Monday, September 11, 2017

1st 5 Pages September Workshop - Singrey Rev 1

Name: Abigail Singrey
Genre: Middle Grade Historical Fiction
Title: Finding North

The Susan sailed into Plymouth Harbor just ahead of the hurricane.

Nate heard the news on Market Street. His head whipped around so fast that he stumbled right into a cart, kicking it hard.

The two woman talking stared at him and one sniffed hard. But Nate didn’t care. “Did you say The Susan?”

“Yes?” the woman said.

“What of her?” Nate asked.

“Heard she was back. Been trading in the West Indes. Brought back a load of silk.” She shrugged.

Nate touched the piece of scrimshaw in the pouch strapped to his waist. The carved whale’s tooth was his last – no, his only—gift from his father, and his good luck charm on his voyages. Maybe, if he hadn’t given it to Nate . . .

Nate started to run towards the end of the street, where masts lined Catwater Harbor. He pulled his spyglass out of his pouch, scanning the names painted on the sides of the ships. He skipped the Royal Navy frigates and galleons, their guns pointed outward, ready if the Frenchies attacked. He moved past the East Indiamen, huge merchant vessels that traded with China and the Far East. He stopped when he reached the tiny, two-mast merchant ships.  The FalconThe St. GeorgeThe Susan.

Nate’s heart skipped a beat. The last time he’d seen that ship was burned into his memory like a brand from George the blacksmith’s forge. His heart still felt the thud of Captain Williams, that vile man, dropping his father’s sea chest at their front door. The words swirled in his head. Gone. Disappeared. Don’t know what happened. Maybe yellow fever. Deserter. Here’s his things. And Nate’s world had shattered.

A raindrop fell on Nate’s head, as the wind whipped through the cobblestone streets. It roared between the shops and houses, banging an unfastened shutter. It billowed through Nate’s too-big jacket, sending stabbing shivers down his spine. The hurricane had almost arrived. And Mother would need the basket of bread Nate clutched in his hand. By now, the dining hall in the lodging house would be filled with hungry, loud sailors ready to fall on the midday meal like a pack of ravenous wolves.

Nate walked the streets by memory, lost in his thoughts. As soon as he walked into the kitchen, Mother said, “You’re late.” She yanked the basket of bread from his hands and hustled to the table, grabbing a knife to slice it. Her blonde hair fell out of her bun, and soup splatters clung to her apron.

“New ship in harbor,” Nate said.

She nodded. Nate spent every free second running down to the harbor to meet new ships. Nate opened his mouth to tell her it was The Susan, then bit his tongue. He wasn’t ready. Instead, he ducked straight up the back stairs to his cramped attic bedroom. With his father’s sea chest looming against one wall, and his cot and chamber pot shoved against another, every time he turned around he bumped into something. Ever since he turned thirteen and got his growth spurt, he’d seemed too big. For both his bedroom and his life here in Plymouth.

Nate threw open the lid of the sea chest. Mother had sold off everything of value from the chest to help make ends meet around the lodging house, except for the one thing that had no value to anyone but Nate- his father’s diary. Nate smoothed open the salt-stained pages, catching a whiff of Father’s peculiar scent of sweat and tobacco.

Nate had read it so many times he about had it memorized. He’d studied every entry about the weather and how much father won and lost -mostly lost - gambling, searching for some hidden meaning or clue. But he’d only found one, the cryptic last entry that scrawled across the last page as if Father had written it in a hurry. “Meeting Henry Drax tomorrow. May make my fortune. B. told me where to go.”

Nate shut the diary. He was tired of waiting for answers in Plymouth. Tired of meeting every ship from Barbados at the dock, and interrogating the crew. Tired of everyone saying they hadn’t heard from his father. Nate needed to find a ship to take him to Barbados so he could see for himself.

 “Nate! A little help here!” his mother called. Nate sighed and went to help serve dinner.

As soon as he entered the dining room, the stench hit his nose. Spoiled fish, tar and who knows what else. Wet sailor smelled as bad as wet dog. The recent arrivals jockeyed for position by the fire, trying to get the damp out of their clothes, while the dryer ones filled the long table, laughing and calling back and forth as Mother filled their cups.

Then the door opened. A blast of cold air entered the room as a tall, bundled up figure arrived. From hisrolling gait, the man had just gotten off a ship and hadn’t quite gotten his land legs yet. Another customer for dinner.

Nate started to turn, when he caught a glimpse of the man’s face. He stared. Was it . . . Nate’s teeth clenched, then he spat.

Captain Williams stood in the dining room of Nate’s lodging house.

Mother froze in the middle of the room, holding a pitcher with one hand, while her free hand twisted her apron. Her mouth formed a perfect, “O.” She didn’t scream or drop anything, though. She swayed a little, then steadied herself.

