Monday, July 9, 2012

14 1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Lawson

Name: J. Lawson
Title: Nooks & Crannies
Genre: Middle Grade Historical Mystery

First Five Pages:

Just past three o’clock in the afternoon, when schools across South London were releasing much-adored children by the bucketful, Tabitha Crum was let into the cold as well. Parsnips and carrots, she thought. That’s what I’ll slip out of the stew for Pemberly. He won’t like them, of course, but hidden pets cannot be picky. Now that family supper planning was taken care of, Tabitha walked along with her personal thoughts, which were pleasant enough company considering the unexpected delivery that had come to the classroom minutes before the final bell.

In smallish steps that would delay the passage home, she clutched and pinched and rubbed the pretty envelope that had been delivered to just one other classmate, letting her fingernail scratch at the seam. The glue was of a stubbornly good quality, and Tabitha’s nails were of a woefully short length—a poor combination when hoping to surreptitiously open and reseal an object one has been ordered to leave closed.

With only twenty students in her class at St. Augustine’s, the smooth rectangles with maroon wax seals had caused a certain amount of attention. The two recipients had been given strict instructions not to open them, but to pass the envelopes to their parents. And so Tabitha, being quite an obedient child, had resisted the temptation to open it. Besides, if there was anything Tabitha loved, it was a mystery—it was best to let this one hauntingly linger before it turned out to be nothing of consequence.

And doubly besides, the beastly thing wouldn’t be opened unless by tearing the paper.

It was lovely to look at. Tabitha suddenly had an odd urge to give the paper a  kiss and place it in a glass frame, where its possibilities would never be rusted or tarnished.

The cobblestone streets of Village Wiltingshire were made eerie and muted by thick fog. It had been creeping up since morning, irritating everyone but the tea shops, which thrived in such weather. Tabitha peered through it, occasionally testing with her free hand, pressing and flicking at whiteness that always seemed to be just a step ahead.

It’s almost like something in a Professor Pensive novel, she mused. And next, a woman will appear in the mist, begging someone to solve the mysterious haunting of her third cousin’s potting shed. And this secret note in my fingertips will contain a coded message or veiled threat upon both of us.

Professor Pensive always knew the answers to puzzling questions. ‘Every curious situation leaves signs of its origin,Tibbs,' he was known to say to his tubby partner, Timothy Tibbles. Try as Tabitha might, though, there were very few clues pointing to what might have prompted this.

The evidence thus far:

-Whatever the contents, they were only meant for two children, not all of them. This selective nature indicated that she and the other recipient held something in common.

-The quality of the paper and seal was clearly high. Tabitha doubted such nice things would be used to deliver low quality correspondence such as an advertisement for tooth powder or puppies.

-Miss Morrow had seemed pleased to give something so special to Tabitha, but seemed genuinely unaware of its meaning. The envelopes had been hand carried by a city-wide messenger service. The boy, in handing the items to her teacher, had no knowledge of the origin either.

-The wax seal was engraved with a lovely lake scene with two swans.

In short, she had very little to work with. It would be easier to think inside a tea shop. Or anyplace warm. Professor Pensive always did his thinking in a corner booth of his favorite pub, tucked away near the a cheerfully blazing hearth, sipping port and chewing pensively on his pocket watch chain. Tabitha had no desire to drink port and no money to buy a pocket watch, but the basic principle remained. Cold dampened the brain’s deduction abilities.

As though placing a mark of approval on the statement, Tabitha’s breath sent puffs of white into the fog. Her cheeks were developing a tart ache and matched a crisp, reddened apple in the hand of the local paper seller on the sidewalk ahead. Both cheeks and fruit were a splash of color in the otherwise grey October afternoon.

“Hello, Mrs. Barrow. Chilly day.”

The woman gave a grim look at the sky. “Something’s brewing. Hello, dear. Anything today?”

Tabitha shook her head. “Not today, thanks.”

