Saturday, September 2, 2017

1st 5 Pages September Workshop- Singrey

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

Chapter One
The wind whipped through the cobblestone streets of Plymouth, England, tearing the tri-cornered hat right off the head of the old man selling vegetables. The wind roared between the shops and houses on Market Street, banging an unfastened shutter. It billowed through Nate’s too-big jacket, sending stabbing shivers down his spine. The sky darkened as the first cold raindrop plunked down on Nate’s head. The hurricane had almost arrived, and Nate had one last errand he needed to run.

Nate broke into a run. Perhaps today he would finally get some news.

Masts lined Catwater Harbor. Nate 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 at the end of the row.  The FalconThe St. GeorgeThe Susan.

His heart skipped a beat. It was true. The Susan had docked in Plymouth harbor. 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.

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 drank in the ship with his eyes, taking in the name, faded paint on the side, and the masts and the hull. Somewhere within those wooden boards, his father had lived, breathed, laughed. He memorized every detail so he could call up the ship in his mind later.

The bells of St. Andrew’s church rang, reminding Nate that ship or no, he needed to get home to help his mother shutter the windows and prepare for the storm. He clutched the basket of bread he’d bought earlier. If he didn’t arrive soon, his mother would have his head. 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 took one last look at The Susan, the last ship his father had sailed on. He needed answers more than he needed oxygen. Why hadn’t his father returned from Barbados? What had happened?

Nate walked the streets by memory, lost in his thoughts, knowing which cobblestone stuck out above the others, ready to trip unsuspecting travelers, and where to turn to reach home. The wind pulled and tugged at his clothing as he walked, almost as if she was a pickpocket searching him for something of value.

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. He didn’t know how to feel about it yet, so he wasn’t prepared to deal with anyone else’s emotions, either. 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 his growth spurt, he’d seemed too big. For both his bedroom and his life here in Plymouth.

Nate threw open the lid of his father’s sea chest, which was empty except for a small leather-bound book. 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. He flipped through the pages.

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. 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. Tired of not knowing what happened. Nate needed to find a ship to take him to Barbados so he could see for himself.

His mother’s voice called him back to reality. “Nate! A little help here!” He sighed and walked back down the stairs to help serve dinner. His mother bustled around the kitchen, putting soup into bowls. Nate started to grab a bowl, but his mother batted his hand away.

“Fasten down the shutters!” she said. “Then serve food.”

Nate sighed, glancing out the window. Rain splattered the window, and he could hear the shutters banging against the house. The ominous black sky told him he didn’t have much time. He headed outside, struggling to wrestle the shutters into place.

Then movement caught his eye. A tall, bundled-up figure hurried along the streets, heading straight for his mother’s lodging house. From the rolling 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 back to the shutters, when he caught a glimpse of the man’s face. He stared. Was it . . . Nate’s teeth clenched, then he spat.

Captain Williams stopped in front of the lodging house, staring at the sign, peeling paint and all. Then he nodded to Nate and opened the door and walked. Nate stood in shock for a moment, then took a deep breath and followed him in.

Mother stood frozen 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.


  1. Hi Abigail!

    I want to read this to my nephew, it sounds like something he would like!

    I like how you open the scene in your first paragraph, my only suggestion would be to add something to denote the time of day? Maybe the early morning wind, or something of that nature?

    When Nate takes about his "heart still felt the thud" could you replace 'felt the thud" with reverberated? I don't know if that would be too tricky of a word for middle grade or not. the few middle grade books I have read usually have a smattering of upper level words, but I don't know what the process is so I might be completely off base! <3

    Maybe loud, hungry sailors instead of hungry, loud sailors- both modifiers work in either order, I think the first just flows smoother

    When his mother is serving the soup, maybe ladling the soup into bowls instead of putting?

    I love the set up (and I'm dying to know what news Captain Williams has brought). I like that Nate's goal is set up. He wants to unravel the mystery of his father's disappearance and knows that in order to do it, he has to take a ship and get out of Plymouth. I have one question about The Susan. Has it not been seen since the last time it returned and brought the tragic news of his father's disappearance? It was the only thing I was unsure of. I got the impression it hadn't been seen since then, but if that is the case, it could be made just a titch clearer.

    Definitely an intriguing set up!

  2. Hi Abigail! I really enjoyed this, wanted to say it right off the bat. Your descriptions are great and I feel very immersed in historical Plymouth. I don’t read MG, really at all, so I want to make that known, but to me the voice of Nate felt a little mature for MG. Is this upper MG by chance? I could be TOTALLY wrong, so if another person in the workshop says your voice is great for MG, definitely listen to them and not me, lol.

    We really don’t know Nate’s age within the first five pages, so that may confuse some readers. If it’s explicitly stated and I’ve missed it, forgive me, but I do see mention of a growth spurt. Making Nate’s age clearer is the first thing I’d suggest.

    As much as I love the descriptions you’ve written, grounding us in the setting of historical Plymouth, I feel there are paragraphs that can definitely be whittled down and made more streamlined, to help push the action forward, mainly in the time it takes Nate to get from the harbors to his mother’s lodging house, where I think the real intrigue is. Speaking of intrigue, I definitely want to know what’s happening with Captain Williams and how that relates to the mysterious disappearance of Nate’s father – I think that will hook readers and possibly agents more if it’s more present in the first five pages. So if you cut down on the earlier description and we get more page time of Williams and how Nate feels about him, that would be better.

    Great writing, I enjoyed it!

  3. Intriguing beginning. I’m getting a real sense of adventure a la Treasure Island. Nate is a likeable character, with how he tries to protect his mother.

    This is a minor point, but something about “tri-cornered hat” bothered me. This is such an iconic image of Plymouth that it felt cliché.

