Oh, yesterday, I had guest blogger and she promised to give a commenter a copy of her book. Jessica emailed me this morning and said the winner is: Old Kitty! Congrats!
First of all, I wished I had more stories like this when I was young. What an exciting ride! There will be lots of children squealing with delight at the talking trees and the chasing stone gargoyles. I liked it and I'm an adult. You have a lot of grammar/spelling errors but that's just editing work that needs to be done. You can fix that stuff later.
Here are my suggestions:
The voice: You seem to have an ten/eleven year old voice down pat. I think. I haven't been eleven in a very long time. I don't know all the rules about this, but I think if you're going to write from a young person, make sure the vocabulary is appropriate. I didn't notice any problems in this regard except you mention a few terms I didn't understand but thought it was important to know - Fymm and Thin Time.
Suspense: I touch on it more in the chapter below but make sure you don't leave too much info out of your story especially at the beginning. You don't want to alienate your reader before the first three paragraphs are over.
Pacing: As an adult fiction writer, I like starting the chapter with action. However, I remember as a teenager/young reader, the books I'd read started the chapters with names and lots of backgrounds. Some books (Encyclopedia Brown and Hardy Boys) that would repeat the exact same wording at the start of every book. I'm not sure this is still the case but in my opinion, I think you need to start the chapter a little further on - where there is more action.
For example, in the chapter you start the protag collecting her little brother from school, sending him off, deciding not to go home, cutting through a cemetery to make a tent for the night, finding her brother again, cutting a tree and outrunning a gargoyle. This is one exciting chapter - near the end - so I would have started the chapter a little later.
Here's what I would have done: Have her look at the creepy church and dart through the cemetery, have her worry that her brother would get home all right (write here about how she sent her brother home with the other kids) because her mother would be angry at her if something happened to him. Then follow the rest of the chapter as before. Hmm, here's an idea, you could start with the poem. Now remember, these are only ideas. Ultimately, you need to decide where you're going with it.
The setting: This is one thing that confused me. There were parts of the chapter were I would think I was in a certain place and then find out that I was somewhere else. That broke my pace and focus. Remember, not only are you describe a town but a town in fog. Keep it consistent. Know the exact distance your character can see in front of her face. Don't describe beyond it. I mentioned some places below.
Okay, just one more thing, I know I wasn't going to touch on grammar but be careful you don't repeat yourself too often and use unnecessary words.
Running for my Life
Fymm now that the returning winter is nipping through my gloves like a bite from his painfully sharp teeth. It will soon be thin time (Thin Time), and I feel excited, scared, and angry too. (In the first paragraph you mention two things that should make me feel excited, scared and angry but I don't know what they are. It's hard to bond with the character when I feel she's hiding important information from me. I want to feel like I'm in on the secret.)
I’m Alice Griffin, I’m nearly eleven, and I thought I’d tell you my name first because that is what got me into this trouble, and it’s the worst trouble that ever happened to me, well the worst so far, and I’m lucky to be alive. (Again, I want to be friends with Alice and know why she's in trouble but she wont tell me what the problem is. Especially if that trouble could cost her her life. Could you let me in on the secret? Please, pretty please with a cherry on top?)
If I’d gone straight home from school it wouldn’t have happened (Here it is again. Now I feel as if the other children are laughing at me. People often equate keeping secrets with building suspense, but how will I know it’s suspenseful, if I don’t know what’s going on!?), but after my mum died, and my dad married again, going home wasn’t the same anymore. Now I had a stepmother and a five-year-old stepbrother living with me.
The little kid wasn’t too bad, but he kept following me around all day and wanting me to read to him and he wouldn’t leave me alone. Then my stepmother started shouting at me for nothing and I couldn’t do anything right. So I did things (what things? Why not mention a thing or two.) to annoy her that got me into loads more trouble, and just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did, a lot worse! (How did it get worse?)
It was after school at Halloween that the really weird things started to happen. (The way you start the paragraph leads me to believe you're going to be touching on the weird things but you go on to describe the setting. If you're not going to touch on it until later, just put the line in later.) The bell had gone for the end of lessons and the kids in my class were pushing and shoving each other down the path to the gate. In the fading light, a spooky mist crept
hadout of the woods behind the school and drifted along the hedgerows, swirling its cold fingers over the surrounding farmland and into the lanes. The village looked ghostly as the amber streetlights flickered on and it would have been a brilliant night to be knocking on neighbours’ doors and shouting trick or treat.
My friends were off home, and I should have been with them, having fun. (If she would have left with them, would she be having more fun? In what ways were her friends having more fun? Try using more concrets - show not tell. "My friends were off home, and I should have been with them, putting on my costume and making my lantern." ) Why couldn’t things stay the same? Last year my gang voted my Halloween mask the scariest, and when we counted up, I’d collected more sweets than anyone else had. ( I want to know more about how a scary mask equates to more candy? Did she get more candy from her classmates?) I used to be one of the first out of school and racing the others home, but now I had to wait for Thomas and he was late coming out of class.(Always late or just today?)