“What have you got there?” She bobbed her head at the envelope.

“Not a clue.” Tabitha scooted around the cart. “Have a nice evening.”

“Something’s brewing,” Mrs. Barrow repeated, frowning until her face looked like a wrinkled apple doll.

“Oh, it’s just a bit of fog.”

She began gathering her wares. “You’d best get home quickly, before the path disappears from sight. I’ll be doing the same.”

Tabitha nodded and moved along, half-wishing the path would disappear so that she could open the envelope, later claiming that it could have been a map or instructions to find emergency provisions.

Scratch, scratch. Scratchity-scratch. “It’s as though they sealed it together with spite,” Tabitha muttered to herself, earning an offended glance from a passing elderly lady. Whether it was the remark, her outgrown uniform and shabby coat, or a combination, Tabitha couldn’t be certain. Perhaps the woman was offended by children as a whole. Rather like her mum and dad.

Scents of lavender from a candle seller and warm bread from a baker reached out to waft sweet hellos in the pillowy air, and she nodded at Mr. Willoughby, who was seated in his usual spot at the front window table of Puddles Confectionary, receiving a cup of tea and two biscuits. Tabitha noted that they were chocolate, which was quite in order. She’d taken note that he allowed himself biscuits no more than twice a week, and only took chocolate ones on Thursdays. He waved back.

Mr. Willoughby had been taking his tea at Puddles for years. Tabitha had no idea if the elderly man had a job or not, but he was always somewhere along her path to and from school—buying a paper or reading on a bench near the school. Last year was when she finally learned his name, and, since then, they had exchanged pleasantries whenever they passed.

Approximately one block down, a scuffle was attracting calls of attention. As Tabitha grew closer, the invisible squirmish turned into a raggedy dog squirming in a butcher’s angry arms. Bursting free, the animal bumped and dodged pedestrians, weaved in and out of street lanterns, and stopped for a moment in front of Tabitha. From his mangy jaw dangled half of a fat sausage. His tail wagged madly.

“Why, you naughty boy,” she chided in jest. “You’ve gotten yourself an early supper, haven’t you?” The dog whimpered and leaned his head near her leg, waiting to be patted and scratched on the ears.

She leaned down obligingly. “What’s your story, I wonder—are you a runaway from a cruel family? Are you taking this to a wounded friend who’s been desperately hurt by a dastardly enemy? If you were in an Inspector Pensive book, you would be a messenger pup. I ought to hold you to be punished, you know,” she whispered, seeing the charging red-faced butcher. “But I shall give you a bit of a rub and send you off quick.”

But she didn’t have time. The dog scurried off, and the Butcher turned his glare toward Tabitha.


  1. Hi there! Personally, I think there’s a lot to like about this first chapter. An interesting setting. The narrative tone--reminiscent somewhat of Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket. Excellent character names. A mystery to solve.

    However, what’s missing from all this good stuff is the question of what’s at stake. Sure, I’d like to know what’s in those maroon envelopes, but I’m not exactly dying to find out. This isn’t the attitude you want in a reader; You want me DYING to know what’s in that envelope and reading on until I get the answer. To get me to that spot, I have to know what’s at stake for Tabitha Crum, and what the envelopes have to do with it. Is there something wrong with her current world that the envelopes are going to remedy? Is her current world absolutely perfect, and the envelopes are going to screw it all up? Give us an indication of this. Also, I’d like to see Tabitha attach an emotion to the envelopes. Curiosity is fine, but it won’t bind me emotionally to the character. Does she also feel unease? Dread? Excitement? Anger? Confusion? Showing her emotion will not only help reveal what’s at stake, it will also ensure that I feel the emotion with her. THEN, I have a vested interest in sticking around to find out what’s inside.

    Another small thing I would suggest is including an earlier indication of the weather. Tabitha was walking along and everything was great, then all of a sudden the streets were eerie and muted by fog. If the fog was there in the beginning, it needs to be indicated earlier so it doesn’t jar the reader.

