Sunday, July 3, 2016

1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Ratcliffe

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

October 18, Our Year of 1901

Professor and Mrs. Wimberly of Port Bayou were unprepared for the urgent telegram they received on the night of their son’s first birthday. Professor Wimberly read the telegram and announced that the Wimberly family must leave for the border of Ventoria. The matter was grievous.

Mrs. Wimberly, who had been playing paper dolls with her two daughters, ushered her children into the care of the nursemaid, and then, in a flurry of suit coats and bowler hats, ladies flowered dresses and puffy sunbonnets, Mrs. Wimberly packed her and her husband’s bags, not forgetting a single item. All the while, the servants dashed about locking the valuables, throwing sheets over the furniture, and preparing the Wimberly house for a long slumber.

Often, Mrs. Wimberly would remember an important chore and would grab the closest servant: ‘don’t forget to close the shades’ and ‘roll the rugs or they will ruin and ‘pack the lineage papers in the Cypress chests’. It wasn’t that her servants were incapable - heaven knows, she interviewed each of them at least thrice! - but she believed they wouldn’t remember the important chores if she didn’t remind them.

Up two flights of stairs, the Wimberly nursemaid, newly hired and her face every bit as red as her hair, had been directed to pack the children’s bags, which she felt to be an overwhelming task. She had never been in the Wimberly House before tonight let alone laid eyes upon the children, and for shame, Mrs. Wimberly had hardly given her time to get her bearings before ordering her to pack the bags and watch the children, too. Mrs. Wimberly ought to be the one packing the bags. The flustered nursemaid barely paid attention to what she packed. Four travel cases later stuffed with three mismatched stockings, ten pairs of shoes, and five stuffed animals, the nursemaid had finished packing.

Near the stroke of seven, Professor Wimberly shouted to the house that it was time to leave. The nursemaid led the girls down a narrow servant’s staircase, and, at the second-floor landing, the nursemaid smacked into a young man - a servant she supposed - with nervous gray eyes. The man carried a large carpet bag that seemed to move on its own accord. When the bag shook, the nursemaid tried to peer inside, but the man clutched it close and ran down the stairs. She had managed to catch a glimpse of a blue book and something silver. It only occurred to the nursemaid after the man had gone a good way down the stairs that he most likely wasn’t a servant nor borrowing those items. Being as Professor and Mrs. Wimberly were leaving without a date of return, the nursemaid saw no use in trying to stop the thief. The Wimberly’s wouldn’t miss what they didn’t know had disappeared.

Outside the Wimberly house, the nursemaid watched as Professor Wimberly cranked the engine to his three-storied steam carriage, and Mrs. Wimberly loaded travel cases and boxes into the second floor. Mrs. Wimberly paused long enough to lean out the window and call to her husband. “Sam! The book?”

“Hidden.” Professor Wimberly replied.

With both the Wimberly’s too busy to load their children in the carriage, the nursemaid bundled the Wimberly daughters into their third-floor beds. Unsure what to say to such little humans, she pressed two fingers to their foreheads, reminded them to be ‘only a little naughty’, and then descended back down the ladder to join the other servants.

Mr. Wimberly shouted goodbye, shifted the steam carriage into motion, and sped past the protection of the oak lined driveway. As the last light of dusk disappeared, the nursemaid promised herself that she would never again be a nursemaid. She left the Wimberly house once and for all, not even bothering to leave a note of resignation. As she walked home from her previous post, the nursemaid had an inkling that something lay forgotten, though she had no desire to find out what.

Indeed, the Wimberly’s and the nursemaid had forgotten something quite priceless. In all the hubbub of the telegram and the packing, the Wimberly’s littlest child, beribboned and festooned for his birthday party, patiently waited on the dining room carpet, forgotten by all.

April 18, Our Year of 1911

William Kelley stared at the ceiling of Uncle Ed’s houseboat, waiting for 8:22 in the morning to arrive. A mysterious visitor would arrive in only a few hours, and he had been unable to sleep from the suspense. He had watched the colors of the night change from midnight blue to deep purple and now a shade of lavender.

