Sunday, September 4, 2016

1st 5 Pages September Workshop - Heartford

Name: Romany Heartford
Genre: Middle Grade - Historical
Title: Devil’s Born
 
Chapter 1
 
Dusk crept beside Will, stretching his shadow where it fell on the path. He raked over the skin at his neck with his fingernails while his father urged him onward. The beat of his heart quickened with the hoot of an owl and he gripped hold of his cloak, bunching its roughness within his fists.
 
“How much further?” he said.
 
“You spend too much time at your mother’s skirts, boy,” his father replied: “I’ll not be nagged by you as well.”
 
“But…”
 
“Say no more. Your brother has the sickness and there’s nothing else that could be done.”
 
Footsteps fell behind them, fast and hard, causing a tightness to pull at Will’s throat. He forced moisture into his mouth.
 
“Dad?”
 
“Keep your head down.”
 
As the stranger’s step drew closer, terror struggled within Will’s gut and he forgot the art of placing one foot before the other. His hand clawed at the air until his father grasped hold of it, urging him onward. The footsteps came to a stop beside them.
 
“Hot day.”
 
The young man’s chest looked damp under the open laces of his shirt. He offered them a nod while his breath hissed in the whistle of a tune. If he noticed the boy bundled in a cloak, cringing next to his father amid the heat, he made no sign of it. He cut in front of them, passing on toward the tavern.
 
“See.” Will’s father nudged him through the falling darkness. “Safe in our beds before we know it.”
 
Sweat thickened at each bone connecting Will’s neck to his backside and the folds of his cloak rubbed against them. He rolled his shoulders backwards, trying to relieve the itch. But nothing he tried provided any relief. He glanced at his father, allowing himself to think that maybe soon they would be safe after all. Head and shoulders above him, his father’s gaze was set in the distance. And so sure that it would go unnoticed, Will lowered the folds of the hood; his lips parting with the trickle of air as it darted about his face.
 
Night’s darkness gathered, until even moonlight was shut out in places where the overhanging rooftops of opposite houses touched. They paused below the flame of a street lamp so that his father could light the torch he’d been carrying and hold it high, to guide their way.
 
“Zounds!” His father’s eyes swept from the path to his son and back again. “What did we tell you?” And he lunged forward to clip Will about his ear. “Get your hood up boy.”
 
“But it’s grown dark and that man…”
 
“You think because one man didn’t notice that you can show yourself off? You know what happens when people see it and start blaming you for things. I never took you for a fool.”
 
“I’m sorry.”
 
“Unless you want to be in hiding all your life boy – you’ll keep yourself covered.”
 
Will dragged the heavy wool back over his face, the weight of his heart growing heavier with it.
 
“Come on.”
 
His hand rubbed at his ear where his father had twisted it while rats scratched deep between the cracks of houses at their approach. The scuttle of their paws mixed with a whine, from a stray dog and shouts from the tavern on the corner. Will glared at his father’s back, knowing well why he wanted him to conceal his face. He didn’t want to have to hide at home but that didn’t stop him from hating the cloak, under the suffocating heat. Just thinking about things, sent his hand in through the hood to stroke across the web of ulcerated skin that distorted the left side of his face, stretching from the side of his nose all the way to his ear hole. He chewed at his inside cheek. When the goodwife who birthed him had first seen it, she’d offered to take the baby William down to the river and drown him as a favour to his mother. He sighed, not understanding why people were afraid; although, he wished he could be rid of the thing.
 
“Watch out!”
 
A hiss of falling liquid accompanied the cry from the window above their heads.
 
“God’s tooth!”
 
Will leapt sideways but the day’s distractions had slowed his wits and the contents of the chamber pot splattered over the ground, spraying his boots.
 
“Zounds!” Will recoiled at the salty stench of urine.
 
“Language son.” His father held his torch arm straight ahead, causing his shadow to flicker over the ground, near enough as wide as it was long: “Now don’t look like that,” he said, the previous sternness leaving his face as he tried to suppress a chuckle. “It’s not so bad.”
 
