Saturday, January 7, 2017

1st 5 Pages January Workshop - McCourt

Name: Joe McCourt
Genre: Young Adult Horror

Not ten paces from the graffiti-covered bus stop where Dolyn Pierce was reading a paperback, repair work on the second water main break of the season came to a clattering halt.

“Aw c’mon!” Dolyn cried. Her fingers tensed, ripping pages from the book she had shoplifted the day before. “It’s too early to be taking a break!”

The workmen—a half dozen, give or take—ignored her. They seemed just as irked, if not downright confused, by the sudden shut-down.

Great, thought Dolyn. She had come here specifically for the noise. Just not this noise.

Instead of blissfully loud jackhammers, hydraulics and earth-moving equipment, her ear drums were assaulted by the backfires of countless motors, the whining chuffs of diesel trucks, the shrill squeal of city bus brakes. She winced at every shouted word, every unexpected blast of a horn, every crash of a fender bender.

And that wasn’t the worst of it.

Dolyn could hear, with perfect clarity, what the Mayor had referred to as, ‘a few bad apples disturbing a peaceful protest.’ Voices droned, “We shall overcome.” A window shattered. Someone screamed. Bottles were thrown. Bricks were thrown. Punches were thrown. More windows shattered. Fire ignited in a thwoomph. More screaming. More fighting. Then came the sirens. Then came the gunshots. It might have been a few. It might have been a thousand.

Get a grip, Dolyn.

She reminded herself that this street, Lombard, had been closed for over a month and the riots, which so divided the city, happened a year ago. Today, there were no cars. No mobs. No police. Not even a kid on a bicycle.

All was quiet ... except in her head.

Another reminder: Everything would be fine—‘hunky-dory’ as her former paranoid schizophrenic psychmate used to say—just as soon as the road crew got off their collective asses and did something to earn their union-negotiated wages.

“Moooooove!” Dolyn pleaded.

Her ear plugs, the closest thing to jewelry that would ever accessorize her smooth, narrow face, blocked only a tiny fraction of the sound. Cupping her hands over her ears was equally pointless, but she did it anyway. The same for rocking back and forth. God, what was taking so long?

Gritting her teeth, Dolyn scanned the neighboring buildings. The sun had risen a few hours ago, but the sky was cloudy enough that she thought she’d see at least one lit bulb or flickering TV screen shining through a window. There weren’t any. A power failure? Maybe, but what kind of outage affects electricity as well as combustion engines? She yanked the hood of her sweatshirt over her head and lowered her chin to her knees, simultaneously regretting her decision to venture out and wondering where to go next.

She considered flipping a coin.

“Bus ain’t coming today, girlie,” hollered a gruff voice. “And probably won’t be till the end o’ summer.” He laughed. “You got a long wait ahead o’ ya.”

Dolyn squinted up from the bus shelter’s warped, plastic bench. A paunchy man wearing a hard hat and a yellow vest was standing a few yards away, a big stupid grin forming a plank bridge between his ruddy, unshaven jowls. Behind him, utility workers trundled around a massive hole in the middle of the road.

“I packed a sandwich!” Dolyn shouted back at him. She flapped her hand as though swatting a pesky fly. “Now get back to work! That pipe’s not gonna fix itself!”

The man scowled. He looked like he wanted to tell Dolyn off, but when she raised her book like a shield in front of her face, he stomped back to the job site, every heavy, plodding footstep echoing in her ears like a thunderclap.

Busted water mains were not an uncommon occurance in Baltimore, where the same pipes have channeled the city’s murky H2O since well before the Confederacy. Usually leaks of this magnitude happened in late winter/early spring, when the rising temperatures caused century-old cast-iron to expand and rupture. Considering this was the tail-end of March, things were right on schedule.

“What’s goin’ on, Keith?” asked one of the workers. “Run outta gas?”

Keith, a lean, rat-faced malcontent who was sitting in the cab of a mini excavator, shrugged impatiently, jiggled some levers, then, with an exasperated shake of his head, grumbled, “I dunno. The piece o’ shit just up and died on me.”

