Earthwyrms (YA) opening: 950 words

HareBrain

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#1
Some betas have already seen this, but I wanted to open it to wider comments, especially (but not exclusively) YA writers/readers. Many thanks in advance.

***************

Adam crouched in the long grass, trying not to think what might be living in it. Or what dogs might have dumped in it. Ten metres away stood the compound’s chain-link fence, a mesh silhouette against the security-lit parking area for the construction vehicles. The May night air stirred the scents of vegetation with the whiff of diesel.

‘Second thoughts?’ whispered Jezz beside him.

‘No way,’ said Adam. ‘We’re the only chance Doaky’s got.’

‘Rick?’ said Jezz — with a trace of doubt in her voice, Adam thought. Rick had never climbed Doaky, and when push came to shove, might not want to risk getting arrested for the sake of a tree. Though he might risk it for the sake of getting into Jezz’s pants.

Sure enough: ‘I’m in.’

‘Top man,’ said Jezz. ‘How about those diggers on the left?’

The light on the office porta-cabin pointed in only one direction, leaving three of the yellow machines in near-darkness. ‘Good thinking,’ said Adam. ‘Even if there’s CCTV, it won’t get our faces.’

‘Right.’ Jezz unzipped her rucksack and pulled out the bolt cutters.

‘How much sugar does each one need?’ asked Rick, tugging his black woollen hat tighter over his bleached hair.

‘Uhm, split the bag between the three?’ said Jezz.

‘You don’t sound too sure,’ said Adam.

‘Everyone knows sugar craps up an engine,’ said Jezz. ‘But if you think I need a degree in it, I’ll just go and sit the exams now, shall I?’

‘I’ll search it up.’ Rick reached for his phone.

‘Don’t, idiot!’ Jezz hoarse-whispered. ‘You’ll show a light. Now let’s get on it.’

Adam’s nerve-heightened senses carried out a last-minute search for danger, but there was no traffic noise from the lane alongside the right-hand edge of the compound, where the heavily padlocked gate was — no sound at all but the faint roar from the town’s ring-road. Still hardly able to believe he was about to commit a serious crime, he went with the others across to the fence, crouching low all the while. Jezz put the cutters to a link. Excitement surged along Adam’s nerves as he watched her push the handles together.

The gunshot wire-snap sent him headlong back to the safety of the patch of long grass and scrub, the others close behind. Once the nervous swearing and giggling had died off, Rick whispered, ‘Are they all gonna be that loud?’

‘F*ck’s sake, it was nothing,’ said Jezz. ‘You’re sixteen, not ten. Act like it.’

‘You scarpered too,’ Adam pointed out.

‘Because you did!’

‘Sh!’ said Rick. ‘Someone’s over there.’

Adam jerked his gaze toward where Rick was looking, the left corner of the compound perimeter. Three figures showed faintly, faces and hands paler than their clothes.

He swallowed, heartbeat faster even than when he’d dived for cover. His leg hurt from how it was squashed, but he didn’t dare move in case it rustled vegetation. To his horror, he realised his and Jezz’s black satin kickboxing pants were glossed even by the small amount of light reaching them. So much for camouflage. He tried to huddle down harder.

One of the figures at the corner of the fence-line knelt to the ground for a minute or so. Then the three stood for a couple more. Traces of whispering came on the air.

‘What the hell?’ Rick sounded scared. ‘Let’s get out of here.’

‘Wait,’ said Jezz. At that moment, two of the figures left the third and walked carefully along the fence-line, until they were halfway along, and only metres from the scrubby area where Adam and the others hid. In the faint light, Adam made out the shorter man’s donkey jacket. The other wore a black leather one with red flashes on the arms.

He hardly dared breathe. His leg had lost all feeling. He mentally begged the two men not to look their way, and he was in luck: they were totally focused on what they were doing. Donkey-jacket knelt and worked at the earth with what Adam thought was a trowel, then leather-jacket handed him something, which he buried. The two then stood facing the third figure, who’d stayed back at the corner, and whispered together in a monotonous chant. After several minutes, that stopped, and the third person, a woman with long pale hair and a dark cagoule, came and joined them. After another short chant, she stayed where she was and the two men walked along the fence to the next corner, where the whole rigmarole was repeated.

When all three had gone round to the side of the fence-line that ran alongside the road, Adam stretched out his leg and winced with pain and relief. ‘What was that about?’

‘Don’t know,’ whispered Jezz. ‘Don’t care. Just wait till they’ve gone and then we can get on with our thing.’

‘Uh, guys?’ said Rick. ‘Turns out sugar in fuel tanks does piss all.’

Adam groaned.

‘Idiot!’ hissed Jezz. ‘I told you not to use your phone.’

‘I did it under my jacket,’ said Rick.