“It is.” Will squirmed while the wet spread through the leather of his boots, and seeped between his toes. He groaned to himself because it was still a long walk home before he could hang his boots to dry before the fire. “It’s very bad.”
 
“It could have been worse.”
 
Will snorted.
 
“Think about it. There could have been floaters in there as well;” his dad nudged him. “Besides there’s some that say it’s good luck.”
 
“That’s even more stupid than when they say that things are bad luck.”
 
As he scuffed his feet out from the puddle, Will subconsciously passed a hand inside his hood to touch again the raised distortion of skin that marked his face. The swollen, rough, red lumps and ridges prickled beneath his fingertips. Sensing his father’s raised eyebrow he snatched his hand away.
 
“How can I live a normal life with this thing on my face? No one will come near me.”
 
“Self-pity is not the answer, son.”
 
“What is then?”
 
“I trust in God that one day you might find it.” Will didn’t notice that his father struggled to meet his gaze as though he himself was not convinced of God’s rescue.
 
“You always said it wasn’t possible.” Will’s throat grew tight at the thought: “to remove this thing from my face.”
 
“Heaven knows your mother and I have tried. But who am I to say what’s possible or not.”
 
And although they’d had this conversation before, Will couldn’t help but raise his face to his dad, hope swimming through his eyes. The church bell tolled the hour of nine and before there was chance to talk further, his father began to hurry onward; candle flames guttering over window sills to make gruesome shadows shift and sway along the path.
 
“It’s late;” his father said under his breath: “I promised your mother we’d be home by now.”
 
Will vowed to himself as they turned the corner past the tavern, feet squelching in the blackness, that one day he would find a way to make his face normal. When just before the turning to their road, his father reached out to bring them to a halt.
 
“What dad? What is it?”
 
He strained his ears to catch the clatter of sound building from back behind the bend in the road. A steady swell of horse’s hooves and stamping feet.
 
“Shhh.”
 
His father pressed his finger to his lips before crouching, to roll his torch beneath his boot and extinguish their light. The beat of Will’s heart pulsed at his throat while the approaching steps grew to a thunderous pitch.
 
“Shouldn’t we run?”
 
“No time,” his father said: “Get down. They’re coming.”

15 comments:

  1. Romany - I enjoyed this. The tone is very compelling.

    I did find the voice of your characters distinct except for a couple spots. I feel like you are working hard to get a distinct expression of place and time with the dialogue, which I like, but maybe this - “But it’s grown dark and that man…” – could be less grown up sounding. But before that I definitely hear a boy talking - “How much further?” he said. “But…” “Dad?” That’s sounds just like a boy’s half of a conversation with a dad.

    I am immediately focused on the skin, the father and the danger with this. “He raked over the skin at his neck with his fingernails while his father urged him onward. The beat of his heart quickened with the hoot of an owl and he gripped hold of his cloak, bunching its roughness within his fists.” Boom, boom, boom - I have a distinct portrait of the situation while saving facts for later and I’ve a pretty good notion early on there is going an issue with his face, the father and “others” in the story. Then at the end - “No time,” his father said: “Get down. They’re coming.” - and you have me looking for a page to turn.

    About the opening- “Dusk crept beside Will, stretching his shadow where it fell on the path.” My thought is while the image is thought provoking and puts us generally in a place, it doesn’t serve you in forwarding the story at that point. But mostly, it distracts from the rest of the paragraph – which is awesome, the more I read the rest of the paragraph, the more I like it and believe it needs to be completely soaked up by the reader.

    And just my slow moving boy brain: With dusk creeping and stretching the shadow - as a reader I’m working really hard and I don’t get to focus on what follows in the paragraph - which is so cool and significant, you might save the first sentence of the chapter for later or cut it. I know that hurts – I can tell you worked hard on it.

    I find the child character unique, and there’s much room to learn more and I like that, as a reader I like waiting to discover.