He hopped down to the curb, shot a perfunctory glance at the rig’s boom, then the arm cylinder, then the mounted jackhammer. Finally, his perplexed gaze traveled into the cavernous pit. “Now what the hell do you suppose that is?” he said to no one in particular.

Other members of the road crew, all wearing matching fluorescent vests over their jeans and flannel shirts, ambled over to have a look.

“Hell if I know,” said the oldest member of the crew. He removed his hard hat and ran his gloved fingers through his graying hair, the breath issuing from him in little puffs of steam. He zipped his jacket an inch higher, as though that would make a difference against the morning chill. “Well, don’t just stand around pickin’ your seats,” he barked. “Get that goddamned thing outta there.”

Yes, thought Dolyn. Get that goddamned thing outta there so Keith can get back to his goddamned jackhammering and I can get back to my goddamned book.

Without the ratcheting squall of chisel hammering into pavement, Dolyn couldn’t concentrate.

Without one impossibly loud noise quelling echoes of life In The Big, Bad City, she might just go mad.

She reached into her backpack for a fresh pair of ear plugs, the tips of her fingers lingering on the dome of the plastic Frog Prince snow globe she always carried with her, when one of the workmen raised his hand like a schoolboy asking permission to visit the bathroom. “Say, um, Charlie, you really think we ought to move it?”

The older man—probably the crew’s foreman—glared at him. “And why wouldn’t we?”

The subordinate cleared his throat. “It kinda ... um ... looks like a ... coffin.”

His co-workers, all of them, stopped what they were doing and turned expectantly toward Charlie.

Even Dolyn couldn’t resist the lure of the word, “coffin.” She stood, craned her neck, then climbed up on the bench for a better angle. It was no good. The hole was deep and there were too many workmen blocking her view.

“This ain’t a cemetary, Jake,” sighed Charlie. “Never was. That’s just a big box somebody left behind when these pipes were first laid. I doubt there’s anything in it but worthless, rusty tools.”

“Or pirate treasure!” said one of the workers. He was a boisterous man, with a bushy mustache and a fan of red whiskers sprouting from his chin. A strip of tape across the front of his hard hat identified him as Kimball. When he spoke, he held everyone’s rapt attention, including Dolyn’s.

“Look at the markings carved on it, like some kinda hieroglyphics. That ain’t no plumber’s toolbox.”


“So, Blackbeard himself use to sail the Chesapeake Bay,” Kimball went on. “William Kidd, too.”

Another worker, this one holding a pickaxe over his shoulder, said, “I thought William Kidd was an outlaw in the Old West.”

“That’s Billy the Kid,” said Kimball, good-naturedly smacking his friend with the back of his hand. “I’m talking about William Kidd, with two Ds.”


  1. Hi Joe,

    I find it immediately interesting that Dolyn needs the noise! It's super compelling.

    But I do get a little confused about which noise Dolyn likes, and the transition between the noise she hears, and the transition between the flashback. Can you smooth that out a bit more?

    I have some questions about authentic YA voice, in particular in places like this: "as the road crew got off their collective asses and did something to earn their union-negotiated wages". To me, this really doesn't sound like a teen, phrasing wise, or word choice wise. I know you have a 3rd Person Narrator here, but, I'm still thinking a bit more teen cadence would help here.

    I also want a better sense of time in the first 5 pages: are we in the future? is this an alternate version of Baltimore? I’m not sure how to make this clearer, but I trust, if you agree with me, you’ll figure it out!

    And again, when the construction workers uncover the box, I’m into super compelling mode! They talk like construction workers: the dialogue is spot on. But can we get Dolyn involved somehow, in a slightly more active role?

    I also really love where your first 5 pages end.

    Looking forward to your revision!


  2. A girl sitting in the midst of a construction site trying to read is really interesting. I'd like to know more about Dolyn. I was having a hard time getting my head around why she was there early on and then I came to this part:
    "Without the ratcheting squall of chisel hammering into pavement, Dolyn couldn’t concentrate.

    Without one impossibly loud noise quelling echoes of life In The Big, Bad City, she might just go mad."

