Sunday, October 2, 2016

1st 5 Pages October Workshop - Cruz

Name: Erik Cruz
Genre: Young Adult Historical
Title: Bloody Trails

5 Outubro 1474

When I left the Açores, my family, friends and neighbors warned me these wild jungles would be the death of me. They heard the Gold Coast holds debilitating diseases, poisonous man-eating plants and spear-wielding natives. Without fail, I smiled and responded, “But there’s gold waiting for me. Don’t worry I have my matchlock gun and colhona sword to protect me.”

Ten months later, I stand twenty feet away from a serene, sparkling waterfall. How badly I want to go under it, close my eyes and feel the soothing water rush over my dirty brown hair. Of course, that’s impossible. While half of me is in awe, the other half is alert, clinging to a fifty centimeter matchlock gun, ready to aim at a hippo or some other deadly beast. I continue my trek past the thick, evergreen canarium trees, ripe with dark brown and purple fruits reminiscent of grapes—though slightly bigger—before stopping to look at the mouth of the waterfall. Catching a reflection of my unwashed tanned-face and tired eyes, I kneel over the water's edge and refill my canteen. As I finish, I turn around, face my fellow sailor, Simão Rodrigues, and ask, “We’re lost, aren’t we?”

“Yup,” he responds. Noticing my smile, he adds, “Stop enjoying this.”

I chuckle before responding. “I can stop smiling, but I can’t stop relishing this moment. We are standing here, in front of the pristine water, hearing the parrot’s caws and the buffaloes’ bellows. We are two of only a handful of outsiders who have marveled at this sight.”

“We’re illegally carrying gold, ivory and spices. I’m in no mood to smell the damn flowers. We gotta get back to Cape Coast in less than three days. We’ll be in trouble with our Captain if Fernão Gomes asks him questions.”

“It’ll be fine. We’re only keeping a small amount of the riches for ourselves. Fernão must be glad we volunteer to trek the jungles searching for gold. It shows him he has lowly sailors who gladly explore on foot so deep into the uncharted.”

“What if he finds out?” 

“They probably wouldn’t flog us. They might just toss us overboard,” I respond to the sweaty, nervous man in front of me. “Honestly, Fernão doesn’t know us, and Captain Pêro de Sintra probably thinks too little of us. Never would he imagine that we keep even a single gold pebble, much less one-tenth of the haul. Stop worrying so much.”

The brown-haired, stern-faced Simão walks up to me, snatches my water canteen and takes a swig from it. “You’re crazy. I can’t believe you talked me into this. After years of sailing for King Afonso V, I’m now stealing from him.”

“Don’t think of it as stealing. Instead see it as a small fee for the dangerous work we do for the Português Crown.”

Simão fights it, but can’t help but smile. “Gaspar, how do ya come up with responses so fast?”

“Well, I’m used to everyone disagreeing with me, so I’ve learned to answer criticism. Seriously, it comes naturally now,” I respond, laughing. Seeing as how Simão is in a good mood, I know it’s the best time to ask about trekking further into the jungle. “Should we go deeper along the river basin?”

“You’re insane. We can’t go further. We barely have enough food to last the trip back. It’s been four days since we left our ship in Cape Coast. Our supplies never last more than a week. I know we didn’t get as much treasure this time, but that doesn’t mean we act stupid.”

Ah, another tongue-lashing from the experienced sailor. I should probably listen more carefully to his suggestions. “Fine, let’s go back. How far do you think we’re from camp?”  

“Close to one hundred miles.”

“Roughly twenty-nine leagues then, so two days away.”

“Right, we have to backtrack and hope to God we come across a familiar area. The farther away from the beaches of Cape Coast, the greater the chance of running into trouble.”

Our country has strong trade relations with the Akan-speaking clans, in particular the Fante tribe. This connection was quickly forged the moment our explorers landed here three years ago. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of our dealings with other tribes. What separates the Akan from other tribes is that they have an appreciation for gold and use it as their currency. Anything and anyone can be bought for the right price, be it in Europe or Africa, really.

So far in the time I’ve spent in the Gold Coast, I’ve been lucky not to have encountered hostile natives. During our excursions—which always consist of only Simão and myself—we stay close to the gold-rich riverbanks. This tactic not only aids us in acquiring treasures but also keeps our sight clear of the towering, and view-obstructing, ebony, cedar and mahogany trees. We only veer off if we see unnatural clumps of mud or other house materials used by the natives. 

