Sunday, June 5, 2011

6 1st 5 Pages Workshop - June Entry #5

Rosi Hollinbeck -- Middle Grade Historical

Freddy ran to his front porch and grabbed the tin pail. He could make it to the streetcar stop if he ran his hardest. The buttons on his knickers were loose, and the heavy cuffs flapped against his shins. Poppa wouldn’t like it if he looked like a bum. As much as he tried to please Poppa, there was always something between them. He arrived at the corner of Ohio and Green and saw the car two blocks away. Dropping the pail, he buttoned his knickers below his knees.

Squat, brick tenement buildings and a rusty overpass carrying Chicago traffic stood across from him. Someday he would design beautiful bridges and elegant skyscrapers like those in the Loop.

Poppa stepped from the streetcar and handed Freddy a quarter. They didn’t speak German much since the Great War, but when he spoke, his thick, guttural accent turned “w’s” into a “v’s” and the soft “th” sounds into hard “d’s” or “t’s.”

“No vasting time. Ve got some tings to talk about. You come straight home after de Schenke.” He turned and walked away.

“Well, that don’t sound good,” Freddy muttered as he walked to the speakeasy. Poppa was usually happy after work, but not today. Freddy better not make him wait. He had a mean streak sometimes.

Freddy pushed his way to the bar and put his pail up. He could barely see over the tall counter, but Otto knew who he was and what he wanted. And he knew better than to give Freddy a pail of foam.

“How you doin’, kid?” Otto smiled down at him. “Got a quarter? Put it up here.”

Freddy slapped the quarter down and watched while Otto filled the pail and scraped foam off before fitting the lid. The Cubs game blared from the radio behind the bar. Grover Cleveland Alexander was pitching against the Boston Braves, and the Cubs weren’t doing too well.

“Stupid Cubs ain’t had a good year since 1918,” Freddy heard somebody growl.

Someone answered, “Not even a SNIFF of the series in eight years! Da bums.” He slammed his mug on the bar and pointed to it, letting Otto know he wanted another.

Freddy loved the Cubbies. He would like to hang around and listen to the game, but didn’t dare.

Otto pushed the pail across, and Freddy took it, walking as quickly as he could without sloshing. It was only two blocks to home, but the wire handle cut into his hands. His arms ached by the time he set the pail on the sink-board. He pumped cool water to get the kinks from his fingers.

When he turned around, Poppa loomed over him. Poppa lifted the lid and nodded with a satisfied look. “No vasteful foam. Das ist gut. And you didn’t spill none. Ya. Sehr gut.”

Yes. That is good. Good he got it right. Poppa took a glass mug from the cupboard and dipped into the beer. He drank it down without a breath and filled it again, sat heavily at the kitchen table, and kicked another chair out from under it.

“Come. Ve talk.” He nodded toward the chair.

Freddy heard a whisper of feet by the partly-closed door to the hallway. His older sisters, Emmi and Gertrud, peeked between door and frame. Emmi crouched so Trudy could see over her, and she wiggled her forefinger at Freddy as if waving hello. Freddy sat. His feet didn’t quite reach the floor, and he swung them without thinking.

Poppa drank another half beer and wiped flecks of foam from his bushy mustache. His sharp blue eyes pinned Freddy to the chair.

“Momma been getting sicker and sicker. Doctor says she needs better medicine and food. More meat and such. You vant Momma to get vell, don’tcha?” Poppa said.

“Of course, Poppa. We all want Momma to get well.” Why would he ask?

Freddy searched his memory, trying to figure out when she had first gotten sick. It was a few days before Christmas. Now in August, she was still staying in bed. She was a little bump under the covers and couldn’t talk very loud. She seemed to be shrinking. Even though Trudy was only fourteen and Emmi twelve, they took care of all Momma’s needs, cooking for her and dressing her, gently bathing her and helping her turn so she wouldn’t get sores.

They all worried – his sisters and even his grown brothers, Walter and Karl, who came by to visit two or three times a week after work.

Freddy helped Momma walk to the back porch each afternoon to sit in the sun for a little. He was almost as tall as she was and thought he probably weighed more. He surely was stronger. When she laid her hand on his arm, it was as if a dry autumn leaf had landed there. Sometimes he thought he should carry her out, but she was so fragile, he was afraid she would break or fly away on a puff of wind.

Poppa picked up the salt shaker and sprinkled some in his beer. “Dey are cutting back hours at da factory. Dey only gonna pay us to vork ten hours each day and only half a day on Saturdays.” He stared at the table top, then picked up the glass and drained it again. “You’re gonna need to go, Freddy. Ve can’t afford to keep you.”

Freddy heard a quiet sob from behind the door. When he looked, Trudy was gone, but Emmi remained. Freddy swallowed hard, forcing tears down.

“What do you mean go, Poppa? I’m ten. Go where?” Freddy tried to look into his Poppa’s eyes, but Poppa took his jackknife out, opened the little blade, and started cleaning the black from under his cracked, blunt fingernails.

When Poppa spoke, his voice was thick, as if he needed to clear his throat. He seemed embarrassed. “Ve don’t got enough, Freddy. You’re a man now. You need to go.”


