Sunday, March 12, 2017

1st 5 Pages March Workshop- Murphy Rev 1

Name: Caroline Murphy
Genre: Middle Grade, contemporary, magic realism
Title: The Journey

Mei Lin’s blistered fingers hesitated before passing an identity card to the young security guard, vigilant at the entrance of the Lucky Foot Shoe Factory. This guy was new. She hoped he was no better at spotting fake IDs than the other couldn’t-care-less guards, who barely glanced at the factory girls’ cards before waving them through.

“Wu Li Juan,” he read aloud, teasing out the words. He peered more closely at the photo. Mei Lin’s head dipped quickly, causing wings of black hair to fold around her cheeks. She peeped up through her lashes.

The guard squinted behind his glasses, as though to x-ray through her shield of hair. He looked again at the face on the card, then laughed. Not unkindly.

“Go!” he gestured, as he swiped the ID. “Have a nice day, Miss Wu.”

Mei Lin scuttled past him, fumbling to put the card in her pocket as she pushed through the turnstile. She hurried towards the throng of women and girls ahead of her. Among them, she could be anonymous. Just another young girl far from home. Alone.

Flanked by the nameless women, she breathed again. But her feet slowed down with each step closer to entering the factory.

“Go on, Mei Lin. Hurry up!” hissed a voice, and Mei Lin spun to see her bunk-mate Qing Ling angling towards her from another turnstile. The older girl nudged Mei Lin towards the doors. Mei Lin risked a swift look over her shoulder at the guard, whose eyes were searching the crowd.

“Shhhh! He’ll hear you,” begged Mei Lin. “Don’t call me that!”

She wished Qing Ling would be more careful about using her real name; that loudmouth would get her fired sooner than the borrowed ID card which claimed she was sixteen – nearly three years older than her actual age.

She’d lose this job if the bosses knew she was underage. And she really couldn’t afford to. This was her chance to help her family. Mei Lin was counting down the days to her first month’s salary next week. A few days ago, Qing Ling had laughed and said she’d be lucky if the boss gave her a quarter of the money. “He’ll keep it all till you’ve been here a year. In any case, the agent will take most of it to pay your debt.”

But whatever money eventually came to her, her parents would be thankful. Hundreds of miles away in Hebei Province, they laboured hard on their small plot of land, growing crops of peanuts. Qing Ling’s carelessness could send her back there in disgrace.

“Oh, come on!” said Qing Ling. “We grew up in the same village; you’ll always be Mei Lin to me. And you’re fooling no one with that stupid ID. Why did you go in his line? I keep telling you to go to the old guy who always forgets his specs. Now stop dawdling…”

Just as the pair pushed against the doors leading into the factory, a voice called out:

“Ms Wu! Wait!”

The guard! With panicked eyes, Mei Lin turned to Qing Ling. The older girl grabbed the younger girl’s clammy hand and squeezed, popping a blister. Mei Lin didn’t notice the pain.

In ten swift, tile-clicking steps, the guard reached the two girls. The other guards at the entrance turned to watch. At the far desk, the shift supervisor stood up, ready to move to assist, but a casual wave of their colleague’s hand assured them there was no problem. Loudly, “You dropped your ID, young lady!” The supervisor sat back down. Excitement over.

Mei Lin tentatively reached out her free hand to take the card. “Lucky I caught you in time, eh?” Again, in a voice that carried: “You don’t want to be losing that!”

Then, he leaned closer, breathing out the warm aroma of peanuts. It felt like a blessing on Mei Lin’s face. In a whisper that only the two girls could hear, “That card will get you kicked out if the Super sees it. Try to buy one that looks more like you.”

He turned and marched back to his post. Mei Lin stood, slack-jawed; the smell of peanuts had stunned her as much as his advice. She sighed at the memory of boiled peanuts, imagining them cracking between her teeth, releasing their sweet and salty braise. Oh, how she missed the aroma of cloves and cinnamon and star anise, stewing for hours in a pot, with her grandmother possessively tending the dish. “Don’t interfere,” she’d scold Mei Lin’s mother. “You always put too much soy sauce.”

Mei Lin’s mouth watered at that moment with longing. Her stomach grumbled. She’d had her usual breakfast of congee in the dormitory canteen. The portions were miserly; the congee runny. Not like Grandma’s.

A yank on her hand broke her reverie. “Lucky escape!” said Qing Ling. She pulled her along in the direction of the changing room, already swarming with workers. Mei Lin was caught in their music: squeals and low humming and wild chatter. Perhaps they were trying to get all their words and emotions out before hours of silence descended on the factory floor.

Like her, they donned pink overcoats and yellow aprons, and tugged yellow paper booties onto their feet, until the room resembled a vast cage of chirping lovebirds. She tumbled her long hair into a net, perched her yellow cap on her head, scrubbed her hands, checked her nails… Hmmm, perhaps a little longer than regulation allowed. And a couple were broken. She’d have to trim them tonight. If she had the energy. After a twelve-hour shift, she had no stamina to gossip with the other girls in the dormitory before lights out at 9pm. Perhaps that was why she had yet to make any friends?

Five minutes later she was seated, one of thousands of yellow-hatted, black-haired heads bowing to their workstations. For the first hour or two there would be banter and a little stifled laughter, as long as the floor supervisor was in a different section. After that, the voices dried up, and really, what was there to talk about?

