Monday, September 19, 2016

1st 5 Pages September Workshop - Guthrie Rev 2

Name: Melissa Guthrie
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction
Title: The Shadow of Death

The summer of 1863 was a summer of extremes in a country divided. The Shadow of Death focuses on two male characters and their intertwining lives against a backdrop of the American Civil War.
Gabriel Hewitt is an orphan who may have killed his last remaining relative. He is searching for a place to call his own while struggling to hide a mysterious ability, one that threatens his future. His life is complicated by time spent with Henry Clemmons, a boy with dark secrets of his own.
Henry Clemmons is seventeen. He wants to go west in search of his own destiny. He was fifteen when his brother Jacob enlisted and has spent the first two years of the war working both as a store clerk and jack of all trades alongside Gabriel. He has earned a great deal of money while ignoring the demands of his family and those of his friend Anna, whom Jacob promised to marry before he left to fight. When Jacob returns, Anna and Henry’s lives are turned upside down.
This is a story about love and family, and lies. The Shadow of Death is nearly complete at 80,000 words.
Chapter 1
Falmouth, Virginia
June 21, 1863
In the beginning, there was a revolver. It was a beautiful piece of American manufacturing, composed of metal that didn’t show wear, as if it were blessed. It nestled into Ira Wonsettler’s hand and made a home there. A perfect fit.

“Confederate,” Ira said. He was pale, as if all the blood had drained out of him during surgery. His legs were both gone from the knees down. 

Jacob Clemmons leaned his good ear towards Ira. His heart pounded as his mouth went dry. This felt like battle: thick smoke in his eyes as the earth shook beneath his feet.
Outside, voices spoke, their words echoing in Jacob’s mind. He shivered.

“I said, you musta’ stole it from some Reb,” Ira said. He patted Jacob on the shoulder and looked the revolver over. His thumb, stained with dirt and black powder, caressed the back strap of the gun.

“Burial detail,” Jacob said.

The man Jacob had taken the gun from was older than he. By the time he crossed the field with a spade over his shoulder to separate the Union dead from the Confederates and give his men a decent burial, the man’s fingers had been bloated to twice their normal size.

Jacob hadn’t pried the gun from the man’s hands. No, he separated the man’s index finger from his hand with a thrust of his shovel. Bones crunched, satisfying and loud among the moans of the not yet dead.
Only a demon would desecrate the dead like this, but that thought didn’t stop Jacob. He was a demon dressed in blue, same as the man in gray he once stood over in the killing fields Chancellorsville, Virginia. Jacob took the man’s shiny gun. When Ira requested it, Jacob provided.
The voices outside the tent grew louder. Jacob slapped himself in the head. The pain there, it didn’t go away. When he was in camp and all was quiet, his head hurt. He imagined hornets in his mind, chewing on his brain as if it was a rotten apple.
But that was just plain crazy. There were no hornets in his mind.
“What’d you want it for?” Jacob asked.

“My mama,” Ira said, “it’s for my mama.”

Then he placed the revolver between his lips and pulled the trigger.
Jacob hit his knees and screamed until the world went black.
Hewitt Town, Ohio
July 4th, 1863
When Henry Clemmons opened his eyes in a bed that was not his, the first thing he saw were hand hewn beams high above his head. He wondered if he had fallen asleep in a barn, but no. He knew right where he was.
The night before was a blur. There was gin involved.
Whiskey, too.
And possibly dancing.
Henry moaned and covered his eyes.

“Ah,” a voice said. “You’re finally awake.”

On the other side of a doorway, Gabriel Hewitt stood beside a workbench, dressed in the same dark pants he wore the night before. His feet were stained black, his dark hair brown with sawdust. He held a cigarette between the first fingers of his right hand, the scent of tobacco heavy in the air.
Henry climbed from the bed to find his clothes lying haphazardly on a trunk. He slipped a hand into his jacket. The telegram was still there, the paper creased and wrinkled. The news contained within never changed, nor did the feeling that accompanied the news. The telegram remained out of sight and mind until Henry’s hand brushed the paper and he was reminded.
Then, he couldn’t forget.
Next to the clothing was a mug, half-full of something- liquor, hard cider, perhaps even water. It didn’t matter. He drank the contents down and discovered it to be tea made with peppermint and willow bark, meant to take the edge off the headache and nausea that came after a long night of intoxication.
Perhaps Gabriel cared about him, Henry thought. Or, maybe, he just wanted his business partner to be in tip-top condition for their day spent together.
“Did you sleep at all?” Henry asked. He pulled his drawers on, and looked up to see Gabriel watching, a smirk on his lips.  