“If only we had a useful dry compass. It would make it easier to map out these parts. Simão, you do know why they don’t give us one, right?”

“It’s damn expensive. They don’t supply them to every crewmember—”

I couldn’t help but interrupt him. “They are considered valuable…unlike lowly sailors like us, who are instantly discarded the moment we die, just as I replaced that page ten months ago, after he died of dysentery. No one mourns him, or even mentions the name of that poor sailor-in-training, who never had the opportunity to be promoted.” One glance at the clenched teeth and reddening cheeks of the tan-skinned, brown-bearded Simão, warns me of what’s to come, although it hardly helps me avoid it.

“Shut up, Gaspar. I’m trying to get us back to Cape Coast. Your annoying, stupid voice will make me crazy like you. Keep yer mouth shut and I’ll take you back.” He angrily clutches his wooden crucifix and continues his rant. “I swear on His cross, keep chirping and I’ll leave you behind in the jungle.

know I can get back to camp on my own. Nevertheless, why chance it? I choose to ignore his barbs and play the obedient little explorer. “Okay then. What’s our next move?”

“Let’s retrace our steps,” he says in a much calmer tone. “We should recognize some areas of the jungle. It did rain the last two days, so our foot tracks won’t be there.” Simão stops, lets out a bullish snort and looks at the grassy ground. “We're being punished. Our attention turns to riches and we keep losing our path.” 

“It’s uncharted territory. We can’t help but get lost once in a while.” 

“That’s not the path I’m talking about, Gaspar.”

“Oh,” I respond in an awkward voice. Immediately, I try my best to steer the conversation back. “If only we could hear or see the seagulls. That’d indicate the beach is near.”

After hours of silently marching through the untamed jungle drenched in our own sweat, and gathering more small golden nuggets unearthed by the rain, we still have no clear sense of the right direction. As the sun begins to disappear into the horizon, I instinctively halt for a moment and catch a glimpse of the bright orange orb setting in the sky, towering over a 20-feet-high cotton silk tree. The sun looks enormous and so much closer to the ground than it does back home in Anjos.


  1. I like the idea of the warning that the jungle will be the death of the protag, but saying ‘death of me’ seems a bit cliché and maybe not something they would say in 1474… Is there a way to word that differently?

    I definitely get the impression that the protag’s motivation is money. I’m curious to know what the goal will be.

    Would the protag actually think of her hair as ‘dirty brown’? It’s plausible, but it makes me think the protag doesn’t think very highly of herself, which is cool if that’s what you’re going for.

    Catching the reflection in the waterfall is a bit like looking in the mirror. Is there a way to work her appearance in differently? Maybe use the tired-eyes as a way of showing her emotional state.

    In my opinion, moving the sentence “We’re lost, aren’t we?” up as your opener would make for a great hook. I wasn’t really very invested in the story until I read that line.

    The dialogue read a bit stiff to me. Maybe weave some of the details into the narrative, since the characters already know what their mission is and what will happen to them if they’re caught. Adding action tags will help with this, and it will also give an opportunity for the reader to get to know the characters and setting a bit more organically.

    Right now I’m not really connecting with the protag. For me personally, the pacing is a bit slow. I would like to see them in a bit more peril than they currently are. Really up the ‘we’re lost’ hook.

    My biggest concern is that the tone of the story sounds a bit adult and modern day.

    I’m definitely intrigued by the jungle setting. There’s lots of conflict built in naturally to the setting itself.

  2. Erik,

    I love the topic that you chose for your historical fiction! The Age of Exploration is such an interesting and complex period in human history. Your character’s motivations for exploration are so on point; my history teacher in high school put it nicely: ‘Gold, Glory, God’, and you weaved those in nicely with Gaspar and Simão’s quest for gold, with a little hint to God with Simão’s crucifix. Is Simão all about the gold, or is he there for spreading his faith, too?

    I feel that with historical fiction, you have to assume this is your reader knows absolutely nothing about the topic, but knows how to read (kind of like what you do when you write academic articles). The information I have of the Age of Exploration is taken all from Age of Empires so consider me one of those people.

    Gaspar and Simão’s did quite a bit of name dropping in a small amount of time (Açores, the Gold Coast, Akan, Fante) this is a lot of information to take in. You did a good job explaining who King Afonso V is by giving an in text definition shortly after! In terms of locating Açores and the Gold Coast on the map, perhaps consider giving the reader a clue as to where it is. A book called ‘Monkey Beach’ by Eden Robinson does this really well when the protagonist describes where the location of Kitimat in BC Canada, by telling us to find certain land marks like a major river, which direction to follow it, et-cetera. Maybe worth checking out to locate the reader if they want to follow on a map!

