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By: Jeremy Newman
Tagline: Meet your other half
I opened Gemima’s page and dove in.
Before deciding whether to write on it, I scrolled down past her studio session photos, magazine sets and runway shows as if they were depths. When I came back up, a photo near the top of the page got my attention for being kind of sunny and nice. In it, the short-haired silver-blonde girl modeled a ‘destroyed’ white vest top, the gashes in the material repaired with multi-colored coarse stitching. She smiled, and leaned back against a vivid red brick wall, somewhere in England
The comment I put under the picture was totally not something-of-the-moment. After what felt like half an hour of composing, reordering, deleting, and re-doing, I reckoned my line hit the spot. And this being a public space, it would show the world how much I admired her
Allow me this. To forget you
I didn’t even have an interest in fashion. Not at first, anyway. And the ages weren’t right either, me thirteen, she a tall ten. No, I started following Gemima Fecko because of an obvious connection: our looks. And what was the whole world of models, celebrities, influencers, TV, media, screens and phones, if not about looks
Her reply, minutes later, set off a kind of heat bomb in my stomach. This was impossible. At no special hour, on no particular day, ‘Gems’ was there, real-time, for me.
Sure you will, Hugh
My fingers froze (maybe the heat bomb didn’t make it past my elbows). She continued
While you remember me, enjoy the show (laughing face)! Follow the link at the top to my featured Autumn/Winterwear collection.
Click on ‘boys’
Before Gems became famous and got millions of followers, and before anyone knew her name, I saw her, or someone who looked just like her, in Bangkok
Without anything else to do until my family appeared for breakfast, I propped myself on one elbow and watched the girl tiptoe along the edge of the hotel pool. She sidled behind the waterfall feature as if it were a shower curtain. Her outline, lit by the morning sun, kind of cavorted in a coral one-piece. Now and then she punctured the sheet of water with a hand, or a foot, carving huge messy cuts in the flow; they healed in an instant each time she withdrew. I stayed put, because the idea of meeting someone who looked so much like me, spooked me
“Fancying a dip before breakfast, Hugh?”
My aunt’s voice from behind the lounger was no surprise (I saw her shadow), so I acted all casual
“Aah. Hi Pam. I, um, haven’t brought my swimming gear.”
Auntie Pamela would tell me if I had a three-years-younger long-lost twin, even if my own mother kept it a secret. Pam (as I called her) knew everything about our family, and never made things up.
“Your parents are staying in their rooms.
One of those rooms was my room, too. I rolled and squinted up at my aunt’s silhouette, tall and dark-haired against the sun glare. “Oh. They’re not speaking?
“They’re speaking through me, on the phone.
“But they’re meant to be conferring.” I said this because Pam called my parent’s foreign meetups ‘The Annual Conference’
She laughed. “Then I’m the interpreter. Good job I came eh?
I smiled. “I’m glad.
“Anyway Hugh, they’ve agreed you can come on my side trip to the island.
At this revelation (I looked the word up later) all my thoughts of short-haired girls vanished.
The girl vanished too.
TSWS on Clay Birds (April 4, 2022)
Hi Jeremy, and welcome back. The last version we saw had some issues, and this is a very significant improvement. However some issues remain.
But first, there were some pieces I liked, and I want to call those out. The dove/depths was good, but I’d like it if the words were closer connected (depths didn’t read right until I realized what you were doing). I like the paragraph ‘The comment I put under the picture…” and the paragraph ‘Without anything else to do until my family appeared for breakfast…’ The interaction with Pam is much improved, and the attraction is more nuanced to keep the reader guessing! And I like the voice and cheek you’ve given Gem.
Where I’m struggling once again, just me personally, is still with the ages. In the first section we have ‘And the ages weren’t right either, me thirteen, she a tall ten.” Huh? Please tell me I got confused.
And then I’m struggling with technology per the first part of the submission. It reads a little like he’s on a Facebook page, or probably a web site if the collection is posted on it. And you can post on it, and she’s active on it? Not sure how it all works, but I don’t think either Facebook, most other social media, or a website works that way. Are you thinking Twitter? In any case, a successful influencer likely wouldn’t even be looking at the many, many posts.
