Thursday, October 29, 2009

#31 1000-Word

TITLE: Neanderthals, Wolves, and Us: The First Man Standing Series
GENRE: Historical/Magical Realism

A student asked Professor Arny Singer if he could name one incident in his life, which led to his Nobel Prize, and what’s life been like since. The second part wasn’t so easy. Arny preferred to dramatize the interwoven lives of wolves, Neanderthals, and Homo sapiens. He failed to mention he lived it, a point Nobel would not find amusing. As for the first part:

Arny took too many chances with wild life.

His mom and dad argued so loud about him, a grizzly bear might stop by to complain. Arny froze like a statue in the blind black outside their tent, trying to understand. Were it not his thirteenth birthday, he guessed, there’d be no hike alone tomorrow with playmate Terry.

Whoosh. A strafing hunter’s wings stole the boy’s breath, and established who’s boss at night on the Rocky Mountain plains.

What a hoot.

He remained standing, surrounded by creepy night sounds, that owl hooting away, not too distant cracking branches, thrilled by the dangers. At a distance, wolves howled. Arny’s heart ached from the sorrow in their song; a wolf pup was dying. He felt one with them. The boy tiptoed away from the tent to the camp perimeter, cocked his head, and let out a little howl. He’d save the pup tomorrow after he and Terry reached their lookout point.

Arny entered his tent and dosed off dreaming a favorite fantasy. He became early boy, stone and spear, running and hunting with wolves.


The next day, Arny and his playmate rubbed and bumped each other between Hemlock shrubs, squashing fragrant blue wheat grasses, and budding Lady’s Tresses. Their binoculars were up, padded elbows down on a gravel bar overlooking the Rocky Mountains’ lower meadows. They were tight and Arny was restless. The cool late afternoon mountain breezes combed the meadows and blew away the gnats. He knew he didn’t have much time left to do it.

“There she goes. I’m going down. I want you to stay here pumpkin, no matter what.” Arny cared for his cute friend with round face.

“Don’t Arny, she’ll kill you.”

“She won’t be back for twenty-two minutes. Don’t worry Terry. You’ll be proud and the pup will have his mom.” For nearly a second full day Arny and Terry had been watching the den, the hole the pup fell in, and the frantic mother pacing back and forth. Arny knew something had to be done.

Terry blurted, “My hero.” She blew a kiss.

“Shh.” Arny slid down the hill, bounded by the den, and lowered himself little by little using the grubby roots from the nearby Red Cedars and shale that encrusted and poked the fourteen-foot deep and skinny hole. The weakened pup offered little resistance. “Oh my little one, you are so cute and so dirty.” Arny kissed the pup, unzipped about halfway, and then slid him between his flannel shirt and thick hooded cotton blend jacket. He zipped up leaving the pup’s head out and struggled up. “We have to get out of here pronto.” Too late. Arny’s noises had brought the other pups out of the den to the top of the hole. Their little yips, frail howl attempts, and an incessant squawking raven lured the pack. Arny peered up at the snarling heads and a piano’s worth of bared ivories. “Uh, oh.”

He stopped two feet from the top, peppered by clumps of rich soil, worms, grass, roots, and pebbles from the large lunging feet above. He shook his head and raised his hood.

“Oh Jesus, help me.” Arny closed his eyes as if at the altar remembering his prayers, pulled the pup out by his scruff, and raised his hand up to a very unhappy family.

Nothing happened.

One of the wolves weaved his fangs by Arny’s fingers and clenched the pup’s scruff. Arny slid his slobbered hand free of the wolf’s mouth. The snarling stopped. They were all still nearby the hole except for the pups, and there they stayed. Maybe they’re having a party. I need one more miracle. Arny decided to climb out, shaking but resolute. He peeked over the surface and met the golden eyes of the pup’s mom. He was certain it was she; an unusual silver, gray, and white face with two symmetrical gray swirls about her eyes forming a scary but beautiful mask. She held a terrifying focus on the boy who dared to touch her baby. She was crouched and waiting for him. He thought, Don’t eat me, I’m tooooo salty. Arny talked to the predator, “Hello, pretty, pretty.”

