Saturday, March 4, 2017

1st Five Pages March Workshop- Murphy

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

Blistered fingers hesitated before passing an ID card to the security guard, vigilant at the entrance of the Lucky Foot Shoe Factory. “Wu Li Juan,” he read aloud, teasing out the words. He peered more closely at the card and then tried to catch the girl’s cast down eyes with his enquiring ones. She blushed and dipped her head, letting wings of black hair fold around her cheeks.

The guard squinted behind the lenses of his spectacles, as if to x-ray through the shield of hair hiding her face. He looked again at the face on the card.

“You’re prettier than this photo.”

Her head lowered further.

He laughed. Not unkindly.

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

She scuttled past him, retrieving the card and pressing it into her palm so tightly that a half-healed blister popped open. Wincing, she passed through the turnstile. A few steps forward and she hesitated.

“Go on, Mei Lin. Move!” hissed a voice, and Mei Lin spun to see her colleague Qing Ling angling towards her from another security checkpoint. The older girl nudged Mei Lin towards the doors. Mei Lin risked a swift look over her shoulder at the guard. He seemed still to be focused on her.

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

“Oh, come on! 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 door leading into the factory, Mei Lin heard a yell.

“Ms Wu! Wait!”

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

In ten swift, tile-clicking steps, the guard reached the two girls. The four other guards at the entrance had halted their own lines to look curiously in his direction. At the far desk, the shift supervisor stood up, ready to move to assist.

A casual wave of their young colleague’s hand told them no back-up was needed. Loudly, “You dropped your ID, young lady!” The supervisor sat back down.

Mei Lin glanced downwards. Her card was still in her hand. Blocking curious eyes with his body, the guard pretended to pass her something. “There you go!” Again, in a voice that carried: “You don’t want to be losing that!”

Then, in a whisper that only the two girls could hear, “I’ll get you a better ID. That one will get you kicked out of here if the Super sees it. Looks nothing like you.”

He turned and marched back to his post. The girls gaped at each other, but Qing Ling recovered first and pushed her friend through the doorway.

“What was that?” she demanded. “Is he sweet on you?”

Mei Lin blushed. “Don’t be ridiculous. He’s at least eighteen. I’m only thirteen. I don’t think he’d notice me!”

Qing Ling smirked. “Yes, but your ID says you’re sixteen. And actually, I bet he’s only sixteen too. I reckon he used fake ID to get the job and that’s why he says he can get you a better one.”

The younger girl pondered this as they were swept up by a swarm of other girls coming through the doors, chattering wildly, trying to get all their words and emotions out before hours of silence descended on the factory floor.

The two girls moved forward, Qing Ling confident, Mei Lin with reluctant feet. It would be a long twelve hours before they walked in the other direction again. She wished Qing Ling would be more careful about using her real name; she might give the game away sooner than the ID card she’d bought from a friend of a friend.

Not that it was a game. This job was the chance to escape hardship and poverty. She was due her first month’s salary next week. Qing Ling had laughed and said she’d be lucky if the boss gave her a quarter of that. “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, she knew her parents would be grateful. Hundreds of miles away in Hebei Province, they laboured hard on their small plot of land to grow crops of peanuts.

Mei Lin 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.”

Her granddaughter’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.

Mei Lin shook off her reverie and side-by-side with Qing Ling, she trudged to the changing room. She was always taken aback by the crowded mass of women and girls. She would never get to know all their names.

Like her, they donned pink overcoats and yellow aprons, and tugged yellow paper booties on to 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. 

Five minutes later she was sitting down, 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 and aching bodies. She couldn’t call her a friend. She wasn’t even sure they liked each other. But they knew each other from childhood and that counted for something in this foreign place.

Around her, Shu, Yueyue, Xiao Dan and Xiao Feng buckled down to their tasks. Like her, they were young and had small and nimble fingers. The task of threading laces through eyelets was gifted to them.

“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 lucky.” 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.

Somehow the memory made her flinch. Mei Lin’s fingers 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.


  1. You do a great job of showing detail: the showing vs. telling that every author is encouraged to write to allow a reader to see the story unfold. That is a definite plus!

    What is needed, especially in the first page, is a clearer sense of point of view and grounding. The first page reads a bit like a page two, where initial story information had been presented already, only we missed it. Mainly, who is the character we are following? While it can be great to be dropped into a scene where action is happening, we also need some grounding statements to orient the reader.