From her perch on her hard stool, Mei Lin could see Qing Ling a few workers away. Occasionally they would smile at each other, feeling a camaraderie that came from long hours, aching backs, sore fingers. She couldn’t call her a friend. She wasn’t even sure they liked each other, though their shared village childhood counted for something in this foreign place.

Around her, Shu, Yueyue and Xiao Dan buckled down to their tasks. Like her, they were young and had small and nimble fingers. She suspected they were also below the legal age of sixteen. The task of threading laces through eyelets was gifted to them all.

“At least you still have all your fingers,” whispered Yueyue, as Mei Lin cried herself to sleep during the first two weeks in the dormitory of Lucky Foot Shoe Factory. “My friend in the cutting room isn’t so fortunate.” With a flair for drama, she mimed slicing off a digit. “Now she’s good for nothing. Got sent back home in disgrace. Be grateful for pain in ten fingers instead of nine,” she comforted.

Perhaps the memory made her flinch. Mei Lin’s fingers roughly fumbled with the boot. She couldn’t say how it happened… she was always so careful… but a jagged nail scraped across the polished leather. She froze in horror. This careless mistake could get her sent back home.


  1. Hi Caroline!

    I really loved this revision. The writing was so strong and evocative. In particular, I thought how you wove in Mei Lin's fond memories of her home much more smoothly, with smell as a trigger. Though I do think you can take out one of the three mentions of peanuts ;)

    I'm going to push to strengthen your piece even further, so we can reach more heights. First, I'd suggest emphasizing Mei Lin's unique traits a bit more. This is a story where the young girls are thoroughly dehumanized by the callous, unfair system they're placed in. Mei Lin is one of them. But as the author, you want to show the reader why Mei Lin is special. Right now, I worry for her, but I want to *care* for her as much as possible. What makes Mei Lin different from the other girls? And not in the "she has a special power" way, but her personality, her character, her growth. Even if that all comes later, you have to leave in the slightest hints of this from the very beginning.

    Another suggestion I'd make is bringing up the magical realism angle earlier, even at the expense of pushing back other elements in the story. If this were an adult story, I wouldn't mind the pacing. But for MG, where readers are young and easy to lose, we need magic. For example, you could save Mei Lin's interactions with the girls or her thoughts on her nails for later and give us a taste of the magic that's to come. The beginning is about the hooking the reader and you need to use every card available.

    I think it's definitely getting close. I'm really looking forward to the next revision!


  2. Hi Caroline,

    I agree with Silvia that the details set the scene well. The scent of peanuts on the guard and the memory play well together.

    To make this stronger I'd try to imagine what a ten-year=old would tell her friend it was about after reading this far. The setting is interesting, but breaking a rule is more interesting, accidentally, and knowing what may happen if that's discovered is even more "got to know"! I'd try to put the reader in Mei Lin's shoes even more than you do. That may be an issue of POV or adding more to make her character closest to our heart, or adding a greater sense of peril.

    I am embarrassed to say that I didn't understand in the last version that the nail that scratched the boot was a fingernail. This time I get that, and with that clarity, immediately all the hand and finger details jump out at me. You don't want to terrify a young reader but you do begin with the blisters on the hands...What does Mei Lin make of her own hands? What do her hands do and touch at home? Her hands have become tools. Just saying.
    I am excited that you are writing this!

  3. Hello Caroline.

    I liked your first version and this is even better. The relationship with Quin Ling is is far more clear this round and their interactions feels true.

    I like the flashback about the grandmother's cooking but suggest you consider the necessity of adding the the dialog there. I think it paints a nice picture and provides a view of Mei Lin's current state of hunger.

    There could/perhaps should be a hint toward the future direction of the story, in terms of any magic/supernatural events and/or abilities. An early tease or suspicious action/thought could be enough to get the reader thinking that something more is going on than what appears to be happening.

    I know this is just the first few pages of an entire novel, and while the stage is being set and character(s) introduced, the expectation seems to be that hints crucial to the plot need to be woven into these pages.

    I continually find this challenging and find it both amusing and frustrating as I continue to hone my writing, and receive feedback that tells me to cut story information and then later the comment is that there needs to be more information.

    I believe the key is to find the proper balance (which I am still working on).

    This is very good and you have set an interesting scene. I am curious to see what happens to the characters next.


  4. Hi Caroline!

    I like this revision over the original for sure, you've got a stronger back ground and details in.

    However I have to echo what others are saying and to bring in some of the magical realism to your story! Just a tease of it here or there or even at the end would give a quick taste of what we can expect. Right now if I picked this up, I would read this for pure realism and how the story has played out.

    My only other concern is that it feels like you may have given a little more information as far as background. Things regarding the mother and grandmother I may suggest cutting down. I pictured already with the mention of sending money back to her family how dire the situation is. This extra information can be spread out later.

    Over all you've got a very strong piece that invokes some heavy themes. I am really looking forward to your story once you decide to release it!


  5. Caroline,
    I think you did a fabulous job on the revisions. I do agree it would be great to get a hint of something magical going on. Right now, it does read like a straight contemporary. And the only other thought I had was you might consider adding a line or two of what the actual factory inside looks like.