    I didn’t figure out until well into the story this was an “olden times” story, when you dropped in light the torch, the falling liquid. After I read that I remembered the laces for the shirt, the wool cloak and tavern and and it came to me a bit more. Then it all clicked when I put it with the deformed face and the goodwife offering to take the child. For me it was very hard work to figure all that out, most things are. I would have enjoyed knowing clearly the “oldness” of the setting sooner. I had to work very hard to ground the story in a place. I do very much like that the information is not thrown at me all at once, but for me, I needed a thing to grab onto and hold in this chapter.

    I think these are awesome bookends and because they are, the more you let the focus stay on them, the more the reader will like it:

    Beginning: He raked over the skin at his neck with his fingernails while his father urged him onward. The beat of his heart quickened with the hoot of an owl and he gripped hold of his cloak, bunching its roughness within his fists.
    End: “Shouldn’t we run?”
    “No time,” his father said: “Get down. They’re coming.”

    Really, that’s your story – I love it.

    I definitely am sympathetic to both the characters and that with the opening image and then the last paragraph, I want to read more. If I knew a little more about the main character and his goal/struggles I think I would be on my feet cheering for him.

    Clarity of setting and the character goals would be my focus.

    I am excited to see what the other critiques are like because this type of story is difficult for me and I hope you will keep that in mind. I look forward to your revisions.

    Thanks for reading my comments, I enjoyed this chapter very much.

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  2. Thanks so much Richard - these are really thoughtful observations and so useful. I'll look forward to thinking them over before I start revising. For now - I'm about to plunge in - and read the other work...

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  4. Hi Romany,
    Thanks for submitting your pages. This is labeled as Historical, but to me it reads more like medieval fantasy. If this is taking place in a medieval world, which it seems to be judging by the horses, cloaks, woods, tavern, etc., and if there is something supernatural happening, it should just be labeled fantasy. On the other hand, if you don’t have any supernatural or magical happenings in your story, it might be labeled historical fiction.

    As to theses pages, I like them. It sounds like you have a fun story on your hands, and I wonder about the origins of the mark on Will’s face and what it means. They seem to be on the run, and what of Will’s brother who has the sickness? All intriguing points to snag a reader.

    I would recommend looking at your opening paragraph again. Sometimes, as writers, we want to show our skill with words, but we often overdo it a little. This is very common and we are all guilty of it. My suggestion would be to take out a few of those verbs:

    Dusk crept beside Will, STRETCHING his shadow where it fell on the path. He RAKED over the skin at his neck with his fingernails while his father URGED him onward. The beat of his heart QUICKENED with the hoot of an owl and he GRIPPED hold of his cloak, BUNCHING its roughness within his fists. Remember, this is just an opinion, and others may disagree. That's the tough part of critique: finding what is useful while maintaining your voice.

    The suggestion of “dusk crept” threw me off. Perhaps “Dusk settled over Will, stretching his shadow…”

    At first I thought that Dusk was a person and he was creeping toward Will. Something about the way the sentence was constructed gave me pause.

    But…

    I should stop here and say you are definitely a writer. Your scene setting and sense of description is very good, and I can picture the woods and the characters very well.

    I wonder why Will claws at the air when he sees the stranger. Do you really mean that? Is this some weird physical thing that relates to his face? I wasn’t sure. Maybe we’re not supposed to know yet. I know he’s scared, but right now it reads as if he is really freaking out.

    Sweat thickened at each bone connecting Will’s neck to his backside and the folds of his cloak rubbed against them.

    That sentence is a little awkward. Perhaps: Sweat thickened at Will’s neck and in the folds of his cloak. Remember: less is more. Kill those words you love! Think of your reader and make it easy for them.

    I think you’ve already made Will a sympathetic character. Now we just need to get to know him a little better and find out what this mark on his face really means. You’ve done a good job here setting it up, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes. Just remember less is more when it comes to description!

