Monday, November 28, 2011

14 1st 5 Pages November Workshop - Stickrath, Rev 3

Name: Kimberly C. Stickrath
Genre: Middle-Grade Fantasy

Until the Awful Spring, Aggie Winkum had never known a day of true sadness in her life...but The Sadness, when it came, crept in like a shamed wet dog, head low and tail down, and it brought with it the rain. Rain that clung to mud with the desperation of a drowning child. Rain that ate the blue right out of the sky and left only thick walls of grey behind. Cold, relentless rain that took hold of you and shook you in its teeth and would not let go…rain that soon gave Gramma Winkum a fever and The Newmoania. Instead of bustling and tutting and being fierce and feisty, she became weak and fragile. Gramma Winkum’s long, silver hair clung to her poor, tired face and her bright eyes dimmed like lamps when the wick went down.


It was bedtime, and Aggie was only a pale shadow flickering uncertainly in the doorway of her grandmother’s room. “Mommy? Mommy, can I help?”

She watched, wincing, as Mommy thumped Gramma’s frail back with the sides of her hands, just so’s Gramma Winkum could breathe. Daddy was watching them behind the mist of the steam kettle with tight, worried eyes, never saying around a word.

“Mommy?” This time Aggie more mouthed the word than whispered it, but her mother seemed to hear. Mrs. Winkum looked over Gramma’s thin shoulders and frowned sadly, shaking her head. The message was clear. Aggie was to be very, very quiet so as not to be disturbing them. [i] Gramma coughed and coughed and gasped for breath. And Aggie tiptoed away, wishing she hadn’t seen her grandmother’s backbones poking through the cotton shift, or that she hadn’t seen the way Gramma’s coughs racked through her body.

Before the rains, Mommy and Gramma Winkum had taken in laundry and made the sheets snap and gleam with brightness. Now, the lovely sheets and linens hung like shrouds on ropes inside the house, and she was forever leaving behind the temporary water-shadows caused by the little pads of her feet as she tiptoed around the puddles beneath the sheets. Outside smelled of mold, and inside smelled of sickness and damp. The only sound was Gramma Winkum’s rough cough and Mommy’s whispered prayers. And all Aggie could do was worry in silence.

As the weeks rolled by, and poor Gramma Winkum got weaker and weaker, Aggie became quieter and quieter.

Aggie watched the rain racing down the pane of her bedroom window. She had never known such misery, and crept about the house like a mouse in the baseboards. Her open, smiling face had taken on a serious, pale aspect, and her bright eyes had become watchful and sad. Her lovely hair remained unbound and fretful, for even plaiting her braids took too much of Mommy’s precious attention from Gramma Winkum. And if that weren’t enough, her best friend, Billy Brown (who knew all kinds of wonderful, useful things, including a little magic), was visiting a cousin over-the-hills-away, and he didn’t even know when he would get back!

She thought about the wilted flowers that drooped and mourned over Gramma Winkum’s wedding-ring quilt, and wished for the hundredth time that the weather would just turn long enough for her to replace them. It didn’t seem right.

It used to be that when the spring came, Aggie would march out with the biggest basket she could find and bring home the most beautiful blooms the hills could offer. More often than not, Aggie found so many daffodils brown-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace that her mother and her grandmother had to use every vase, pitcher, and cup in the house. Sometimes, Aggie’s flowers even took over the bathtub, and petals and leaves seemed to be growing over the sides as the blooms spilled out over the edges. Her mother would sigh, and her grandmother would flutter about tutting to herself that they would soon have a honey-hive in the best cupboard. However, her father would ruffle Aggie’s hair and smile and remind them that there were worse things in the world than a little girl and her flowers…and that a house that smelled of fresh flowers was always a welcome place to be.

That night, as she had for so many nights since Gramma got sick, Aggie crept into bed, with an unkissed forehead and no soft whisper for pleasant dreams.

But the next morning, Aggie awoke to sunshine!

It was as though all the world had been forgiven, and the sunlight glowed upon the raindrops as though they were diamonds. The air was fresh once more, and the blue sky beamed and beamed as though it had never once been gone. The grass was stiff and straight, like thousands of soldiers in their brand-new green uniforms, and as Aggie crept from her bed, she felt it, like a wondrous, brilliant blanket wrapping about her. Expectation. Anticipation. Certainty. Her toes danced against the moist earth. “Yes!” the world was telling her, “THIS is a day when wonderful things will happen!”

And without another thought, she got dressed and tied her hair back with a piece of Mommy’s softest red yarn, and crept out of the house without waking anyone else up. She stopped to pick up her mother’s apple basket, and with the comforting weight of the deep basket on her hip, she marched out to her favorite flower fields and began to pick flowers.

