Monday, January 23, 2017

1st 5 Pages January Workshop - McCourt Rev 2

Name: Joe McCourt
Genre: Young Adult Horror


Seventeen-year-old Dolyn Pierce hears voices from the past, but swears she isn’t crazy. The day after being released from the psych ward, she visits a water main repair site, confident that the jackhammers will drown out the echoes. When the road crew opens the box they discovered beneath the pavement, Dolyn is shaken by the screams of a young woman who’d been buried alive a century before. The victim swears she’ll seek revenge on the perpetrators, their children, and their children's children. Dolyn is soon arrested for blackmail and sentenced to visit crime scenes where she’ll listen for clues with a police detective. Her first case involves the murders of several prominent citizens, all of whom bear the same last names as those shouted by the buried woman. Reporting this to the detective only gets Dolyn ridiculed; the woman couldn't have been buried alive. Her heart had been removed from her body and placed in the bottle sealed in her coffin. Dolyn will have to trace the remaining descendants on her own if she's to have any hope of saving them. One of the names may be the ancestor of the detective who has become her friend and guardian.


Dolyn Pierce’s entire body tensed when repair work on the second water main break of the season came to a clattering halt.

“Aw c’mon!” she moaned. She was seated in a graffiti-covered bus stop not ten paces from the job site’s perimeter, her trembling fingers clutching the paperback she had shoplifted the night before. “I’m trying to read here!”

The workmen ignored her. They seemed just as irked, if not downright confused, by the sudden shut-down.

Great, thought Dolyn, clapping her hands over her ears. She had come here specifically for the blissful, noise-cancelling din of jackhammers, hydraulics and earth-moving equipment. Without it, her auditory nerves were pounded by echoes from the past: backfiring motors, whining diesel trucks, squealing city bus brakes. She winced at every unexpected blast of a horn, every crash of a fender bender, every wail of a siren. And the voices. So, so many voices.

Get a grip, Dolyn.

She reminded herself that this street, Lombard, had been closed for over a month. Today, there was no traffic. No hurrying pedestrians. Not even a kid on a bicycle. The surroundings were, as far as the road crew was concerned, as quiet as a small-town library.

“Moooooove!” Dolyn pleaded.

Her ear plugs, the closest thing to jewelry that would ever accessorize her smooth, narrow face, blocked some of the sound only she could hear, but not enough to give her the peace she so desperately longed for.

God she missed her iPod. Nothing had been right ever since Lainie’s idiot boyfriend destroyed it.

“Listen to me!” he had demanded before he yanked it away from her and threw it to the pavement. Prior to this, there were times when Dolyn wondered if the only thing keeping her sane was the constant stream of Heavy Metal blasting into her ears at full volume. As it turned out, it was. The instant Trey McLatchy smashed her iPod, Dolyn had a meltdown so intense that future nuclear physicists would probably reference it in their research papers. She punched and kicked until Lainie’s frantic call to 911 brought out two police cruisers (for her) and a paramedic (for McLatchy).

I needed that iPod! she had screamed. It drowned out the noise!

Things might have gone differently if she had left out that last part.

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.

The local newspaper, if she could get her hands on one, would list the day’s construction detours. If this road crew didn’t get back up and running soon, she’d find another site. Hopefully the power outage didn’t extend to all the city’s jackhammers.

If it did, she’d abandon the paperback and take a dip in the nearest fountain. Hell, maybe she’d throw herself into the harbor. Submerging her ears would give her some relief. Until, that is, the police fished her out and took her for “evaluation.” Again.

It drowned out the noise!

No one understood. Not even her old paranoid schizophrenic psychmate, who had found it rather funny that Dolyn slept with two pillows over her head.

“Drown it out! Drown it out! Drown it out!”

Her time in the ward had been the most miserable of her life. All that wailing and screaming and nonsensical ramblings from patients who had inhabited the room before them; patients long since dead or released or moved to another facility. But their reverberating anguish had been so disturbing that Dolyn couldn’t properly explain to the doctors what was ailing her. Halfway through a sentence she’d flinch or gasp at the horrors that played in her head like a broken record.

