Thursday, February 26, 2009

87 Drop the Needle: Chapter Endings

TITLE: Shades of Gray
GENRE: Middle grade

Patrick is the 12 year old son of a cruel slave plantation owner. Smudge is a small slave boy that recently arrived at the plantation after being severely beaten. Jeremiah is an old slave who, along with his wife, have made caring for Smudge their responsibility. Patrick has become friends with Smudge.

This excerpt is the morning following further abuse to Smudge by Patrick's father. Patrick has just learned that instead of recuperating, Smudge has been taken out to the cotton fields to work.

Patrick raced toward the fields where he found Jeremiah and Smudge. Even in the weak morning light, Patrick could see Smudge's ashen color. Smudge picked a white puff, and his hand dropped and rested on his leg. His filthy makeshift bandages hung to the dirt.

"Careful son, you is getting blood on the cotton," Jeremiah said.

Smudge slowly viewed his hands as though he weren't seeing anything. He sat with a small thump, and stared at nothing.

Patrick placed a hand on Smudge's shoulder. Smudge sprang backward on his hands and feet. His face contorted with pain, and he fell flat, his breath short and fast.

"It alright son, it just young Massa Patrick," Jeremiah said.

Smudge's eyelids flickered, and his head flopped to the side.

Patrick moved closer, but Smudge let out a roar, his eyes vacant.

"It's me... Patrick."

Smudge shook his head, and coughed. He inhaled sharply and gagged. Panic sparked in his eyes as he fought for air, and grasped his throat. Three deep hacks, and Smudge's eyes rolled back in their sockets. He crumpled and lay still.

"Smudge!" Patrick jostled him. "Smudge, wake up!" The young boy appeared to have stopped breathing.

"SMUDGE!" Patrick took hold of his ragged shirt, shook the lifeless little body, and slapped his cheek. Patrick stared in horror. His face burned. His mind raced. He took a slack wrist in his hand and bellowed at the sky as if somehow it would make it better. He can't be dead!


  1. I think historical fiction is hard, well, any genre is hard. But I felt the emotion here. And thankfully, I didn't feel like it was overwritten. In a short 250 words I could feel the emotion. Now, this kind of emotion is easier to evoke, but I thought it was well done. I didn't pick it apart as a writer, but as a reader, I'd definitely read on.

  2. I agree that the emotional content was well written. The only issues I have is a bit of confusion in your description of Smudge moving backward on his hands and feet. I think I understand what he did, but it's a little confusing. You might want to try to rewrite that part so it's a little clearer for the reader.

    The other issue was when Patrick shook Smudge's body. It seems a little rough and uncaring that he would shake him and slap his face. But perhaps he's trying to revive him in the only way he can figure to do it. It just struck me as a little violent.

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  4. I am always amazed at the various ideas that create story. This is a very intriguing piece and I would want to read on. However, the words "Smudge wake up..." seemed a bit out of place especially followed by the lines "...lifeless little body."

  5. So, this is going to sound backhanded, but it really is a compliment:

    I wouldn't keep reading.

    But it's not because of you, it's because of it. Because if I don't keep reading, Smudge might still be alive, and I kind of need that right now.

    And that's a testament to you, because I care about the fate of this kid in 250 words. I also felt Patrick's connection to the boy from word one. Well done!

    The only thing that surprised me is that I think Jeremiah would have reacted as well. But after his "Massa Patrick" line, Jeremiah just kind of disappears.

  6. Good writing. I felt a quick attachment to the characters but agree with the other comments. A few sections could be rewritten to be a little clearer.

    One thing that jumped out at me though was Jeremiah's language. I get what you're going for but he says his 't's in alright, it, just so why does he drop the 't' in master? Not a big deal but seemed a little odd to me.

  7. The emotion, scene and tension ciome through very well. I'm not sure the voice of the slave was consistent - be really careful that any speech patterns are followed carefully - ie, dropping of certain letters or words, sentence structure - so that it feels authentic.

    Also, and this is a small thing that I am sure was an oversight, but be really careful about how you refer to slaves.

    In your description you wrote:

    Smudge is a small slave boy that recently arrived at the plantation after being severely beaten.
    Jeremiah is an old slave who,...

    Referring to Smudge with "that" instead of "who" feels like you are referring to him as a thing, rather than a person. And it was especially noticeable because you used "who" when referring to Jeremiah.

    So, probably inadvertent, and a small thing, but an important one -especially when referring to a story about slavery.


  8. I'm not a fan of historical fiction, but I found this is very compelling.

    A few small things kicked me out of the story, in this sentence:

    Patrick took hold of his ragged shirt, shook the lifeless little body, and slapped his cheek

    For one brief moment, I thought Patrick grabbed his own shirt and slapped his own cheek! Silly, huh?

    Also, 'Took hold' seems much less urgent than 'grabbed' or something like that.

    Oddly, the word 'cheek' threw me. It seems too delicate a word for such a frantic and violent scene. The word 'face' would work better, for me, at least.

    These are very small points in a lovely passage. I hope he lives!

  9. I agree with most of the above suggested changes, especially with the sounds of words spoken by Jeremiah and the consistency of writing them. Also what did Patrick bellow . . . only a sound or a word?

    Great writing to make me feel so deeply for the child, the horrible situation and Patrick if Smudge is dead. I'd definitely go on to the next chapter.