Like lightning, the mother struck at the boy before he could back down the hole, clamped down with the right amount of force on the hoody about his neck, and with all the strength of four powerful legs continually jerked backwards until he was prone and defenseless. She let go, loomed over the dazed whimpering human pup, bent down, sniffed his mouth, licked once, and pranced over to her brood, grinning back at the boy, or so Arny thought.

What is so funny? Arny started to crawl away but stopped, turned around and sat, looked back at Terry who was smacking her head as if she could have had a V8. Arny said to the mom, “Thank you ma’am.” Only the almost full-grown juveniles, paid attention to him. The rest of the pack was involved in a free for all. The pups and mother retired to the den. One juvenile started wrestling with Arny’s cowboy boot and then a playmate started pulling the other. Five adults surrounded the boy. They sniffed, rubbed up against him, and attempted to corral the exuberant juvenile delinquents. Arny thought it best to unzip and slide off his boots. He started crawling again, leaving his fancy leather gifts to placate the youngsters. When at the bottom of the steep slope, he peeked back at the pack with their backsides elevated facing the hole, pawing dirt. He beamed up to see Terry’s adoring eyes.

“My hero.”


  1. I'm very confused by this. I had to reread several sections to figure out what was going on.

    I liked that you established the MC was a Nobel prize winner first thing, but you failed to mention the Nobel category.

    "Arny took too many chances with wild life." I believe you want it to read wildlife, unless he has lead a crazy life filled with wildness.

    The change to the parents arguing was abrupt and I don't understand how his 13th birthday relates to the arguing or the hiking.

    The owl's description is good, but it took several reads for me to figure out what was going on.

    How did he know the pup was dying and why did he decide to wait until morning to save it? I think you're eluding to some special power here, but it doesn't come across clearly.

    "The next day, Arny and his playmate rubbed and bumped each other..." Sounds like they are doing much more than watching critters. Then again, I write in the romance genre so my mind might go in that direction automatically. :-)

    The description about the piano full of ivory was good, but wolves don't have ivory teeth.

    You have dialogue buried in long paragraphs. Dialogue should be a paragraph by itself.

    "He stopped two feet from the top, peppered by clumps of rich soil..." Peppered makes it sound like he's being hit by things. Maybe "littered" would work better there.

    The point of view switches from Arny's to the mother wolf's.

    Why did Arny leave his boots?

    You have an interesting character here and I see the potential of your story. I think it needs some clarification and editing.

    Good luck!


  2. I'd say you have some great bits of writing here and a heck of a story, but some technical issues are really blocking the reader's ability to enjoy it.

    Your POV needs serious work--you have several kinds of third person going on in the same para. That's a large part of the confusion, I think.

    The other missing element is simply telling the story. You have a complex concept and a nice way with certain word-pictures,'s really okay to lay out such a story simply and directly. Even figure-skaters do some straight skating between their triple toe-loops.

    You have an intriguing premise, but create too much work for the reader to get to it. At some point in the editing process, one has to try to step back and see it as a brand new reader would. I'd say that's your next step.

    Good luck, cuz this sounds like it could be GOOD!

  3. I like the idea. Hate the title. The opening, quite honestly, was for me confusing and slow and not terribly engaging.

  4. I like the idea of this story a lot, and I know how helpful specific critiques have been for me, so I thought I would take the time to be specific for you. Just my opinion as a reader with fresh eyes.

    First, from the details in your descriptions I get the sense that you are very familiar with the terrain of your setting. I like that. You make it easy to draw a mental image of the surroundings.

