Wednesday, February 15, 2012

February Secret Agent #35

TITLE: This Is Free Berlin

It was easy for him to listen in on his dad and Sgt. Stepanek that night. By August 12, 1961, Chet Hightower had been living in Berlin so long that his brain no longer distinguished between German, Russian, or English. Having wandered in for a glass of something cold from the fridge, he’d found them hunkered down, heads together across the tiny kitchen table, speaking low in a language they thought he couldn’t understand.

“It’s all I’ve been hearing about for weeks -- concrete and bricks. Work crews….” Stepanek shook his head. “The Reds are finally doing a little housekeeping. Good for them…but Christ Almighty! Can’t someone over there start shooting?”

“I had a talk with the analysts today. Tried to get us assigned something else, but no dice. They want us on this construction thing.” Chet’s dad swirled the last ounce of beer around the bottom of the bottle, then upended it.

“Hey Dad, Sgt. Stepanek.” Chet ambled in and began rummaging in the fridge. Even with his head halfway into the cold white box he heard the mood of the room change.

“Hey son,” his dad said in English. “Could you throw us a couple more pivos?”

Chet set two more beers on the table between his dad and Mr. Stepanek, then waited for the invitation to sit down and join the conversation. He hadn’t seen his father in days – Sgt. Hightower had been pulling the graveyard shift at the Field Station.


  1. I'm super stoked to see more mid-century historical YA (I'm writing the same time period). I wish there was a pitch with this so I knew the full story - I'm intrigued. I'd love to read a story framing the cold war from a teen perspective. I'm guessing the construction project is the Berlin Wall, or something related.

    Anyway, I think this could be a really cool story tying together an important point in time with a military/action and coming of age type slant. This reads to me almost like post-apocolyptic fiction, except it's based on real events.

    Good luck with your writing!

  2. I have a hard time connecting to this piece. Part of it is because I don't read a lot of historical, but I don't get a sense for your MC. I can appreciate the position he's in, and establishing the time period and the character in such a short word count is difficult, but other than he's learned a few languages unbeknownst to his father, I know nothing else about him. Being a teen during that time period could not have been easy, but there's got to be something that YA readers today can connect to.

  3. I also had a hard time connecting - guessing not going to be my genre.

    It would help to know the genre to form that initial connection/expectation. YA is not a genre. This could be anything from historical to sci-fi with a time travel twist and one would make me want to keep reading and the other wouldn't as much.

    The first paragraph has some unweildy phrasing - 'having wandered in', but after that, the writing is pretty good. Although first he wanders in and then later ambles in - might want to clarify that.

  4. I agree that the genre needs to be specified just to help the reader bring the picture into focus. If it is a story of a teen living in Berlin during the construction of the Berlin Wall then I think it has so many possibilities. For that reason alone, I would want to keep reading. Since you mention the languages spoken you may as well include French since that was one of the 4 sectors of occupied Berlin - I assume historical accuracy would be important in a piece like this. I love the setting and think it has the potential of a really unique story.

  5. I'm intrigued as well. However, I'm wondering if this is straight historical or later on you throw a curve. You should let your readers know! :)

  6. I like the scene you've set here. I think you've managed to evoke the setting and atmosphere with almost no physical descriptions. Bravo!

  7. I'd replace the he in the first sentence with Chet so readers immediately know the MCs name. But I'd skip the last name- We don't have to know it right away and I think it feels formal, distancing the reader. Maybe that's what some of the above comments are feeling.

    I like this premise- like that's it a boy-oriented YA. There aren't enough of those for readers like my son. I think he'd be very interested in this.

  8. I think this is great! I'd definitely read on. I felt connected to the MC - he'd like to spend more time with his dad.

    I would rework the first paragraph a litte. Maybe: By 1961, Chet Hightower had lived in Berlin so long that his brain no longer distinguished between German, Russian, or English. Da, ya, yes, it was all the same to him.

    That night in August, the night the world would later learn the authorities had begun to seal one side of the city off from the other, Chet wandered into the kitchen for a glass of something cold from the fridge. He found his father and Sgt. Stepanek hunkered down, heads together across the tiny kitchen table, speaking low in a language they thought he couldn’t understand.

  9. editing suggestions - yes!
    thoughtful critiques - yes!
    helpful pointers - yes!
    But nothing galls me more than people who rewrite other people's work. Write your own.

  10. You’ve picked an interesting time to set a YA in, I can’t think of another set during the building of the Berlin Wall. I would read more just to see what type of historical YA it is. (I’m assuming it is historical with suspense and intrigue and not going to end up being science fiction or paranormal.)

    I think your writing could use some cleaning up as he seemed to walk into the room twice and I was confused how he could know all those languages without his father knowing it.

    Great start.