Sunday, June 5, 2016

1st 5 Pages June Workshop - Bartlett

Name: Claire Bartlett
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: Night Witches

Valentina heard the hum of warcraft too late. The organized cacophany of industry filled the factory to the brim, leaving her oblivious to the oncoming storm from the south until her supervisor rushed in, flushed and gasping.

Her stomach twisted sickly. God, she thought, even though good Union girls weren’t supposed to think about God anymore. I’m fired. They’d only taken her on out of a sense of charity, and she’d been waiting three years for Mrs. Rodoya to realize her mistake.

Slim, multi-jointed metal legs drifted past on the conveyor belt, twitching and trembling with traces of magic. Valka picked one up and checked the joints, tested the gears, working her fingers along its oily bones. She tried to calm the leg as she worked, but her hands shook with fear as she waited for Mrs. Rodoya’s judgment call.

“We need to evacuate,” Mrs. Rodoya said. The leg fell back on the conveyor belt with a sharp clang. Her tidy hair had fallen from its bun and lay half unfurled on her square shoulders. “Get your things.”

Valka gripped the sides of the conveyor as fear flashed through her. “What’s happening?” she said. But Mrs. Rodoya was already spinning away, running around the conveyor belt to the girls on the opposite side.

Evacuate. Her hands reached automatically for the next leg on the line. Her job was to check all the finished legs and ensure that nothing faulty left the factory. Someone else would attach the legs to metal horses, palanquins, carriers, war beetles, and all other manner of equipment on the front. The army relied on the high quality production of the factories in Tammin Reaching, which meant the army relied on Valka. It was the closest thing she had to a sense of purpose.

She should keep working. Keep the Union running, do her part as well as she could - which, she thought with a pang, was restrictive enough. Everyone in Tammin Reaching made allowances for the girl with metal legs. Everyone knew that a girl with no legs couldn’t run for the Union, couldn’t hunt for the Union, couldn’t carry beams to build sturdy Union houses or chase down Union cows for their sweet milk. Even Union girls whose flesh legs had been replaced with living metal calves, whose feet had become living metal claws. Her legs trembled even now, feeding off the fear that pumped through her. She tried to focus. She shouldn’t evacuate. Maybe she could convince Mrs. Rodoya to let her keep on with her job. But even as she thought it, the conveyor belt slowed.

The hissing, ratcheting, clanging of the factory faded until every machine on the floor had stilled. Silence descended like a blanket of snow. Whispers swept around the room in soft, hissing syllables as the machines wound down for the first time in years. Valka had never heard the factories fall silent. Even when she’d finished her shift, another girl came to oversee the machines as they ground through the night, churning out parts for the army. The silence felt like a promise broken.

For a moment it seemed as though that silence had taken over the whole world. Valka thought she’d drown in it. Then she heard it - a low hum, like some enraged cloud of insects. Elda aircraft. Elda witchcraft. The fear returned doubly strong.

“Girls!” Mrs Rodoya’s trembling voice rang out over the factory hall. Valka turned her wheelchair away from the conveyor belt and pushed towards the sound of Mrs. Rodoya’s voice, oily hands slipping on the wheels.

Mrs. Rodoya stood in the middle of the hall, ramrod straight, her hands clasped just over her belly. “We’ve practiced this before, girls. Let’s make an orderly exit, please.”

Mrs. Rodoya loved order. Sometimes Valka thought she’d rather let a bomb fall on the whole factory than allow her girls to disturb the precious order. She pushed her chair towards the door, fighting the oil on her hands and the metal filings and barbs that littered the factory floor. One good thing about being in a chair was that she didn’t have to pick thin slivers out of her heel from where her rubber soles had been ground to nothing. On the other hand, she had twice as many to pick out of her palms.

The girls lined up - in an orderly fashion, of course. Their shelter was a ten-minute walk away, and right now Valka wanted nothing more than to stay put where it was warm and safe. They want to bomb the factories, she thought, trying to convince herself to go out where she could see the Elda dragons and their bombs as they came to kill her. The other girls formed a line of pairs, hands clasped. At least they had a friend to hold on to. Valka got to go to the end of the line, and Mrs. Rodoya was her partner. Everyone assumed she’d be too slow to keep up with the others.

Mrs. Rodoya opened the factory door and counted each girl with a bob of her head as they went through. Then she grabbed the back of Valka’s chair and began to push without asking. A lot of people did that. Even when Valka had asked to push herself during practice raids, and even when she’d asked to just walk like everyone else. “Now, now, we want speed over pride, don’t we?” Mrs. Rodoya said.