One week earlier, a telegram arrived, addressed to William; all it said was ‘Visitor. 4/18. 8:22’. William didn’t know who would want to visit him, but his imagination had plenty of ideas, and, as the week wore on, each possibility became more preposterous than the next. Part of him hoped he had been accepted to a secret society of inventors destined to save the world from an earth eating machine. Another part of him had fully convinced himself that Wilbur and Orville Wright had accepted him as their new apprentice.

A secret part of William whispered that his parents had found him after all these years, but he tried to quiet that whisper, pretend he didn’t hear it. He didn’t want to be disappointed. It was better not to hope at all. Uncle Ed would tell him to keep hoping, but Uncle Ed didn’t keep getting aches in his heart, either.

A loud stomping of boots came from the front porch, and Uncle Ed opened 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 slate colored Great Dane, jumped around the front porch, trying to lick a butterfly. William pushed away any thoughts about his parents.

“That dog near scared all the fish and frogs outta the swamp. The water’d 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. His sleeves were rolled above his elbows, showing all his tattoos, several of them a bit faded. “I managed to get a few frogs, though. Took ‘em to Dock Giffin.”

Uncle Ed whistled, and Troubles bounced into the room, his legs sliding underneath him and his ears flopping. Troubles was caked in mud, and his tongue hung out. He shook his body, scattering dirt, and pounced on top of William to give him a slimy lick. William laughed and pushed Troubles off him. Uncle Ed had given Troubles to William only a few months before as a birthday gift, but Troubles still thought of himself as a tiny pup.

“Dock said there’s a new houseboat. Came in yesterd’y eve.”

“What?” William hopped up from the sofa where he slept and navigated around his half-built inventions covering the floor. He pressed his face to the window and peered down both sides of the dock looking for a new houseboat, but all the boats were old and familiar. “Do you think it’s the person who sent the telegram?”

“Don’t rightly know.” Uncle Ed scratched his chin and shook his head. “But, it just don’t seem usual, sending a telegram like that.”


  1. I've never read Steampunk so thank you for the intro since it has always been something I've wanted to read. I enjoyed how your dialog represents each character well already.

    I'm curious to see how chapters 1&2 relate to each other as the story goes on:)

    1. Thanks Christian! I'm really glad to hear that about the dialogue because I feel that is the one piece I have been beating myself over the head with to try and get right.

  2. I'm not sure what caused the blanks in my submission (it may be a Scrivner to email coding issue). I listed below the missing words for clarification.
    1. October 18
    2. June 19
    3. 8:22
    4. Royal
    5. 8:22

    1. Ah that makes sense now! I just thought it was very cryptic.

  3. Christian,

    I enjoyed reading the 1st 5 pages of Blackwood’s Swamp – great title by the way. I’ve never read steampunk, but I am familiar with basics of the genre. My critique, this round, is going use the questions that Martina has posted in the “How to Read the 1st 5” tab to give specific feedback, but I’ll also provide a general/overall take on what I’ve read.

    Specific Feedback:

    You do a good job creating a unique world and setting in the first few pages. You don’t rely heavily on setting description, which is good, but you do provide enough details to give me an idea. In my mind, I pictured steampunk Downton Abbey.

    Your characters are unique. I do wonder about the Wimberly nursemaid. Her name? Will she come back? She seems important. And the “gray-eyed” thief – good setup. I assume that the WImberly’s forgotten child is William Kelley. One suggestion (take or leave any of them) is to make this revelation (whether I am right or wrong) either more hidden or more visible. If it’s a surprise, hide it. If it’s supposed to be obvious, state it.

    Your voice, and the voice of your characters, is perfect! In just a few pages, you demonstrate characterization through your voice. It sounds authentic without being difficult to read or understand. Very nice.

    I like the initial chapter setup, and I want to know if we jump permanently to 1911 or if we go back. I don’t get the blanks in the MS…maybe a formatting issue. If not, help your reader understand.

    You do a good job with different areas of balance. You balance dialogue, narrative, and action well. You gave enough mystery and suspense to keep me reading but enough clues to let me know the thief, the book, and the missing child are important.