Overall, I’m also a little unsure whether the “digital” opening is sufficiently grabby – I’m not saying it isn’t, I like parts of it, it just feels like there might be more punch there. It is the opening, and (in media res) the start of the true drama – it needs to be enough to make me want to get through all of the background before we get to that point. And then the transition to their younger selves rather takes me out of it.
I’m interested in what the others say, I’m not against it, I’m just not yet loving it (and then there’s the tech issue).
Jeanette on Clay Birds
What a complete transformation from the original submission. I appreciate this one starting with a current situation and then leading to the back story. I felt more sure this story is going to be about a boy and a girl and not a random family trip. I look forward to seeing how you pull this all together and bring life to this “connection.”
Story Title: Halloween
By: Steve Jaffa Brown
Total Word Count: I’m assured this is part of a longer work
First 288 words:
I don’t like ‘scary movies’ and I don’t really celebrate Halloween
I’m not ‘buzzed’ by fright, after the real horrors I’ve seen
Anyway it sickens me to be eating a buttie whilst watching a woman scream
Rather than a horror film give me a Halloween dream
WHERE; …..a shaman and a witch kiss, embrace, then separate. Journey’s follow…fuckery and ‘watergate’
Silent messages of encouragement magically dictate
In poems, insta-memes, and the sky when it’s late
A pact made to meet up again, nearby, under a full moon
With each one that rises, I’m howling “is she coming sooooon?”
So if you see her in the crowd, at your table, on riding on her broom
Wish her ‘happiest halloween’, then direct her to my room!
Is she anywhere about, she has cascading red hair
Wait a min, Coming here, that beggar who wouldn’t give her name,
Sat outside ‘Spar’, under bobble-hat, locks like flames
Freckles, Salford twang, her eyes familiar; the same
…That was her, the witch! concealed, playing the players game
Oh shit, after I gave her some baccy I inquired ’are you on the game?’
Now I remember, she said: ‘keep your baccy, right back attcha with the fiver.’
Where you’re going soon, man couldn’t get no driver
This could be heaven or this could be hell;
The end for you begins at the ‘last orders’ bell
And take this fortune cookie, it contains the ‘endgame’ spell
…A BELL RINGS:
‘Last orders gentlemen…don’t make me spell it out”
(Disjointed sounds, panic ensues, fumbles about pockets)
“Where the fuck’s that biscuit now, what’s in it’s shell”
(Breaks it open, reads the fragment inside)
‘ENDGAME SPELL: The audience shall decide it…
Heaven or Hell?’
TSWS on Halloween
We’re definitely flexing our submission criteria on this one. Submissions should be the first 600 words of fiction for Young Adults, and yet here we are taking a look at the first 288 words of a poem. Still, there’s some fiction in here, and I’m sure some YA readers might find it appealing.
Talking about this to a friend I described this submission from Steve as being “like a shot of 90 proof vodka after having been drinking a nice red wine all evening.”
So what the hell’s going on here? I read this as the strange daydream that puts a fresh spin on the well-trod Halloween tropes. The first stanza sets it up well, darkly (“after the real horrors I’ve seen”) and then we launch into this ambiguous and vivid urban dream. A shaman (is that the writer?), a witch, a girl with red hair (who may be the witch), with a denouement at pub closing time (“Last orders gentlemen”) involving a fortune cookie she gave him. It ends with the question asked of us: is this heaven or hell?
For me the answer is neither: this is a modern, urban world that’s sexy, funny, confusing, alarming, gritty.
It’s a shot of 90 proof vodka I very much enjoyed.
(And some clarifications: ‘Buttie’ is a Northern English term for a sandwich, and ‘baccy’ is tobacco. ‘Spar’ may refer to a supermarket chain in England.)
Jeanette on Halloween
Honestly. I’m not even sure what I just read. Took me a few times, maybe it’s the formatting? Is it a poem? Is it a story? Maybe I need a premise? There may be a concept here but I think working out a plan would be helpful. What story are you telling? Is this about to be an epic poem or are we telling a narrative story. With some work this might turn into something but unfortunately right now I feel like I just read a fever dream.