Valka wanted to leap out of her chair and run for the shelter. Never mind being calm, never mind letting Mrs. Rodoya literally push her around. But even if she could disentangle her feet without catching them in the chair, even if she could escape Mrs. Rodoya and the factory girls, she’d cause chaos, and chaos was the enemy of the Union.

The factory girls took measured steps, moving in a dance that declared order against panic. They moved away from the high concrete building, down a street lined with the standard issue factory blocks that churned out legs, carapaces, rifles, helmets and other army equipment. Twilight deepened the cloudless sky above. The moon hung like a fruit, a fat crescent surrounded by stars. On an ordinary night Valka might watch it thread its way to the horizon. But there were other things in the sky tonight, things that hummed and growled. A shudder ran through Valka, and she wasn’t the only one. The line of girls undulated as the dance began to unravel. “Calm, girls,” Mrs. Rodoya said. Did she even know the meaning of the world? Calm was easy during a practice raid. Holding your head high and following the War Ministry’s approved path to the shelter was easy during a pratice raid. When the hum of aircraft resonated against the buildings to either side of them, holding your head high was a whole lot harder to do. Valka folded her hands in front of her, clenching them until she couldn’t feel them shake anymore. Don’t be such a coward, she told herself. But she hadn’t been brave in a long time. Sometimes she felt like when they cut off her legs, they amputated her bravery as well.


  1. Wow! This was positively transporting. Thank you for sharing you work with us today, Claire.

    This world is easy to imagine, and your narrative flows smoothly through descriptive and reflective passages. It's easy to get a feel for this character and the situation she is in. In terms of story questions, I would like to have a glimpse into who or what this war is against. I feel a bit like this is an invisible enemy. I would like them to be named clearly so I can start to build a mental image of the enemy (or enemies).

    There's an interesting mix of steampunk and contemporary elements here. It reads a bit more mechanical than magical. I'm curious to understand how magic works in this world, but I don't need it ALL spelled out in this opening scene...although I will want to understand soon, so that I can step firmly into the world.

    In terms of writing, there are a few spots of that need ironing out early on:

    -- Her supervisor rushes where? I thought that meant the supervisor was RIGHT THERE, but then Valka went back to work and it was some time before the supervisor spoke to her. Give us a hint of proximity, timing, expectation.

    -- Her stomach twisted sickly. (kill the adverb)

    -- God, she thought, even though good Union girls weren’t supposed to think about God anymore. I’m fired. (perhaps the thoughts were italicized? if not, they need to be...or else they need to be joined together. breaking up her train of thought with the aside is a touch confusing)

    -- Valka's conflicted thoughts about evacuating or staying seem a little unnatural. Why wouldn't she react to the word EVACUATE? Do they do this all the time? Is there some reason she is immune to the panic Mrs. Rodoya is feeling? Fear flashes through Valka...but then what? Does she go numb? Is she in shock? Give us a clue as to why she doesn't get moving ASAP.

    -- A note on perspective: I am not a wheelchair user, so I recommend that you seek feedback from a wheelchair user or amputee if your character's perspective is not based on your personal experience.

    Overall, very well done. This is one of the most engaging writing samples I've seen in some time.

    Melanie Conklin
    First Five Mentor

  2. Hi Claire,

    I just want to say off the bat that you have created some really great images here. My favorite is how the moon hung like a fruit. It’s very beautiful and original. Also, the line about good Union girls was really great and got me into your MC’s world right away – great job (I laughed!).

    Quick question – is her name Valentina or Valka? Both? The piece starts off with Valentina, but it’s never mentioned again. I’m sure it’s a mistake (or I’ve missed something maybe), but I just wanted to point it out because I was quite confused.

    Note on perspective similar to Melanie’s comment on being a wheelchair user – it may be a product of using 3rd person, but the switching back and forth from emphasizing Valka’s movement in a wheelchair (love disability representation!) to the factory girls’ movements (“ten minute walk”, “factory girls took measured steps”) threw me off. I think it was because I wanted to be closer to Valka’s experience, and focusing on the other girls distanced me from her. I wanted to know how Valka maneuvered rather than the other girls. I hope this makes sense? Just ask for clarification if it doesn’t!

    “Don’t be such a coward, she told herself. But she hadn’t been brave in a long time. Sometimes she felt like when they cut off her legs, they amputated her bravery as well.” – great line. Throws us right into the conflict right away. Great!

    Thanks for sharing, and I look forward to reading your revisions.

