Sunday, July 10, 2016

1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Ratcliffe Rev 1

Name: Christian Ratcliffe
Genre: Middle Grade; Steampunk
Title: Blackwood's Swamp

April 18, 1955
Dear Princeton University,
My name is William Kelley, and I am trying to build a time machine. I would really love to come to your university and meet Mr. Albert Einstein, and, if you accept 11-year-olds, I would really like to study there, too. I want to be an inventor.

I learned in class that Mr. Einstein thinks time travel is possible, though some of the kids in my
class think that’s stupid, but they aren’t Einsteins either. I think Mr. Einstein can help me build a time machine. I have a lot of good ideas, but I don’t understand time travel, yet. It’s complicated.

It’s very important that I build a time machine, as my parents died in a boat wreck when I was a baby, and I would like to go back and keep it from happening. I think Mr. Einstein would like to go back and stop the wars from happening, so I think we would make a good team. If you could please pass this letter on to Mr. Einstein, I would really appreciate it. Please write me back at the address on the envelope.

June 19, 1955
Dear Mr. Kelley,
Thank you for your letter. We regretfully inform you that our respected professor and friend, Albert Einstein, has passed on from this life to his next great adventure in another life. We are sorry to hear about your parents. Unfortunately, time travel to the past is impossible, while time travel into the future is only slightly less impossible. We appreciate your interest in Princeton and would encourage you to apply upon graduation of your high school.

Institute of Advanced Studies
Princeton University

July 25, 1955

William Kelley stared at the ceiling of Uncle Ed’s houseboat, waiting for 8:22 in the morning. A mysterious visitor would arrive in only a few hours, and he had been unable to sleep from the possibilities his mind imagined. His thoughts had changed with the colors of the night frommidnight blue to deep purple and now a shade of lavender.

One week earlier, a letter had arrived, addressed to William; all it said was ‘I’ll be visiting on 4/18 at 8:22 in the morning. Be prompt.’ There was no signature or return address. Whoever sent the letter wished to remain anonymous.

Part of William hoped someone at Princeton had read his letter, and the visitor was going to help him build his time machine. Or, perhaps the visitor was going to give him an instruction manual for building a time machine. Princeton probably didn’t want everyone to know how to build a time machine, or everyone would always be going and changing history or creating new worlds.

A secret part of William feared that the visitor would be an official from the government, coming to take him away from Uncle Ed. He didn’t want to mention that to Uncle Ed, though, in case the visitor was from Princeton. Before, a woman from the government had come for a visit after Uncle Ed allowed William to quit the Mer Rouge school. The woman told Uncle Ed that William couldn’t quit school even though William protested it was more like a daycare than an actual school.

At that time, the woman had mentioned she didn’t see any adoption papers on William. Uncle Ed quickly told the lady that William wouldn’t quit school, and she wouldn’t have any more trouble from them. She left but told Uncle Ed to make sure his papers were in order.

About ten years ago, Uncle Ed said he found William floating in the swamp, looking happier than Moses. Only when William was older did Uncle Ed tell William the truth. Uncle Ed pulled William out of boat wreckage that killed William’s parents.

After the finding William, Uncle Ed had never once applied for adoption papers or asked the government for permission to raise William. If the government found that out, they may put William in an orphanage, and William was afraid today’s visitor would do just that.

A loud stomping of boots came from the front porch. The visitor! William’s heart thumped as he jumped up from his sofa and searched the ground for his only pair of jeans. Before he could find them, the door swung open. William froze.

Uncle Ed stood in the door, wrapped in his trapping gear. His silver hair and beard were splattered with mud and sprawled around his tan face like a grizzled bird’s nest. Behind him, Troubles, William’s grayish blue Great Dane, jumped around the front porch, trying to lick a butterfly.

Of course, it wasn’t the visitor. It was too early in the morning. William relaxed. He wasn’t even sure he was ready for the visitor, and he definitely didn’t want the visitor catching him in his undies.