  1. Oh my!! Way to end the first five. Wow. Poor little Freddy. :( So plot = check! Now, what can we work on? I would start by eliminating lines like: "As much as he tried to please Poppa, there was always something between them." and "He had a mean streak sometimes." Better to show than tell, and the lines around these give us a better impression of Papa. Both through Papa's actions and Freddy's.

    I understand the need for the father's accent and the slang of Freddy and the guys at the Speakeasy (would he call it that? IDK), but if you force too much dialect in there, it pulls out the reader and trips us up. SO, what I would do is pick one or two words/phrases that are necessary and use those. A little goes a long way, IMHO.

    The description of the mother is good, but a tad long. Streamline that. I liked this: "Freddy helped Momma walk to the back porch each afternoon to sit in the sun for a little. He was almost as tall as she was and thought he probably weighed more. He surely was stronger. When she laid her hand on his arm, it was as if a dry autumn leaf had landed there. Sometimes he thought he should carry her out, but she was so fragile, he was afraid she would break or fly away on a puff of wind." The sisters' roles in the house could be shown also instead of told. E.g., Is the smell of food making his stomach grumble? Who made it?

    I think you have a very nice start here, with some great details (e.g., Papa's voice and cleaning his nails at the end). I like the premise too. You just need to smooth it over some, and make sure every word is necessary. :D

  2. I really like this, and what a place to end it! You have a great hook.

    The opening paragraph was really dynamic and really balanced action and description. From there though, I felt things got a little slower. There were places the action kind of stopped while something was described or explained. Don't stop. Keep going and make any observations organic to the character.

    For example, when you mention the mother, rather than telling us how fragile she is, have one of the sisters helping her to the bathroom or something and have Freddie following her painfully slow progress across the room while he and his father talk.

    Overall though, this is a great opening and one I'd definitely read more of.

  3. Very nice. Snaps for giving us an immediate sense of the setting, which I think is really important for an historical story. Also, it's great how quickly the story moved into (I'm assuming) the inciting incident. You absolutely nailed it for creating a compelling start. I want to know what happens to Freddie, absolutely.

    Kate and Lisa have already given some strong feedback about showing versus telling. In that vein, I felt like the line, "Stupid Cubs ain’t had a good year since 1918," felt a little forced to me. Or if not forced, not exactly necessary since you've already done a really good job immersing the reader into the time period (and in fewer than 1250 words!).

    Also, I think Freddie comes off as unusually articulate toward the end when he says, "What do you mean go, Poppa? I’m ten." A valid question, to be sure, but I think most people would be so shocked that they'd just say, "What? Huh?" And maybe not think of a counter-argument immediately. Unless getting sent off at a young age is not entirely uncommon, in which case, Freddie might have some internal monologue about how he's shocked that it's HIM. Or something.

    Of course, Freddie might just be really articulate. If that's his character, then it makes sense that he'd react that way. The overly articulate thing was just something I noticed.

    Still, I'm definitely interested in what happens next. This is PERFECT for an historical novel. It pulls the modern reader into a situation that they might never find themselves in, but can still relate to and find compelling.

  4. Hi Rosi!

    Wow. Amazing premise! I would definitely love to read this book, but I have to say I wasn't hooked until the last three paragraphs. Granted we always hear that the first five pages are critical, there isn't necessarily any guarantee that an agent, editor, or reader will get to that fifth page if every paragraph up to that point doesn't draw you deeper.

    Rather than focusing on your historical world-building here, I'd love to get drop-kicked into a normal day that shows us the family Freddie stands to lose and, if possible, a hint of the dangerous world he is going to get launched into on his own. Does that make any sense? How does Poppa losing his job change the dynamic? Could he be home at a time when Freddie doesn't expect him? How does he behave that's different? How does he feel about what he's doing to Freddie? How do the sisters feel? What do they think is going on? What is Freddie's normal role in the family and taking care of his mother? Can you show her to us as a bump under hte covers instead of telling us about it?

    Try to imagine the scene from everyone's perspective, Poppa sitting with his head buried in his hands when Freddie comes home in the middle of the day and the sisters in turmoil and the mother crying in her bed, and Freddie trying to pick up the slack or whatever his personality and personal dynamic would be within the family unit while Poppa tries to drown his sorrows. Then seeing Poppa respond to something Freddie does or says. Or whatever works within your characters' situations. Hopefully you get where I'm going. Even if you don't end up using any of it, I suspect that would change the way you write about the opening.

    This is an amazing, eye-opening, delicious premise. I would love to see you truly exploit it! Really looking forward to seeing what you do with the revision.

    Also, I definitely agree with the dialect. I just finished an ms with several characters that speak in broken English. I researched a lot before I did this and ended up using syntax instead of spelling to convey the IDEA of dialect without making the reader work for it. Obviously, this is something that is going to be personal to you and to your characters, but I'd recommend a rethink on what you are doing so far.

    Best regards,


  5. Thanks to all of you. This is certainly food for thought. A couple of things: an earlier rendition used only syntax for Poppa, but an editor I had a consult with suggested I write it this way since Poppa isn't in the story for very long. I liked the syntax way of doing it better and may go back to that. Also, Poppa didn't lose his job -- just had some pay cutbacks. I intend to work on some rewrites and will try to get a revision up here soon. By the way, the seed for this book is in my father's childhood. He was forced to leave home at age ten and go out on his own. Things were different in those days. Thanks again for all your input.

  6. Entry 5: Wow. When can I read the rest?


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