‘This whole thing is a fiasco.’ Jezz shoved the bolt cutters back in her bag. ‘We’ll have to think of something else.’

And bloody research it next time, thought Adam, aiming as much at himself as her. ‘What about those three? Maybe they’re on our side?’

‘Sure,’ said Jezz. ‘Making friends with chanting loons in the dead of night is exactly what we should be doing. Knock yourself out if you want. Come on, Rick.’

The other two crouched to their feet and crept back the way they’d come. Adam considered approaching the three strangers, then thought about all the ways it could go horribly wrong, and followed his friends.
 

Plucky Novice

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#2
Hi @HareBrain, I'm not a seasoned writer like yourself so have tried to critique this as a reader with my thoughts on the writing aspects. I feel a bit like Daniel san teaching Mr Miyagi karate but here we go.

I found it to be well written and structured, with a good flow - fairly easy to read. The writing didn't absorb me though; I wasn't there with the characters. I've tried to highlight why I think this was:

Adam crouched in the long grass, trying not to think what might be living in it. Or what dogs might have dumped in it.
This was fine until I realised they were about to become serious first-time criminals, then it didn't sit well with me. I felt they all ought to be terrified (even if they wouldn't want to admit it to each other), for me he just wouldn't be thinking about this unless a creature brushed his leg or he put his hand in dog's mess.

‘No way,’ said Adam. ‘We’re the only chance Doaky’s got.’

‘Rick?’ said Jezz — with a trace of doubt in her voice, Adam thought. Rick had never climbed Doaky, and when push came to shove, might not want to risk getting arrested for the sake of a tree. Though he might risk it for the sake of getting into Jezz’s pants.
I'm having trouble with the premise that they're going to commit multiple crimes, causing thousands of pounds of damage to save a tree. Admittedly it's admirable in its way but do 16 year olds really care that much about trees? I'm not sure we need to know why they are there at this stage so if saving the tree makes perfect sense we could find out later when there's more time/space for exposition.

Related to the fear point, I found the dialect too extensive for the scene, it gave a flavour of character for sure but I struggled with the idea of anything but short, clipped sentences.
‘But if you think I need a degree in it, I’ll just go and sit the exams now, shall I?’
‘You’re sixteen, not ten. Act like it.’
These were the worst offenders for me.

and whispered together in a monotonous chant.
I'm not sure you can whisper a chant but that didn't bother me. The men are right next to Adam (he hardly dared to breathe) so I found myself wanting to hear the chant or at least understand the language they were using.

then thought about all the ways it could go horribly wrong,
This is the fear point again, this is a rational decision but he'd just be too scared to even contemplate it, wouldn't he?

From a technical perspective, there are several places where Adam appears to be thinking but only one is in italics.

What I found really interesting is the biggest hook for me in this was the title, I kept expecting a giant worm to appear, summoned by the chanting. I've assumed that the two are linked and it is that which really makes me want to read on.

I hope that is helpful. Now I'm off to catch flies with my chopsticks...
 

TheDustyZebra

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#3
I felt they all ought to be terrified (even if they wouldn't want to admit it to each other), for me he just wouldn't be thinking about this unless a creature brushed his leg or he put his hand in dog's mess.
Hmm. I don't think it's at all out of line for Adam's mind to wander off to what might be in the grass. Mine would -- I'd be crawling with the oogies every time a blade of grass touched me, thinking it was a spider or that I was sitting in an anthill. (And no, I'm not a city slicker.) And while bugs and doggie doo are a terribly minor concern in the middle of committing crimes, I think the mind would tend to focus on things it understands, as a way of sidestepping the ones too big to contemplate. Jail? Too much to think about. Getting dog crap on your shoes? Totally possible.

I'm having trouble with the premise that they're going to commit multiple crimes, causing thousands of pounds of damage to save a tree. Admittedly it's admirable in its way but do 16 year olds really care that much about trees? I'm not sure we need to know why they are there at this stage so if saving the tree makes perfect sense we could find out later when there's more time/space for exposition.
There is still this, yes. Knowing, as I do, the version before this, I'm still not sold on the love and adoration that these kids have for a tree. I think this could be removed even further from the start of the book, so that we're more invested in them as characters before we have to buy the motivation. Also, this doesn't really make it clear how they're supposed to be saving the tree, nor from what. Construction, diggers, yellow machines -- but what's that got to do with the tree? (Yes, I know, but not from here.) I'd like to see it leave the purpose even more mysterious for a while longer. I think.

The line about sitting the exams is one of my favorites. And talking too much is also a way of dealing with stress and nervousness, so I don't see that they need to be succinct about everything. Plus, hard to build characterization that way.

I think this starts closer to the right place now, and it's all far more exciting than previously.
 