Gabriel sipped from the tin mug that seemed permanently affixed to his right hand, and swayed a bit with exhaustion. He glanced around the workshop, shocked to see that the sun had risen.
“The Welk baby died late last night,” Gabriel said. “I wanted to get a start on things. This week might be busy…”
Henry eyed his jacket again. “So you didn’t sleep?”
Gabriel rubbed his forehead with the same hand that held the cigarette and shrugged. He yawned and braced a hand on the work bench, his light eyes flickering closed. Henry knew men who smoked pipes and cigars on an hourly basis but Gabriel wasn’t one of them, or hadn’t been before this week.
“Just pull yourself together and eat something for breakfast. The Widow up the way sent biscuits and I found some berries,” Gabriel said. The hand that held the cigarette gestured to the far corner of the workshop which held the makings of a kitchen. It was little more than mismatched cabinets and a woodstove, but it was where Gabriel prepared his meals.
Henry cleared his throat, as if just the thought of the widow’s dry, crumbling biscuits were enough to make swallowing a chore. Gabriel brought the old woman meat and provisions from town. She repaid his efforts with baked goods best suited as doorstops and called it kindness.

“You really want me to eat, don’t you?” Henry asked.

“I can’t have you wasting away.”

“What’s the catch?”

“The Welk baby died last night,” Gabriel said, again, “and we have to go get measurements.”

Henry looked around the shop, at the stacks of wood, all projects half finished.
A coffin made of hickory wood leaned against the wall closest to the door, a simple cross carved into the lid. A brass name plaque nailed beneath the cross awaited an engraving. Gabriel had finished the coffin at close to midnight the night before, just as Henry arrived.
Henry’s palms went sweaty. He was no stranger to death- it lurked in the shadows of his mother’s home. Death was sudden and unexpected even to people who knew they were on its doorstep. It made hands cold and joints stiff even during the heat of summer. Death changed a human being from the moment it first stole across their eyes.
“Yes, we,” Gabriel said. He drank the last of his coffee and flung the tin cup towards the kitchen. The cup rang against the floor, and sent a jolt of pain through Henry’s mind. He crossed the room to retrieve the cup.
“You’re certain you need my help with this one?” Henry asked. He poured some black coffee into the same cup Gabriel drank from and added a measure of goat’s milk. There was no sugar; there hadn’t been white sugar in over a year. Gabriel struck a match and lit another cigarette hands cupped around the flame. Two fires burned, briefly, in his eyes. “It’s just a baby.”
“Just a baby, yes,” Gabriel said, without removing the cigarette, his talent with his lips undeniable. Henry blushed at the thought. “Generally, when a baby is dead, it doesn’t come back to life. Of course, there are some cases, in which…”
Henry’s eyes widened as the creamy milk floated to the surface of his coffee.


  1. Hi Melissa,
    I loved this – it’s definitely the kind of book that I would like to read. Historical with a hint of the supernatural – yes please! I have to commend you on such an authoritative creation of your time and place – I am completely absorbed in your setting. Your descriptions are lyrical and highly effective.

    The query reads well to me – although I am confused as to who your main character is. I'm not sure about having two - in a 3rd person narrative. Also if Henry and Gabriel are the MCs - why start with Jacob?

    I have 2 concerns about your opening – I’m still not convinced that this story is YA. Certainly Jacob comes across as old and weary in your opening – maybe the war has stolen his youth – but from a reader’s perspective that has already happened and therefore he’s effectively too old for a YA MC. Is there a reason for writing YA rather than Adult Historical? Nothing about your language/ tone says YA to me either. I hope I’m not being too blunt – because I love your writing – I personally think you have the wrong readership in mind though.

    In the opening section:
    ‘Jacob Clemmons leaned his good ear towards Ira. His heart pounded as his mouth went dry. This felt like battle: thick smoke in his eyes as the earth shook beneath his feet.

    Outside, voices spoke, their words echoing in Jacob’s mind. He shivered.

    “I said, you musta’ stole it from some Reb,” Ira said. He patted Jacob on the shoulder and looked the revolver over. His thumb, stained with dirt and black powder, caressed the back strap of the gun.’

