Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What's Broken? #9

TITLE: Tree of Many Colors
GENRE: MG Historical

In the 1930's ten-year-old Jamie struggles through the WV Coalfileds in search of love and a home.

(Does first person pov work for this? Am I using age/era appropriate slang? Should I drop the slang?)

For the tenth time my metal hoop clanged to the ground, and I could almost hear Pa saying, “It’s okay, Jimmy, hoop rolling's an art. I rolled mine to school and back every day when I was your age.”

I wanted to roll the hoop like Pa, but it kept going sideways and flopping on the ground. Each time it hit the ground, I grabbed it and tried again – rolling my tree limb around the inside while trying to keep it upright. I had to learn how for Pa’s sake so I kept picking up and whacking that hoop until it kept rolling.

That was almost a year ago -- one day after Christmas. Pa didn’t come home on time, and we learned he’d been killed in a coal mine accident. Everything changed overnight. Ma disappeared. I was sent to a state home to live with strangers. The people at the home tried to comfort me, I didn’t want their help, I just wanted Ma and Pa. I kept hearing Pa’s last words in my head so I practiced rolling my hoop every day just like he had taught me, but Pa doesn’t know that. He can’t watch me anymore, and the emptiness won’t go away. If I can’t have Pa, I don’t need anyone. I can take care of myself -- I have this whole year.


  1. I feel like this whole sequence would be clearer with a correction of the tenses. The first two paragraphs are memories: so Jimmy would say "I had wanted to..." and " hoop had clanged to the ground..."

    I don't mind the first person voice! As for the slang and terminology, I have to admit *I* don't know anything about hoop rolling, so its significance is lost on me. Is it just for fun? What's this business about tree branches rolling inside? Maybe something more familiar to a MG reader, like riding a bike, might be easier to describe?

  2. I think the problem is with the third paragraph: too much information is dumped too quickly and there's no real emotional content to it. Such tragic events in a young boy's life deserve to be told more slowly, in extended flashbacks. If this is your opening scene, I would say cut that paragraph completely and show something happening to Jimmy.

    I really like the hoop rolling. It immediately puts us into a different era. You could do a bit more to explain how it works though. When Jimmy thinks "I wanted to roll the hoop like Pa," expand on that -- how did it look when Pa did it?

    I was confused, though, about whether the hoop rolling was happening in the present or whether it was a memory. If it's not in the present, why is he thinking about it now?

    Except for the use of "Ma" and "Pa," I didn't see anything in this excerpt that I would consider "slang." Maybe that would be more apparent in your dialogue?

  3. The hoop rolling is excellent - definitely keep that. In fact, in all the events of this excerpt, I think you've caught the feeling of a different time very well.

    If there's a problem at all, it's in the voice. It's not so much that you use modern slang (because I didn't pick up on anything) as that there's a conspicuous lack of slang from the time period. Adding, rather than subtracting, would give this more character.

    That said, you're writing for MG, and this is a solid MG voice. For the record, I think the first person works fine.

  4. A thought about accents/slang: while I certainly wouldn't recommend writing West Virginia speech phonetically, if you're wanting to make it sound more like an era/place, a well-placed subtle nod to the accent can help.

    For example, "hoop rollin'" vs. "hoop rolling"

    Also, using terms and grammar common to the time/place will make people hear the accent even if it's not written.

    For example, if you read "We gonna cook that fish?" you probably didn't hear someone from California (random trivia: that's an actual quote from a video taken when I was 6 and sounded like a West Virginia coalminer myself ;-)

  5. I agree with the other comments. The significance of the hoop rolling should be explained to the reader. Otherwise it sounds like a random game. Does he want to do it well so that his father would have been proud of him? Give it an emotional connection.

    I also agree about the info dump in the last paragraph. That info should gradually be fed in. Perhaps give a hint at the beginning of this, then have the hoop part, then give an image of the home? This would hint that something had happened to his parents and more info could be revealed later.

    1st POV works great. The slang wasn't overwhelming in this section. I would do it with a light touch throughout your ms so it flows and doesn't halt the reader.

    The one thing I miss in this section is a sense of the MC's age. If I didn't have your log line above, I would not have a real sense of the character's age. I also wonder if he has siblings since he ends up in a home. Does he get separated from them. That doesn't necessarily need to be addressed this soon, but I was curious.

    It took a second read to realize that he is hoop rolling in present time and remarking on what his Pa would have said.

    If you make your third paragraph flow like the first two, you'll be in good shape.