She couldn’t give them reason to drag her back. Not on her first full day of freedom.

A gruff voice called out. The timbre was slightly different than the echoes that enveloped her, which meant that whoever was talking was doing so in the present. Still, decades’ worth of layered noise was a lot to compete with.

Dolyn squinted up from the bus shelter’s warped, plastic bench. A paunchy man wearing a hard hat and a yellow vest was leaning on the perimeter fence, staring at her. A big stupid grin formed a plank bridge between his ruddy, unshaven jowls. Behind him, utility workers trundled around a massive hole in the middle of the road.

“What?” shouted Dolyn irritably. She tilted her head and tugged her earlobes as though she were tuning an AM radio. “Speak louder!”

“I said, the bus ain’t coming today! And probably won’t be till the end o’ summer.” He laughed. “You got a long wait ahead o’ ya, girlie.”

Now that she had registered the man’s voice, other gems he had spouted during his tenure on Lombard Street rose to the surface.

“Watch where you’re steppin’ there, girlie. You don’t wanna fall on your sweet patoot!”

“Hey, girlie, you got nicer curves than a stretch of country road!”

“That girlie must be a parking ticket, ‘cause she’s got ‘FINE’ written all over her.”

Dolyn refrained from calling the man a sexist pig. A fight was the last thing she needed right now. What she said was, “I packed a sandwich, JAKE!” She flapped her hand as though swatting a pesky fly. “Now get back to work! That pipe’s not gonna fix itself!”

She wouldn’t divulge how she learned his name, how the off-color joke he once told his co-workers was met with laughter and exclamations of “Good one, Jake!”

Let the jerk wonder what else she knew.

And wonder he did. His perplexed scowl suggested that 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 booming in her hyper-sensitive ears like a thunderclap.

Just get the equipment running, she thought. Please.

Busted water mains were not an uncommon occurrence in Baltimore, where the same pipes have channeled the city’s murky H2O since the early-1800s. Usually leaks of this magnitude happened in late winter/early spring, when rising temperatures caused centuries-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?”

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

Even Dolyn was curious. She stood, craned her neck, then climbed up on the bench for a better angle.


  1. Dear Joe,

    On your pitch: it’s a bit choppy in the middle, but I get a really good sense of how Dolyn’s particular skill is going to get her involved in something much bigger than she is! She's the right person for the job!

    Here’s the choppy part: “The victim swears she’ll seek revenge on the perpetrators, their children, and their children's children. Dolyn is soon arrested for blackmail and sentenced to visit crime scenes where she’ll listen for clues with a police detective.” We need a better transition here between the two sentences for this to work.

    Maybe the one thing that might be missing for me are the stakes for Dolyn long-term? I’m not expecting the voices to go away, but what changes in Dolyn’s life if she helps solve the puzzle?

    On your revision:

    -How does she know it’s the second break of the season if she was released from the hospital just the night before? This fact stands out after reading your pitch. I know it's 3rd person, but it feels very tight to Dolyn.

    -I love the insert of the iPod, and the active flashback. This works for me!

    -Is there something missing here? Did the rest get cut off? Formatting! Sigh.

    -Overall, I think things are much clearer. And I’m empathizing with Dolyn more and less worried about why she’s doing what she’s doing, because I’m closer to her, and I can understand.

    I wish you the very best with this novel!


  2. Hey Joe,

    I’m so excited to read what you’ve done.

    Your pitch:

    I'm giving out this resource to everyone concerning the creation of a pitch. Brenda Drake is a permanent mentor here at 1st 5 Pages, and she’s collected a lot of great material to help authors on her website. The link is:

    So, as I’m reading, I’m seeing too much detail. Try something like: “When Dolyn is shaken by the screams of a young woman who’d been buried alive a century before, no one believes her. It’s only when Dolyn’s arrested for public disorder that she’s given a chance to prove she’s not crazy.” (Or something like that.)

