Monday, September 3, 2012

7 1st 5 Pages September Workshop - Ramirez

Author: Cecilia Ramirez
Genre: Middle Grade Animal Adventure
Title:  Rancho Tails

Vato wolfed down the tamale the girl fed him and then he licked her hand. What a nice girl, he thought. He didn’t know who she was, or where she came from, but one thing was for sure, she knew how to treat a vato. Not like the other watchdogs on the rancho. They treated him like roadkill.

He nudged her side pocket and whined until she finally yanked a tamale out and tore through the greasy corn husk. Pieces of beef and deliciousness flew everywhere. Vato devoured them as soon as they hit the ground. “You are such a good dog,” she said, patting him on the head. “I will bring more tomorrow.”

Vato rubbed his nose against her hand, warmed by her praise and the promise of more tamales. The girl tossed a small piece into the stall behind her. “Go get it, boy,” she whispered.

He scrambled after it. When he scooped up the last crumb, he looked around for his new friend to thank her, maybe protect her from the coyotes prowling the rancho, but she was gone.

The stall door caught Vato’s eye. Fresh streaks of paint covered it. Vato groaned. His first night on the rancho and the horse barn got vandalized right under his nose. He hurried outside and sniffed the ground, hoping to catch some sign of that sneaky vandal, but the smell of tamales overpowered everything.

Vato hung his head. He not only missed his chance to catch the vandal, he gave the other watchdogs another reason to think he wasn’t good enough to be on the rancho. His old Jefe had given him away because he was a bad watchdog and Vato had no doubt the same thing would happen to him on this rancho too. He sat on his haunches and sighed. He might as well throw himself on top of a barbecue pit and light a match.

A noise near the chicken coop made Vato jump. He stared into the darkness and zeroed in on a slight movement inside the coop. He didn’t know what it was. It could be the vandal or even worse, coyotes!

His heart thumped against his chest. He barked at the chicken coop to check if it could be one of the other watchdogs but no one answered. Vato paced back and forth. If there were coyotes near the coop, he could save the day and his mistake with the vandal would be forgotten. But then again, no one knew he had made a mistake and he could act as surprised as everyone else when they saw the painted stall. A mistake is not a mistake unless someone catches it, he reasoned.

Vato got more excited. If he caught those coyotes, then he could prove to everyone he deserved a real watchdog assignment, like the chicken coop, and not be left to wander around the rancho like an opossum blinded by the daylight. He would not only be a good watchdog, he would be the best watchdog this rancho had ever seen, and they would never want him to leave.

Vato puffed out his chest and ran to the coop. If there were coyotes stealing the chickens, it was up to Vato to protect them, even if he didn’t know how, even if something bad might happen to him. He gulped. Suddenly, being the bravest and best watchdog appealed to him as much as rolling in barbed wire. Why couldn’t he be happy watching La Jefa’s flowerpots instead?

The closer he got to the chicken coop, the longer the shadows grew. Vato finally reached the coop when he heard something rustle inside. He whipped around and bared his teeth. “Show yourself, or I will squash you like a chancla on a cockroach!”


“Chale! It’s only a little pollito,” Vato said, giddy with relief. He stepped closer to the coop and raked his paw over the chicken wire fence, making it screech with one of his long nails. “Hola, little chicken. I’m Vato, a new watchdog. I saw a shadow inside the coop and thought it was a coyote.”

The chicken on the other side of the fence laughed. “What kind of watchdog mistakes a chicken for a coyote?”

Vato stepped back. How dare she make fun of him? Well, he was not having any of it. He growled. “You should be lucky I just ate or else I would wrap you in a corn tortilla and call you an embuelto!”

The chicken scurried into the shadows. Her voice cracked. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m sorry.”

“Chale, you should be,” Vato cried, trying to look big and brave, when all he felt was small and useless. “Who are you?”

“They call me, “Tiny’ because I am so little,” she said. She looked at the empty nest next to her. “Everything about me is little. Even the eggs I lay.”

“Do you know what happens to chickens who are too useless to lay eggs?” Vato asked.

“Wh-What?” Tiny whispered.