HareBrain

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#4
Thanks both. I hadn't thought of leaving it vague as to why they're there, but that could certainly wait till the next scene. I had thought that the idea of saving a tree would be strange enough to be intriguing while not completely unbelievable for teenagers (who, let's face it, can come up with some weird plans) but if it seems off-puttingly unlikely, I can leave it out for now.

In a previous draft, I had a line about Adam reckoning they would probably get away with a police caution if they were caught, because of their age. I'm not yet sure if this is right (but then, it might not need to be) but it would perhaps tone down the level of fear they should be experiencing.
 

HareBrain

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#6
I always felt the saving-the-tree thing risked making the protagonist lack a bit of an edge, which we all like in our heroes.
Because it feels too weak a motivation to do anything dangerous? Not one most people could identify with? This might be an important point, so I'd like to get to the bottom of it.
 

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Because it feels too weak a motivation to do anything dangerous? Not one most people could identify with? This might be an important point, so I'd like to get to the bottom of it.
It feels too Mary Sue-ish and not driven by enough personal agency. Either he needs to be a full on Environmental crusader, all fire and fight, or he needs personal agency for the act.
 

Hugh

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#8
I'm a reader not a writer..

here are my brief thoughts...

Apologies: I found this line irritating. It seems bland/cliched and it got my back up.
“The May night air stirred the scents of vegetation with the whiff of diesel.”

I didn’t get that this excerpt was really about a tree until I read the posts below.

I didn’t understand why they didn’t know about the sugar until, on reflection afterwards, I realised you were probably intending to show how scatty/disorganised they are.

This didn’t draw me in at all, until the three people come out to inspect the fence. Then I realised something serious/ frightening/ unusual was happening. I got very interested at that point. It seemed bizarre then that Adam would even contemplate speaking to them or that Rick would dare to check his phone for info re the sugar (though I thought that touch amusing).
 
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Plucky Novice

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#9
Because it feels too weak a motivation to do anything dangerous? Not one most people could identify with? This might be an important point, so I'd like to get to the bottom of it.
For me it's both, I might feel sad about losing my favourite tree but I'm not committing a crime for it. I think Jo has it right, all three of them need personal agency. If these are otherwise "good kids" in a normal world, they would need a really strong motivator to do this. Then again it seems I would make them wimps - see earlier comments on fear!

You might be able to sidestep this issue, as they didn't actually do any more than snip a link of wire fence. You could suggest later that they would have backed out of it anyway. This would also go to addressing some of the earlier comments I made. They would be less scared if they didn't believe they'd go through with it deep down.
 

HareBrain

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#10
or he needs personal agency for the act.
I'm not sure what you mean here, sorry. Isn't agency the capacity to act? Or do you mean he lacks agency in that he's going at it half-arsed?

For me it's both, I might feel sad about losing my favourite tree but I'm not committing a crime for it.
I think I might get angry enough to do so, if I thought I could get away with it and a friend was equally angry and we wound each other up about it. Is part of the problem that they don't seem angry enough in this bit?
 

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In my understanding agency is not just the capacity to act but the act of acting in order to achieve an objective - and that objective is normally a significant one for the character and their arc. Here it feels like he is carrying out the action because you need him to be there....
 

HareBrain

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#12
the act of acting in order to achieve an objective - and that objective is normally a significant one for the character and their arc. Here it feels like he is carrying out the action because you need him to be there....
But what makes it seem, at this stage, that it's not a significant objective for the character? On the face of it, given that he's willing to risk getting into serious trouble, it would have to be significant, wouldn't it? So something must be acting counter to that to give that impression. (I'm not arguing, I'm just trying to work out what it is.)
 

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But what makes it seem, at this stage, that it's not a significant objective for the character? On the face of it, given that he's willing to risk getting into serious trouble, it would have to be significant, wouldn't it? So something must be acting counter to that to give that impression. (I'm not arguing, I'm just trying to work out what it is.)
I’m not told WHY it’s significant.
 

Plucky Novice

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But what makes it seem, at this stage, that it's not a significant objective for the character? On the face of it, given that he's willing to risk getting into serious trouble, it would have to be significant, wouldn't it? So something must be acting counter to that to give that impression. (I'm not arguing, I'm just trying to work out what it is.)
As a reader I am being given a choice to provide the logic/reasoning myself or decide that it doesn't make sense because the only objective I'm given is to save a tree.

I think I might get angry enough to do so, if I thought I could get away with it and a friend was equally angry and we wound each other up about it. Is part of the problem that they don't seem angry enough in this bit?
We have a difference in our own personal values (related to trees and crime) here and are both trying to second guess how these would manifest in the head of a 16 year old. Perhaps you know some teenagers you could get to read this and see what they think. Their's is probably the most valid opinion here.

