Sunday, November 6, 2011

12 1st 5 Pages November Workshop - Entry #4

Pirates of Time and the Navigator's Watch
Beth MacKinney
Genre: Middle Grade sci-fi

Near the salt mines of Altaussee, Austria

The navigator’s breath condensed in faint puffs illuminated by dim moonlight. Brambles and tree branches tore at his face and clothes as he stumbled over the uneven ground of the dark forest. The stitch in his side cut into his gut.

He hazarded one quick glance over his shoulder. Shards of light flickered through the trees about 50 meters behind him. They were closing in, and they were confident, even brazen, to be using lights. He took a ragged gasp of air into his starved lungs and veered to the right through a thick clump of dark bushes. For a split second his brain wondered why the ground seemed blacker than it had a moment before, and then he knew, too late to do more than attempt a weak swerve to the left before the small rocks at the edge of a ravine rolled away under his feet. He plunged over the edge and pitched into the void below. Sudden impact with the ground knocked the air out of him, and rocks and underbrush scraped across his hands and face as he half slid, half rolled down the stony incline, coming to rest at the bottom with a sickening crunch of bone. It was his ankle.

The navigator pushed against the bracken on the forest floor with his hands. He toppled and gasped as pain shot up his leg. The night sky spun above him while he swallowed against the metallic taste on his tongue, fighting for consciousness.

Even in the darkness he could tell there was no way back up the way he had come. In a moment they would be above him, and if his ankle was really broken, he was well and truly trapped. He felt for the small case in his jacket pocket and fumbled to open it. His fingers traced the face of the unusual pocket watch, checking for breaks or dents in the cold metal, but there were none. It's faint ticking reassured him.

Light dribbled through the heavy undergrowth above but was suddenly extinguished. The navigator inched backwards against the rough trunk of a massive tree, biting his lip against the pain as his ankle flopped weakly to one side. Even in the cold night air, beads of perspiration popped out on his forehead as pain radiated through his body. He hoped he was mostly hidden, but his leg jutted out at an awkward angle. He brushed leaves and sticks over it with his hands. A hard bump protruding from the tree jabbed him in the back. As he explored it, he realized that just below it was a fist-sized hole, just large enough for his precious cargo.

Silence for a moment, then low men’s voices filtered down through the night air. With his heart thundering in his ears, the navigator took slow deep breaths in an effort to quiet his breathing.

“Do you think he's down there?”

“Maybe. I don’t hear anything.”

“Someone will have to go down. Quickly.”

More low conversation that he couldn’t make out. Finally, “I’ll go.”

There was a rustling and a few rocks clattered down. The navigator shrank back. Would they kill him or just leave him here, stranded in 1945?

“Halt!” A harsh German voice rang out from the opposite side of the ravine.

There was silence as the climber above him stopped, followed by a wild scrambling over rocks and brush. A burst of gunfire erupted from the rim of the ravine and was answered from the other side by the Germans.

“So much for preserving the timeline,” the navigator mumbled, hunching down and covering his head.

The gunfire became one-sided from the Germans.

The navigator shoved the small box deep into the knothole of the tree. Better that it be lost forever than for Hitler’s soldiers to find it.

“Don’t shoot!” he yelled in French. “I’ve fallen into the ravine! I’m hurt!”

He waited.

Chapter 1

It was really the hat’s fault.

In middle school, the eighth graders are at the top of the food chain. Seventh graders are at the bottom. New kids start at the bottom, but work their way up by being stooges to eighth graders or by being exceptionally cool in some desirable way. Being a seventh grader, I tried to avoid the food chain altogether by being invisible. I wasn’t good or bad at anything. I was just in the middle, flying under the radar.

Buzz Murphy, the new kid who had dazzled Kentmore Junior High, didn’t start at the bottom of anything and was in the middle of everything. Practically a year ahead in school and rumored to be good at every sport known to man, Buzz annoyed me. This is why, when I looked up from my lunch in the school cafeteria on Thursday, I was irritated to realize I was sitting at an empty table. My best friend Spencer, another invisible, had deserted me to hover at the edge of Buzz’s newly-formed crowd a couple of tables away. My eyes narrowed. Buzz was wearing a faded, green, standard issue army hat pulled down over brown curly hair.

I hated the hat.

Like a moth to the flame, I stood up and walked to the table of admirers, arriving just in time to hear the end of Buzz’s favorite spiel , “—and someday I’ll be flying a helicopters for the army.”

Yada, yada, yada. Like we cared.

Ronald Rosenstein’s eyes bugged out behind his glasses. “Wow! That would be so cool.”