“They get covered in rice,” Vato said narrowing his eyes. “Haven’t you heard of arroz con pollo? Chicken with rice is my favorite.”

Tiny gasped. “That’s a terrible thing to say. I’m not useless. I tell jokes. I can make you laugh. Do you want to hear a joke?”

Vato shook his head. “I don’t like jokes, especially from a chicken.”

“I tell funny jokes,” she explained. “Sometimes it makes everyone forget how angry they are at me when I am in trouble.”

“That wouldn’t work with me. I don’t forget anything,” Vato said.

Tiny shrank back. “I know. I’ve heard that about you.”

“You see? I must be a good watchdog or you would have never heard of me. Isn’t that what the other dogs are saying? The goats? The horses? You can tell me. What are they saying?”

“They say you would rather eat us than protect us,” she croaked before she covered her face with her wing and quickly added. “They don’t think you can protect anything.”

Vato harrumphed. “Chale! I would protect you if you were worth eating. But it doesn’t look like there is very much of you to eat. The coyotes won’t care. They would eat their own shadows if they could. They eat anything. That is why I have to guard you.” He licked his mouth hungrily, pretending he hadn’t eaten tamales minutes before.

Tiny shrieked and jumped into her nest crying. “Go away! Leave me alone.”

Vato stuck his pointy nose through the chicken wire and pretended to savor the sweet smell of her fear. “I will never leave you alone, pollito. I will be watching you. It’s my job.”

He bit the chicken wire and pulled on it. When he was satisfied he had scared the chicken down to her gizzards, he sauntered away. He decided to burrow a hole at the base of a mesquite tree to keep an eye on the coop. Who cares if the other dogs won’t like it?

“That wasn’t very nice,” a gravelly voice said from beneath a bougainvillea shrub. “Vato, you’re incorrigible.”

Vato recognized the voice and looked around for its owner, a Labrador with a silvery coat, who raised his head in greeting. “That’s right, Patton,” Vato said. “I can be encouraged to do anything.”

Patton sighed. “I meant that you will never change.”

“Why would I change?” Vato asked with a flop of his tattered ears. “I like the way I am.”

“There is no use,” Patton mumbled. “You shouldn’t have scared her like that.”


  1. I'm a little confused. You call the character Vato and then refer to him as a vato. I assume Vato is a dog, but the reader needs more description/explanation of him at the start.

    I'm also having trouble with the point of view. This story may work better told from the point of view of Vato.

    I love the idea of telling the story of the hispanic watchdog. I would encourage you to write for a broader audience by including a glossary of words like Chale, pollito, etc.

    Hope this is helpful. Animal stories are such a hit with this age group.

  2. Hi,

    I love the way you play with the food and the energy in the chicken scene. The set up is very nice as well, the way you give us an immediate insight into Vato's internal as well as external goals. I do agree with the above comment that you can push the POV out a little bit to give us an establishing shot of Vato, the girl, and the setting, especially if you can do it in the kind of fun, creative language that you show in places throughout this story. That would help cement him as a dog, too, but be cautious with your dialogue cues as well. Words like "harumphed" are less doglike and might give some readers more of a people-vibe.

    I love places in the narrative where you define the Spanish words that you are using within the context of the sentence. The previous comment makes sense in that vato isn't defined as clearly, and therefore it is a little confusing that it is both the dog's name and something else.

    As far as the POV issue goes, third limited can be frustrating and tricky, because it's so easy to veer off into things that the POV character wouldn't necessarily think. For example, the word "pointy" in "Vato stuck his pointy nose through the chicken wire" isn't strictly in Vato's POV, but many wonderful authors sneak things like that in to give the reader more insight into the mc's personality. One of the beauties of 3rd person limited is that you can slide the camera lens back and forth a bit, instead of having to work around things like appearance as carefully as you do with first person. I'm not sure if writing Vato in first person would work at all for you, but you could try it and see what you think. One of the quickest tricks for sticking with a 3rd person intimate POV and determining if you're really in a limited lens is to try writing it in 1st and then changing the pronouns. I love that trick, just because it tends to get me thinking closer to the characters voice.