    Another intriguing start. Can’t wait to see what you do with it. Thanks for letting me read!

    1. Your feedback is SO appreciated and spot-on. You're right~ it's not even evident that Tabitha is dying to know what's inside, so why should the reader be invested. Too much time spent with everyday thoughts, I think...I'm excited to revise this!

  2. I like the way you have created mystery and used the weather to build that tone. You have a unique voice and it comes through very nicely in your writing.

    I felt as though in this very first chapter, where you really need to hook and hold the reader, action needs to happen a bit sooner. For me, there was just a bit too much narration up front. I would almost consider starting closer to when she sees Mrs. Barrow and working in bits of how she's come to possess the envelope after/during that. Just an idea.

    Love your descriptions of the setting and looking forward to reading more!

    1. Absolutely~ action should come a bit faster. Mrs. Barrow, I'm afraid, may be chopped altogether in the revision...I think I'm going to skip ahead to an interaction with the other student who received an envelope. Thanks so much for the feedback!

  3. Well, you certainly know how to build an atmosphere. I felt I was in England and enjoyed my visit there. I didn't care much about what was in the envelope, but felt Tabitha wanted it to be a mystery, rather than feeling that it was a mystery. There was a point of view problem when you described Tabitha's red cheeks, since everything else was in her point of view, but other than that, PoV was fine. The writing is quite lovely, but perhaps too expository to grab young readers. I did enjoy this, though.

    1. Too expository, I agree. I'm going to try to make quite a few cuts on the setting front. Thanks for the comment!

  4. While I do get a sense of place and atmosphere right away, I don't get a sense of time. This says it's an Historical MG, but I'm not sure if it happens in 1980 or 1880. Would love to see more of what Tabitha sees on the streets in regards to cars / carriages / etc.

    I also think something more explosive should be happening in these first five pages. Something that tells us exactly what this book is going to be about.

    I do love that Tabitha has such hero-worship for Professor Pensive. That says so much about her as a character. :D

    1. Carriages were coming on the next page, but I'll bump up that particular sentence and try to add something else that shows the time period~good thinking! As for adding something "explosive," I'm not sure what would be appropriate for the tone I'm going for...but you're right, I need SOMETHING that's more punchy. Otherwise I'll lose my audience fast. Okay, great stuff! Thanks so much!

  5. I really like your description of the settings and lines like "a splash of color in an otherwise grey October day." I can visualize what you're telling us quite well which is great. I agree with comments above about wanting to know what's at stake especially given all the time and analysis the MC spends on the envelope. She also thinks that all this mystery will probably be a disappointment but does she really? I found this comment hard to believe especially given the quality of paper, the seal, the fact only two students received envelopes. It must be exciting since you've built it up and so has she.

    I wondered if there should maybe be a few tidbits of past information to leave, perhaps, a bit more "breadcrumbs" to hint at what is coming. My biggest question is one about spelling. I've never written anything set in the UK but I wondered if the character is British whether the spelling of her thoughts should be British (e.g. colour vs color) although I'm sure you're reaching out to U.S. agents so perhaps your treatment is fine. I thought best to raise this issue even if it's to reaffirm you're doing everything right; better to be safe and certain.

    I'm interested to see how this progresses and really like your descriptions. If you can familiarize us more with what's at stake and hint at what's coming, I think this will be much improved.

    1. Thanks so much for the comment! I really need to rework her perspective and build anticipation~ she DOES want to know what's in the envelope, and really hopes that it's something of substance (which it is). I've spent too much time on descriptions and setting and now it all feels a little flat.

      Thanks also for the comment on British vs. American spelling. I think that, because I'd be writing it to submit to American agent who would then submit to American publishers, I'll keep the spelling American for now (the Harry Potter books do that, changing 'colour' to 'color' in the US edition. And I also noticed that in Sorcerer's Stone, Ginny uses the word, "Mom" instead of "Mum." I'm not positiive on the rules, but you've brought to my attention the need to be consistent. Thanks again!