I hung about in the playground, keeping well away from the mothers who were waiting for the little ones. (why?) I was kicking stones across the yard when the door of their classroom opened, the mothers rushed forward, and I saw Thomas pushing his way through their coats to reach me, a big grin on his small bird like face. (I won't touch too much on grammar but be careful as to what you're saying.)
His raincoat was slipping off his skinny shoulders as he ran towards me, his shoe bag bumping on the floor behind him, and he was excited and kept saying, ‘I’m going to make a lantern, Alice!’
He waved a piece of coloured paper under my nose and I grabbed hold of him, buttoned up his coat, and bent down to fasten
uphis flapping shoelaces. He did his usual trick of snatching at one of my plaits and giving it a playful tug and I shouted, ‘Stop it! Stand still, will you? How can I tie your laces if you keep wriggling about?’
He looked up at me anxiously, wondering why I was mad at him, but it wasn’t really his fault. I was angry because I had to take him home and I couldn’t think of a way of getting out of it. (Here you say you have to take him home. But you don't. So why do you say you have to?)
‘Mum told me I could make a lantern, a Halloween lantern, Alice,’ he said, beaming up at me, his big brown sparrow eyes full of fun. Then he pulled away from me, hopping along a chalk line on the playground and wobbling, his socks round his ankles.
When he said the word mum, I felt the misery flaring up inside me again. My mum wasn’t going to help me make a lantern. Mum wasn’t there anymore. ‘We’ll go when I’m ready,’ I said gruffly.
But why should I go home? My stepmother would be fussing over Thomas and his lantern and wouldn’t notice me, and Dad would be too tired after work to bother. I blinked away angry tears and kicked some more stones across the playground. That morning, my stepmother had told me? I couldn’t go trick or treating and it was wrong to knock on strangers’ doors and give them a fright. (Why would they be given a fright? Don't the neighbours expect it? And, if they were going out anyways, why wouldn't she just say that? ) But the village was so small there weren’t any strangers anyway, and she hadn’t lived in our village for long, so what did she know about it?
Instead, the grown-ups had organised a walk, a sort of ghost hunt, and there’d be baked potatoes, hot dogs, and a bonfire and fireworks in the church field afterwards. I’d thought I might go to the field for a hotdog and watch the fireworks when their silly walk was over. I didn’t want to wander round with the grown-ups, looking for ghosts that weren’t there.
‘It’s cold,’ Thomas said, ‘can we go home now?’ He was swinging his shoe bag round and jumping over it.
‘You’ll be colder still if your Mum takes you on that walk round the village,’ I snapped, but he was right. It was cold and you could see your breath, but I was in no hurry to take him home because I was scared my stepmother had found out what I’d done. (What had you done?)
I shivered, hitched my rucksack on my shoulder, and heard the church clock strike four. The chimes sounded muffled through the mist. I could barely make out the tower above the row of cottages at the end of the street. I’d be better off in my den in the woods behind the church, at least until my stepmother calmed down a bit. (So, she has stayed in this den of the woods before? What happened last time? Would the mother be angry at that or scared? Or call a search party? Aren't they going through the woods anyway and could chance upon her? This is me thinking aloud.)
‘All right, put that bit of paper in your shoe bag and I’ll take you to the beginning of our street,’ I said. ‘But you’ll have to go the rest of the way by yourself.’
‘Aren’t you coming home with me? What have you done, Alice? Have you been naughty again?’
I took no notice. The playground was filling up with a soft grey blanket and soon it would be hard to find my way through the woods. ‘Come on,’ I said, grabbing his hand, and I was hurrying him down the path when I saw two kids and their mum going through the gate in front of me.
‘Look, they’ll take you home, Thomas,’ I said, ‘they live in our street. Go with them - your mum will be worrying.’
He shook his head and I thought he was going to say no, but he just put on what I call his smacked puppy face, and that always makes me feel rotten. (What is a smacked puppy face? Why would he put one on?)
‘Go, on’ I said, giving him a push, but he walked as slowly as he could, dragging his feet and looking back at me. It took him ages to catch up with the others, and I had to wait while they did extra kerb drill because of the mist. (Will all school age children know what an extra kerb drill is? I had no idea what it was.) Then at last, when I was shouting inside for them to hurry, they crossed the road and the grey thickening dampness swallowed them up.
Sighing with relief, I hurried along School Lane towards the thatched cottages and the farm where the open fields began. I was passing a row of terraced houses and the turning into the High Street with its few shops, when I thought I heard footsteps behind me. I looked nervously over my shoulder, thinking my stepmother might be out looking for me. (What did she see when she looked behind?) I started to run and didn’t stop until I’d left the cottages with their bristling thatched eyebrows behind, and I was out of breath and my chest heaving by the time I reached the church, the last building on the edge of the village. (It says here she reached the church, is it near the road or up on a hill? Did she reach the church or the church grounds?)