    I assume that William is the main character, and you do a great job with characterization in a very short time. I LOVE the line about the Wright brothers. I did not understand the earth-eating machine reference. Is this a future plot point?

    General feedback:

    I would absolutely read this book. I want to find out if William is the abandoned child. I love your voice and the mysterious tone of the story. As for areas of improvement, I found Uncle Ed’s dialect slowed me down and drew me out of the story. Instead of “yesterd’y eve” I think “yesterday eve” works just as well and doesn’t slow or confuse your reader – especially middle grade readers.

    1. Thank you so much for your feedback! It has given me a lot to think over! I like the steampunk Downton Abbey. That is sort of what I have in my head (except a Southern U.S. twist to it).

      I've debated with myself numerous times on how obvious or hidden I want to make that. I think with the comments I have read in this combined, I will more than likely make this more hidden.

      Those lines in the post seem to be some sort of formatting issue. Definitely don't try to find a hidden message there, ha! You'll never find one. Though, if I did do that, it would make this book more like the Mysterious Benedict Society.

      I appreciate all your feedback! It has been very helpful!

  4. Christian,

    The unusual voice of your first chapter pulled me in and definitely setup the time period and mood of your story. The omniscient narrator gave me a view of all of the important characters and a little of their thoughts. It felt a little cinematic as it swung around to focus first on the parents, then the nursemaid, then the little baby left in the dining room. I liked that you zoomed closer in the next chapter to focus on now 10-year-old William.

    The first chapter didn’t read like a prologue to me, even though there was a 10 year time jump, and I felt it set up important questions and details the reader will learn more about later (hopefully!). Both William’s parents and now he have received mysterious telegrams. Are they connected?

    I wanted to know more about where William was in the present. He obviously was taken in by his uncle and lives on a houseboat somewhere. Why is his last name Kelly instead of Wimberly? I wonder about what has changed in his circumstances. His parents were well-off, but I wonder what happened to that wealth and what has his upbringing been like. He believes his parents may be alive, since he imagines they could be the visitors. What does he know about the night he was left behind? I also wanted to know a little more about what William’s goals and conflicts are. He invents and I wonder if that is a connection to his parents.

    Lastly, as much as I like the first chapter, I would say the language could be tightened to be less wordy. There is a lot formality and repetition with the family’s name and some of the description of the hustle around the house. I think you could also pull back on more archaic words like “thrice” that might give pause to a middle grade reader and still keep the voice you want.

    1. Lisa,
      Thank you so much for your comment! I was concerned that that first chapter had too much going on. I will definitely edit that to be less cinematic and feeling as if it is swinging from one place to the other. I think in the next round, based on other helpful comments, that I am going to leave the prologue out (but still keep it just in case it comes in handy later). I will work on some of the wordiness and redundancy.

      The two telegrams are connected! And that first chapter sets up a lot of details that will be uncovered later (or at least their meanings).

      I am so glad that you caught his name was Kelley instead of Wimberly! Uncle Ed is not William's real uncle. I have that later in the manuscript, but this made me realize it is too late in the manuscript and I need to pull it in sooner.

      I will try to work in more of his motivation, but you are on track, it does have to do with his family, and also for reasons William can't explain himself, he can't help but tinker on a machine. He's just drawn to the machines.

      Again, thank you for your suggestions!

  5. Christian! So glad to meet a fellow steampunk writer! We are few and far between so I always love myself a good steampunk novel.

    I have a lot of thoughts on your piece. I'll start off with the good things. I do love the voice of your middle grader. He's smart and witty. I especially love that he's an inventor. Your writing is flawless. I'm a critical editor and I found no fault in your writing. I do think it might be too advanced for middle grade and actually would recommend you consider pushing this up to young adult because of the language you use. I think you could still pull off the story and even add an element of coming of age. I do wonder why the parents left him and never came back. Seems like any loving parent would track him down and if put in the uncle's care, they'd no where he's at. But I'm guessing that maybe there's a back story to it that we have yet to see.