  6. Hi J -

    This was fun to read and you have some lovely writing here. My favorite line was “It’s as though they sealed it together with spite,” that actually made me laugh out loud (I'm sure my husband is trying to figure out what I am doing in my office right now!).

    I am a bit curious about how you start this piece with her thinking about feeding her hidden pet. It seems random and a little unbelievable that, given the emphasis that the letter has in the rest of the piece, she would stop and wonder what to feed her pet. It seems as though she is obsessed with the envelope - would her thoughts be consumed by it?

    I am curious of the time period as well - though being it is the first five pages I'm not complete thrown by it and assuming a few more details to come will fill that in.

    Thank you for sharing!


    1. Excellent point on the pet part~ I was trying to show her loyalty and thoughtfulness toward Pemberly (her secret mouse), even in the face of a cool mystery, but it came across as random instead of "voice-y." Thanks so much for point that out~ it's been cut :)

      Time period details coming in the revision!

  7. Hi J.:

    I think you’re off to a lovely start. The imagery is evocative and the prose is lyrical without being so literary as to scare off young readers. You’ve done a nice job showing us Tabitha’s curiosity and a bit about her home situation without a lot of info-dumping, and it’s clear from the start that this is going to be a mystery.

    A few suggestions for your consideration:


    While the writing is beautiful (it reminds me of some of the classic middle grade stories), it feels a bit too meandering in the opening, with lots of descriptive extra words and not a lot of action or conflict (or even a hint of what’s to come). I love that Tabitha mentioned that her parents are offended by children (great phrase!), but she didn’t seem particularly concerned about that or about the fact that the contents of the envelope could mean trouble for her (could they? If so, I’d love a stronger hint about that early on). The result is that the opening reads more like a typical day in the life of a fairly content girl without any real trouble brewing on the horizon, and I’m not quite sure the envelope—as it’s currently set up—is a strong enough mystery to carry a book-length conflict. After this long wind-up that ends with the dog running away, if something big doesn’t happen in Tabitha’s world soon, younger readers may lose interest. So, think about how you might amp up the conflict right away – don’t be afraid to throw some more rocks at Tabitha!


    One challenge particular to historical fiction for young readers is writing with historical (and in your case, geographical) authenticity while still bringing a fresh, relatable voice to the page. Your prose definitely feels historical and weighty (in a good way), but the voice isn’t coming through as strongly as it should for a middle grade novel. With the combination of third person narration and the older/classic writing style, I’m not sensing a distinct voice right out of the gate, and that, coupled with the slower pace and lack of conflict in the opening pages, is detracting from what I think is probably a really fun mystery that kids will love if they stick with it.

    Since you’ve made the choice to write in third person and in a more classic literary style, consider amping up the stakes (what Tabitha stands to lose if things go wrong or gain if things go right) and tension (make us worry about her) in the opening immediately. For example, if the envelope is to be the centerpiece of an ongoing mystery, or even the starting point of that mystery, we really need to feel the magic and potential trouble of it from the moment it appears on the page. How does Tabitha feel about it? Is she worried? Excited? Afraid of getting in trouble?

    A great way to figure this out is to ask: what’s the worst that can happen? And then put it on the page. ☺

    One resource I highly recommend is Donald Maass’ THE FIRE IN FICTION, which includes a great section on tension and micro-tension with lots of helpful exercises. Check it out if you have a chance.

    Your writing is beautiful, so keep it up! Thanks again for sharing your work with us!

    -Sarah Ockler

    1. Sarah~ thanks so much for taking the time to give us feedback! You're absolutely right about the action and stakes not being clear, and needing to amp up the conflict sooner. Lots of great stuff to think about here!! And thank you for the book recommendation :)

      On a side note, I live in Colorado and am hoping to come to a book signing of yours at some point :)


Tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you! :)