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  5. I really enjoyed all of this, and here is why:
    You put me right in the middle of things, and that is great. I know that Will is the MC, that he is scared and traveling, all in the first 50 words. Amazing.
    His brother is sick- these are the stakes, the concern of Will’s father. It makes me wonder.
    The footsteps? There are people who will investigate others walking around at dark. It helps me grasp setting/ environment.
    Will is scared at the addition of a stranger approaching them. He must have something to hide.
    This all adds to the atmosphere.
    “Just thinking about things, sent his hand in through the hood to stroke across the web of ulcerated skin that distorted the left side of his face, stretching from the side of his nose all the way to his ear hole.” This MC does have something to hide! What is the matter with him, and WHY? I want to know more.
    The whole chamber pot incident drives home the historical fiction aspect and I like it. It reinforces the point: these are not modern times, so pay attention! Moreover, it shows world building. This is a place where people sue chamber pots/ empty them out the window.
    You again mention his face, and I like it still, because it is obviously a big part of Will’s character. I am getting a better grasp on him.
    Is it possible that he can be fixed? Again, I am intrigued.
    “What dad?” Careful. In this time period, was “dad” a commonly used term? Historical fiction is tough. Not everyone will zone in on stuff like this, but some might.
    Who’s coming, and how does Will feel about it?
    Over all I really like it. I want to see what the next 1250 words include.

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  6. I really enjoyed all of this, and here is why:
    You put me right in the middle of things, and that is great. I know that Will is the MC, that he is scared and traveling, all in the first 50 words. Amazing.
    His brother is sick- these are the stakes, the concern of Will’s father. It makes me wonder.
    The footsteps? There are people who will investigate others walking around at dark. It helps me grasp setting/ environment.
    Will is scared at the addition of a stranger approaching them. He must have something to hide.
    This all adds to the atmosphere.
    “Just thinking about things, sent his hand in through the hood to stroke across the web of ulcerated skin that distorted the left side of his face, stretching from the side of his nose all the way to his ear hole.” This MC does have something to hide! What is the matter with him, and WHY? I want to know more.
    The whole chamber pot incident drives home the historical fiction aspect and I like it. It reinforces the point: these are not modern times, so pay attention! Moreover, it shows world building. This is a place where people sue chamber pots/ empty them out the window.
    You again mention his face, and I like it still, because it is obviously a big part of Will’s character. I am getting a better grasp on him.
    Is it possible that he can be fixed? Again, I am intrigued.
    “What dad?” Careful. In this time period, was “dad” a commonly used term? Historical fiction is tough. Not everyone will zone in on stuff like this, but some might.
    Who’s coming, and how does Will feel about it?
    Over all I really like it. I want to see what the next 1250 words include.

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  9. Thanks Ronald and Melissa for your comments. Being called a writer by you, Ronald, has made my day! It is a historical fiction piece and not fantasy: set in Tudor times in England. I will endeavour to make this clearer next time...

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  10. Ro -- great job! It's interesting reading the others' comments, some of which I agree with and some not. First of all, you definitely are a writer, as Ron said. Your descriptions are awesome and definitely put me in the story. However, remember who your audience is. While as an adult, I truly appreciate your word choice, middle grade readers may skip right over it. That's not to say you shouldn't use sophisticated language -- kids definitely need to be exposed to it. Just don't overdo it. I was so wrapped up in the writing that I missed what the plot arc is. You definitely have us wondering many things: the sick brother, Will's disfigured face, his fear of strangers. Great hook at the end to keep us reading!