    Things I'd change (which some are a must and others are up to you). Your timeline is waaayyyy off. Steampunk takes place during the Victorian era (when Queen Victoria was alive) which ended in 1901. Typically, steampunk is usually considered early to mid 1800's but you can sometimes get away with late 1800's. By the time you hit the 1900's you're starting to delve into modern society. For example, the telephone was invented in 1876. By the time the 1900's rolled in you'll see less use of the telegram and telegraph. Also, ten years have gone by since the boy was abandoned. I'm curious how old this child is. I'm guessing anywhere between 12-15, which will push you toward a young adult audience.

    The first part did read as a prologue to me. These days as a debut author I think it's harder to sell with a prologue. Most editors/agents will tell you to take that back story and weave it into the main story itself. I do think that first bit is important because it is telling about who William is and where he's coming from, but for the sake of selling your manuscript, I'd consider rewriting with the backstory interwoven. Don't ditch this version, but have a backup just in case.

    The other thing about the opening chapter is that it's not middle grade. It's very adult in both language and perspective. When you're looking a piece through the eyes of a ten-year-old, this point of view is very grown up. I think this is going to hurt you if your trying to pitch it as middle grade when the agents are looking for your first five pages. They're looking voice, inciting incident, etc in those pages and you've just used two and half of them telling back story from an adult point of view.

    Overall, this is by far one of the best First Five Pages I've read. I think you have a solid story here and with some tweaking it could be something spectacular.

    Looking forward to seeing more from you!

    1. Wendy,
      Again, thanks for all your help! And the chat today! You have given me a lot to munch on and given me some great brainstorming ideas!
      I can't wait till my next revision!

  6. Hi Christian. I love steampunk and I really like your imagining of steampunk bayou culture. What a great idea! In each section, your use of voice in both the narrative and with the characters is strong. I also like the amount of anticipation and movement in each section. The mention of the book has my interest piqued, and I love the mention of the Wright Brothers. It made me wonder if William is an inventor, which instantly endeared him to me.

    When I got to the nursemaid in the first section, I immediately thought she should be your POV character (still in third, but seeing the happenings through her lens), since she is new to the situation and much of the action involves her. But then I got to the end with the boy who was left behind, and I wondered what that section might be like told through his lens. It doesn't say how old he is, but if he's old enough to make some sense of what's going on or to at least be able to convey what's happening (who says what, etc.) it could be a really interesting read. Especially if at the end he's then alone, and we experience that through his lens as well. I would argue against using omniscient POV for a middle grade book. Not only can it be difficult to pull off, it can be off-putting to your reader. In my opinion, it's safer to stick with one character to take the reader through the chapter (or book).

    The second section felt a lot more grounded to me because it sticks with William. The contrast between the two sections is striking. It almost makes the first chapter feel like a prologue. Switching to a focal character's POV might change that.

    I like Uncle Ed and Troubles -- both are larger than life and I can immediately envision them -- but I wanted to get to the dialogue and the meat of the second section sooner. Since William is waiting in anticipation, I would think as soon as Uncle Ed enters the scene, William would be up and asking about the houseboat. Or at least be engaged. His inaction while Uncle Ed and Troubles enters felt inconsistent with what was said about him at the beginning. He almost came across as bored or despondent. If Uncle Ed said his line about the houseboat sooner, you can get William active in the scene sooner, while still letting Troubles romp around and get all of the other information in there. Just something to consider.

    I'm guessing William is the child left behind in the first section. That also makes me immediately like him and have sympathy for him. It also makes me want to argue that he should be the POV in that first section. You might consider holding off the info in the second section about him hoping his family is alive, to delay the revelation of who William is. You can stretch that out a bit, giving your reader hints here and there, if you want to build up their anticipation more. You can have a lot of fun with the reveal that way, as well. Writing is all about anticipation and surprise.

    I'm hoping the next thing that happens is William going out to find out who the houseboat belongs to. Since he's our protagonist, make sure he has agency in the story. It's best for him to be involved and discovering information on his own rather than being told by others. I think that's especially true in a middle grade book.