  10. Well, I agree with some of the earlier comments, but not all.

    I, too, had to stop a moment and reread when Smudge jumped back on his hands and knees. It just didn't make sense, even though I know what your vision likely was.

    I don't agree with the language problem, however. I think "Massa" was how slaves usually referred to their owners, and wasn't indicative of whether or not they could pronounce words with a "t" in them. Could be wrong in this, I know, but I've read plenty of books with dialect and I've seen this often.

    This is a lovely writing example, but heartbreaking to read. I would read on, however, and hope my concerns are invalid.

  11. I thought the passage was effective in getting me to care about the characters. I wanted to read on to find out if Smudge was okay.

    When Smudge was touched by Patrick--the way it was written, I envisioned him jumping back into a weird crab position (like doing a crab-walk). Kindof threw me out of the scene. Maybe just me, though.

    All in all, I liked it.

  12. I really like the premise and set up here. You automatically feel sympathy for both Patrick and Smudge, even in such a short section. I’d definitely read on!

    The only two lines that jerked me out of the narrative were The young boy appeared to have stopped breathing. and and bellowed at the sky as if somehow it would make it better. as they feel a bit overworked. But other than that, great stuff!

  13. Compelling. My only comment is that if this is from Patrick's POV, I'd like to see more reaction, or some kind of feeling from Patrick when this passage begins. And maybe a smidgen of interior monologue when Patrick engages Smudge to see if he's alive. The way it reads right now, he seems kind of detached.

  14. I love the name 'Smudge', and I really like the way your narrative is written. I'm not so sure about the dialogue - in places, it was jarring and pulled me out of the flow.

    I would keep reading!

  15. Allen brought up my biggest concern - whose POV is this? If it's Patrick, he sure doesn't sound like a 12yo boy! Also, verb tense: "He can't be dead" should be "He couldn't be dead", also it's abrupt but not in a cliff-hanger sort of way, in my head. As it's the end of the chapter, it seems almost like there was an effort at closure that somehow doesn't work. . . I wish I could explain it. But I would feel more of a gut reaction if it ended at "He crumpled and lay still."

    Also, you dilute some great lines. "appeared to have stopped breathing"? If this is for POV purposes, you could still say "He stopped breathing" because an observer can tell if someone else is breathing or not. Or "Smudge let out a roar": let is a weak verb compared to roar! Why not just "Smudge roared"?

    The emotion is good, as is the innocence of Patrick's character. Good job conveying that. And I, too, love the name Smudge.

  16. Tackling this issue with this type of emotion is astounding, very well-done.

    I agree with the other commenters on the 'sprang backward' part but that might just be my aversion to the word 'sprang'

    The other place that knocked me out of the flow was right after Patrick screams 'Smudge, wake up!'

    I felt as though 'The young boy appeared to have stopped breathing. "SMUDGE!"' was unnecessary, along with 'as if somehow it would make it better. He can't be dead!'

    I think the end result of that reads better since the POV gets thrown with the pronouns referencing to Smudge, not Patrick:

    "Smudge!" Patrick jostled him. "Smudge, wake up!" He shook the lifeless little body. His face burned. His mind raced. Patrick took a slack wrist in his hand and bellowed at the sky.

    Just my .02 cents. I'm very curious where this story is going...

  17. Yikes. Awful.

    Not your writing (which is great), but the situation you describe.

  18. This is an interesting premise; I'm really curious about the story as a whole! The whole issue of how a son views his abusive father is rich with dramatic potential.

    One thing I'd watch would be the sentence construction. It seems like shorter sentences would be more dramatic (e.g., Smudge sat with a thump. He stared at nothing. The young boy wasn't breathing).

    I'd also be careful about using adverbs (i.e., how do you "slowly view" something?)

    Also, I wasn't quite sure about the point of view. If it's Patrick's POV, then would he describe Smudge as a "young boy?"

    It also seems kind of odd that Patrick would slap Smudge after he's collapsed.

    But again, I love the premise!

  19. I really liked this. I could just see it all unfolding in my mind. However, the fourth paragraph was a little confusing to me. I didn’t understand what you meant by>> ‘he fell flat’

    Also this sentence may need a little re write It was a little telling.>>Patrick moved closer, but Smudge let out a roar, his eyes vacant.

    When Patrick moved closer, Smudge roared, but his eyes were vacant.

    But why did he roar? It didn’t seem like something he would do.

    I liked the hook at the end and I would definitely turn the page.

  20. I would read on.


    Can a dark-skinned person appear "ashen?" A Caucasian face can certainly turn the color of ash, but I'm not sure about a darker complexion.

    The last sentence is in the present tense -- is it internal dialogue? I'm not sure if it quite works that way. I think maybe the entire final paragraph needs to be reworked, tightened.

    As for Jeremiah's dialect: I'm no expert (though I've certainly heard "Massah" before and believe it to be historically correct), but I would encourage you to spend time carefully researching this, as it's the kind of thing that can stand out like a pimple in the middle of a good story.

    And I love the name "Smudge." :)

  21. A few word choices feel out of place (roared especially, for Smudge… I have trouble seeing how he would roar when in such a state? :S), but not bad. I’d probably read on a few pages to see if he’s dead or not, though I can’t say it’s an especially strong hook , mostly because I have a feeling (from the blurb) Smudge is more than a minor character, so I kinda doubt he’s dead. Still, I’m curious, if only mildly.

    I like the name Smudge, even though I think of Jim Hines' firespider instead. ;)

    Good luck,