As she picked and set her flowers carefully in the basket, she found herself edging closer and closer to the Dark Woods. Children were not supposed to go into the Dark Woods, for there were many fearsome creatures living in its shadows, and there were many reasons it was not safe…but Aggie had always been curious about the lovely green darkness under the Dark Wood’s trees…and though she really was a very good little girl, she did, sometimes, try to dare herself a little


  1. You have such lovely, evocative descriptions! That said, you might want to watch that you don't overwrite the passages. Some of this is getting lost in prose, I think: focusing more on the description and the language, you're losing the story a bit, and for this age group especially I'd think that the story is what's going to keep them turning pages. Also, in this whole passage, you've only got the one line of dialogue, basically... Aggie, asking for her mommy. That's a lot of exposition. Is there any way you could incorporate this fantastic description into more of a scene? I know it might not feel like the right choice -- this piece feels very stylistic, and reminds me of older stories like Heidi or Pollyanna, or even Roald Dahl. I know that books like Lemony Snicket's series employ a similar vibe, but I think that the tongue-in-cheek and gothic aspect lets him get away with a lot on that front. Just my opinion, but I think that incorporating a bit deeper POV and putting us in the scene would work wonders. Good luck!

  2. Hi Kimberly,

    First, I agree with all of Cathy's comments. I have to admit, I'm a bit unsure of what to say because reading it this time through felt a bit more problematic to me than last week's read, and yet I'm not quite sure what changed. I've flipped back and forth between the above post and last week's and while I've noticed a few differences, such as the beginning and that you got further into the story this time around, I don't see significant differences.

    Maybe it was that last week's felt so good because you had the basic structure and feel so improved, but this week I was looking for more fine-tuning. As Cathy said, you have a strong style of writing, which in the end is going to be a wonderful selling point. I just think you have to work out how to incorporate your style with your story, especially in the beginning when everything is being defined.

    One of the things that tripped me this time though was that the writing was not strictly linear. You have the paragraph "Before the rains" and then again "It used to be" where you go back in time. One of these might be ok, but the jumping back and forth was confusing to me.

    I just recently had to redo my whole first scene because I had the same thing going on.

    Can you envision an interesting place to start the story where you can keep the scene going forward and not backtrack? Can you then envision this scene in such a way that all your important elements are actively happening within this scene rather than being narratively told? Can you incorporate your lovely descriptions with equally strong dialogue and action?

    If you can do all that, I think your strong style will blend much better with your story. Personally, you've mastered one of the hardest aspects that most writers face -- developing a distinctive style or voice. What I think you need to work on are techniques that are not as difficult or elusive to master, but will still help you in crafting a pleasurable reading experience.

    Best of luck!

  3. You have a such lovely way with descriptive passages but Aggie still seems to be sitting things out. Is there a way Aggie could take part more actively in nursing her grandmother, perhaps?

    I wonder whether the style is getting in the way of the story to some extent? Someone suggested redrafting another writer's entry in the form of a play - I wonder if that would help you engage more directly with the first hook of your plot?

  4. I first have to say that I really enjoy the beautiful language of your story. Your imagery is poetic, and it isn't something you see much anymore. For the first few paragraphs, I don't mind the description because, it seems to all be adding to the story and the first line is a good hook.

    However, there are a couple of things that concerned me. The first is that all of a sudden we're going into back story, (Before the rains, Mommy...) At this point, the story quits moving forward, which bring the risk of losing the reader. What might help at this point would be to give her a friend to confide her worries to. You'd be adding dialogue and could show her anxiety instead of just telling the reader about it.

    The second thing was that I was confused when Aggie woke up and the sun was out and she was sure everything was going to be wonderful. To me, it didn't ring true, because if her grandma was so ill that she seemed to be dying, it didn't seem like even a sunny day would make Aggie happy again. It's at that point that I felt myself losing my connection to the story.

    : ) Great work.

  5. This is supposed to be in the style of the old stories like Heidi, and in truth it's a very straightforward, chipper, silly little fairytale. Girl has problem. Girl meets magical creature with solution. Girl tries to apply solution, gets captured by monster. Girl, magical creature, and friend defeat monster. Happily Ever After, with the promise of more adventures to come. The end.

    In fact, in my head, it’s an old Shirley Temple movie – a character she just didn’t get around to playing. In fact as I wrote this, I had to keep watching THE BLUEBIRD over and over again to stay in the proper mindset.

    Maybe the original story is too precious, but the story is supposed to be precious. Very “Oh, my goodness!” and all that.

    Maybe you were all right and this should be more of a chapter book. The revisions have made it feel more threatening to me and far too dark. I don’t want to make excuses here, but I’m completely losing the innocent, nonsensical feel of the story now…and without that, there isn’t much point to this story at all. This isn’t supposed to be all angst-y and depressing. It’s just a nice bit of fluff, a cute little story that passes the time pleasantly. Something to remember fondly like making wishes on dandelion seeds.