    I’d love to get a bit more description of the ships. You paint an interesting picture of ships from around the world. Surely they look different from each other.

    As a matter of opinion, maybe you should save the flashback for later? It might be interesting to not get the full story about Nate’s father and his tension with Captain William, in order to leave the readers wondering. Or drop the bombshell when Captain William first arrives. Just suggestions. I’m curious to see what you do with this!

  4. Hi Abigail,

    Thanks for submitting your pages. You've got some nice work here. You've really made your environment come to life. The setting is great and your voice is spot-on. You have a good rhythm with your words, which is one of the most important factors in writing fiction.

    I felt much more at ease after your introductory paragraph. It seems a little over-worked, like you wanted to get everything in there. Take a look and see if you can cull it down a little. You can still use the wind, but just dial it back. Once I got to: "Nate broke into a run," I was off and running with him.

    It might flow better by deleting just one line:
    The sky darkened as the first cold raindrop plunked down on Nate’s head.

    Go back and read that first paragraph without it and see how it feels.

    Your description of the ships and the nautical stuff is vivid and intriguing. I think the voice is good for middle grade. There are a few small quibbles but nothing that would detract me from requesting it if I were an agent. A small one is when Nate sees the man coming up the street. I got a little lost on the logistics of it, and I didn’t know where Nate was in relation to the man and the boarding house.

    I'm looking forward to the next revision.

  5. Hello! Well, you've already got me hooked with the setting. I love historical fiction, and your descriptions are charming. I also like the intrigue you've set up about Nate and his past-- I can already tell there's a lot of backstory here.

    However, your writing style is a bit wooden in some places. A lot of sentences start with "he" and "his" and "Nate", and sequences where two or more actions follow each other don't flow very smoothly. Word variety and sentence structure are key components to making your work read well. You have to shake things up, add variety.

    I really do love your story and setting, however. Looking forward to reading the revision!

  6. Hi Abigail,

    Thank you for sharing your work with us today!

    You have a great start to your story here. It's easy to imagine the setting and follow the action, which makes entering the story easy and fun for the reader. It's clear that you know your history well, as evidenced by the many details woven throughout. As the piece went on, the voice loosened up and I started reading with even more enjoyment. There are a lot of good things to work with here!

    First, I'd love to see a bit more indication of where this story is going in the opening sentence or opening paragraph. I was disoriented until I understood that Nate was looking for his father, or clues about his father's disappearance.

    Right now the opening paragraph begins with a man losing his hat, which is distracting because we wonder at first if the story is centered on this man, when he is a red herring. Avoid that feeling by putting the camera on Nate from the very beginning. This wouldn't be as much of an issue if this was first person, but with third we need the camera to let us settle on an image, and going from this man to Nate in 2 sentences makes the head spin a bit. It would also be better if the opening line hooked the reader more.

    Right now, the only hook the reader has to keep reading in the first paragraph is the closing line, "The hurricane had almost arrived, and Nate had one last errand he needed to run." Even here, all we are left wondering is what Nate's errand is, and that's not a very interesting question. It doesn't make me feel urgent to read forward for the answer. We need to hook the reader with a question they actually want the answer to, ideally in the opening paragraph. Yes, you can lead them into the narrative with a series of rolling questions as you currently do, but young readers want a strong reason to read forward as soon as possible, so I recommend taking another stab at the opening.

    This is the first paragraph that captured my interest, because while setting is lovely it's not got the draw of matters of the heart:

    "His heart skipped a beat. It was true. The Susan had docked in Plymouth harbor. 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."

    Here, we become interested. Will has lost something. His father! He is overcome, so it's a fresh wound, and he's searching for answers. This is a question I must know the answers to. Perhaps a little bit of that flavor can seep into the opening paragraph. What if instead of mentioning errands (the word alone is tedious), Nate tells us his true goal:

    "The hurricane had almost arrived, and Nate had one last chance to find his father."

    Now, this suggestion is still awkward and you'll think of something far better as you revise, but now the reader understands what is at stake. Not rushing to pick up the laundry or some such, but finding a lost family member. That's the question that will keep them reading. Let Nate share it with us far sooner. Use a word that hooks, like "disappearance."

    Beyond your opening, the rest of the selection reads better and better as you go. I might suggest re-writing on a blank page or out loud in order to find that fresh, urgent entry into your world. There are also places where the writing has a few too many details crammed in--I suggest reading aloud to identify the spots where the sentences drag or become awkward. For instance, you list 4 sentence in a row about why Nate is tired. Three is the magic number in a list. It will read better with one less. Remember, our goal is NOT to give the reader a reason to stop reading!

    Best of luck in your revision.

    Melanie Conklin
    First Five mentor

  7. Hi Abigail,

    Wow, thank you for pages with so much heart! I love this. This paragraph both hooked me and killed me: "His heart skipped a beat. It was true. The Susan had docked in Plymouth harbor. 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."

    I agree with almost all of the notes above, especially with Melanie's notes about starting with more urgency and a clearer goal for Nate. Kicking off with something desperately important to Nate will really hook us. And you are doing that, but it's a little buried as to what he's doing that's so important and why he cares about it, so we have to read a while before we realize that. Your language is beautiful, though, and I really enjoyed the voice.

    My main comment is that these pages feel slow to me. They have some description and small, unimportant actions that can be pared out to remove clutter that waters down such important moments. It's really just a matter of looking at the pages word by word and trimming out the ones that aren't doing as much work. Reading them aloud can help your mind see them just differently enough to figure out which ones aren't doing their fair share.

    But overall, I really loved this and would have kept reading! You've got some amazing lines and some great emotion in this.