    So condense your story and hit only what’s necessary to tell the agent what you’re writing about. We need to know that Dolyn hears voices. We need to know she’s tried to tell people about the buried girl, but no one believes her, and we need to know she’s been arrested.

    Here’s where I’m confused. How does her arrest cause her to go to crime scenes? I put down that she’d been disorderly, because I don’t know why a judge would allow a blackmailer to help police. Blackmailers are untrustworthy, so I’d look at that motivation for her arrest and subsequent job with the police as an informant.

    Someone told me something really helpful once. Your query doesn’t need to relate exactly what’s in the story. It just needs to make it sound amazing. So, if what’s in your query isn’t sequential, that’s okay, just so long it sounds good.

    Now on to your revisions.

    The opening reads very smoothly. I’d get ride of: “She reminded herself that this street..” You don’t need it. Just start out with, “Lombard Street had been closed…” Getting rid of the clause is because it's not necessary to the story. Remember to reference Lombard street at the beginning to ground the reader as in: “She was seated within Lombard Street’s graffiti-covered bus stop…”

    Add Lainie’s boyfriend’s name: “…Lainie’s idiot boyfriend Trey Mclatchy destroyed it.” That way I know exactly who Trey is when I first read his name. It’s all about not making your reader search their brains too hard to figure out who is who in these beginning pages.

    The last paragraph could use a bit of smoothing. Try something like: “Listen to me!” Trey had demanded before he yanked it away from her and threw it to the pavement, cracking the screen and rendering it useless.
    (new paragraph) “Prior to its destruction, Dolyn wondered if…”

    I love the line “…future nuclear physicists would probably reference it in their research papers.”

    This isn’t exactly 5 pages, but it’s well executed and it reads smoothly. You’ve done an excellent job.


  3. Oh! You added more! That's fantastic! I'll take a look at what you added and get back to you.


  4. Joe,

    You wrote: I needed that iPod! she had screamed. It drowned out the noise!

    At first I didn’t understand she was screaming this bit at the police. So make that clearer.

    You wrote: Hopefully the power outage didn’t extend to all the city’s jackhammers.

    It’s not just jackhammers, it’s all the combined noises of construction so simplify this by saying something like: “…power outage didn’t extend too far beyond Lombard Street.”

    "It drowned out the noise!" I'm pretty sure I know what “it” refers to in this sentence, but name it, which I think is water. Water drowns out the noise. Right? Only use "it" if it has a clear antecedent.

    You wrote: “What she said was, “I packed a sandwich, JAKE!” Make this part more immediate. “Instead, she yelled back, “I packed a sandwich, Jake!”

    Be careful of using all caps. It’s not really necessary, especially if you use an exclamation point.

    I still think you need something to explain why she can ignore the voices as she cranes her neck to see into the hole.

    You’ve done a really good job in the revision process. I want you to really go over this and look for places that may need explaining or clarity or smoothing out. Motivation is key. I have to believe she can find a way to function through the noises that she hears.

    Great job!


  5. First, Dolyn going to the exact site where they would uncover this coffin where she is the only one who could hear the woman's screams seems like too big of a coincidence. Was she drawn there? And if so, make that clear.

    I think the query could be condensed and have some redundancies eliminated.

    A possible revision:
    After being released from the psych ward, seventeen-year-old Dolyn Pierce visits a water main repair site, confident that the jackhammers will drown out the voices of the dead.

    . . . victim swears she’ll seek revenge on the perpetrators, their children, and their children's children. Dolyn is soon arrested for blackmail . . .

    Remember brevity is key. Instead of "their children, and their children's children," use "descendants." Cut as much as possible.

    Also, there is a disconnect right here. What did she do to get herself arrested? Example: When the victim swears revenge on the descendents, Dolyn blackmails a ? to do ? in her effort to save them.

    . . . this to the detective only gets Dolyn ridiculed; . . .