The sailors sitting at the table didn’t glance up, distracted by their food, but the three sitting by the fire noticed the tension in the room. They leaned forward, straining to hear. Gawking. Gathering gossip to share at the dockyard tomorrow. Nate wanted to grab them by their rank-smelling collars and hustle them out, even though they were burly and twice his size. His family tragedy was not for their personal amusement. But they were paying customers, drinking steaming cups of tea.

Instead, Nate stepped closer. Between them and Mother. Block their view a little. His hands clenched into fists. The nerve of that ship captain. Leaving his father in Barbados then coming traipsing in here like nothing had even happened. That moment changed Nate’s life forever. Did he not know Mother still cried herself to sleep at night? That Nate ached to see his father again? He didn’t seem to care.

“Mary, wanted to see how you was doing,” Captain Williams said.

“We’re fine. Just fine.” Mother jerked the pitcher back, sloshing water on a sailor’s sleeve.

“Storm’s a’brewin’,” Captain Williams said. “Pity any ship hasn’t made it in yet.” He shifted his weight from one leg to the other, uncomfortable towering over Mother’s tiny figure.

“What do you want?” Mother took a few steps back.

“Need a bed, a few meals. Ship’ll be restocked in three days.” Captain Williams frowned. Maybe he’d expected a warmer welcome.

“Captain’s room is empty.” Mother pointed to a door.

“Where you shippin’ out to?” one of the sailors asked.

“Back to Barbados. Need another load of sugar,” Captain Williams said.

Mother’s face went white. Nate sucked in his breath.

“I hadn’t been back since, well . . .” Captain Williams’ eyes moved up and down like a ship on the sea until he noticed me. “This Judah’s son?” His eyes focused, zoomed in like a telescope.

Mother nodded.


  1. I love your first line! Its perfect.

    You've really changed things up in the beginning and it feels more organic in how he discovers The Susan. The changes have great pacing and it was oozing tension.

    I'd like to see Nate's reaction to Captain Williams come through a bit stronger, really dig in and show his anger. I get that feeling, but I think it could be stronger.

    I'm mixed on how I feel about Captain Williams, he seems to know he's not welcome there, but he just kind of waltzes in and asks for a room and dinner anyway. And Nate's mom just tells him what room he can have. Maybe show her reaction a little keener too?

    But I really love the changes you've made!

  2. This is a great revision, I really enjoyed reading!

    My comments are really minor/finessing points I want to mention, because you did a really good job on the overall structure edits!

    -I think you can punch up the description in the first line, give a real sense of how dangerous it is that the hurricane is approaching and what it’s threatening to do to Nate's town. Also to show the surprise that the Susan, that this PARTICULAR ship, has arrived and just what it means to Nate

    -There are some instances of telling versus showing that I didn't notice before
    "Nate heard" -> The news filtered into Nate's ears
    "Nate started to run towards" -> Nate ran towards

    -Watch how you start sentences - you want a good mix and not rely on the same structure. Many start with "Nate spent, Nate opened, Nate smoothed" etc, often times in consecutive appearance and it interrupts the flow of a reader.

    I'd like to see some more personality regarding Captain Williams - he's seems a bit 'stock' to me. Meaning he shows up at the tavern, but he's rather emotionless - I can't tell if he's snide, if he's reluctant to talk, if he's angry or he's feeling guilty about something... either giving a reader reason to like to dislike a character is a good thing!

  3. Hi Abigail,

    I love your revisions! This is clear, tense, and makes me want to read on, with a charming voice to it and a lot of fascinating little moments. What I think it's missing is the wow factor--your prose is really good, it could be great. I commented this on another entry and the more slush I read as an editor the more I find it to be true-- it takes a special book to go from good to great. If you want to take it up a notch, give us those magical ingredients. Rich, complex emotion that's specifically relatable to MG readers, descriptions that surprise and intrigue us (without being flowery), subtext that makes me read between the lines, sensory detail that makes us feel like we're there. That's what agents and editors will be looking for.

    A while ago, for example, I read a description of flowers that absolutely hooked me. The writer said that a vase was crammed so full of lilies that they were bursting out the top like fireworks, and that they were her favorite flower because they were so mean. Lilies being mean and lilies being compared to fireworks makes me think. It surprises me while also striking me as true. It makes me look at lilies in a new way for just a second. It convinces me this author has something to say, and it's going to be compelling. Of course for MG it needs to be adjusted for that great MG voice and things that will strike that age range as true and fascinating in particular.

    One way you can work on this is to look at MG writers whose voice and style you really admire. Find a passage and read it slowly, 1 line at a time, to see how they describe action, trees, emotion, body parts. Note what words and images make you think or make you feel. I'd even try typing out a passage in a word document. Feeling the syntax and word choice of a truly great writer by typing it out can really make you see things you haven't before, and shake up some of your own habits. Of course you don't want to mimic them, but if you type out the opening pages of your 5 favorite books, I guarantee you'll find something that helps add depth and nuance and subtext to your own writing.