I Won’t Miss
Tagline: Some find out the hard way that a woman scorned can be the most dangerous thing in the world
I was layin’ on that scratchy black mat of his old run down trampoline in the backyard o’ his parents house. Lookin’ up at the sky, the stars twinklin’ down at me. That’s when it all began, that night on the trampoline; when he reached over and gently brushed his hand over mine. The slight breeze blowin’ that night brought the scent of the ocean and his cheap cologne to my nose, it wasn’t the nicest smell in the world, but I breathed it in all the same, savourin’ er’y last whiff of it. I can still smell it even now. As we lay there with our hands brushing against each other I remember havin’ too blink a couple o’ rain drops out of my eyes, then the next thing I knew he was kissin’ me.
Well like I said that’s when it all began, and the next time he was kissin’ me like that was ten months later at our wedding. I s’pose that it might seem silly only waitin’ ten months but we were so in love in, and in those days it didn’t matter so much. And if it did we didn’t care what people thought cause those first ten months were the best of my life and I believe the best of his too. We had been driven’ an old van up and down the coast, and it felt like we were experiencin’ all of life at once, and none of it was bad. Then one day we decided to ring his parents, his father said he had a job for him at the office in New York, so we went home and we got married, happy as clams. I guess maybe that’s really when this all began, cause I don’t think nothin’ would’ve changed if we had stayed in that van. Truly I don’t. It was that job, that damned job that changed him so bad.
Well anyways we went back, and he started his fancy new office job. It wasn’t all bad at first, sure things got a little boring, cause it turned out without the van that he was pretty borin’. But it wasn’t too bad. Then I got pregnant and things got a bit better, less borin’. That didn’t last too long though. He started hittin’ me the day after our daughter was born; this was about two years into things. Yuh see I guess he wanted a son real bad, I knew he wanted one but what I didn’t know was he’d blame me so darn bad. I don’t even know if it was so much of blame as it was just a real excuse to actually raise his hand to me.
He of course could be mean and I knew that, he was mean that first night when we were finally hitched. We were both good Christian’s yuh see so it was both ours first time. He was mean with it, not physically no, just with his words, called me all sorts of mean nasty things, things you should never say to a woman, not ever. I thought maybe he just liked that sort of thing, it never even crossed my mind to nip it in the butt right then and there, but he was the love of my life. Anyways that night and for the first couple of weeks he was just mean in bed, then he started getting mean out of bed. I’d put on a bit of weight from bein’ a house wife and not waitressin’ anymore down at the cafe on 12th street.
Richard on I Won’t Miss
I feel like this is a lot of exposition, beautifully written, but not particularly engaging, and would query the wisdom of putting it at the very beginning of a book. The problem is that I just don’t really care about the female protagonist when I start reading, and since I’m just being told what she went through, what she experienced and what happened when they gave up the dream and moved to New York, I don’t really care by the end, either. It’s just so much autobiography. I could understand having this passage in the middle of a book, when I’m already totally engrossed in the character and the author, for plotting reasons, wants to skip a few years and move on to a different part of the character’s life, but using it as an introduction to a character? No, sorry, doesn’t work for me. The other questionable thing about this beginning is genre. Nothing about this opening screams “thriller” at me. It reads like an Annie Proulx character study, lovely and profound, but hardly thriller material. If someone in a bookshop opened this and read the first few pages, or browsed the “look inside” feature on Amazon, I’m pretty sure they would put this down, a bit baffled. If this were a thriller, I’d expect the second paragraph to read something like “That’s when it all began, that night on the trampoline; when he reached over and gently brushed his hand over mine. It ended just two years later, when I drove an ice-pick in to the back of his skull and tossed his body off the top of Mount Rushmore. Damn near got away with it, too, I did, but there’s a lot of storytellin’ between here and then. “
TSWS on I Won’t Miss
Thanks for submitting Isabelle, and I hope you find these critiques useful – I look forward to a compendium of short stories from you!
