Sunday, November 16, 2014

First 5 Pages November Workshop - Towle Rev 2

Sarah Towle
Young Adult Historical Fiction

Chapter One: Introduction

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 favorite I share with a couple of ancestors who made history once upon a time, but were then forgotten by all but their heirs.

You can call me Larry, most of my friends do. They think I’m exotic because my parents are French, but I grew up all over, a “citizen of the world.” They consider me smart because I’m 100% bilingual. But lots of people are, in one language or another. That’s not really so unusual. They call me a nerd, because I wear glasses – I prefer frames that are dark and thick, like Clark Kent’s – and because I like history.

I think they’d like history too if they knew the part their family played in making it.

The truth is, I’m not all that interesting. But my forbears are. And it’s their story I’m going to tell you now.

It’s more legend than story, passed down through the generations starting with the famous but forgotten de Jussieus I just mentioned. It’s the story I grew up with and enjoyed, but refused to believe was anything more than a tall tale until I learned that we were worthy of an asteroid. That was also about the time I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time. And crazy as this may sound, that movie turned me into a believer.

Indiana Jones possessed the same bravery and determination that my real-world ancestors were said to have had. They were the king’s gardeners and so-called “fathers of botany,” inventors of the modern system for grouping and sorting plants. Until I met Indiana, I’d imagined them as grizzled old men with over-sized green thumbs. But they did much more than dig in the dirt and mow lawns. They traveled the world to find what they planted. They had extreme adventures and endured terrible sacrifices to search for the sources of coveted medicines, exotic foods, material needed for never-before imagined products of human invention – even for poisons.

If they managed to survive their trials, they brought their specimens back to France and figured out how to make them grow there. Sometimes it took years, in special greenhouses they built with their own hands from their own designs. But once adapted these plants were then cultivated in the King’s gardens. My great-great-great-great-uncle Joseph even went crazy doing it!

By the time they reached me, their stories seemed too fantastical to be true: like how they’d risked life and limb at the service of the Kings of France to contribute to creating the great gardens of Versailles; then how they stood up to an angry mob of thousands to save the gardens from destruction during the French Revolution.

I thought it was all make believe. A really fun bedtime story. Then I found out about our asteroid and I encountered Indiana Jones. And then, we studied the French Revolution in school.

When we hit the chapter on the October March of Women, my palms turned sweaty and my heart started racing. I nearly fell out of my chair. That was where the family legend ended – on the terrace of the Versailles gardens just outside Queen Marie-Antoinette’s apartments on the day she, Louis XVI, and their children became prisoners of the mob.

Then I just got mad. I mean, if these guys really did make history, why didn’t the world know?

No one in my family seemed to care if the legend of the plant hunters was fact or fiction, so I decided to find out for myself. When I told my Maman that I wanted to take a gap year and spend it in France researching our history, she put her hand up to my forehead. She said, “Laurent, are you feeling alright?”

But I felt fine. I feel even better now to be able to share this: The story of my ancestors is the story of Versailles. It’s the story of France’s Sun King, Louis XIV, and the story of the final 100 years of the French monarchy. It’s the story of the great 18th century race between Britain and France to measure the circumference of the Earth. It’s also the story of the fall of feudalism and the rise of democracy. It’s our story.

All these stories grow from the seeds discovered, named, and cultivated by my forefathers, the Plant Hunters. They weave together to form the tale that was passed down to me, starting with my great, great, great grandfather, Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, who was witness to Revolution and the fall of the 800-year-old French Monarchy. And who, if family legend can be trusted, was at the Chateau de Versailles on the fateful morning of 6 October 1789 when the 800-year-old French Monarchy teetered and fell.

Meet me there. At Versailles. While you’re on your way, I’ll fill you in on the backstory, for the tale begins even before Antoine Laurent. I’ll be waiting for in the gardens at the place where I believe he faced down a frantic and desperate mob.


  1. Hi Sarah,

    I hope you’re enjoying the workshop thus far. I can really see how far your revisions have come, and this is great! You have smoothed out a lot of the areas that tripped me up, but here is some general feedback for the next round of revision. I hope it’s helpful.

    This is where it feels like things really get going, “No one in my family seemed to care if the legend of the plant hunters was fact or fiction, so I decided to find out for myself.” Until then, it feels like we’re just setting things up and taking a bit too long to do so (for me). This is where the narrator jumps into action. In fact, from this point forward, I’m far more invested and interested.