  6. I think the first person POV is fine for this! I'd just suggest focusing on two things:

    1. Make sure your ten year-old sounds like a ten year-old. I think you do a pretty good job of that here, so keep it up!

    2. You'll want to use some 30's slang and speech patterns to help place people in the time period. I'd recommend checking out a few books and movies from the period to get a feel for the slang and the attitudes. A good option for your setting may be "The Grapes of Wrath" - the Joads would have spoken more like your protagonist than, say, an F. Scott Fitzgerald character would. Also, check and see if there are any books published by West Virginians at the time - it could help you pick up some more turns of phrase. Good luck!

    P.S. Sorry for the "anonymous" name - I don't have any of the below accounts!

  7. I think first person works fine and the slang works fine. I agree with the comments about the events and the level of emotion in the third paragraph. This feels way too matter of fact-- this would be a traumatic event in a boy's life--losing his father, his mother, his home. he sees way too matter of fact with it.

    I also was confused as to whether this was a flashback or a current event, the hoop rolling. It might be interesting to include a memory of his father teaching him how to do this, maybe as he tries to roll the hoop, he can feel his father's hands guiding his or remember a time when his father cheered because he was successful.

  8. The suggestion to find books or movies from the time period is so helpful (having written 20th century historical myself). The Little Rascals might be a good resource, I think it covered 1920s - 30s. A little more slang, or a unique phrase from the time period would work well in this snippet.

    I agree with some of the others that the paragraph detailing all the tragedy moves rather quickly. Even if it's all a backdrop for the rest of the book, it might be better to ground this in a scene where the character needs to reflect on it, rather than dishing all of it at once.

  9. One thought that stuck with me, if I am understanding the timeline correctly, his Pa was teaching him how to hoop roll when he died. It is a year later and he is still trying to learn? I am not sure if you have ever tried hoop rolling, but it is not that hard, definitely would not take over a year to learn. Especially for a ten year old boy. My 4 and 6 year old picked it up and can roll like pros after only a few days of practice. Perhaps you could add to the emotional impact by incorporating that he couldn't practice for a year, and now is trying again for the first time since the deaths?

  10. There are some intriguing story questions in here -- What happens to the boy after he goes to the state home? Why did his mom disappear? Will he ever see her again? Why does he mourn his Pa and not his Ma? You've set the reader up to want to know the answers, which is great.

    The reference to "tree limb" stopped me -- I picture limbs as HUGE. Maybe substitute branch or stick? Not sure a 10-year-old would call it a limb, anyway.

    Like other commenters, I was a bit confused on whether this was a flashback or not (from a year ago to the present). If you clarify that (it may just be a matter of rearranging paragraphs), it'll strengthen this.

    Personally, I think the slang helps ground the reader in setting. You could even enhance it more.

    A couple of nitpicky comments: WV coalfields (misspelled in the description) and 1930s vs 1930's (there are different schools of thought on this!)

    Now that you've set up a host of story questions, I'm curious to read more. Nice job.

  11. Thanks everyone for the great feedback!
    I hope it is okay to post the second half of my 500 words for review. This section will show the dialogue with snippets of era slang.

    This morning, I swung my hoop over my shoulder and crept to the edge of the porch. Bear lie curled up near the door. “C’mon, boy,” I said, patting his head. I jumped from the porch into the wet grass and heard my britches rip. Maude wasn’t gonna like that, it meant more sewing. She tried to keep all us kids dressed properly. I wouldn’t have these britches if it weren’t for her.
    Rain splattered my sore toe as I raced across the yard, toward the road. A thick fog hovered above the cornfield and the trees near the river. A whiff of sassafras on the rain started my stomach to grumbling. Maude made us sassafras tea in the winter. She sweetened it with honey. Sugar was for baking. She was probably firing up the coal stove to make biscuits by now – and heating the kitchen for us kids.
    I stomped through the puddles left by the night’s rain and thought about stupid old Tyke Whyte. I wished I never had to look at that man again. He’s why I left the house so early, coming around, banging on the door before breakfast, his beefy hands bulging with papers. I listened from behind the door until he started yelling at Maude. That’s when my insides started burning.
    “If you want to keep this home, you need to pay the bills!” he said.
    For the first-time, I wished I was bigger. I lifted my chin and stepped out from behind the door, my fists tight.

  12. I agree with the comments above: -The first-person POV works well. -Hoop rolling is actually pretty straightforward.
    -The switch from flashback to present is awkward.
    -Stick is better than "tree limb."
    -More time should be spent telling the 3rd paragraph.
    As for the excerpt above, I am not sure if the smell of sassafrass would make him hungry--if it's used for tea, seems more like he'd get thirsty if he smelled it. I would also start this scene with Tyke White coming in with his papers in his big (beefy doesn't sound quite right) hands, and Jimmy waking up and confronting him.
    Good start--I'm definitely interested in reading more!

  13. If you decide to use slang from the time period, use it very sparingly. You don't want to jar the reader out of the story by throwing something at them that doesn't make sense. And very little slang makes sense if you're unfamiliar with the time period.