    You are absolutely correct in that there needs to be more movement, dialogue, focus, and connection in the first chapter. But I frequently read any number of stories where there is a good deal of exposition in the first couple of pages (I’m prone to Dahl, Norton Juster’s PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, and Milne). Heck, even the revised Grimm’s have a good deal of exposition first, as does the work of Hans Christian Anderson. That’s what I read. That keeps infecting anything I write.

    I’m genuinely trying to apply the suggestions you have been so kind to make, but in this story, it takes very little to shift it from sweet and sunshine into darker themes, and it was very difficult to keep the tone in the light in the original. I would love to keep this relevant to today’s kids, but today’s kids still read Heidi, and they still read Grimm and Anderson… and AGGIE WINKUM AND THE SNOOTAGUS has far more in common with them than with TWILIGHT or the current trends. So what do I do?

    (P.S. -- I have often come outside after weeks of miserable, horrible Ohio weather to blue skies and sunshine-y brilliance. I automatically have a vastly more positive outlook, whether it's realistic or not. It made sense to me that a little girl who is so empathic would feel the same way. After all, it is her empathy that leads into the next part of the adventure.)

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  8. Kimberly, can I ask, why don't you write it as a chapter book? Is there a particular reason why you're set on making this a middle grade? Perhaps if you switched to chapter book you could do all that you want to with it?

  9. Oh, and Kimberly, I didn't mean the above to sound short. The phone was ringing, so I hit send before I meant to, and then, wouldn't you know it, they hung up!

    Anyway, my point is really to seek an answer that will work for you best. You do have such a delightful tone that seems to me best suited to an elementary age, that I'm truly curious as to your reason for wanting it MG.

  10. I didn't know how to catagorize it, honestly. It's a story with larger words, in a way it seems to "expect more" from a younger audience (which is how I've always been taught to read...I was never told the words were too complicated, I was told to look them up -- but then, you'll get that in a family of teachers), and it clocks in at 9,636 words and seven chapters which I initially thought meant it had to be middle grade. (I believe my error came from seeing the average word count of a chapter book at 6,000 words.) I tried googling similar stories (Heidi, H.C. Anderson Tales), and couldn't get a straight answer. In fact, the top result described Heidi as a middle grade chapter book. (Gahhhhh!)Though, if it's actually a chapter book, that would explain why I've been so amazingly unsuccessful in my attempts to promote it as a middle grade.*Sigh* I feel shame. I have accidentally entered this workshop under false pretenses.Again, all of you have been more than kind. I am going to bang my head now.

  11. Here's a thought. What if you put it out as only an audio book? Writers have many avenues available to them nowadays. It wouldn't be conventional, but with audio, the big words don't matter. I think you can do it through itunes.

    (I interviewed Mark Jeffrey, author of 'Max Quick,' and if I remember right, he started by self-publishing with an audio book.)

  12. First off, I do love your style. You’ve got some great descriptions, like when her grandmother is like the lamp wick. Frankly, the writing is beautiful.

    However, my main critique is that I don’t know what age this would be for. You list it as MG, but the story of a little girl with a sick grandmother feels a little bit too young for the MG age. Your wonderful vocabulary makes it a bit difficult to read, so I don’t think that the age group who would be interested in reading this story would actually be able to read it on their own. Is this meant as a read-a-loud? Now, I’m not an expert in anything younger than YA, but I do think that the style of this story could make it a hard sell.

    Here are a couple minor notes as I was reading:

    - I’m not a fan of the … in your very first sentence. It’s not necessary and just feels gimmicky somehow.
    - I like the Newmonia. That’s so perfect for a kids story.
    - You have another … in the paragraph where you talk about flowers. I don’t think it’s needed here, either.
    - You use exclamation points a couple times here. I’m not sure if I like that… it just seems a bit juvenile. Then again, this whole story is for younger readers, so I don’t know if that’s a big issue.
    - I like the hint at the end about the Dark Woods. I don’t think that made it into the previous revisions (you must have cut down a bit so it fits in now) but it’s really nice that this shows up because it gives us a sense of coming conflict even bigger than Grandmother’s sickness.

    I don’t have anything else to say. While I do think that finding an audience could be problematic, I personally love the writing and if I had kids I’d read this to them. Great job so far, and best of luck!

    P.S. I just read your comment about not making it dark, and I absolutely agree. This feels like it should be a light, happy story, and you really don't want it to be dark. Perhaps focusing less on the grandmother's sickness would make at least the beginning feel less dark?

  13. Another suggestion: here's a blog by a nine-year-old who reviews books. You might run your first five pages by him to see what he thinks!

  14. Thanks everyone, and thank you, Beth. I'll look into it.


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