Sunday, January 15, 2017

January Workshop Revision 1 - McCourt

Name: Joe McCourt
Genre: Young Adult Horror

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 cried. She was seated in a graffiti-covered bus stop not ten paces from the perimeter of the job site, her trembling fingers ripping pages from the paperback she had shoplifted the night before. “It’s too early to be taking a break!”

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

“Dammit!” spat Dolyn, clapping her fists over her ears. She had come here specifically for the blissful din of jackhammers, hydraulics and earth-moving equipment. It was the only noise loud enough to quell the echoes that assaulted her day and night. 

Without the machinery in full gear-grinding mode, her auditory nerves were pounded by more than a decade’s worth of backfiring motors, whining diesel trucks, squealing 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 cops. 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 barely a fraction of the sound only she could hear. 

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 and hope the power outage hadn’t blown all the city’s jackhammers.

If it had, maybe she’d take a dip in the nearest fountain or, hell, 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.

I was just trying to drown it out.

She’d used that excuse a hundred times, but no one understood. Not even her old paranoid schizophrenic psychmate, who 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 thirty days 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.

“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.

“Do you call every woman you see ‘Girlie’?” Dolyn shouted back, then in a poor imitation of the man, bellowed, “Watch where you’re steppin’ there, girlie. You don’t wanna fall on your sweet patootie! 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 switched back to her normal voice. “Does Marjorie know what a sexist pig you are? She’s your wife, right? Would it kill you to say one nice thing about her?”

This was Dolyn’s gift (if you could call it that). She heard the past. And in some cases, could predict the future.

“H-how did you know ...”

Like that. She knew he’d ask. People always asked how Dolyn got her information.

Sometimes, she came close to admitting the truth. “Because right now I’m listening to everything you said two weeks ago.”

Close ... but never fully there.

“Now get back to work, JAKE! That pipe’s not gonna fix itself!”

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

Let the jerk stew in his own words.

And stew he did. His deeply-furrowed 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. 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 the 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. It was no good. The hole was deep and there were too many workmen blocking her view.

“It’s a box,” sighed 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.


  1. Hi Joe,

    The new opening works better for me! It is much clearer how the sound is affecting Dolyn. However, now I feel a little bogged down in explanations. That’s something I tried really hard to work on this week on my own first five.

    What I think you need to trim down is a bit of the explanations, and get to this moment a bit quicker:

    "If it had, maybe she’d take a dip in the nearest fountain or, hell, 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."

    This moment is golden for me. Suddenly, I see a pattern, it makes me worry about Dolyn’s mental health, it makes me doubt her as a narrator (well, her perspective!). This is great! I want to be here a bit quicker.

    Another little shift I would suggest. Can you move this up to the start? It would make a really arresting entry point.

    "Drown it out. Drown it out. Drown it out."

    And I think we need to get to the scene with the construction workers more quickly. It’s where Dolyn’s experience of the world can be shown rather than told. What you show (she can hear his fight from two weeks ago) is so much cooler than the explanation that she hears everything!

    Over all, I would like to see Dolyn’s backstory trimmed, and then woven into the scene at hand more!

    And man oh man, we still don’t get to look in the box?! Great way to end the first five!

    Looking forward to your pitch and tweaks on this!


  2. Hey Joe,

    I’m excited to see what you’ve done!

    I love how you approached the noises in her head. You say echoes. Can you be a bit more specific by adding “echoes of the past” to that sentence. I know, if feels “well duh,” but it makes it clear exactly what she’s hearing.

    The explanation of all she hears is pretty intense. My question is, how does she deal with all these ghostly noises from the past on a daily basis? How can she function? She needs to have a coping mechanism otherwise she’s a walking mess. Can it be that at this point in the story, that mechanism has broken down for a specific reason and that’s why she sought out the construction noise? It's because you’ve poured on so much auditory, I can’t imagine how she functions on a daily basis…like at all, which plays into her being admitted into a psych ward, but she would only be released when she could control those noises.

    I love, love, love your description of her time in the ward.

    I hate to be repetitive, but when she's talking to Jake how is she filtering the noises in order to grasp at a particular conversation he had two weeks ago? Your description earlier is so chaotic. It feels like she has absolutely no control, so it doesn’t make sense she can pick out a conversation amid the chaos.

    I’m not sure where all her anger is coming from. I get she’s scared, and the constant noise would drive anyone crazy. She has these impressions of the past, present and future vying for attention in her head, but that doesn’t give her a really good excuse to lash out. I need to be grounded in her anger. Where is it coming from?

    When she talks about things she can't possibly know, she invites questions. Would she? You say she just got out of a mental ward. I would think she'd be hyper sensitive about doing anything that could have her going back. If she’s lived with this problem for any length of time, she’s got to have developed a way to hush some noises in order to listen to others.