I'm not sure they need to be outwardly angry in this scene, as this is normally a short-lived emotional response and they've planned this. It wouldn't change the motivating factor.
 

Brian G Turner

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#15
I find myself struggling with this:

- Adam's laid in the grass, worried about what's in it - which is real enough. But the bigger tension is actually rescuing Doaky. I'd suggest dropping the former and pushing on the latter for a punchier start.

- I'd also suggest as quickly as possibly that they're trying to save a tree - I found it confusing to be presented with a string of names, only to have to figure out one was a tree.

^ Perhaps a stronger opening sentence could cover both of these together?

- After that, there's a lot of chatter among a number of characters - I think you're in danger of falling into the beginner's mistake here of thinking every character in a scene must talk at the start in order to introduce themselves.

^ A personal - and potentially stylistic difference - would be to use Adam's POV to quickly and succinctly appraise who's with him.

We also get a lot of descriptions of a number of figures, but it feels too objective and detached, even when you try to inflect this for Adam's POV, ie "donkey jacket". The dialogue after feels like chatter that's trying to compensate for something currently lacking in tension. I also notice Doaky no longer gets a mention after the first few lines, even though it was introduced as an initial focus for tension and conflict.

Overall, this reads as an early draft where character and motivation isn't yet clear - perhaps in your own mind. I suspect this section would benefit from being condensed, and would be stronger for doing so.

Just my personal opinion. :)
 

Brian G Turner

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#16
Having read the above comments, it's worth asking whether Doaky is actually an important part of the story, and environmentalism in general?

If it's not, and getting the kids here is important, then if you are playing with supernatural themes why not make that their purpose here?

It's a common experience when young to explore some place that might be haunted - even better if it's forbidden. There's a long history in Britain of building over ancient sites, so it would be easy to put an industrial estate over one. There could be a local legend - people disappearing, strange animals appearing - that could draw a group of nervous teens to investigate (and if you're putting cultists in here, then perhaps other people also regard it as a 'place of power' - no matter how minor).

That would leave the question of what the kids have to achieve by going there - it could be to reach a physical part of it, ie, cross the boundary or touch a stone, or simply be there at the stroke of midnight.

Either way, it would be a temporary motivation that connects to a larger one.

However, I may have completely misunderstood your intentions and story here - I'm simply thinking on the exchange between you and Jo above, and wondering at possibilities around that. :)

Of course, if Adam has strong environmental interests, then by all means keep that and simply develop that more in this scene - and remember to reference Doakly. :)
 

HareBrain

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#17
Thanks again all, this is interesting.

Perhaps you know some teenagers you could get to read this and see what they think. Their's is probably the most valid opinion here.
"teenagers" is a pretty spectacular typo for "publishers' sales directors" ;)

I have had a couple of teens (who I don't know personally) read the first eight chapters. Both enjoyed it without raising any of these issues, but that's not to say they wouldn't agree with these points if presented with them.

Having read the above comments, it's worth asking whether Doaky is actually an important part of the story, and environmentalism in general?
Environmentalism is, definitely (it's the raison d'etre of the group the kids end up with). The tree is very important in the first few chapters -- the next scene takes place there, and so do almost all of ch3-5. That's not to say it couldn't be replaced with something else, but if I can't find a way to convince readers that these characters think a tree important enough to do this for, I might as well give up.

As to which, a bit more background: the tree (a 400-year-old oak) has been a favourite place for Adam and Jezz for most of their lives, and the way they feel about it is partly (though they don't yet realise this) because of a supernatural aspect. I'd say it's verging on the sacred, though they're wholly secular kids. Maybe I need to bring this out in this scene?

I originally had a previous scene where they met at the tree before moving to the compound. That was better for emphasising Doaky's importance, but at least one person thought it was "throat-clearing" (and I agreed) so I removed it.

Of course, if Adam has strong environmental interests, then by all means keep that and simply develop that more in this scene - and remember to reference Doakly. :)
At the moment, he has no real environmental interests apart from the one tree. My instinct is to keep him that way, and allow him to develop them through his experiences. If he were already committed, he would be a different character and it would be a different story -- whether a better or worse one, I'm not sure. Hmm.
 

Brian G Turner

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#18
In which case, I suspect it's simply the importance of Doakly that's not coming through in this piece so far - that Adam's motivation and sense of conflict being driven by this isn't continuous enough.

I would dare suggest that when members put up a piece for critique, then try to explain part of it, that part is what's missing from the text. :)
 

Plucky Novice

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#20
He who dares might have a point.
Equally, if the motivation (tree) wasn't included within this opening I would accept that there was sufficient motivation for the kids' actions and we probably wouldn't be having this discussion. It is the tree that raises the question of sufficient motivation in the opening.

It sounds as if the motivation will be sufficient once conveyed fully, which could be done later.
 

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