    I wonder if you could even move this up some to clarify earlier. It would make it more clear why jackhammers were okay but not traffic noise.

    I'm interested in the fact that Dolyn's hearing sounds from protests that happened a year ago, and it seems like that is what she was hoping to get rid of with the sound of the jackhammer. But I wonder why she's hearing these sounds from the past. Was she involved in the protests? Was someone she loves hurt during the protests? Is this connection somehow to her goal or the problem she will face in the story? It might be worth slowing down for some more insight into this.

    Then the scene moves on to the possible coffin of Blackbeard. Another really interesting topic. But adding to the complexity of what the reader is trying to absorb. I feel like there is so much going on that I'm missing who Dolyn is and why I want to follow her through a story.

    You've got so much great material here. Would it be possible to slow down a little and focus in on Dolyn so we can see a bit more of her in these pages? I know first pages are supposed to move fast, but they are moving so fast, I'm not sure what I should be focused on.

    I'm looking forward to reading again!

  3. Hi Joe,

    I agree with the other comments here--your pacing is quick and compelling, and your readers are left wanting more.

    I'm struggling a little with understanding the setting: it has a futuristic feeling, but also the Old West references. It seems like this will become clearer. Not certain if you need to have the world building unfold a little more in these first few pages or not...

    Can't wait to see what's next.


  4. Hi Joe,

    Hooray, pirates! I love a good pirate story :) I'm certainly intrigued by the end of these pages.

    I echo the previous comments. I would like to know a little more about Dolyn -- I get that she needs the noise of the construction site to focus, but I was wondering if she's hiding from something, as well. Is she ditching school? Chores? Why is she there?

    I admit I was a little put off by the way she addressed the construction workers. Who is she to tell them to get back to work? Also, since she can hear their conversations/talk to them, I got the impression that she was in the construction site (as opposed to just next to it), so I did wonder how the workers are OK with a girl just sitting there. That seems like it violates some sort of safety code :)

    Looking forward to seeing the revision!


  5. Hey Joe,

    Dolyn is such a great name for a character! Love it. Let’s get to this. I'm going to have to comment in two parts. Don't get scared. This was really a great entry.

    Part one:

    After reading this, I have loads of questions about Dolyn, and I’ll address them as we go along.

    This is, number one, a horror story, which I love. YA horror is one of my fav genres. With that said, I’m not picking up any horror elements in these first five pages. Aside from needing noise to block out some mysterious other noises, Dolyn seems normal. I’m not getting any forewarning chills or creepiness, which a reader expects when breaking into a new horror story. Really look at what you have here and see where you can add some small taste of horror. It doesn’t have to be much, just enough to show the reader they’ve picked up the right book.

    When the work stops, I expect it’s jarring to Dolyn’s ears. I think that’s where you need to concentrate your narrative at this point and forget about the other screeching and horn blasting going on. Once the quiet overtakes her, you can bring in what she is hearing—things no normal human should be able to hear—the cacophony of human daily life.

    Further down I became confused because you say “All was quiet…” except it really wasn’t. Not if she was hearing all that other stuff like the mayor and the window shattering and all that. Unless I’m missing something here, she hears everything and needs the jackhammering to drown out the world around her.

    And then you say, “…except in her head.” So then I’m wondering if she’s delusional. The next paragraph reinforces that thought because you mention a psychmate, which means she’s been locked up in a mental health ward. At this point, unless you need your readers to guess what’s wrong, you need to come out and say what exactly is wrong with her.

  6. Part two:

    The next few paragraphs are dedicated to the workers. Though they’re done well, it takes the reader’s focus from Dolyn and that isn’t the best strategy. The reader wants to know about Dolyn, not the construction workers banter. What is going on in Dolyn’s head. What’s her issue? Why is she important that you’re telling her story? This is where you hook the reader, making them want to root for her.

    As a teenage girl, Dolyn wouldn’t be interested in the workers unless one of them is young and hot, and then she’d be thinking about ways to get his attention, or wondering if he thinks she’s pretty or if he has a girlfriend…stuff like that.