What I liked about this are three things: your very direct and painful approach to domestic violence (“Anyways that night and for the first couple of weeks he was just mean in bed, then he started getting mean out of bed.”) It’s a bold choice, gritty and realistic, painful. I believe fiction exists to help us to better understand real people in the real world, and to empathize. There’s some real pain and honest refection in “I don’t even know if it was so much of blame as it was just a real excuse to actually raise his hand to me.” Secondly, the narrator really does come into focus for me as a whole person, telling a genuine story, with an authentic voice – I can almost see her in my mind. Lastly, I’ll add that I found it easy to read despite the narrator’s voice and grammar.
Where I’d consider a little work is in a couple of areas. The tagline of “Some find out the hard way that a woman scorned can be the most dangerous thing in the world” gives rather too much away – unless you promise a twist at the end (I do hope so)!
I got a little confused by this: you write “the next time he was kissin’ me like that was ten months later at our wedding” – really? Or are you trying to suggest it was particularly tender that first time and only again the day they were married (I note you also write later “none of it was bad” during that period. Maybe you could be a little more explicit in the foreshadowing if that’s what you’re intending.
And then: “It was that job, that damned job that changed him so bad” – I’m a little doubtful any job could change anyone that much, so I feel like there’s room for a little elaboration about that “fancy new office job” and why it changed him so much – did he start drinking with the guys after work? Stress? Gambling? Other women? Money troubles?
I have some minor editing quibbles. Single space after a period, parents/parent’s house (may well be deliberate on your part), Too/To (may be deliberate), no/so, Butt/Bud (also may be deliberate, I can imagine this narrator getting the words mixed up). However, I would rather avoid what might make a reader concerned they’re actually errors.
You’ll get the most reaction from readers with your style choice for the direct address narrator. I’m fine with it for a short story, would be tedious for me for a longer piece of work. It also came across as rural South in my mind, and then I was a little confused about the presence of the Ocean and driving “up and down the coast” which made me think California.
Yes, I’d keep reading, and I’d love to see more authentic and tough work like this. I’ll add that it’s not exactly YA, but accept that a YA reader might well find this a salutary story about the real world and its myriad challenges.
Jeanette on: I Won’t Miss
The tag-line caught my attention from the beginning of something I would personally pick up as a 37 year old woman but would possibly suggest to a younger audience as well. Once reading the story, the tag-line could use a little fine tuning as I wouldn’t always put domestic violence in the “woman scorned” category because this brings to mind vengeance for a different level of slight. The total word count does seem a little short, unless this is only planned to be published in a magazine, though based on the first section I would recommend allowing the story to unfold in more detail for a much longer version.
At first, I was thrown off by the shortening of words, realizing it is the voice of the narrator, I would suggest somehow setting the scene of where this takes place to explain the dialect choice would be helpful.
Overall, I would pick up this story and read it. I think it’s important to tell stories like this one – stories of abuse and (hopefully) survival. Keep delving, tell more of the original love story, the time in the van and build to the abuse, there is a great concept here.
Tagline: Meet your other half
Chapter One: A Steamboat Horizon
A year before Gemima was born, I saw her by a waterfall. I didn’t know her name then.
She sidled along a rock ledge and slid behind the cascade, as if it were a shower curtain. Her sunlit outline kind of 𝘤𝘢𝘷𝘰𝘳𝘵𝘦𝘥, barefoot on stone, and looking a bit like me, I thought. White, fair haired, a little younger, about eleven. More to the point – a painful point – I was like her.
I didn’t follow. Instead I looked round to see if my aunt had noticed.
A week earlier, my parents met up at a hotel in Bangkok, for what me and my dark-haired sister called the Annual Conference. Sis and I spent some years apart because she lived with Dad and his lady friend in Singapore. This time round she didn’t come with him to the meetup.
I came from England with Mum, and the promise of an Asian hotel breakfast
“Look Ma, you can have dumplings, egg, tomato and rice pudding, all together. And a prawn.”