“That dog near scared all the fish and frogs outta the swamp. The water would move and off he’d be tryin’ to lick whatever it was. Even tangled a few of my nets.” Uncle Ed dumped his trapping gear on the table.

Uncle Ed’s sleeves were rolled above his elbows, revealing most of his tattoos, several of them a bit faded. One tattoo, in particular, stood out, it was a red flower with four petals, tattooed across an old scar on his hand. Uncle Ed told William it was a Daphne flower. The flower didn’t match any of the other tattoos on Uncle Ed’s arms, which were mainly constellations like Ursula, Gemini Twins, Scorpio, and Pisces. Uncle Ed’s whole body was one big star map.

Uncle Ed whistled, and Troubles bounced into the houseboat, his legs sliding underneath him and his ears flopping. Troubles was caked in mud, and his tongue hung out, dripping slobber. He shook his body, scattering dirt, and pounced on top of William, almost knocking him to the ground. Troubles gave William several slimy licks. William laughed and pushed Troubles off him.

“I managed to get a few frogs though. Took ‘em to Dock Giffin.”

Dock Giffin owned the only store in Mer Rouge, only, it wasn’t just a store - it was also a restaurant, post office, and hotel. So, Dock Giffin would be the first to know if a stranger was in town.

“Did you talk to Dock?” William asked eagerly. “Is there anyone new in town?”

Uncle Ed hesitated, giving William a sideways glance. “Dock did say there was a new houseboat. Came in yesterday eve.”

“What?” William navigated around his half-built time machines covering the floor and pressed his face to the window. He peered down both sides of the dock looking for a new houseboat, but all the boats were old and familiar. He didn’t remember seeing a new houseboat last night.

“Boat left early this morning. It was a woman. Said she’d be back,though.” Uncle Ed cleared his throat.

“Woman? Do you think she is the one who sent the letter? What was she like? Did Dock say anything about her at all?”

“She might’ve sent the letter.” Uncle Ed scratched his chin and shook his head. “But, it just don’t seem usual, sending a letter like that. I don’t like it at all.”

Uncle Ed must have been thinking about the government lady who came before.

Uncle Ed reached into his back pocket and pulled out an envelope. “Another letter came in the post.”

William tore into the envelope, nearly ripping the letter in half.


  1. Christian,

    This is a pretty big shift from your first draft! But I love the letters to start off the story. I think it might actually work better to start like this. I think the part of the story you had at the beginning last time could come later in the novel. Your writing is very good, and you continue to do a good job of writing in a “formal” style that fits with the genre but is also accessible to middle grade students. Nice work.

    A few suggestions (take or leave - I’m no expert and struggle with my own writing daily):

    1. You have the first two letters that set the time plot in motion. Why not have the third letter from the mysterious woman open William’s section of the manuscript? It seems like the perfect transition, and the first line after the letter could be something like, “William read the letter for the hundredth time, stared at the ceiling of Uncle Ed’s houseboat and waited…” Or something like know your book and characters.

    2. I would leave out the exposition of Williams backstory. I don’t think you need it yet. It took me out of the mystery of the letter and the humor of William’s time machine obsession. I think you can keep the part about the government lady and the lack of adoption papers and let that be a mystery for now.

    3. This is so minor, but when I read Mer Rouge...I thought of the Khmer Rouge/Cambodia/Killing Fields. I don’t think any middle grade kids will think that and those words may be important to your story. It just threw me out of the story for a sec.

    Again, I love your story, and I want to know what’s in that 2nd letter that William received!

  2. Dan,
    That was such a fantastic idea about the letter! It makes complete sense to do that! I feel like such a dolt for not thinking of that before. I'm so glad you mentioned that!

    I had the thoughts that it might be too much, but wanted to see everyone's reaction. I will definitely tone it down.