    I know I’m being picky, but this is such an amazing concept. You need to really think about what she would do and how she would cope. Medication? Meditation? Can she control the noise in some way? Consider the idea of her usually being able to cope, but then have her at times become so overwhelmed by the sounds that she has to “drown it all out”. Otherwise, being bombarded 24/7 isn’t livable. Dealing with constant noise will literally drive her insane. My mother is a psychotherapist and she deals with people who hear voices and it’s a very serious problem that for some, only medication can help. I suggest you take a step back and really look at Dolyn and her "gift", if that's what you want to call it.

    When I got to the part where they’re all looking into the hole, suddenly Dolyn seemed fine. So she can ignore the noise if her interest is focused on something. Expand on that. How does she do it?

    You probably hate me right now, but this is really important, and I wouldn’t be doing you any favors by ignoring this part of your character development. Dolyn is so interesting, but you have to make her believable. I have to believe, though this strange phenomenon is happening to her, she has the ability to function, to caring on a story that I will understand and believe is actually possible even though I know it’s not. Horror is basically all about the suspension of disbelief. I know in my head it’s not real, but the author has painted it so believably, that I actually bite on the premise. Dolyn has to be spot on. So she’s where most of your work is going to be focused. Nail her symptoms and idiosyncrasies and you’ll have an amazing story.

    By the way, I know cutting back on the banter of the construction workers was difficult, but you did a wonderful job. They now complement the story instead of sidetracking it. Big kudos!

    I can’t wait to read what you come up with next!


  3. Hi Joe,

    This is SO good. I'm hooked.

    I have a much better sense of Dolyn and her talents now than I did before. You did a great job explaining how sound affects her. In the previous version, I didn't realize that the outage was affecting the entire city; I thought it was just the construction site, so great job clearing that up! And this time around the focus is more on Dolyn than on the construction workers, so good job!

    I really don't have that much to critique, but I was still a bit confused by the paragraph beginning, "Doleyn could hear, with perfect clarity..." The description is great, but I need just one or two more words to show me that this is happening in the past.

    Great job! This is excellent!


  4. I think your new scene is clearer than last time, and it helps me to understand Dolyn condition. Though I’m still bothered a bit by the details…how can putting her hands over her ears do any good if she’s hearing 10 years worth of street noise? How does she pick out last year’s riots from the other noise? Is she able to focus the noise in some way? How can she hear Jake’s conversations from two weeks ago over all the other noise?

    I would love Dolyn to be more active rather than in her head. She gets involved in a couple short conversations, but they seem convenient, not central to your story.

    I wonder if there is a better place to start your story. If the riots are important, could we walk through the riots with Dolyn? Or even walk through them as their echos intrude on her, with her trying to push them out of her mind as she heads for another construction site? Something that will help us go deeper on one important thing rather than several different ones which aren’t fully explained?

    I think the fact that the crew has dug up a coffin is interesting too, but I still feel like my attention is shifting from her condition, to the riots, to her conversations, to her time in the psych ward to the coffin so I’m not sure where to focus.

    Sorry! I’m feeling the pain of first chapter not there yet too! I’m looking forward to reading again next week.

  5. Hi Joe!

    Again I want to say how much I love this concept, and Dolyn is such an intriguing character! For me, the new details of her time in the psych ward is absolutely the most interesting new addition. Having to take on and deal with others' past horrifying! I still feel a bit mired down in her hearing all the past riots. I understand that's probably going to become an important part of the plot line, later on. But as a few folks have already mentioned...I can't imagine how she could possibly function whatsoever if she's hearing the echo of everyone's voices from the WELL as every engine noise, crash, glass shattering...etc. Perhaps you could save the riot part and weave that in later? Focus on Dolyn hearing PEOPLE?

    Once again--as a book lover--I cringed at the page-ripping. What if she CRUMPLED the pages? PLEASE! HAHA!
    Also- You had one line in the first version that I just LOVED!!! For me, it really showed us Dolyn's character, and I would love to see you put it back in..
    "“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!”" HILARIOUS!

    I really enjoyed how Dolyn dealt with the nosy construction guy- messing with his head. GREAT JOB!

    At the end, I wonder if it wouldn't be a lot more intriguing to conclude the passage by merging the first and second last sentences.
    Something like...

    "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. It was no good. The hole was deep and there were too many workmen blocking her view.

    “Looks like some kind of box,” offered a pimply guy, only a little older than Dolyn. "Big, though."
    The oldest member of the crew removed his hard hat and ran gloved fingers through his graying hair. As he stared down into the hole, his breath emerged on tiny puffs of steam. "Naw," he said. "What we got here, fellas, is a damn coffin."

    You have done a wonderful job with this!!! I was interested from the very beginning and you're really finding your way with it! I can't wait to see what happens to Dolyn from here!!