    1st para - I like how you open with the student's question. Quickly and concisely lets me know about the MC. It's a small thing, but I think it may work better to switch the order of the two parts of the student's question and leave the MC thinking the answer to what life has been like since winning the prize at 'that wasn't so easy.' I don't need to know right now why that's a hard question to answer - leave me something to wonder about. Then with the 'name one incident' part of the question as the second part, you could move seemlessly into the flashback.

    3rd para - The way it's written it isn't clear what his parents' arguing has to do with anything. Does one parent think it's okay to let 13 yr olds go hiking alone and the other doesn't agree? (I would never let my kids do that at that age.) If the argument is relavant the reader needs to know how.

    Playmate doesn't seem like a word a child that age would use to describe a friend. Also, I thought Terry was a boy which then pulled me out of the story to readjust my mental picture later when Terry is referred to as 'she.' You might want a more specifically female name or some earlier mention that she is a girl.

    6th para - I like this paragraph as a whole, but like someone else mentioned, I was again pulled out of the story wondering how he knew the pup was dying.

    7th para - For some reason the term 'early boy' didn't work for me here. It sounded odd and I didn't understand what it meant until I read the rest of the sentence.

    8th para - "Rubbed and bumped" sounded off to me too, and I am not a reader/writer of romance.
    "They were tight and Arny was restless." What does 'they were tight' mean here? They were in tight quarters? They were tight friends? Too many possible meanings to get what you're going for right away.

    9th para - Perhaps you know different 13 yr old boys than I do, but I have never known one who would call their friend pumpkin. Coming from a boy that age, that nickname really threw me.

    12th para - I don't have a clear enough sense of the dynamics of Arny and Terry's relationship to have any idea of how Terry means it when she says, "My hero." Is she being jokingly cutesy, sarcastic, serious? I need to know how she is saying it for it to sound believable.

    13th para - Suggest adding "unzipped (his jacket) part way" and then dropping the "thick, hooded, cotton blend jacket" later in the sentence. The description of the jacket doesn't seem like something a boy would think about.

    17th para - Loved the description of the mother wolf. Seems like exactly what a kid like him would notice.

    18th para - I would like a description of Arny's physical reaction to when the mother wolf takes him down. Was his heart racing with the narrow escape? Was he strangely calm for some odd reason? Did he almost wet his pants? Lots of fun possibilities when it's a 13 yr old boy you're talking about.

    19th para - Did you mean to imply that he unzipped his cowboy boots? Cowboy boots don't unzip.

    Anyway, just some of my thoughts and reactions. Take 'em or toss 'em, whatever works for you.

  5. You lost me on the very first sentence. What the?! Was that a compound question that the student was asking? Or is that a compound thought from Arny? Maybe have the question actually asked by the student, so that we know *exactly* what is going on? Or re-word it so it's obvious what is question and what is Arny's thought.

    Really, that first sentence made me throw up my hands and say "Why read any more?" Sorry, harsh, but ... I would never read a book that was written that way.

    I also really don't see how "the first part" description and "the second part" description actually fit the 1st & 2nd part of the question. Plus, written the way it is, it almost looks like the question has THREE parts. Which is confusing.

    I found myself reacting like this to the entire story. What happened to the arguing parents - wait, is this a flashback, or did he get a nobel prize at 13? "They were tight" - what was tight, their padded elbows? How does he know a pup is dying? If it's dying, how can he "save" it 18 hours later? Wait, first they're rubbing and bumping against one another, but wait no they're lying on their elbows? Oh I see, 6 paragraphs later we're told how he knows the pup is dying and how/why he can save it. Wait, did he just unzip the pup halfway?

    I like where you're going but I think you need to really clean this up, make sure we have the information we need before you play with descriptions. Zipped *what*, for instance. How he knows about the dying pup. His parents. His Nobel.

  6. I thought a lot of this was confusing, due to the writing, rather than the ideas and concepts, but you also some good lines in there too. I liked the owl, and the wolf''s ivories.