    Additionally, a barrier to some readers might be the punctuation that’s unfamiliar to unilingual English speakers (the cedille on the c in Açores and the tilde on the ã (I think that’s what they’re called)). Don’t take these out though- it also brings the reader into Gaspar’s native language! But there has to be a way to let the reader know how to pronounce these. Consider somehow tying these pronunciations into the narrative, alternatively- (maybe you’ve thought of this already) – the book might benefit from putting a pronunciation key before the first chapter.

    I feel like Simão isn’t frustrated enough with Gaspar- and accepts his smooth talking very easily. If Gaspar is silver tongued, or Simão’s really gullible, and we may need some more evidence of these.

    Exploration is dangerous, and you do a good job of giving examples of deaths via natural forces (especially like the part about the page), but Gaspar doesn’t talk so much about the perils of meeting unfriendly people. He mentions dangerous natives a couple times, but what would happen to them if they met some? What about unfriendly explorers? I’d like to know more!

    Like Karen mentioned, Gaspar uses quite a bit of 21st century colloquialisms despite the fact that the story is set in the 15th century. Are there any Portuguese expressions you can introduce early and use often? This might be a bad example, but even something like Prince Naveen’s fictional Maldonian catch phrase 'ah shi danza' in Princess and the Frog would work.

    In regards to Karen’s comment about the ‘dirty brown’ hair, I got the impression Gaspar is just really dirty. If he’s filthy, maybe point out to more places that are crusty from weeks of travel to avoid confusion, or if that’s the colour of his hair, maybe avoid using the word ‘dirty’.

    Love the attention to the weaponry- I’d love to know the state in which Gaspar keeps his, where he got it and how.

    As you might see from my comments on the other posts, I get really excited writing comments, so this block of text is not meant negatively.

    Super fun setting- I’m excited to see what you do with this scene :)

  3. Hi, Erik,

    You have a very intriguing concept and you've done an excellent job with your setting! I also really like the back and forth between the two characters.

    I'm wondering if you may be giving the reader too much information/detail at the beginning. Ex. We’re illegally carrying gold, ivory and spices. I’m in no mood to smell the damn flowers. We gotta get back to Cape Coast in less than three days. We’ll be in trouble with our Captain if Fernão Gomes asks him questions.”
    Your characters already know this. AND It’s been four days since we left our ship in Cape Coast. Our supplies never last more than a week. I know we didn’t get as much treasure this time, but that doesn’t mean we act stupid.”
    Can you give the reader this info only as needed and perhaps not all at once? Perhaps you could also use more narrative and less dialogue for some of these important details.

    I think you used lowly sailors twice in these first pages.

    I really liked this part: who are instantly discarded the moment we die, just as I replaced that page ten months ago, after he died of dysentery. No one mourns him, or even mentions the name of that poor sailor-in-training, who never had the opportunity to be promoted.”
    You've definitely set the stakes high with this and the punishment of them getting caught.

    Good luck!

  4. Hi Erik,

    As Michelle pointed out, you’ve picked an exciting time period to write about! I love the jungle setting – and you’ve described it beautifully – but perhaps a bit too much in these opening pages. In the first 5 you want to focus on creating a connection between the reader and your main character, set up or at least hint at the stakes/story problem and give the reader a context. Your context is great, but you could cut or shorten some of the descriptions to keep the focus on the connection to your mc and the stakes, and pepper the descriptions in later.

    Regarding the stakes, I’m not really getting a sense of any. You’ve told us about dangers, and the Captain who may throw them overboard, but other than him holding a weapon they could just be taking a walk in a lush jungle near a pristine waterfall. At the end of the 5 pages, you want your reader to be eager to know what happens next. I’m sure exciting things are about to happen, but we aren’t getting that in these pages. In general, you’ve done a lot of telling, but not much showing, which has kept the reader at a distance and made it hard to get invested in your mc’s journey.

    I also didn’t get a sense of the story problem, either. I did get the sense that this would be an adventure novel, so play up on that. Why is your mc in the jungle? Is he obsessed with riches, which is hinted at? Does he love exploration, which is also hinted at? Whatever it is, amp it up. This will also help us connect with your main character. As it is now, we have a description of him through the water – but no sense of his age (I agree with Michelle it sounds like it could be two men, not two teens), his family, and what driving need brought him to abandon his family and home for the dangerous jungle (which you’ve only told us is dangerous – to get your reader invested you need to show it!)