    Lastly, I would love to see more steampunk features in here, especially in the second section. Play more with the setting, getting those unique details in there. I'd love to feel I'm actually on a steampunk houseboat in the bayou!

    Overall, I think this is really imaginative. It raised a lot of questions in my mind and I'm curious to see what happens next. Nice work!

    1. Amy,
      Thank you so much for your thoughts and suggestions! I absolutely agree with you on William seeming too bored or despondent. I should have caught that earlier! I already have a fix for it in my mind.

      I think based off yours and Wendy's comments, that I am going to leave the prologue out for the next revision. William is 1 in the first prologue. Unfortunately, he can't be older because its important that he doesn't remember anything of the house, the world, or Uncle Ed. They all end up being vital plot points later in the book.

      The steampunk element comes in later in the book (William travels to another world - sort of a steampunk Chronicles of Narnia).

      Thank you for all your feedback. I have some wonderful ideas to brainstorm on over the next couple of days!

  7. Dear Christian,

    This is really solid writing! Your voice leaps off of the page. I love the urgent nature of the Wimberlys (great name!) leaving in the beginning and leaving behind who I assume is your MC. I love the connections between your first and second chapters. I love that they both get mysterious telegrams. I love your character building for William with his half-built inventions and desire to meet Wilbur and Orville Wright. I also love your character building for Uncle Ed. So many great things about this submission!!

    Things to consider: Can you give the nursemaid a name? You might have a reason for hiding it or not giving her one, but if we see her POV, I feel like she might need a name. Definitely not a deal-breaker – just a thought. Also, some of your words and sentence structure felt older than middle grade. This sentence for example (which I LOVED!!) might be reworded: “Mrs. Wimberly, who had been playing paper dolls with her two daughters, ushered her children into the care of the nursemaid, and then, in a flurry of suit coats and bowler hats, ladies flowered dresses and puffy sunbonnets, Mrs. Wimberly packed her and her husband’s bags, not forgetting a single item.” I wondered if simplifying it to “suit coats, bowler hats, ladies flowered dresses and puffy sunbonnets” might be better for MG. That said, I LOVE the voice and the writing the way you have it. I can just see some of your sentences tripping up an MG audience.

    I’m looking forward to reading this again – you’re clearly a talented writer!

    1. Kim,

      Thanks so much for your thoughts and comments. You're right about the sentence structure and length. I will rework that in my next revision. You have definitely given me something to think about with the Nursemaid's name. Part of me refrained from giving her name because I didn't want it to seem like she was the MC, but also she becomes important later in the story and I wanted to cloak her identity. That may not be necessary though. I will have to think this over.

      I think you and every other person are talented, too! I am so excited to have participated in this contest and gotten to read y'alls works. It has been so much fun!

  8. Hello Christian,

    My apologies for a belated response! I was caught at book club later than expected last night.

    First let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed this selection. I would have absolutely no qualms about reading further. Your world is interesting, your characters engaging, and the voice sweeps the reader straight into the story.

    I did find the opening a bit disorienting, as I waited to find out whose point of view we were following. If this is treated as a prologue, the confusion will be diminished as prologues are often in 3rd person omniscient. In terms of prologues, this one is very successful in its voice and brevity. These days, we're seeing very creative formatting in MG, so I think there's no reason to shift POVs in the opening. I liked the surprise tie in to the baby at the end.

    From there, your story is easy to follow, although there are some word choices here and there that might be offputting to a middle grade reader. I think it's fine and necessary to challenge a reader with tough vocabulary, but words like "preposterous," while completely endearing, could be simplified here and there. I recommend reading your work aloud. If your tongue stumbles, your reader will as well.

    Similar streamlining of dialogue would also be helpful to encourage ease of reading, rhythm and pace.

    I look forward to seeing your revision. This sample is already well on its way to being a great read!

    Melanie Conklin
    First Five mentor

    1. Melanie,
      No worries at all! I just really appreciate y'all taking the time out of your busy schedules to provide feedback and mentor us!

      You have provided some wonderful feedback, and hopefully my next revision will be better. Thanks again :)