    More specifically, unlike Richard, I was totally in the setting from the very beginning: the cloak Will is wearing, the father's manner of speaking (“You spend too much time at your mother’s skirts, boy,” his father replied: “I’ll not be nagged by you as well.”), the tavern, lighting a torch from the street lamp, rats scurrying about, etc. I loved the chamber pot incident and can just hear the "Eww's" from my sixth graders. But then I love historical fiction and read a lot of it. Having said that, I think Will's voice is too modern sounding. I don't think he would have called his father "Dad." I also wonder about the sentence about his brother: "Your brother has the sickness and there’s nothing else that could be done.” You have a mix of present and past tense in that sentence. It sounds like the brother IS sick, but then nothing COULD be done sounds like maybe he died. I'm wondering where Will and his father are returning FROM? Did they go out of town to bury the brother? Try to find medicine? I'm intrigued as to where this is going, and even more after that great hook at the end!

    I think my favorite descriptive phrase is "Night’s darkness gathered, until even moonlight was shut out in places where the overhanging rooftops of opposite houses touched."

    Great writing -- just keep the voice consistent and don't let your descriptions keep the story from moving forward. I'm anxious to see what your revisions will bring.

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  11. Hi Kathie - they're really helpful comments - thank you! This is my first attempt at MG - I've always written YA before and it's taking some adjusting with the language/ prose etc

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  13. Romany: I love this sort of story so i'm a bit prejudiced! I like the moody atmosphere you create in your opening paragraph but I think sometimes you're working too hard to "set the scene" at the expense of telling the story. That first sentence seems to labor a bit.

    I think some of your dialogue is very good - especially the boy's voice. I'm less convinced by the father's voice. I think there's probably room for one "Zounds" and maybe not two in the first few paragraphs. Sometimes the father's voice seems a bit forced and "historical".

    Maybe it's me but i was somewhat confused by the "Hot day" comment by the stranger and the fact that darkness is falling . I had to go back in the story to get my bearings. I wasn't particularly convinced by the rats beneath the houses being heard - UNLESS that's crucial to your protagonist's abilities. Can you "hear" things others can't? It just seemed an odd detail - if I walk past a house with rats, I'm not sure I'll heard them. Again, if it's crucial to something important to your character, I'll stand corrected.

    Love the tension between father and son. It's not flat, it's dynamic. Really love the fact that the boy is "marked" in some way, set apart, different. So many kids feel that they are, metaphorically, "marked" and so this is good. Kids have secrets - we all have secrets.

    Honestly, I would have read further just to try to figure out where this was going. You did a great job of intriguing me. Some great details: the sweat on his back, the itch from it; also the slop bucket being dumped out. All those things found their way into the flow of the story without becoming a distraction from it. I want to know where they're going and what will become of the brother.

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  14. Romany: I love this sort of story so i'm a bit prejudiced! I like the moody atmosphere you create in your opening paragraph but I think sometimes you're working too hard to "set the scene" at the expense of telling the story. That first sentence seems to labor a bit.

    I think some of your dialogue is very good - especially the boy's voice. I'm less convinced by the father's voice. I think there's probably room for one "Zounds" and maybe not two in the first few paragraphs. Sometimes the father's voice seems a bit forced and "historical".

    Maybe it's me but i was somewhat confused by the "Hot day" comment by the stranger and the fact that darkness is falling . I had to go back in the story to get my bearings. I wasn't particularly convinced by the rats beneath the houses being heard - UNLESS that's crucial to your protagonist's abilities. Can you "hear" things others can't? It just seemed an odd detail - if I walk past a house with rats, I'm not sure I'll heard them. Again, if it's crucial to something important to your character, I'll stand corrected.

    Love the tension between father and son. It's not flat, it's dynamic. Really love the fact that the boy is "marked" in some way, set apart, different. So many kids feel that they are, metaphorically, "marked" and so this is good. Kids have secrets - we all have secrets.

    Honestly, I would have read further just to try to figure out where this was going. You did a great job of intriguing me. Some great details: the sweat on his back, the itch from it; also the slop bucket being dumped out. All those things found their way into the flow of the story without becoming a distraction from it. I want to know where they're going and what will become of the brother.

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  15. Thanks Matt - I really appreciate your comments (good and bad!). I will work on the rats and the 1st paragraph is already being re-written. Although I do find it hard not to over-do it...

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