    I would also recommend using dialogue tags more. I found it very confusing as to who was talking at the beginning.
    Take a look at your pages and see if you’re starting in the right place. I often start too early, as sort of a preamble to the story. Maybe your story starts later, and some of this can be peppered in. Of course, this is just an idea, and you should feel free to disregard anything that doesn’t resonate with you!

    Good luck with the revision! I look forward to reading next week!

  5. Dear Erik,

    The setting you've created is an exciting one, and as others have said, this is a great time in history to be writing about. Your characters are interesting and the stakes are high. Being lost in such a dangerous place sets up a great conflict, and then also having the return to their captain be a conflict is even more interesting. These would be enough to keep the reader going if you play up the setting and character's internalization more.

    What makes this passage slow down is the "telling" or info that is inserted. The reader is told about the gold or told about the waterfall. If you begin with a person with parched lips staring at a waterfall they can't drink from or wash in, it creates automatic curiosity. They feel their crusty hair as they look around warily, fill their canteen, and see . . . what is happening? He/she (I've read through a few times and still don't know if this is a man or woman.) sees the partner holding the bag, bulging with gold or feels the weight of it. He/she sees the strange fruit like large grapes and does he/she want them? Does he/she eat them or tuck them into a pocket and then feel more gold he's kept for himself?

    The dialogue has the right content but a stilted approach. Is this really how sailors spoke in the 1400's? We kind of doubt it. It won't be completely authentic, but we don't feel the level of education in this dialogue would represent a sailor. Also, we know sailors are trained to know direction according to the night sky. Wouldn't they also be able to use this information to navigate back to the ship?

    With some work, we think you could take this from good to amazing! Good luck!

    Brenda Drake, Author, and Heather Cashman, Agent Intern

  6. Hi, Erik!

    I was excited to see a historical in the workshop, especially one set in a time and place with which I'm unfamiliar. That gave me an opportunity to explore along with the characters, who in this case are also relative noobs to their situation -- outsiders to the territory if not to the time.

    With historical fiction, it's vital for the reader to trust that the writer's done his research, even if he does twist some facts to suit the story. Verisimilitude -- the appearance of reality rather than absolute reality -- is a valid goal. In these first pages, you've given us some reassuring details -- the matchlock gun (invented in the 15th century); the colhona sword (popular with Portuguese sailors of the Age of Exploration); the Akan-speaking peoples who dominated trading along the Gold Coast; the names of trees; the mention of Fernao Gomes, an actual historical character (also Pero de Sintra, I think?)

    You've also given us two period-suitable characters in Gaspar and Simao. I like the contrast between them, reflected in their speech. Gaspar sounds well-educated, possibly the scion of an upper-class family, certainly intelligent, curious, self-confident to the point of brashness though not foolhardy. His powers and grace of observation mark him as both poetic and naturalistic -- which characteristics often do go together, don't they? He's a leader, the one who came up with the scheme of treasure hunting. Simao sounds ill-educated outside his profession as sailor, a commoner, practical and capable but also anxious and touchy. Pious, superstitious, uncomfortable with Gaspar's "crazy" ideas about whether sailors are mistreated, whether it's a good idea to try to get around the powers that be. It is what it is, Simao might think and querulously say. What's the use of blathering on about it?

    One thing I love about doing workshops is that it makes me think about technique, organize my own ideas about it, consider how to apply workshop-insights to my own writing. Here we have another first person viewpoint, another voice that's consistent, engaging and sympathetic. The question of target audience recurs to me: To whom is Gaspar telling his story? I got the impression, from the date at the top of the sample, that he might be recording his adventures in a journal. But then we switch into present-tense and a level of prose and detail one couldn't expect in an entry scrawled in the jungle. I would definitely not expect dialogue in an explorer's journal but brief summaries of what was said. So we're not taking the journal/diary/log approach. A curious effect of present tense is that it doesn't necessarily evoke immediacy. Often it does the opposite -- it gives a narrative the feeling of tale told after the fact, perhaps long after the fact, say to one's children or even grandchildren. And that's the feel I get from this sample. There's a certain informality to present tense narration of past events -- so we're sitting on the stoop, and I'm all, so then he says this, and I say that, and the dog runs out into the street, and I have to chase it, and this truck almost flattens me. The level of prose here is more formal than speech, is more like written autobiography, but that's all right. The conceit of a story told will allow for it. However, if Gaspar really IS writing down his autobiography, I'd expect him to use the past tense, to be even more formal.