    At this point, I suggest you employ something creepy to catch her attention and make her become interested in what all those men are doing. As yourself, what’s creepy? What could you have that would cause a group of men to jump back? It can’t just be a box. It has to be something coming out of that hole. If you really want to make it odd, it can be something she sees out of the corner of her eye, but the men don’t and that makes her jump instead of them, but whatever you do, it has to be unusual.

    Your title says The Witch’s Bottle, yet you introduce the topic of Blackbeard. I’m not sure how these correlate. Unless Blackbeard bottled up a witch that the men unleash when they open the box, then okay, but I’m not sure how they’d know it was Blackbeard’s box...which brings me to a bigger issue. I’m not familiar with the area you’re writing about. In my head, Dolyn is at a water main break near a bus stop in the middle of a big city. I had no idea there was water nearby. Not just water, but the ocean because if Blackbeard is involved, it has to be the ocean, right? At least as a reader that’s what I’m thinking. So describing the surroundings is crucial before the reader gets to this part or else they’ll get lost and wonder how they suddenly went from a city block to an ocean view.

    So, we have Dolyn slowly going mad because she can’t quell the noise in her head, which I don’t quite understand, to a mysterious hole in the ground, except you’ve taken the reader on a side trip to the hole in the ground without her. I don’t suggest that. When the men uncover the box and all goes quiet, move her to the hole. Make her part of the scene. Let her see what is so strange so the reader can experience the creepiness of the hole with her.

    My comments are written with the intent to help. Take what you like and erase the rest. This is your story and your vision. Sink your brain into the macabre and wonder what would scare the popcorn out of you if you were a teen reading this story, then take your reader there. I look forward to seeing what you do to further your story!


  7. I'm not sure what I could add, but I'll try.

    The need for noise while reading a book was an amazing hook. Your character is interesting from the beginning. I really liked the idea of a box--a la Jumanji. The details you give us about her stealing the book, no jewelry, those little things add a lot to us knowing more about your character in a showing way. I thought that was really well done. I also think you've given us the inciting incident quickly, which is great.

    The first line was a bit confusing, not as straightforward as I'd like while trying to set up a scene. The graffiti covered bus station, the jackhammering, etc. are excellent details the reader can immediately experience. This line would have more punch if the visual/auditory portion came first and make the sentence straightforward.

    I wondered why she had this violent tendency to rip pages from the book just because the noise stopped. That seems a bit over the top and makes me think the person I'll be reading about for the next few hundred pages has anger management issues. Are we supposed to be afraid of her rather than rooting for her?

    "She had come here specifically for the noise. Just not this noise."
    The lack of specifics confuses me. Dolyn came here for jackhammers and earthmovers rather than the city's normal noises of screeching bus brakes, etc. When you give us details, we latch on and build the rest of the world with our own general knowledge.

    I had similar confusion with the transition to her memory.

    But this is a great start! Can't wait to see what you do with all this. See you next week!

  8. I have to agree with Heather here! Shea has already given you such great advice, I don't have much to add on this version.
    Dolyn is an intriguing character from the very beginning. The fact that she's there--in this busy construction site--to quiet the noises in her head enough to enjoy a good book? MY GIRL!
    I laughed when I read Heather's comment about the book-ripping, though. I was like.. NOOO! No self-respecting reader rips pages. Maybe she could slap the bench or kick the side of the bus stop. Hell, let her kick a crumpled coke can so that it falls into the hole. Maybe she feels bad and goes over to pick it up just as they make the discover.
    Because I also agree that I want to experience what is in that hole WITH Dolyn. Let us see the object through her eyes.
    I also got a big confused with the different noise-levels, so I agree that simplifying that would be a great thing. Though I have to say you've done a great job with world-building already, I agree with Shea that it would be good to add just a hint of some atmosphere for the horror to come.
    I totally dig that whatever happened when they first uncovered the object affected the cars as well as the electricity. VERY intriguing. I cannot WAIT to see WHAT THE HELL IS IN THAT HOLE!!
    And I can't wait to see what you do with all the great advice!
    Cool, COOL story so far!!