    An inconsistency--if they believe she can hear the dead, it isn't such a shock that there are supernatural elements at play. Why would they trust her in one aspect and then think she's crazy in another. This might be explained in the story very well and feel plausible, but here it feels disingenuous.

    . . . the woman couldn't have been buried alive. Her heart had been removed from her body and placed in the bottle sealed in her coffin.

    Is this middle even necessary? We know she's done stuff, has to work with the detective, and then here you give us higher stakes--very well done if you ask me. She's going to lose the one guy who sees her curse as a gift, allows her to help people with it, and his life is threatened. LOVE.

    Dolyn will have to trace the remaining descendants on her own if she's to have any hope of saving them. One of the names may be the ancestor of the detective who has become her friend and guardian.


    Inconsistency--if this is the day after she was released, how did she come here several times before and know Jake's name?

    Avoid capitols unless you want us to jump in our seats.

    The details of the iPod debacle can wait until later. I think it's important that you show this, that she needed it, that it's what landed her in the psych ward, but direct quotations and specifics drag the current action. Keep us in the now as much as possible.

    Also like the barrage of noise in this scene, the drown it out language--you've gotten me inside her head, helped me sympathize with what she's constantly going through. Very well done.


    This pitch was exciting and clear, though I wasn't sure why Dolyn was arrested for blackmail, or why her sentencing would involve working on crime scenes--that seemed a bit unlikely. Still, I have enough information and voice here to make a decision about whether this story is up my alley.

    As for the pages: I like the voice, though the pacing felt a bit off. I would have liked a little less time spent on describing her surroundings, and more time spent on why she needed that noise in the first place. It was unclear what was meant by "echoes from the past" when the noises described seemed to be the sort of thing she could be hearing in the present, sitting on the street. Indeed, we then had to be told the street was quiet. Instead, it would have made more sense to have her hear voices/noises that clearly couldn't be happening in that moment, or at least to establish that the street was quiet without the voices first, before having them roar back into her head. I'm also not a fan of flashbacks early on, especially in the first five pages. It's important to establish the present scene and character, to establish your story, before you look backward. I wonder if perhaps this story isn't starting in the right place, or at least, could be tweaked to better show the conflict at hand? It would allow us to get to the real point of the scene: finding what's buried under the street.

  7. This concept is intriguing!

    I'd love to understand how the blackmail charge fits in. And I agree, with other comments, that being sentenced to help solve crimes doesn't make sense. But maybe the cops offer a deal - help with a tough case in exchange for a lighter sentence? There's a popular tv show where an art thief got out of jail by agreeing to work with the FBI. No idea if it's realistic.

    It seems odd that the cops want her help yet are ridiculing her. But I like the stakes.

    On your pages:

    I think Dolyn's condition is more clear in this revision. I really like part about the iPod. That explains how she's been coping up to now. Still, the difference between the construction noise and the traffic noise is not clear. Why is one good and the other bad. The jackhammer as white noise contrasting with the voices might be clearer. What is it about the voices that drives her nuts?

    The other thing I like about the iPod is that it shows her in a bit more sympathetic light, and also shows that she's badass, always good in an MC.

    I don't think the part with Jake is working as well for you. I mean, Jake's an ass, but it makes Dolyn unlikable too. It's clear that voices in her head are the problem. Maybe you don't need Jake to make it clear that she's hearing a voice from the dead woman in the coffin.

    Best of luck with your story as you revise and query!

  8. Hi Joe,

    I LOVE this concept. So fun! However, I do think you need to smooth out this pitch. As others have pointed out, it's a little confusing. I don't have a clear idea of how we get from Point A to Point B to Point C. The part about blackmail is especially throwing me off.

    As for the pages, I think there's too much backstory right at the beginning. Focus on the here and now. Perhaps you should consider starting a day earlier - the moment she is released from the psych ward. That could make for a very interesting first five pages.

    Best of luck! Thanks for sharing! It's been a pleasure to read your work.