    Carly Whetter

  3. Claire,

    This is really beautifully written. Thanks for sharing, and please feel free to keep or toss my comments!

    I don't have a problem at all feeling grounded in the world. You've done a wonderful job of grabbing us with this setting and refusing to let go. I am not having the same experience with the MC, however. The only thing I understand about her is that she doesn't have much confidence (which is fine! But I don't think this is the only important thing about her, right?).

    My heart squeezed for Valka when the other girls lined up and she didn't have a partner because she was in a wheelchair. It took me a second to figure out what she was talking about--I think it could be clarified maybe in this paragraph:

    "Mrs. Rodoya loved order. Sometimes Valka thought she’d rather let a bomb fall on the whole factory than allow her girls to disturb the precious order. She pushed her chair towards the door, fighting the oil on her hands and the metal filings and barbs that littered the factory floor. One good thing about being in a chair was that she didn’t have to pick thin slivers out of her heel from where her rubber soles had been ground to nothing. On the other hand, she had twice as many to pick out of her palms."

    I had trouble with the transition from talking about Mrs. Rodoya liking order to Valka pushing her chair. I didn't realize at first she was talking about a wheelchair, and that it was Valka pushing her own wheelchair rather than Mrs. Rodoya pushing a random chair somewhere. I think just adjusting a couple words could completely clarify this.

    I LOVE the last line. It's perfect. I'm excited to see the next revision of this!

  4. Claire,

    Thank you for sharing and participating in the critique. Hopefully my critique is of help!

    Wow. I loved this intro. I would definitely continue reading. There are only a couple of things I wanna point out, but for the most part I just really wanna keep on reading this story.

    First off, your narration is clean and fresh and clever. I was immersed the whole time. I got a strong feel for this world and setting and even for the main character.

    Paragraph 8 comes off as being too much information, and I’m confused as to what prompted the need to know all that stuff. Since until that point I didn’t know Valka was in a wheelchair, it seemed random to me that she was suddenly thinking about girls with metal legs and about helping the Union. Especially since her supervisor just ran in there telling them to evacuate. I feel like the immediate reaction after being told to evacuate should be to ask what’s going on instead of musing on being considered useful for the Union.

    I would have liked to see more reaction in Valka. So far she seems pretty muted down, but maybe that’s just her personality trait. If it’s your intention then it works.

    I would love to keep on reading. I got a strong Howl’s Moving Castle (the movie) feel :).

    Good job!
    Gabriela Romero

  5. Hello! I loved the first paragraph and your overall prose. Your writing is very cinematic and descriptive.
    I loved the first several paragraphs. I would probably not change anything about them because they tell us just enough. I’m assuming Valka is a girl NEXT to Valentina, so I would write that in because I got confused with the sense of setting for a moment. Or is it another name? I like the part where it is revealed that Valentina/Valka is a disabled girl. Representation say what?
    There’s a bit of repetitiveness with the “Valka had never heard the factories fall silent” and “for a moment it seemed as though the silence had taken over the whole world.” There’s a lot of emphasis on the silence of the factory. If you want to keep that in, focus more on description of the silence without actually using the word. Same thing with the word “order.” Synonyms are your best friend (:
    Like I said, the description and wording is marvelous! Especially the last paragraph with the “dance” and “hum of aircraft.” I’d maybe break up the paragraph to keep the text more orderly and easier to read. It’s interesting that you don’t necessarily have a big inciting incident, but a promise of a bigger thing coming – that the hum of Warcraft is just the beginning. Really promising start! I’d probably polish it up and clear any repetitiveness or setting issues. Otherwise, story is pretty cool! (:

  6. I loved your world! Russian-style steampunk--a sort of Grika Trilogy meets Code Name Verity. I'd suggest more specific, concrete details Like some of the other commenters, I had a bit of trouble getting started, trying to figure out who was who and where Valka's boss was. My interpretation of Valka's hesitation to leave is that this job has felt very tenuous and she wants to contribute in all ways possible to the Union.

    I thought it was a wonderful choice to show her as a wheelchair user, ironic since she works in a leg factory and does have metal legs. Given how advanced prosthetics have become in our day and age, I think it might be a good idea to show why she continues to use a chair despite the fact that the legs have been permeated with magic.

    I agree that I wanted to see the enemy. You could have some posters up on the walls of the factory; maybe as they evacuate Valka can see a dark cloud of incoming aircraft on the horizon. Some details to give the threat a concrete form.

    I can't wait to see what you do next with this piece. Thanks for a great read.