The family meeting was the 𝘤𝘶𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘢𝘳𝘺 highlight of my year. Ma taught me the word. Ma stood for Mum – because of her name, Margot.
And Pam stood for Aunt Pamela, who showed up as an honorary big sister for the week. She wanted to see a Thai island, and timed her trip to coincide with ours. As far as I could tell, she traveled light; my baggage included a hopeless crush on her. What with my willowy mother, and a sister who would keep the nickname ‘String’ well into her teens, my aunt was the most impressive female in the family circle. Not a blood relative, she brought a big, brown-haired womanliness to our party, and a twinkle in her eye. I didn’t know if it was the 𝘱𝘳𝘰𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘣𝘪𝘢𝘭 twinkle, but I hoped it was for me.
“Pam’s invited me to the island. What do you think, Dad?”
He had the vote. I already knew Ma approved of having me out the way for a week; she probably wanted to punch the air. When Dad agreed, she punched down, below the breakfast table.
On the way to the bus station that afternoon, I couldn’t walk straight. I bounced around Auntie Pam like an eager puppy. She took it well.
“Yes, yes. It’s all good Hugh. You’ve helped them with their business, and we’ll have a super time.”
“I’ve helped them by buzzing off.”
She had a habit of speaking her mind, and so did I.
“Let’s get a drink in a bag.”
Year after year, my parents’ 𝘣𝘶𝘴𝘪𝘯𝘦𝘴𝘴 never ended in a deal. I put them out of mind as Pam and I took a garlicky bus trip out of Bangkok. We arrived late at the ferry town and checked into a basic kind of Chinese hotel for the night.
After showering, we both went outside in our towels onto the balcony, high above the traffic, the night hot as a furnace. Pam let me sit on her lap, as I had half a life before, when I was six. Doing this now, I felt a strange mix of safety, and danger. I liked it. Maybe she liked it too, and teased.
“You’re manspreading, Hugh.”
“At least I’m man-something.”
I had convinced myself I’d stopped growing.
“Ha ha. Don’t worry about it. You’re a boy, nothing wrong with that.” Peering over my shoulder at the street scene, Pam asked me what I thought about girls, as many grown-ups did at the time.
I took a deep breath, and gave her the 𝘭𝘰𝘸𝘥𝘰𝘸𝘯. [cont.]
TSWS on: Clay Birds
Thanks Jeremy for submitting the first 600 of your novel. Two principal reactions: first, I’d keep reading, in fact was surprised how quickly the first 600 went by. Second, it’s a bit of a tale of two cities for me (not literally the Dicken’s book) but in the balance of my notes.
I’ll start with what really worked for me. There’s some wonderful chemistry going on here. I love the Tagline “Meet your other half” and the chapter title “A Steamboat Horizon” which are both brimming with promise.
The opening sentence is arresting, there’s a wonderful line “More to the point – a painful point – I was like her”; and then this section is polished off with an unexpected reaction: “instead I looked round to see if my Aunt had noticed.”
There are some other attractive flourishes I highlighted: ‘my baggage included a hopeless crush on her’, ‘When Dad agreed, she punched down, below the breakfast table’ and ‘a garlicky bus trip out of Bangkok.’
The other city, what I found didn’t so much work for me (and this is just my opinion as one reader) were: too little and too much. What do I mean?
Too little, that opening section. It’s unusual for me to ask for more, I personally prefer concision. But I would have been happy to let that play out longer. A sense of surprised, a double check, rubbing the eyes. All the things running through his head – this is an existential “Wha…?” for Hugh. Instead, it feels as quickly dispensed as if he’d seen an oversized mouse scurrying around. You start in media res, which is great, but you could go back to before the sighting, hit us again with the sighting, then let the mental confusion play out. I have no doubt you’re a strong enough technical writer to sustain that.
Too much? Too many characters introduced too quickly: the unborn sister, Sis/String, Mum/Ma/Margot, Dad, Aunt/Auntie/Pam – and the action/dialogue moves away from Hugh to other people, even if only reported (the punching down interaction). And far too many names for me as a reader to remember, like walking uncomfortably into a big family dinner where you know only one person, and don’t know that one person well either. As you’re writing in the first person (as I usually do) I want to, need to, get invested quickly in that person I’m going to be mentally intimate with – going to other characters feels like a digression.