    I’m still having trouble pinpointing the narrator’s age. Also, he mentions taking a gap year. I don’t think this is something that kids younger than college age get to do (?), at least in the US. It gave me pause, but perhaps that’s because I’m not familiar enough with these things.


  2. Hey Sarah,

    This has come a long way! I love your new opening, getting to know the backstory through a young person's eyes. I almost feel like you can stop right at:

    But I felt fine. I feel even better now to be able to share this:

    And then jump into your story.

    As I've mentioned numerous times, you have a great voice. Now use it to really plant the reader in the time period through details and senses.

    Great job.

  3. Sarah, I'll mention once again how you have a wonderful way with words. With each revision, you've cut out what you didn't need and added fresh details--all without sacrificing quality work. I admire you for that.

    This story has come a looooong way. We now have a protagonist, which is great. I wish the protagonist was someone we could worry about. I do wish the protagonist was actually "in" the story of his story. Know what I mean? At this point he's a narrator, but he's not a narrator who's in danger or conflict.

    I have no doubt that once he starts telling the story, we'll see that narrator who will be in trouble. We saw that in a previous revision. I just wish the story started out with that narrator. Get is in the action right away, with a narrator who has conflict.

    Other than that, this is well revised and has fun new details--like the poison. Love the poison! And you did a much better job of gearing it toward YA. Might even sound a bit too young--like middle grade--so be careful of that. But it's off to a great start.

    Good luck!

  4. Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for sharing these pages! I enjoyed the excited tone of your narrator and his promise that what follows will be a tale packed with “extreme adventures and terrible sacrifices.” Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, and I find the French Revolution fascinating. Now, you are taking a risk with your subject – instead of a doomed noble or a desperate wife wielding bread, you’re focusing on a family of gardeners . . . admittedly not the most intriguing occupation to teen readers. But a skilled writer can make her readers route for the most unlikely hero(es). I’d be curious to see how life and limbs are risked.

    However, I’m not quite sure what to make of the self-proclaimed “not-that-interesting” Laurent, whose family is as exciting as Indiana Jones and asteroids. It’s clear the narrator really cares about this story and about his family history. But in the end, your reader has to care. And that may come, but as of now I don’t know exactly what role Laurent will have in the novel. Will he simply narrate the story? Or will he be a protagonist? You can do so much this this premise (even time travel!), but I suspect this introduction is not the one that will best suit your story.

    I presume this is a prologue rather than the first chapter. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but I would scrap the whole thing. Not because I’m one of those editors who is vehemently against prologues; I think they can work beautifully if done well and are truly essential to the meaning of the story. However, this section reads more like a commercial, a plea for your reader to keep reading and meet you in chapter one. Why not just meet us in chapter one and go from there? As I mentioned, I really can’t tell whom this book will actually be about. (Antoine facing down the mob and saving the day? Laurent coming into his own during his gap year and realizing that he can be just as interesting as his forbearers? A little of both?) Regardless, the overly obvious message that this book will be a great is, in fact, a turnoff. My advice is to begin at chapter one and let the story flow from there. If you do your job well, your reader will care about the Plant Hunters just as much as Laurent does.

    I hope you find this critique useful, and I wish you the best of luck with the novel.


  5. Hi Sarah,

    I liked this beginning the best! It was much clearer with the one voice narrating. It now reads more like a story than a history lesson, which would be more appealing to a teen audience. The only issue for me was the age of the protagonist. His voice, for me, was too mature for a teen. It felt like an adult telling the story to a young boy or girl.

    I enjoyed the references to Clark Kent and Indian Jones!

  6. Hi Sarah,

    Your revisions have really come along! Well done! :) The voice of your narrator in the beginning is solid and that's hard to do.

    Here are a few notes I have to help you make it even better -- There is a lot of repetition in this piece. I'd recommend going through and cleaning that up. Once you've told us something once, assume that we know it and just be clear when you refer to it again. Try not to give the same information again.

    I'm not sure I understand exactly why we're starting with a current teen and then going back. Couldn't Antoine be your main character and your story start with him? I'd consider reworking just because of that, but I think your writing is beautiful and you've come a long way. Now it all comes down to where exactly YOU want to take it from here.

    Good luck!


  7. Again - wow! You're really making SO much progress with this - and how far you've come! Depending on what your main story focus is, and the fact you're obviously so talented, I'm sure you could make Antoine as interesting as Larry - if it serves your story purpose better. The only piddly comment I have is that you might consider taking out the word backstory and just say "come with me".