I was not impressed, and I wanted to shake every one of them and say, “This is a normal kid, just like us, only with a bigger mouth and imagination.” What was wrong with these guys?

Silence fell over the room. Buzz’s face flushed red.

“What did you say?”

Had I said something? I didn’t think so.

Buzz rose on the opposite side of the lunch table, towering a good three inches below me. Every kid in a ten foot radius took a step back. Not me, of course. I was staring at the army hat. It had me in its clutches. I almost felt brave.

“Uh—” I began.

Buzz launched herself over the table end and slammed into me with a force that propelled me into Nelson Ribicki and his lunch tray of spaghetti. My head grazed a table leg as we went down under a cafeteria table, sliding through pasta and sauce. Kids scrambled to get out of the way. Boys yelled and girls shrieked. Someone shouted, “Food fight!”

We rolled to the side, and Buzz’s hat fell off. A large red glob of spaghetti sauce dripped off the edge of the table and landed where it had been a moment before. Without the weird power of the hat fogging my brain, it cleared a little.

“Here comes Mrs. Temple!”

I pushed Buzz away and scrambled to my feet, pulling spaghetti off my shirt. Mrs. Temple was the lunchroom mom, and she didn’t put up with anything. I had witnesses, though. I hadn’t done anything except talk.

As I scraped pasta off my shirt, someone yelled, “Duck!"

Instead, I looked up. Just in time to catch Buzz’s fist with my left eye.


  1. I love the story. Very well written and funny when it should be. I like the prologue. I think it helps set the story. I think the phrase, "brown curly hair" sounds slightly stilted though. "curly brown hair," sounds better to me. I also like the phrase, "towering a good three inches below me." I find the characters very easy to identify with too.

  2. Hi Beth,

    I really like your writing! It is clear and fluid and you have good strong action in both scenes.

    My biggest concern centers on your prologue. I'm not just mentioning it due to the standard warning against starting with a prologue, because I think they can work, but yours concerns me because you're starting a MG story with adults at war. Plus, the main character in this scene is not personally identified. I know you're shooting for a bit of mystery, but that technique also results in putting some distance between the reader and the character. I think with both items together -- an adult set-up and a murky character -- you risk losing your reader at the beginning. I think it would be better to start with your main character in chapter one.

    In the chapter one scene, a couple of items confused me. One, why would you hold off revealing Buzz to be a girl? Are you setting her up as a tomboy-type character? I think you can do that without hiding the fact that she's a girl. When you finally said, "Buzz launched herself over the table," I stopped reading, thought you'd made a pronoun mistake, and had to go back and reread to be sure. I didn't really want to be stopped in the forward action of the story this early into it. Unless you have a compelling reason for hiding for a few paragraphs that she's a girl, I'd say go ahead and use that "she" pronoun within the first paragraph that she's introduced. We'll still see her tomboy character.

    The other concern is with the hat. I know we're just a few paragraphs into this scene, but I'd love to know just a bit more about the hat and why your main character thinks it affected him (I'm assuming it's a him). You don't need to go into any long explanations -- a few words, a phrase, just something to give the reader an idea, a hint, as to why he hates the hat or why he thinks it made him feel brave.

    You end on a nice hook.

    What I'm really missing in this first chapter scene is a better connection with your MC. I'd like to know for sure if he's a boy. I'd kind of like to know his name. And I think if I knew why he thought the hat affected him, that would probably give me the insight into his feelings that I'm looking for here as well.

    Please keep in mind that these are only my opinions, and I could be wrong. I do really like your writing. You have a very nice voice and a nice balance of action and dialogue. You start scene one at a good place. I'm also curious to know what happens next, so you did your job!

    I'll look forward to seeing any revisions that you choose to make and I hope you get great feedback from the rest of the community.


  3. I LOVE your voice at the beginning of Chapter one. And I love the scene.

    I did have a little problem with the first part too - the 1945 war. Being a WWII buff, I like that you are including this in a story, but I agree that it might be a little to adult to start off with.

    And I assume the hat will figure prominently in the story, or at least in the next few chapters. I can't wait to read more! Thanks!

  4. Thanks all for your comments so far. It's revealing to see how fresh eyes see what I've been working on.

    @ SP Sipal. Actually, the inclusion of the pronoun "herself" was a mistake I made after tweaking my rough before submitting. The original version didn't have it. Buzz is a girl (tomboy) but in the ms, that isn't revealed until much later. (It's something that Richard Peck often does in his writing, and I was using that same technique. When it does come out, it's obvious and is a surprise to my MC's grandfather.)

    Although I liked the action of the prologue, in the end I know it will probably have to go. It helped me when I was writing the rough, though, and I thought it would be interesting to keep it in and see what you all thought. (Can't hurt in an open critique. Nothing to lose here!)