That then cascades into too much information that feels like I’m being slowed down from getting to know Hugh: the one that stood out for me is: “Look Ma, you can have dumplings, egg, tomato and rice pudding, all together. And a prawn.” I know you’re piping character (correctly showing rather than telling) but it didn’t do anything for me in terms of character definition. You do this much better in his conversation on the balcony with Pam, though I found it a bit peculiar.
It’s OK to be peculiar, but he’s 12 as I read it (‘half a life before, when I was six’) and I’m unsure about conversations on booze and girls with an adult woman. Knowing Richard, I’ll bet he zooms in on that too. I can’t figure if it feels unreal to me, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt as we’re only looking at the first 600 words
As I think about closing notes, there’s a little inconsistency. You set yourself up for this by writing really well, so ‘the night hot as a furnace’ stands out as obvious, an easy remedy for you. I wasn’t wild about the description of Pam either (‘big, brown-haired womanliness…a twinkle in her eye’). Presuming this is obviously written as a recollection by someone much older than a 12-year old, this doesn’t rise to the level of your other writing. Perhaps this goes to the dilemma of ‘who old is the narrator?’ Not 12… but 25? 50? 75? And how is that expressed in terms of style, cynicism, happy recall etc.
So, two cities, but as I said I’d keep reading. But I’d probably skip over some parts to keep my focus on Hugh (and maybe lose my way).
Richard on: Clay Birds
I had a problem following this piece at first, and I had to read it two or three times before it started making sense. That’s not a great start because you can’t rely on an uninvested reader making that effort with the first few pages of a book.
There’s nothing unduly complicated about it, so I tried to understand why I had an issue. I think the first thing is the sequential relative times, “A year before” and “A week earlier”. When was Gemima born? Is she born this week? Or is there no connection between when the character is reflecting on Gemima and when he is reflecting on the Bangkok trip? Why bother saying “A week earlier” at all?
When we see “Ma” the first time, we immediately presume it is an abbreviation of “mama” since he’s just mentioned Mum. It’s a little confusing to then find out he calls her by an abbreviation of her name, Margot. How old is Hugh? It strikes me as odd that a child would call his parent by her name, and not one of Mum, Ma, Mama, Mother etc. depending on culture and register. Also, shouldn’t it be consistent, and “I came from England with Ma …”?
Finally, the relationship between Pam and Hugh is a bit curious, to say the least. He hopes that the twinkle in her eye is the “proverbial” one, for him. He sits on her lap, both of them only dressed in towels, and she tells him he is manspreading. But he says that he used to sit on her lap when he was six, “half a life before”. Does this mean he is now twelve? That’s problematic. Under-age sexual references are under-age sexual references, whatever the sex of the child. Pam is an adult, and shouldn’t be making such comments to Hugh, or encouraging inappropriate physical contact. Perhaps I’ve got totally the wrong end of the stick, and Hugh is also an adult, in which case, okay, but then his sitting on her lap with both of them only dressed in towels is pretty much foreplay, and what eighteen-year-old lad would sit on an older woman’s lap anyway? And a twelve-year-old certainly wouldn’t. I don’t get it, I’m afraid.
A cumulation of these issues, the Ma who isn’t a “ma”, the Pam who isn’t an aunt, the disjointed timeline, and the unsettling tone of the Pam/Hugh relationship all leave me confused and a bit perturbed. It might all become clear in the next few pages, but you’ve got to get your reader to those next few pages.
Jeanette on: Clay Birds
I’ll be honest, this took me a few times to read.
Partially because life is distracting and I thought maybe that’s why it felt disjointed. Then I sat down again and read it through without stopping. It still felt disjointed. I’m still not quite sure what type of story I should be expecting. Is this about the family? About a trip with his “aunt”? Or a girl he meets somewhere along the way?
I would probably give the story about two more pages before I decided if I wanted to keep reading or put it down and never look back.