    The story appears to be told in omniscient point of view, or a very distant third point of view. Lots of children’s books have used a distant narrator voice, but I can’t tell whether this is an intentional choice here or not. Reading on, it feels like this should be written as a third person point of view where we see the story through one character’s eyes at a time. The shifting POV plus the immediate mistaken identity makes this initially difficult to follow.

    For example, when the security guard “tried to catch the girl’s cast down eyes” this to me sounds like our main character is watching this happen to someone else, but I believe Wu Li Juan aka Mei Ling is our point of view character. A few paragraphs later, we see “Mei Lin heard a yell” which assumes we are in Mei Ling’s point of view. I think it would work better to adjust to a closer third person so Mei Ling is telling us the story through her perspective. References to Mei Ling as “the girl” or later “the granddaughter” further confuse by making it seem like these are different characters.
    Here’s a suggested adjustment for the first paragraph (I try not to rewrite other people’s work, but I’m doing this for clarity—please don’t feel like you have to use this specific wording!).

    > Blistered fingers hesitated before passing an ID card to the security guard, vigilant at the entrance of the Lucky Foot Shoe Factory. Mei Ling held her breath. She spoke a silent prayer the guard wouldn’t question the name or the photo, neither of which belonged to her.
    > “Wu Li Juan,” he read aloud, teasing out the words. He peered more closely at the card and then tried to catch Mei Ling’s eyes. She quickly looked away, letting wings of black hair fold around her cheeks.

    This paragraph is a good example of grounding to give context to the reader. I suggest moving this up to page one:

    > Not that it was a game. This job was the chance to escape hardship and poverty. She was due her first month’s salary next week. Qing Ling had laughed and said she’d be lucky if the boss gave her a quarter of that. “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.”

    In page 1-2 we should know which character’s story we are following, a clear understanding of setting, and an idea of why the character is where they are, what they want (hints of it) and what conflict they face. I think you have all the elements here, but that first page really needs to work hard to orient the reader right away.

    1. Thank you, Stephanie. I appreciate the guidance on POV - I know I struggle with keeping that true sometimes. I wonder if there are any blog posts on the subject that you'd recommend?
      Also, useful feedback on grounding - I think I worry about not info-dumping too much background information. I'll take another look at giving more context.
      Thank you for your very useful critique.

    2. I would suggest searching for point of view articles on Janice Hardy's Fiction University blog to start

  2. Hello Caroline.

    This seems like a really powerful story you are setting up here. This world is intriguing and in some ways a bit frightening and sad.

    I like your characters and can see them developing here.

    There are some great descriptions of character details and setting that help me connect with the story.

    In offering some suggestions for revision, I would say that right up front the 'blistered fingers hesitated..' is a good image for a movie storyboard, but here I feel we need to know who these fingers belong to and I can't help but feel that the longer we have to wait to find out/figure out that they belong to Mei Lin, the greater chance you have a losing a reader.

    There seem to be some POV questions that I have as I read. I'm seeing it as mainly third person from Mei Lin's perspective, but in some of the section the POV is unclear.

    I know we are supposed to be broad, and not nit-picky with detail, but there are just a few that I may throw out there for you to consider. Sometimes a single term that seems out of place can be jarring. The first one I hit was 'colleague' in the 8th pgh down. It seems like such a mature term I pictured these women with briefcases entering a high-rise legal office (which is not the case). So maybe something simple like co-worker would fit better in the context, that is unless you have a specific reason that the character would use that term (that we find out later).

    Again, I think this is the beginning of a very compelling story and look forward to seeing more.


    1. Thanks, Patrick. Good point about making sure I don't lose my reader with a confusing first line. I'll re-visit that.
      And you are so right about 'colleague' - doncha just hate it when you write a word, knowing it's not quite right, but think "No one will notice!"? ;-)

  3. Hi Caroline!

    This looks like an intriguing beginning to a unique, powerful story. I love the details of the blistered fingers--already, I'm asking questions--but I'd definitely begin the first line with Mei Lin's real name. It avoids confusion for later (and yes, I was rather confused when her names were mixed up) and doubly adds intrigue to the fact that Mei Lin is using a fake ID to get through. I also quite liked the interaction between her and the guard, which played nicely between the line of unnerving and reassuring, though I had no idea he was so young until later. Perhaps you could bring this up in the second or third sentence. Most readers would think of an older man when they hear the word "security guard."