    There are also some really amazing books on writing with some great prose advice linked here on my website's writer resources page: I think Donald Maass's The Emotional Craft of Fiction there could really help with this, as well as the typing exercise. Basically, all this opening needs is those moments and lines that will make the book stay with us. Subtext, nuance, surprising little gems hidden all over that make us think THIS character sees the world in a unique way, THIS writer is going to take us somewhere special, THIS book will surprise us.

    I think you're basically there because this is a genuinely good opening and you clearly have talent. I just want to see what sets your book apart, and what experience the reader is going to have with this character and conflict showcased through little moments of connection and moments that catch our imagination.

  4. I like your new opening line. It gave me an instantly excited feeling. I also enjoyed the new descriptions of the ships. I also liked your description of the smells in the dining room: very vivid. Most of the critique I have is pretty minor.

    I’m not sure if the dialogue with the two women is necessary; I think you could tell us Nate had overheard about The Susan arriving in one sentence and get to the action faster.

    I thought this paragraph got a little bit confusing: “Nate touched the piece of scrimshaw in the pouch strapped to his waist. The carved whale’s tooth was his last – no, his only—gift from his father, and his good luck charm on his voyages. Maybe, if he hadn’t given it to Nate . . .” If I hadn’t read your original draft, I think this paragraph would have given me the impression Nate’s father was still on The Susan and Nate was worried about him coming back alive or not, instead of him being already deceased.

    The moment when Captain Williams arrives, do you think you could slip in some description about what he looks like? This is such an important moment that I want to visualize it really clearly. I was also really curious about why he wouldn’t feel awkward at all showing up at the inn after the last time he was there was to call Nate’s father a deserter. I think getting more facial expressions or emotions from him would help me understand him as a character.

    “until he noticed me” should be “until he noticed Nate.”

  5. Hi Abigail,

    Thank you so much for sharing your revision with us today!

    Your new opening is great. It hooks, it builds, and it subsequently draws the reader right into the story. I'm so glad to see this! You really found a much better angle of entry.

    The dialogue with the two women is again a bit of a red herring. They immediately go away, so Nate could tell us this information, or just overhear one line. Best not to give these characters dialogue right away if they aren't sticking around in the narrative. I know you're trying to "show," but this is a good place for telling with some voice!

    We still need a touch more clarification on whether Nate's father is dead and he is awaiting his return, or what. We need that insight in the first mention of the father. This leads into the next area that I stumbled over when reading, right here:

    "By now, the dining hall in the lodging house would be filled with hungry, loud sailors ready to fall on the midday meal like a pack of ravenous wolves.

    Nate walked the streets by memory, lost in his thoughts. As soon as he walked into the kitchen, Mother said, “You’re late.” "

    At what point does Nate leave the ship? We seem to have skipped over that part. Later, Nate mentions how he interrogates the ships that arrive--for what? information on his father, yes? So does he do that with the Susan? If yes, show us. If no, lead us through his decision not to do it right then (storm is pressing, mom is waiting). If he is waiting to go back later, make sure we know. Right now the arrival of the Susan is very exciting and then putters out. We need some kind of conclusion at that moment to keep us rolling forward with Nate's objective.

    I LOVE the diary. I can practically feel it in my hands. I'd like a little more depth of emotion there--give us the layers. What three emotions is Nate feeling? What emotion is he ashamed of feeling right then? He needs to spill his heart to really hook us, and one way to do that is by surprising us with his depth of feeling. It would be great if Nate made a mark or noted something on a list, some reason for opening the diary beyond re-reading it. That would make it a purposeful action.

    Later, when Cap. W arrives, I am a bit confused by this line:

    "“Storm’s a’brewin’,” Captain Williams said. “Pity any ship hasn’t made it in yet.”"

    Did the Susan not just arrive? Needs some clarification.

    Overall, now that you have a nice organized entry into the world and the story. I think you could let this sit for a few days and then come back and have some fun playing with how you say things. Give it your individual voice with a few metaphors that light up the setting and the feelings Nate is having.

    All in all, great progress. Don't be afraid to let each of these moments dwell a little longer now that you have the progression sorted.

    If you haven't read BEYOND THE BRIGHT SEA, run to it. The language will inspire you and you specific setting.

    My best,
    First Five Mentor

  6. I love how you start off with a bang. This beginning is definitely more suspenseful than the other, and makes the reader curious about why this news has such an effect on Nate, and what the story behind it is.

    My only suggestion would be that the dialogue with the ladies is unnecessary, and could be replaced with a summation and description. Instead of this random dialogue taking place in an undefined location, maybe just say that Nate heard it, and give the readers a couple details to ground them in the scene? You don't need to add a paragraph of description or anything like that, but with no details as to the character's immediate surroundings, it can feel a little bit like they're just floating in limbo.

    Nice work with the revision!