    I thought your third remark was huge! I am so glad you told me that. I don't want to make any association to that, no matter how minor. And, if you thought about it, there is probably someone else out there who thought about it, too. I'm not attached to Mer Rouge and only used it to show that William was in small part of Louisiana.

    I think you are a fantastic writer and have wonderful suggestions! Thanks!

  3. Christian,

    I REALLY enjoyed this revised 1st five pages so much more than the last one. Maybe it was the time of night I was reading the last one, but this revision made so much more sense to me and does so many things well.

    I loved the letter at the beginning! I feel it ties in the "steampunk" genre much better, especially now that I know time machines are involved. It is such an interesting twist so I say definitely KEEP IT! Plus I loved the tone you used with William - I love his boyish curiosity and desire to become like Einstein.

    I also loved the extra details about his back story and Uncle Ed. BTW, my oldest daughter is named Daphne, so I especially loved the detail about the flower:) I love how you describe Uncle Ed, with his tattoos and his hair and beard. So great! I have such a clear image of him now.

    If I had to pick something to work on for next revision, there were two paragraphs where I felt a little disconnected from the flow of the plot. They were:

    About ten years ago, Uncle Ed said he found William floating in the swamp, looking happier than Moses. Only when William was older did Uncle Ed tell William the truth. Uncle Ed pulled William out of boat wreckage that killed William’s parents.

    After the finding William, Uncle Ed had never once applied for adoption papers or asked the government for permission to raise William. If the government found that out, they may put William in an orphanage, and William was afraid today’s visitor would do just that.

    --I'm not sure if there could be a better place to put this background information, but you could try taking them out, and seeing how the story flows afterward. I think it might work well. But you're the author, so do what you feel is right!

    Great work though!

    1. Christian,
      Thanks so much for your feedback. I had wondered if those two paragraphs would slow the pace, and now that I am receiving feedback, it is confirming it. I will work on that in my next draft! Thanks!

  4. Christian,

    I like this revision and feel like I am getting a better sense of William’s personality and what is important to him. He wants to know where he came from and is desperate to find out more about the parents he thinks died in the houseboat accident. He seems super smart and I love that he is able to write to Princeton and wants to meet with Einstein.

    Some of the other changes I feel were a little confusing. Based on Wendy’s comments last time, the steampunk era was much earlier, so now that you’ve gone further into the 20th century, there is a strange juxtaposition of feel to the story. I don’t get a sense of the time period being in the 50’s through references to history or even the way William talks. It still feels like it could be from an earlier time. I also thought about William’s comments about the government lady possibly taking him away and found some information that child welfare was not really handled by the government until the 60’s, before that it was mostly through private welfare organizations. That passage might need adjustment to reflect the reality of the time period.

    Lastly, I thought it was neat that he wrote Princeton trying to meet Einstein, I even looked up the date of the first letter and saw it was the date of Einstein’s death! I do think it is distancing for him to write to a university and wondered why not have him write Einstein directly. Lots of children have written famous people in history and it would have a stronger connection if William wrote directly to his hero. Perhaps the response could come back from a family member or his lawyer, again making it more personal.

    Overall, I am still loving the idea of this boy trying to build a time-machine to find his family and want to know more about this visitor.

    1. Lisa,

      Thanks so much for your comments. I pushed the timeline up from 1910s to the 1950s because the steampunk element of the book actually comes in later. William travels to another world, so to speak, and that's when the steampunk comes into play. It's sort of a steampunk Chronicles of Narnia. I just didn't want to push my timeline up to the modern era because it's important that William doesn't have access to modern technology and research capabilities.

      I love your idea about writing to Einstein. I debated back and forth on writing directly to Einstein. I think I'll play around with that idea in the next revision.

      I'm glad you caught that fact about social services. I researched every part of this first chapter, except that part. (I even researched homeschooling laws in Louisiana in 1950). I'll keep that fact in mind in my next revision.
      Thanks for the feedback!

  5. Ah! That makes sense. I do think that being a child of the 50's, even if he really belongs somewhere else, it would be cool to see elements of that in his room. Maybe posters, radios, or other references.