    The word "colleague" also took me out of the story for a bit because it was so adult and office-like. And I know I'm nitpicking a bit, but Mei Lin's reaction "Shhhh! He'll hear you" comes too late, unless Qing Ling had called her Mei Lin twice. I'd also be careful of POV because the story seems to be following Mei Lin, but there are times when it switches to other characters. For example, when the narrative calls Mei Lin "her granddaughter," as if it's speaking from the grandmother's perspective, was quite jarring.

    Overall, though, I love the little details, like the smells of cloves and cinnamon, and the skillful manner in which you weave past with present, which increases the stakes. The mention of a girl who lost her finger was both powerful and excellent for tension. After building up the oppressive atmopshere of the setting, I thought you did an excellent job by ending on what seems like such a simple, innocent mistake--but could mean the end of the world for the protagonist.

    Good job!


    1. Thank you, Silvia. I appreciate your feedback. I'll try to minimise the confusion at the beginning, and look again at POV.

  4. Hi there Caroline,

    Your story has a bit of a bite of reality that I really enjoyed. It has a rawness to it that really got my attention and had me take notice.

    My main issue was like others have pointed out: The POV gave me a bit of a loop with how it bounced around a little. Wasn't sure if it was a total 3rd person narrator from all perspectives or not. I'm assuming you were more limited in on Mei Lin.

    You've painted the scene and environment well for me without going too much details on the actual location; I got a whiff of the conditions of their lives, but I want to get more information on our MC. The last line for made me have the first pang of real care for her. I know information dumping is a real concern but tightening up the POV and giving just a bit more information about her would ground you.

    Look forward to seeing more!

    1. Thanks for mentioning about the POV, Cal. I'm really going to work on tightening that up. Hopefully that will give you more empathy for Mei Lin.
      I appreciate the feedback.

  5. Hi Caroline,
    I am a teacher who works with young adult immigrants, many who run a great risk coming to the United States in order to work and send pay checks back to their families. It is good to see a story that shows a piece of that world, the priority of money for one's family over personal comfort and sense of belonging. It's so, so tough for kids and "unfair." And for a kid as young as Mei Lin...

    I want to know more about what Mei Lin is doing with the fake ID. It doesn't seem like all the others have them too, or ...? Are they all trying to pass as older than they really are as Qing Ling suggests?

    I have a strong visual sense of the factory after reading these pages and the process the workers go through to enter and get started, so I feel that this may be essential to what happens later.

    I like how the ID situation gives me a sense of mystery and also a space to learn more about the setting. Is the guard important later? His actions are very strange! A young man in such a "hostile" work environment would really walk away from his station for no reason but to make a verbal suggestion to Mei Lin? I am surprised that he didn't really have something to give her. Anyway, I am curious about who he is and why he did that, as I hope you intend.

  6. Thank you for your feedback, Kathi.
    I'm conflicted about the guard - I may minimise his role as I'm not sure yet if he will play a later part in this WIP. I think I was trying to give myself options about his importance.
    I have great admiration for teachers. Hats off to you! I imagine it's very rewarding to work with people who have such a stake in improving their lives.
    kind regards

  7. I think the writing is good. I like the writer’s voice and style, but I’m not sure whose fingers are blistered when reading the first line and because I wasn’t sure as a reader I found that line a bit jarring. I think you do a good job of placing the reader in the character’s mind, eventually. And you eventually manage to set us in the scene.

    The start of the story is very heavy with a suspense air, and I kept expecting something to happen, but then at the end I find myself in a sweat shop and I’m not sure how I feel about that as a reader. With such heavy suspense in the front I wasn’t expecting the worst thing to happen to her is she scratches a boot. It makes me wonder where the story is going. It’s a pretty depressing scene so far. Am I vested enough in this character to keep going down this dark path as a reader? I’m not sure. I think you need to telegraph more in the beginning where the story is headed.

    I do think with the scene where the sixteen-year-old boy tells her he will help her with an ID—I think you are throwing that scene away. I was interested in this boy who would risk helping her and I would have liked that scene to be a bit more and maybe just between the two at first. And then after maybe the friend commenting about it.

    I’m curious if this is going to be a middle grade or a tween book. Is there going to be a romance between the girl and boy? From what I understand in a middle grade books boys and girls are just friends. But in tween and YA they can have more romantic relationships. But it’s been about two years since I researched the difference between middle grade, tween and YA books.

    Hope you find something useful in this critique.