    The middle paragraph about the voices doesn’t work - as Jacob would be too busy to hear voices. He’s leaning over Ira and his heart is pounding. That’s effective detail from your first paragraph – the extra line about the outside is jarring. It’s too much information for the reader and not credible. The human mind can only process so much – Jacob is occupied - waiting for Ira to speak/ he’s physically very close to a dying man/ he has the echoes of the battle/ smoke in the eyes/ a pounding heart/ a dry mouth. That’s a lot going on already AND then you add in hearing voices from outside – and he hears them so clearly that they echo? Beautiful writing but, for me, sometimes you over-load on the details.

    My other concern is that I’m still not completely clear on your set up. Having read the query, I think that you’ve got a lot going on! I would be inclined to show the connection between the two stories more clearly. Also in the main narrative with Gabriel and Henry – you need to decide on your focus. Who is the main character?

    Although, I think more revision is needed – I do believe that you’re a brilliant writer Melissa. And I look forward to seeing your name on a book one day! Good luck Ro

    1. Hello! I will not say a whole lot. Henry is 17, and Gabriel is a little older than him, not by much. I want it to be YA based on what Henry has to deal with over the course of the story. As mature as he acts he has a lot of growing to do. As for the query, I held a lot back. Thank you so much for your feedback. I joined the Facebook group and it would be great to keep in contact.

  2. Very strong writing, very vivid. I like how you've tweaked the beginning. Great setting of time/place. I'm not sure why he says "It's for mama" - will that be made more clear later? When i read it - as a reader - my mind wants to know Why?

    I like the second section as well, but I think the firs section - so strong and vivid and gritty - sets a high bar that the second section doesn't quite live up to.

    Altogether, very compelling story.

    1. Thank you! I like the mixed opinions on the suicide. I actually debated putting it in vs. keeping it out. I will have to see how further revisions treat it.

  3. Very strong writing, very vivid. I like how you've tweaked the beginning. Great setting of time/place. I'm not sure why he says "It's for mama" - will that be made more clear later? When i read it - as a reader - my mind wants to know Why?

    I like the second section as well, but I think the firs section - so strong and vivid and gritty - sets a high bar that the second section doesn't quite live up to.

    Altogether, very compelling story.

  4. Hey Melissa -Thanks for sharing this and taking my comments.

    You've packed a lot of information into these two scenes, and my understanding is fans of historical fiction relish historical details. For me, I could stand less information to move through the scene more quickly. Just an example of what might be eliminated, "It was little more than mismatched cabinets and a woodstove, but it was where Gabriel prepared his meals." If you want me to know about the kitchen, by all means tell me - it's just an example.

    On the flip side, I do like the moments of direct telling as a contrast. "The night before was a blur. There was gin involved."

    Otherwise, I'm troubled by the two separate scenes and I don't know who the main character is - we seem to have three, almost four except one is now dead, equal partners. (I would have guessed Jacob and Henry are the primary characters from reading.) One thought is to open with the scene with your main character and gradually bring in the information from the other scene.

    I feel set up that the revolver is very important. If so, I wonder if you might give details to show it's beauty rather than telling us it is beautiful. If the revolver is not significant, consider cutting the first paragraph.



    1. Thank you for leaving the comments. Historical fiction is tough because it is a choice between putting too much detail in vs. not enough. I said above that I debated putting the suicide in but I took this workshop as this being my first five pages so I left it in. Because of you, I may try the second scene from another POV.... eventually. I want to let these pages sit a bit. As I told Ro I did join the Facebook group and would be happy to keep in contact. Best of luck!

  5. Hi Melissa,

    I really enjoyed reading THE SHADOW DEATH and thought there was a lot to recommend. The setting of the American Civil War is a really intriguing backdrop and I thought your pitch was interesting, although I wasn’t clear exactly what your story is actually going to be about. I think you can strip back the backstory and make it much more like you would expect to have as a blurb on the back of a book. I wanted to know what the hook is and what journey we will be taken on (why we want to read it) rather than who your characters are quite so much.

    Your description is really lovely and I thought the second POV is incredibly strong. In your first section I thought the part where you say ‘same as the main in gray’ needs more clarification as this felt jarring to me and I wasn’t really sure what you were implying. I loved the sinister ending of that section though with him placing the revolver between his lips. I also wondered in terms of POV whether this is more of a prologue? It's hard to tell on this small amount of text though.

    My only other concern with it is that from this small section I didn’t think it felt distinctly YA and perhaps establishing a couple of your main characters’ rough ages would help with setting that tone.

