Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Secret Agent #11

Title: Mattie and the Machine
Genre: YA Historical The Bag Division's six bag-making machines are, as Old Jake used to say, pernickety as a moody racehorse. When everything is perfect, they run like a dream, whisking out paper bags by the thousands. But one thing goes off kilter, and they chew the paper feed to bits. And with these machines, a hundred things can go wrong.

Fortunately, I've gotten quick at figuring what's wrong.

Ida's gray-streaked head shakes with amazement as I wriggle out from beneath Machine 3 with a cracked bevel gear in hand. "Mattie," she says, raising her voice over the factory clatter. "I swear you got a sixth sense with mechanical things."

"It's just practice. If you took them apart as much as I do, you'd get good, too," I say, easing my legs out. While my height comes in handy working with the factory's overhead line shaft, it makes crawling under things difficult.

"No, you have a gift," Ida insists. "Old Jake never fixed things this quickly."

That's because Old Jake liked beer for breakfast and rum in his noon coffee.

I don't say that out loud, of course. It's disrespectful to speak ill of the dead. Not to mention, Jake's the reason I'm no longer an ordinary hand like the other women at Columbia Paper. Most mechanics would laugh at the thought of training a young girl, but Jake taught me his trade and taught me well.

For that, I'm grateful.


  1. Awesome first sentence. You offer a big promise of something important to come. After that great first paragraph, I'm looking for some big action...but instead, I get Maddie, repairing a paper bag machine. I am guessing (hoping) that somewhere not far along beyond this passage, something a bit more exciting happens. Whatever that is, I'd sure like to read it in your first 250 words. Still, there is some excellent writing here and I'd keep going, because you write so very well.

    1. I absolutely agree with Liza's comments, and here's my recommendation: In the second paragraph ("Fortunately, I've gotten quick at figuring what's wrong"), put us there with your narrator at that moment -- mid-fix.

      This would immediately put us in Maddie's perspective as opposed to being introduced by Ida watching her come out from under the machine (a striking image, but one I think works better if you were writing in third person). This would also add a small bit of drama to the opening: it's gotta be cramped under there, and stuffy, and maybe she has to swap out the gear before the machine hits its next cycle? Clearly I'm not a mechanic, but I think you get what I'm going for here...

  2. I agree with Liza: great opening line. I would like more of a hint of the time period, era. Is Columbia Paper the real name of the bag-making mill? I tried to look it up, but couldn't find anything to confirm that.
    Another favorite sentence is: That's because Old Jake liked beer for breakfast and rum in his noon coffee.
    Language: persnickety, off kilter, figuring, speak ill of the dead...makes me think this is late 1800's or early 1900's, but I would like to know that. I like the voice of the MC, Mattie, and the factory setting. I would be interested in reading more.

  3. You have a strong, compelling voice for your main character. I was pulled in and wanted to keep reading just so I could get to know her better. This is a little thing, but the repetition of the word bag in the first sentence threw me off. I like the "pernickety as a moody racehorse" bit, but "the bag division's six bag-making machines" seemed a little clunky. Also, I would add if before "one thing goes off kilter", just because you're writing in present tense so at first I wasn't sure if that was hypothetical, or if that was actually happening in the story. I agree that it would be good to get a firmer sense of when this is taking place right off the bat. Cotton mills are firmly associated with the industrial revolution, but a reference to a paper bag mill doesn't give much of a clue.

  4. This voice has a naturalness to it that makes it easy for me connect with Mattie right off the bat. I’m not sure when or where I am, or how old Mattie is, but I instinctively want to know more about her. My only critique is that it’s a little bit calm. I’m not really getting a sense of tension yet, but I’d keep reading to find out.

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