    That said, you have plenty of options that you can play with. I adore Tiny, your chicken. You could easily make short chapters from the POV of different characters to help us see the story from different perspectives -- and see Vato from different perspectives. Basically, POV is up to you. Whose story is it, and who's POV do you want to show us? Do you want us to see Vato in a way he doesn't see himself, and if so, do you want that to happen quickly from someone else's perspective, or slowly as we come to realize that Vato doesn't really see himself very clearly.

    One thing that I would suggest is reducing the number of times you reference Vato by name, especially at the beginning of a paragraph, because it can get repetitive. Also, I'd love to see you set the stage a little bit more so we see the world around him. Perhaps, since he is so short and his legs are stumpy, we could see his frustration with that come out a bit more too? Doesn't that change his view of the world a little bit?

    Eager to see where you take this next!


  3. Hello, Cecilia! I really like this story about Vato the vato. I love the Hispanic flavor of it and your inclusion of Spanish. You've set up his conflict nicely and given him some obstacles to becoming the watchdog he yearns to be. One thing I think you might look at is how you set up his problem. He's ashamed that he didn't catch the vandal, but it could be argued that the reason he couldn't was that Maria was essentially keeping him with her. It's true that she was feeding him tamales, but when you're a good dog, you do what your master tells you to, no? So the fact that he was with her instead of guarding the coop isn't really on him.

    Since it's his first night on the rancho, you might consider using the verb form "had" in sentences such as, "They treated him like roadkill." He's just arrived, so the other dogs don't have a history of interactions with him such that they have treated him like roadkil consistently. Maybe you could open the story showing the other vatos treating him poorly, but the girl calls to him and gives him treats. Just a thought.

    I really love Tiny and their sassy interaction. It made me smile and I can't wait to read more "starring" the two of them. I loved when she said that word was out that he would like to eat them more than he would like to protect them. But again, consider that he's only been there one night. Maybe you could suggest that the other vatos have filled in all the other animals, and he counters that the vatos haven't had time to get to know him. Maybe Tiny hints that the owner of the rancho filled in the ranch hands about Vato's history.

    Another example of this is when Patton says, "You'll never change." How does he know this? He's just met Vato.

    I would also like some details about the rancho, and maybe a hint about where they are. New Mexico? México? Argentina? Are there cacti? A few details will help to set the scene.

    Great work! Can't wait to read more!


  4. I love Vato's voice and I get a great sense of the setting and his worry about not being a good watch dog. I recently read a book from a dog's perspective with my daughters, and was a little disappointed and couldn't figure out why; but now reading your beginning I know why: Vato really sounds/acts genuinely "doggy" and I love the Hispanic touches, too.

    A few things to consider: The first line is Vato eating a tamale, and then we get "He nudged her side pocket and whined until she finally yanked a tamale out and tore through the greasy corn husk." - is this another tamale he's begging for? A little confused. Also, I wanted more of the girl and I had a thought: maybe the girl could be the one that notices the vandalism? And Vato feels like he's let her down, and right after she just praised him, too.

    The paragraph starting with "His heart thumped" and the next two paragraphs are all about Vato thinking about what to do without really doing anything except barking and running. I think you could trim this down to one paragraph and still show his conflicting thoughts. This will get us to the dialogue between him and Tiny sooner, because its the dialogue between these that is really fun, where his voice really comes out. I love how he acts all though around the tiny chicken when earlier he felt a little ashamed and "chicken" himself!!

    I would love to hear Tiny tell one of her jokes - can you fit that in?

    1. Sorry I meant to say "he acts all tough" not "acts all though"

  5. I love Vato's voice. I can't help wondering if it would come across even better in first person though. Maybe not, but it just felt like it should be as I read it.

    The first sentence, calling him Vato and then referring to himself as "a vato" was a little jarring.

    I love the use of Spanish words in this. I also love Vato's interactions with others and the dialogue between them.

    Being from California myself, I immediately pictured the location for this as a ranch in Mexico, but I'm curious where it is actually meant to be.

    I thought the story was cute and perfect for the age group!

  6. Thank you for all of your comments and suggestions. I appreciate the time you have taken in giving me this feedback. It will be put to good use.

    Thanks again!


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