    I felt like this story should have started with him and Terry looking down on the wolves. Once you get there, most of the confusing writing goes away, and it really is what starts the story.

    Does it matter that he's a Nobel Prize winner if you're telling us his story as a kid? Does the arguing of the parents matter if you're not going to tell us what they said or what it was all about?

    The important thing here seems to be saving the cub and ending up with a bunch of wolves who aren't ripping him to shreds, who are, in fact, treating him like a member of the pack. That's what's interesting here. Perhaps leave everything else for another time.

    And I agree with TKA. A 13 yr. old wouldn't refer to his friend as a playmate, or pumpkin. And she probably wouldn't call him 'my hero' unless it was sarcastically.

    You have interesting stuff here, but the writing has to be much cleaner and clearer. Spend some time going through this one sentence at a time and make each one as clear and simple as you can.

  7. Thanks so much for all your comments. You all spent a lot of time, which means to me, you care about the writers' community, and helping each other. I think I'll need to review Strunk and White, for instance. And as for TKA, I'm amazed at the amount of work you put into helping me. Practically everything you said will lead to some sort of change, starting with switching the question parts.

    Just an aside: how's pumpkin head? It's a term I heard a thirteen yr old say to a friend with a round face.

  8. My daddy called me a pumpkin-headed kid in front of my friends when I was in junior high. I never lived it down.

    I could be hypersensitive about pumpkins, but I don't think it is a term teenagers would use to describe each other.

    Hope that helps :-)

  9. The mention of the Nobel price seems to be of no importance to the story at this point. You can always put that somewhere later if it truly is important to the story. I like it that he can understand the wolves but the beginning paragraphs are very confusing. Either you expand on the evening in the woods or you cut it entirely. The information that his parents shout at him and his dreams can come later in the story, too.

    Now for something that I (as a studied forester) find very hard to swallow: Arny, a human, touches the pup with his bare hands and the wolves still take it back? I don't think so. In a best case scenario they would leave it to die. That's the way nature works. Wolves these days are way too weary of men to accept something that's smelling of human.

    To make your story work despite this, you need an explanation for those who know a little about wolves. Maybe there is a reason they don't associate his smell with humans. Did he wash particularly well (without soap, of course)? Did he rub himself with stuff that smells nice to wolves? Is he wearing special clothes?

  10. I felt this jumped around a lot: in time and in point of view, making it very difficult for the reader.

    I agree that the story should start at the point of the children rescuing the pup - and leave the other details about the prize and the parents til later.

    I would make the dynamic between the MC and Terry much clearer. I had also assumed they were both boys. I consider pumpkin or pumpkin head to be pet names, not nick-names between peers.

    I enjoyed the writing of the actual rescue. That was where the story became interesting for me.

  11. I would agree with above posts.
    I would make the girl Terri and not Terry. To me, I thought Terry was a boy by the spelling, so I had bad thoughts about bumping and rubbing in the hemlocks... sorry.

  12. Here's a WOW for you!

    Cut the first paragraph. Save it for much later.

    And look what a gorgeous opening line you have:

    "Arny took too many chances with wild life."

    That line, as an opening paragraph will keep me going for pages! Nice work!

    If you do keep the first paragraph and use it elsewhere in the novel, I found it confusing structurally.

  13. The wolf pup rescue is the inciting incident which changes Arny's life. The problem is, it's a flashback, and many agents are deadset against (pure) flashbacks right up front. I could do without the professor/student paragraph, but am afraid no agent would read on or they'd think the story was MG. Although I have nothing against MG, it's just not the story. Also, if I could start with the rescue (and all your recommended changes) I would love that. Any help here would be appreciated.

    p.s. whoops wild life=wildlife, thanks Claire.

  14. Prologue perhaps? Start with the wolf rescue as a prologue and then go directly to the present day MC working as a professor.

    You've got a good premise here. Best of luck.

  15. I actually like opening with Arny as a professor. With a clear transition the falshback won't be a problem.