    Overall though I thought this was really strong and a very intriguing first five pages.

    All best,

    1. Hello, Sarah! This story actually takes place in and around my hometown and was inspired by my own research into my family history. I am glad you liked the pitch. It was hard to really explain everything within 200 words so I did keep some stuff out, however, I also know I need to sharpen some things a bit.

      The first section can be seen as more of a prologue, however in everything I have read I've been told that prologues are bad for established authors which leaves me with quite the predicament.

      As for it being YA, that is something I do struggle with: writing a book for young adults with difficult subject matter. Henry deals with a lot, and Gabriel to, and I do believe that their stories are ones that should be told, so I'll keep working on it.

      Thank you so much for your comments and guidance!

  6. Hi Melissa,

    I wondered why they waited until the third week to have us include our pitches, but now I see why. Your pitch totally changed who I thought the MC's are. From the first five pages, I thought this story was going to be about two brothers, Jacob and Henry, with Gabriel being a secondary character. You say how old Henry is, but I can only guess that Jacob and Gabriel are older. I thought Henry was older because of the reference to all night drinking, but I forget that teenagers took on a much more adult role during the Civil War. Anyway, others have made good suggestions for you for revising your pitch.

    In the first section of the chapter, I don't think you did as good of a job putting us in the setting. We don't know they are in a hospital tent or that Ira is lying in bed except for the mention of his surgery. "His legs were both gone from the knees down". You are telling us Ira's condition, and I thought it was much more powerful to show us when Jacob sat down on the bed where Ira's legs should have been. I get that you are trying to show us that Jacob is going through some PTSD with the pounding heart and such, but it just struck me as odd that he would be experiencing all that from just having a conversation with Ira. I would like to know a little more about their relationship and why Jacob would go out to the battlefield looking for a gun just because Ira asked him to.

    The second section has a much better opening than before, sets the scene better. I like your expansion of detail involving the telegram. It makes me even more curious as to what is in it. You have established Gabriel's and Henry's relationship as "business partners", but your pitch and Henry blushing at the thought of Gabriel's lips makes me think there is more to it than that. I suppose I would have to read more to find out! You took out Henry asking "We?" when Gabriel told him about the Welk baby, so Gabriel's response of "Yes, we" doesn't make sense. Your ending also seems rather vague. I know you want to create a hook, but it sounds like Henry's eyes widen at the sight of creamy milk floating to the top of his coffee, and I have to ask "Why"?

    I know I'm being nit-picky, but turn about is fair play! :-) Seriously, you are an excellent writer and have a lot of things going on in this story. I'm sure you will take everyone's suggestions and weigh them against your own desires and complete a wonderful project!

    1. Hello, Kathie. Fantastic reader that you are. Nit pick all you want. I hope I never came across as nit picky. I just felt like my first critiques were lacking so I tried to give more feedback. I know I need to sharpen who the MCs are. The problem was it was Henry's show and then Gabriel got so much more interesting. I am beyond excited about all that happens in this. Thank you for liking the story/ calling me excellent. I have been working at writing for so long. I try my best and I am constantly trying to learn/ improve as we all do.

      As for Henry's eyes widening, he has his reasons.

      Best of luck with your story. It would be lovely to stay in contact. I joined the Facebook group so perhaps I will talk to you there.

  7. Your pitch needs clearer stakes and what choice the boys face. What are the consequences if they don't get what they want or what they're working for? Avoid general language like "Change lives forever." Be sure your language is as specific as possible.

    I wish we spent longer with one scene. We jump so quickly between the two it's hard to get rooted in either. Maybe try lingering in that first location and with those characters longer. Give your readers a chance to get their legs in your world.

    Good luck!

    1. Thank you, Mackenzie! I have ideas and plans for where to go next with this. This would be the third/ fourth draft of all of this, and the plan is to finish it all (i have another chapter or two to write) and then go from there. Finding feedback is the most challenging part of what I do which is why I was thrilled to get into this workshop and even happier to find out that you would be a mentor. Your book is sitting on a shelf staring at me. I love the concept of This Monstrous Thing and I need to read it like NOW. I also look forward to what comes next for you. Your next book sounds like it is right up my alley (I am all about boys fighting their feelings) so best of luck in all you do!

  8. MELISSA!!! You did SUCH a great job on this revision! It's crisp and clean and so, SO intriguing! I am SO proud of you! FABULOUS JOB!!