Wednesday, May 16, 2018

May Secret Agent Contest #42

TITLE: The Sisterhood of Friends and Enemies
GENRE: Adult Historical Fiction

At eight o’clock on Monday morning, Erica Waller took her seat in Room 214 of the Moore School of Engineering, home to 18 of the 63 girl math sharks working for the school’s new occupant, the United States Army Ballistic Research Laboratory, Philadelphia Computing Section. She felt slightly guilty over having worked this past Saturday, the first day of the Jewish New Year, but knew God would forgive her. After all, killing Nazis by equation took precedence over prayer.

She pulled the plastic dust cover from her Marchant mechanical calculator, reviewed her table of data inputs and results, and identified the steps required for finalizing the bomb trajectory she’d been computing since Friday. Within minutes she began punching numbers into the Marchant and pulling the arm, adding to the clickety-clacks and sweeping clanks that filled the room. Noise for some, music for others, the sound soothed Erica and helped her concentrate. And concentrate she did, so much so that she didn’t notice the gradual reduction in clatter, lifting her head only after silence deafened the room and Norma tugged at her sleeve.

“Unbelievable,” Norma said, her voice dripping with disgust. “Miss Turner must be out of her mind.”
Erica looked toward the chalkboard and there stood Assistant Section Chief Turner with a girl Erica had never seen before. A girl dressed in a smart taupe suit and crisp white blouse, her complexion equal parts coffee and cream, a first for the Philadelphia Computing Section.


  1. I love, love, love these 250 words giving a first glimpse at women scientists in WWII. In the first paragraph, you show that Erica is Jewish without actually saying it. Nice! I also liked the irony of that paragraph's last sentence. I can't think of much to suggest for improvement, except maybe a rewording of the phrase, "after silence deafened the room." Since "deafening silence" is a bit overused, maybe try something like "after silence cloaked the room"--or an even better verb? Oh, and I don't think typewriter covers in the 1940s were plastic. (Remember the use of the word "plastic" in the 1960s movie, The Graduate?)

  2. I think the premise has a tremendous lot going for it. I like everything about a smart woman, a smart Jewish woman to boot, fighting the Nazis with her mind. My concern is that I think you start too early. The first paragraph is backstory, albeit well put. The second paragraph is Erica working, which is not terribly exciting for a beginning page, though it's perfectly acceptable as a breather during the story when you need a break from emotion. Only in the third paragraph is the true beginning, from what I can tell. The energy zooms right there - you have tension, conflict, and even an antagonist all at once.

    I would suggest starting with that moment in the third paragraph, then zoom out a bit to explain where they are and who Erica is. I would lose the second paragraph for now and bring it back when you need a calming moment in the story.

    Good luck with it!

  3. As it stands the beginning of the story is all "telling." If the first paragraph opened with Erica quietly whispering a prayer to herself - a prayer about God forgiving her for working on Saturday and creating a device that would kill people - I think you'd snatch the reader's attention.

    I like Erica's relationship to the clacking machines. It tells so much about her. And the era the story was written.

    At first I was bit confused about Erica's response to the new girl - the room seems to be women only - then I had my 'aha' moment - it was race. I imagine that Erica, being Jewish, would have recognized that bias and known what it's like to stand alone in a room of 'others.'

    The details about the room and building feel a bit heavy for an opening paragraph.

    I think the story has great promise!

  4. This has such a great Hidden Figures vibe. The story is very compelling. Eliminate the "felt" and give us specific action that shows us her mood and personality. I'd read more and I wish you great success with this story!!

  5. I loved this opening page. I was pulled right into the story and wanted to read more about Erica and the other women. It’s such a great concept and immediately reminded me of Hidden Figures. I do want to know more about Erica in these opening pages. I don't have a strong sense of who she is in these first 250 words, other than she's jewish and good at math. But I'm assume her reaction to the new girl will speak volumes about her. Great job.

  6. I love this premise, but the voice in this sample feels too much like a textbook to me rather than a narrative. I'd love to see a much deeper point of view.

    There are a lot of characters and several plot points in this first page, and I didn't get a good grip on the MC at all yet, which made this feel more like a plot summary than a gripping opening.

    Maybe consider beginning at a different point, maybe the second or third paragraph? Introduce the MC. Set the scene. Hint at the conflict with this new hire. That could help focus this opening.

    A final suggestion -- the sentences are a little long. Consider varying the sentence lengths and rearranging things so that "Philadelphia Computing Section" occurs only once on pg1.

    Thank you for sharing!