    My work's cut out for me this week! : )

  5. Personally, I don't have a problem with the prologue. It might be a bit adult, but it's also fascinating -- it automatically sets up (to my mind) the fact that your hero is going to find something adult and dangerous and crucial.

    I didn't get that Buzz was a girl at all, actually. I thought "herself" was a typo. It just didn't play for me -- it felt natural that your protagonist would be irritated by a loud-mouthed, sports-excelling boy of his own age, but a tomboy girl with a penchant for an army hat and bragging seems like it would have a different shade to it. I can't imagine him leaving that out of his internal monologue.

    Overall, I loved this. :) Great work.

  6. Hi Beth!!! I LOVE your first chapter. I haven't made my mind up about not being in on the secret that Buzz is a girl. I don't think I would like to get halfway through the book, and realize the person I've been imagining is WAY off. I also agree with someone else here who said that they find it hard to believe that Buzz's being a girl wouldn't slip into your MC's internal monologue. I guess I'll never know, though, since I DO know she's a girl now. ; )

    As for the prologue, I thought the end was intriguing! But I thought the language was too old. I think I might like it still, though. I'd have to read the rest to decide.

    Good luck working it all out, and keep up the good work!

  7. Hi Katie,

    Thanks for taking a look at it. I kicked myself when I saw the pronoun error. With my local writing group, they didn't know until they got to my point of revelation. Arg! Oh well. : ) Not the end of the world.

  8. I loved the writing in both sections and really want to know how they tie together. Given the depth of what went on in the prologue, I'd be expecting the detail of that narrative to play quite a major part or to re-emerge in different ways (memories of veterans?). I'd be a bit puzzled if it continued strictly in a middle grade context. I do like the idea that you're pushing the boundary for that age group a little with the prologue and how you continue that (the contrast between the two is very sharp) is what intrigues me most. Keeping the gender of Buzz obscured felt a tiny bit gimmickly somehow.

    Really strong writing, though, and lots of pacy action driving things forward...

  9. Hi Dadwhowrites, : )

    Yeah, revealed as it was too early by accident, it probably did sound that way. When it comes out later, it fits in better with the story and is funny.

  10. Really like both sections, though they currently almost feel like two different books. I wish we got to read more so that I can find out how you'll blend the two distinct voices. Only real issue I found was this one:

    "In a moment they would be above him, and if his ankle was really broken, he was well and truly trapped" --> Skip the "and if" part and keep going. You stall the action a bit. Just do "...above him and he would be well and truly trapped."

  11. First off, from the references in the prologue I'm guessing that this is a time travel, which really intrigues me. I love any and all things time travel, and the whole thing where the navigator is talking about how his pursuers don't care about the established timeline; that was cool.

    That being said, I agree with the other commenters that your prologue doesn't really feel MG. I love it, I love what it adds to the story, I love the time travel and the WW2 setting, but it feels more YA to me. That almost makes the transition from the prologue (high stakes war) to the first chapter (cafeteria food fight) feel a little off.

    And, weighing in on the Buzz thing, I have a question.... does the narrator know that Buzz is a girl? If the narrator knows this, then I'd personally reveal it right away. If the narrator doesn't know she's a girl, then by all means conceal it, but I hate it when writers hide something from the reader and the main character knows it. It just seems sneaky.

    Also, I'd watch your use of descriptive words; they start to feel repetitive after awhile. Take this sentence for instance: "He took a RAGGED gasp of air into his STARVED lungs and veered to the right through a THICK clump of DARK bushes." Something like, "He took a ragged gasp, veering through a thick clump of bushes," would be a lot simpler and would sound better. Descriptive words are good, but make you you need them. You don't need to say that he took a breath into his lungs (where else would he take a breath into?) and since it's night, the bushes are obviously dark.

    Also, since your prologue is so action-packed, you might consider splitting it up into shorter sentences and paragraphs. Right now it feels more descriptive than action. Cutting some of your larger paragraphs into several will go a long way, as will eliminating extraneous description.

    Those are my thoughts so far. As I said, I absolutely love your concept, and I really like the way you skillfully weave it into the prologue. I'm a sucker for anything time travel, so I can't wait to see this in revisions. :)

  12. Thanks for the added comments, everyone. They've all been so helpful.

    @ Elanor: Lol! Right about the lungs. Isn't that funny how writers (especially me) miss that kind of thing sometimes. I laughed when I saw what you meant.

    Hope you all like the revisions, and please stop by for more comments about what you think. I really (forgive the adverb and exclamation point) appreciate your input!


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