A couple little things that threw off my attention were just unnecessary descriptions of what “ma” and “Pam” stood for, most readers are capable of deducing this on their own. Mostly, I would suggest bringing more of the first paragraph to life. That is where I’m going to decide if I’m interested or not in reading the backstory that begins so quickly thereafter.
Tagline: They’re cute. They’re brainy. And they’re out to destroy the Earth.
Although most of this story takes place on Earth, it begins on board an alien spaceship orbiting Mars.
The spaceship is called the Wild Mouse II. It is as big as an oil tanker and shaped like a bullet that’s been stepped on by an elephant.
Nearly every inch of its metal hull is as black as space itself. Even without the white skull and crossbones painted along its sides, there is something about it that screams: DANGER! KEEP AWAY!
As for the skull and crossbones: they are there to let people know that the Wild Mouse II is a pirate ship.
It belongs to a space pirate by the name of Captain Codswallop who reckons himself the toughest, meanest, most fiercesome pirate in the galaxy.
We join him just as his day is about to get completely and utterly ruined.
Just like his ship, Captain Codswallop was all about black. His heart was black. His clothes were black. His boots, trousers, shirt, jacket and cravat were black. His hair and beard were also black.
And he shouted – a lot.
Some days, he shouted from the moment he got up to the moment he went to bed. He was even known to shout in his sleep and some of his men imagined he would be shouting long after he was dead and buried.
Captain Codswallop loved being a pirate. He loved killing and looting and being rotten to people who’d done him no harm. And he also loved funfairs, which is why he’d stolen so many of them.
As well as gold and jewels and other precious things, the holds of the Wild Mouse II were packed to the brim with dismantled fairground rides that by rights belonged to other people.
One day, the Captain was going to be the owner of the biggest fairground in the galaxy, and that day was fast approaching. Or so he believed.
Just one more fairground was all he needed and then he could hang up his pirating boots. Which is why the Wild Mouse II was getting ready to attack a little-known planet called Earth.
Captain Codswallop was on the bridge of the Wild Mouse II putting the finishing touches to his devilish plans when things began to go wrong.
The bridge – in case you didn’t know – is what you might call the ship’s control room. On the Wild Mouse II, it was a glass dome full of control panels and screens and machines that occasionally went bleep or ping. In the middle of the dome, the Captain sat in a big swivel chair.
With him were his manservant, Mister Scruloose and his chief navigators, Mister Shiver and Mr McTimbers.
Mister Shiver and Mister McTimbers manned the flight console. It was their job to steer the ship and see to it that it didn’t crash into anything.
The Captain was in a good mood, though you’d be hard put to know it.
‘Where be my coffee!’ he shouted at poor Mister Scruloose. ‘Fetch me a coffee, ye scurvy knave, afore I have ye keelhauled!’
Mister Scruloose was not human, as was obvious from his blue skin and the short, thick tail he sometimes used for swimming or playing tennis. I suppose the thing he most resembled was a lizard although not one you’d see in a zoo. Rolling two of his three eyes, he pointed at the table next to the captain’s chair. ‘There, Captain! There be your coffee!’
‘It be cold!’
‘B’ain’t cold, Captain. B’ain’t cold at all.’
‘It be cold, I tell ‘e!’ The Captain snatched up the cup of coffee and promptly dropped it. ‘It be hot, Mister Scruloose! Darned hot!’
Genre : Science fiction
Is this from a complete manuscript (Yes / No)? Yes
Total Word Count: 44,000
TSWS on: Finkumpoops
Thank you Patrick for being the inaugural author to submit to Effigy. I note there’s a second submission which we’ll get to. While this submission leans a little more middle-school than Young Adult, there are plenty of YA writers crossing between the two, and the same with readers. Think Dr. Seuss! And engaging writing is engaging writing, whichever age group it’s aimed toward.
And so on to the review!
First, and most important, there was nothing here that made me not want to read through the entire submission, and in fact to be intrigued as to where this is going.