    Or, let us see how he doesn't fit in his time. Maybe he has copies of books by Jules Verne or H.G. Wells sitting on his desk, something that shows his thoughts and interests are out of the mainstream.

    I love where this is heading though!

    1. I really like that idea! There are some things I need to plant with the description of the houseboat, but I didn't know if that would slow down the pace of this first chapter. I definitely have my wheels turning! Thank you for the great ideas!

  6. Christian,

    I just love this story! Great job with your revisions. I really did love the voice you established with the first lines of your first draft about Professor and Mrs. Wimberly. I thought it was going to be very difficult for you to establish another start that immersed us in voice in the same way. However, I really think you did it with the letters. Excellent work! We also get a better sense of who William is this time around from the first several lines. I LOVE his fascination with time machines and Einstein. That immediately characterizes him for the reader. I love his intelligence and boyhood wonder! Your writing in so many awesome ways reminds me of JK Rowling.

    I’m going to list my comments chronologically as I go back through your first 5pgs.

    1. In the letter to Princeton University, I love William’s voice, which you immerse us in immediately. This is VERY nit-picky, but I thought the second paragraph didn’t feel as tight as the others. Perhaps change the sentence structure of the first line? When he says, “I don’t understand time travel yet” it didn’t mesh with the rest of the letter of a kid ambitious enough to write to Princeton to meet Einstein or study there at age 11. Perhaps tweak just a bit to indicate he has really good ideas but a few questions about time travel he can’t figure out. Like I said, very nit-picky.

    2. You do a great job pulling into your setting and describing Uncle William. You have two separate sections of backstory that are stacked back to back. The first is the woman from the government and the second is Uncle William finding floating in the swamp. Either trim the second one out, or have some kind of action between them so they aren’t back to back.

    3. Love the lines about Dock Giffin – really sets up the setting and town nicely.

    4. Again – SO nit-picky: the “half-built time machines covering the floor” was hard for me to picture. I’d imagine they’d have to be quite big, but a house boat is typically small. Perhaps he can have time machine blueprints covering the floor? Or parts of his half-built time machine? Just a thought.

    5. Overall, I just love your writing. I wish I could keep reading this! I want to know who the next letter is from and what it’s about. I’m really excited to read your premise next week.

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  8. Christian, I really like what you've done with the revisions here, especially the letters. They do so much work, not only setting up the premise, but building William's character and getting his voice across. Really well done. I love the timeframe, and the inclusion of Einstein. It makes me wonder if he'll be making an appearance later in the story (when William's made his time machine). That would be so much fun!

    A couple of things to consider when you revise this week:

    Stay aware of and in touch with William's voice, which is so clear in the letter. Even though we're in 3rd person, his voice is still apparent in the story. Keep it consistent and authentic to him.

    When we get to the adoption papers back story, it feels like we lose connection with the present scene. It goes on a bit. I wonder if it can be not only tightened up, but moved to later when Uncle Ed mentions the first letter being strange. The back story can be slipped in right after that, where the line "Uncle Ed must have been thinking about the government lady who came before" is now.

    Uncle Ed then saying another letter arrived felt out of place to me at the end of the pages there. Why wouldn't he mention this when he first enters the cabin? Unless he's forgetful? To me it felt like that would lead their interaction rather than be an afterthought. If you did move it to be what Uncle Ed says when he first enters, think of how that would change the direction of their conversation and how you could weave it into the other information Uncle Ed gives, about the boat and the woman. I think it could the conversation a more organic, natural evolution.

    I'm still wondering about the steampunk aspects of the novel. Can you do anything in the setting to bring that aesthetic out? The line about the time machines on the floor threw me a bit. How big are they? I could see bits and pieces, or gears and gadgets lying around, but to call them time machines seemed a little strange. I think this needs a little more defining.

    Good work this week! I'm looking forward to seeing the next version!