. I did get confused between chapters one and two though. Because both are in first person, I at first read chapter two as still being Larry instead of Antoine. Chapter one now reads a touch like a prologue, with a lot of telling by Larry, and I had a hard time pinpointing Larry's age or his time period.

    I hope this helps,

  2. Hi Sarah,

    Your new opening is really interesting. By opening in present day with an ancestor, we get a sense of time and place.

    I think in your first post you said this story would be for a walking educational tour of some sort?

    If so, I think it would work, but I'm not sure it rings as fiction in my ears.

    If you do want to turn this into a novel, we need to see your character planted (lol) in this story immediately. Have her or him walking around, sensing things, seeing, touching, smelling. Right now it still reads like a history lesson. Well-written, I might add, but still distanced.

    If you start with Larry's ancestor, Antoine Laurent as a grown adult, why would a teen want to read this?

    I thought that after that great new opening we were going to be propelled back in time and experience a story told through a young person's eyes. There's an idea.

    Anyway, as I said before, you're already a great writer. Perhaps you just need to figure out how to make this YA.

    Good luck!

  3. Hi Sarah,

    I like how you changed it, using a present day character to begin the story. As I continued to read I was confused who was narrating when the story went into the past. It was in first person, so it couldn't be Laurent.

    It's a good story but for me, it doesn't read as a YA book. I think Ronald's suggestion of telling the story through the eyes of a young adult is a great idea.

  4. Sarah, you seriously have a wonderful way with words.

    This revision is getting closer, because it takes us closer to real people with a real story to tell.

    But we're not in close enough point of view yet.

    Opening with Larry works well enough, but it lacks conflict. The opening should be about a character who we should care and worry about. At first I thought he was narrating, but then I realized by chapter two that the narrator had changed, right? And I didn't realize until deeper into chapter two who this narrator might be. I'm still not 100% sure who it us (guy? girl?) without looking back.

    My advice is to put us in the head of whoever your main character is. I think I remember reading that the main character is fictional, but the events are real life. If so, put us only in that character's head and make us worry about them. The opening line could even be your line "Sweat dripped in rivulets from my brow." Get us in the action right away with the main character doing something. All the history can be woven in as the story progresses.

    Although this is beautifully written, it still reads like a history book. If this is what I think it's supposed to be--nonfiction that reads like a story--then we need a main character we can worry about right from the start. Only his point of view.

    Is the main character a teen? If so, let us know who he/she is and why they're in danger. All that wonderful history needs to be sprinkled in when applicable.

    Another concern of mine is the title. It makes me think science fiction. Have you considered changing that?

    Your style of writing is amazing. Your way with words is amazing. Now let's hear an amazing tale from a character's point of view.

    Good luck!

  5. Wow, I love the frame you set up at the beginning! I think you're on the right track - is there a way to make Larry the same age as the person at Versailles? That would give you a way to to weave their experiences together - maybe Larry's a modern-day plant hunter so they also have that in common and it will come together at some point. I wish I knew more about your story goal so I could be more helpful. I'm assuming there is something about France, plants and the late 1700s you're in love with - how is that relevant to Larry now he's in the picture? Would it be better to open with someone out scouring the globe for plants to bring back who walks in as the revolution's about to break out? Someone ideally with Larry's engaging personality?

  6. I loved how you revised it. I think it's better now and doesn't feel like too much information. I liked the transition of Chapter one to Chapter two.

    I also agree that this does not come off as YA. It comes off as historical.

    Also I think maybe a shorter title will be more memorable to the reader's.

    But other than that, I rather enjoy the way you work with words. It feels like art to me.

    Good luck on revising.

  7. Sarah,
    The voice in this is so much more relatable! Well done with honing in on your main character and their story! I agree with many of the comments above and what I'd recommend being aware of is the fact that this doesn't feel YA, as others mentioned. To me it felt much younger, MG or possibly historical chapter book level. YA almost never breaks the fourth wall (addresses the audience directly). I feel like your biggest challenge is honing in on WHO your audience is and why you're choosing this material. You're definitely getting closer! Also, in this instance, I'd say your Chapter one is actually a prologue because the action should start in Chapter one and it doesn't until Chapter two.

    Can't wait to see what changes you make next week!