In particular, what jumped out at me were: A really engaging tagline, which also sets up the meta-conflict (destroy the Earth), which is closely followed by dramatic specifics (“Just one more fairground was all he needed and then he could hang up his pirating boots. Which is why the Wild Mouse II was getting ready to attack a little-known planet called Earth.”)
It’s funny, I really liked “’It be hot, Mister Scruloose! Darned hot!’ Overall, it really has a fun, humorous tone and “narrative voice” – I can see a great many humorous situations for this unusual crew. This leads to another thing I liked, the peculiar and humorous character of the Captain. It’s a novel take on the current trend of “lovable” Pirates, although I suspect he may turn into a lovable character eventually.
What I found a little harder were some of the names, in particular Captain Codswallop wasn’t as novel and interesting as many of the others. And wouldn’t the ship be named something other than an Earth species (perhaps there’s a joke there that comes later). While not the gritty grainy YA fiction I’m drawn to, I’d certainly be interested in reading more.
Richard on Finkenpoops!
I believe this is middle grade, rather than YA. I can see the plot, language and voice of the piece appealing to young middle grade children, not your average YA reader. These distinctions are important in the publishing world – place a book in the wrong part of the bookshop and it will never find its intended audience. Reviewing as a young middle grade story then:
First off, it’s pushing the boundaries for young middle grade fiction length, which tends to be anywhere from 15,000 to 45,000 words. That’s not a showstopper, however, provided the story is sound.
I wasn’t clear from the start whether Captain Codswallop is human or humanoid or “other”. There are various physiological references to humans (a skull and crossbones, sitting in a swivel chair, human clothing, having a beard), but in that case, what does “they’re cute, they’re brainy” in the tag-line actually refer to? The ship is described as “alien”, although named after an Earthly mammal species, yet the planet Earth is “little-known”. So the ship is “alien” in what sense? Scruloose is a fully-fledged blue-skinned alien (loved his dual-purpose tail!), but what exactly is the Captain?
Young middle-grade stories tend to steer clear of “killing” humans as a plot device. Cartoon violence is generally OK (although even that has its detractors), violence against “monsters” is OK. Humans being killed (again, I’m not clear what Captain Codswallop is, but his stated ambition is to kill and loot on planet Earth next) is not generally OK. Think of the film Bugsy Malone. Instead of bullets, the junior gangsters shot custard pies at each other.
It’s funny, and pacy writing, but for me it needs some thought as to where exactly it’s aiming in the children’s market. Where repetition and hyperbole (“toughest, meanest, most fiercesome pirate in the galaxy”) are pure young middle grade language, words (and concepts) like “keelhauling” are not. And who is alien and who isn’t, and why? Some more thought to the world-building might be necessary to be convincing.
Jeanette on Finkenpoops!
Welcome to Effigy and being our very first review! We are absolutely giddy to be working with you and those who follow.
I will say in all honesty, the thoughts of Science Fiction and space ships usually have me dropping a book back on the shelf faster than warp speed (yes I just looked that up). However, this initial read did not have me rolling my eyes and muttering “nerd” under my breath. I sense a light-hearted, chuckle inspiring story is about to transpire and actually read all the way to the end of this submission. I can visualize handing this to my hypothetical tween or young teen on a summer day and having them wander off to their tree fort, creating an entire universe in their head while reading it and then coming home to excitedly tell me of their adventures. The names did have me half giggle in my living room.
My critique would be to not assume your audience doesn’t understand things and to over explain, for example explaining what the bridge is. For people picking up a book about Space Pirates, this term is probably known. For those of us who are picking up books outside our wheelhouse, half the fun is figuring things out from context and painting the picture or looking it up if they’re unsure. All in all, I think this is off to an intriguing start and would like to see more of these adventures unfold.
Tim to Jeanette on Finkenpoops!
Jeanette, hahaha if they don’t know what a bridge is then they’re probably more interested in TikTok than words on a page. If it were the “midden-jadda” or “yard-bonnet” or somesuch I’d be with you. Net, it feels to me like this could be more Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and really appeal to multiple audiences, plus of course the movie etc. etc. Thanks again Patrick!