    And you know how some people HATE the present tense. They JUST DO. I don't know. Hilary Mantel uses it to brilliant effect in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the two best historicals of the century so far. Her authorial conceit, I think, is to write so deeply inside her protagonist's head so that even though she uses third person and formal diction, the reader gets the feeling of experiencing the turbulence of Harry Tudor's reign right along with Thomas Cromwell. (continued below)

  7. Lots of blathering to say, I don't mind the use of present tense here, because it does suit the apparent target audience of the novel (less the authorities than Gaspar's family/friends/neighbors) and its diction, not TOO formal to pass as intimate reminiscence.

    But while we think of the narrator's target audience, we also have to think of the writer's actual one, the readers. The main criticism I have of this opening is that it sometimes tries a little too hard for verisimilitude, at the expense of staying in Gaspar's voice and perspective. For example, I can just about accept that he'd talk about his chosen weapons as a MATCHLOCK gun and COLHONA sword, instead of just gun and sword. But I'm bumped out of the story when Gaspar tells us he's clinging to a fifty-centimeter matchlock gun. That has a feel of infodump, not least because it's anachronistic -- the metric system wasn't in use in the 15th century, so he wouldn't think in terms of centimeters. To Gaspar, at this point, the gun should be just a gun.

    To go into specifics about the weapon, and simultaneously make both it and the setting more vivid, you might have Gaspar fuss with the gun, describe how the humid, rainy climate keeps ruining his powder and extinguishing his matchcord -- the slow-burning fire that would provide a spark to ignite powder and propel ball. Without a lit matchcord, he couldn't shoot the gun, but even if he could keep the match lit, he'd need an unwieldy amount of cord to keep it lit constantly. Which could work for you. Yes, he could AIM his gun at a hippo, but unless the match was already on fire, he couldn't plug it. And the mere sight of a gun wasn't likely to deter a hippo or any other irritable beast, as Gaspar well knows, no doubt smiling to himself.

    Anachronistic speech, to my readerly "ear": Simao's "Yup" and "I'm in no mood to smell the damn flowers."

    Infodumpy: Simao using miles as unit of measure, while Gaspar conveniently converts them to leagues for our benefit (three miles in a league.) Wouldn't they both use leagues?

    Improbable if you think about it: That they're carrying ivory and spices in addition to gold. Where did they get ivory and spices if they didn't trade with the potentially hostile natives? Doesn't seem they've had time or gear to hunt elephants or gather any significant amount of botanicals. Also, can they really cover 100 miles in two days? Maybe in ideal conditions: easy terrain with which they were familiar. Not so much thick uncharted jungle in which they keep losing themselves. Of course, Gaspar can just be over-optimistic in his calculation, but then Simao should correct him with characteristic pessimism.

    Description seems off: If the sun's disappearing below (not "into") the horizon, it shouldn't at the same time be "towering" over a 20-foot tree.

    First paragraph (excellent except for the one tiny flub): "Don't worry I have my matchlock gun" should be "Don't worry, I have my matchlock gun," or "Don't worry -- I have my matchlock gun" or even "Don't worry. I have my matchlock gun" -- depending on how much pause you want to indicate between clauses.

    In summary, a first five pages I sped through with high interest and ended up saying, "What? Over so soon? Gib more! We've got to meet hostiles soon, right? Got to get separated! Got to have a leopard drop from the canopy! Or maybe a venomous snake strike from the undergrowth!" In other words, I'm primed for exciting and pleasantly dire events by this opening. Congratulations!

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  10. Thank you all for taking the time to give such detailed feedback! I'm so relieved everyone liked the historical setting. Ever since I started writing it, I feared that it may be too esoteric. Wasn't sure if an Age of Exploration story set before 1492 would be interesting enough.

    This workshop has really made me realize the value of the first 1250 words. Later in the first chapter, I had already addressed some of the questions and issues that were brought up, but I'm now working on moving those details so they are earlier in the chapter.

    Anne, I'm so glad you pointed out the contrast in education between Gaspar and Simão. Education and class differences plays a big role throughout the story, so I'm relieved that I was able to show the difference between the two of them from the get-go.

    I’ve started working on my revision and can’t thank you enough for all the help!