I could just make out the blurred shape of Tong Church sprawled on the top of the grassy bank, its narrow windows sightless black holes in the thick stone walls and the bell tower soaring above my head. Beyond the gate, with its metal arch above and a lantern hanging from it, was the path up to the church. (Here's where I'm confused - you say the church is on the top of a grassy bank and that there is a path but then you say the bell tower is soaring above your head and that you reached the church. How far away is the church?) It had been cut deep into the bank and to one side of it, high up on the slope were two rows of dusty yew trees, their ancient boughs sweeping the grass. A low wall supported the bank with small metal bollards on top of it, looped together with a heavy spiky iron chain.
The yew trees looked as old as the church. Their branches had gown and knitted together, making a dark, creepy, narrow passageway. If you duck your head and you don’t mind the scratches, you can crawl through and it’s a short cut to the back porch and the graveyard behind the church. (Oh, so there are two pathways...)
I hesitated, rubbing my hands together. The bitter cold was seeping through me although my anorak had a warm lining. I wished I’d put on my school jumper but I’d hidden it under my bed. There was a hole in it where I’d climbed through a hedge. (Is there enough reason to want to stay in the creepy woods alone in the frigid weather? Is home life really that bad? She hasn't given us enough reason to think so. What the parents had planned for the evening sounds to me like something the kids would enjoy.)
I stared nervously up at the wooden boards in the bell tower. I knew bats lived there and often swooped for insects on summer evenings. Would they dart out and stab their claws in my hair? I was being stupid. I’d been up to the church lots of times, inside it on school study visits, and the bats hadn’t attacked me. Just because it was foggy and nearly dark, it wouldn’t be any different. The bats were probably hibernating. There was nothing to be afraid of. It wouldn’t take me long to jump over the heavy chain, scramble up the bank and push through the yew tree tunnel.
It seemed different in the mist though. I started to imagine there was someone in the trees waiting to grab me. It was horribly quiet. If I listened, I could usually hear the cockerel on the weather vane creaking round and round, but there was no sound from the top of tower. Even the muffled roar from the motorway across the fields had stopped. When I’m on my own and scared, I sing a bit of school hymn about being valiant and fighting giants and the sound of my voice makes me feel braver.
I opened my mouth but I was so nervous no sound came out, just a squeak. Better to take the path up to the church. The yew tree tunnel looked so black inside. But if I went along the path, anyone could see me from the lane, even in this mist. I looked back along the lane. I was still scared my stepmother would be out looking for me. (Why would she think that? She said her mother wouldn't even notice she was there - she'd be busy with the lantern.)
I looked up at the dark church tower. Surrounded by mist it was heavy and threatening and as though it was going to fall on top of me. For a moment, I felt like going home and having my tea. But suddenly imagining what my stepmother would do to me if she’d discovered what I’d done, I grabbed hold of the wet cold links of the iron chain, the sharp bits digging into my hands, and took a deep breath. The words of the hymn came out all jumbled up but at least the noise made me feel braver, and with my tuneless singing keeping me company, I shouted,
No lion can him fright...He’ll... he’ll with a giant fight!Hobgoblin - a foul fiendTo be a PILGRIM!
Bellowing the word PILGRIM at the top of my voice, I climbed up onto the wall, stumbled over the chain, and fled up the bank into the yew trees. Charging head first through the spiteful branches towards the patch of grey light ahead of me at the end of the tunnel, I reached the top of the bank.
Leaping into the wide-open space of the graveyard, I looked hurriedly around, imagining the foul fiends or hobgoblins I’d heard about might jump out at me from the mist. In the daylight, it was easy to run down the other side of the slope through the tombstones, over the broken wall of the monk’s place at the bottom, and across the Monk’s Meadow into Castle Woods where I had my den, but in the mist, it seemed a fearfully long way.
With my heart hammering with fright, I clenched my fists and made myself run along the end wall of the church towards the graveyard, and I was swerving to avoid the branches of the big yew tree close to the porch, when something grabbed me, almost jerking me off my feet.
Terrified, I hit out with my fists and a storm of yew berries hit me and bounced off the pavement. I struggled frantically, sliding in the berries squelching under my trainers. Twisting, turning, and desperately squirming to escape, I was so scared it was ages before I noticed I’d caught one of my anorak toggles in the branches of the tree.
Feeling foolish, I tried to tug myself free but I couldn’t. Pushing deeper into the boughs towards the gnarled, reddish-brown trunk, the dusty fronds scratching my face and hands and tangling in my plaits, I tried to unhook myself from the branches. Giving a violent tug, the toggle ripped off, my rucksack shot off my shoulder, and I sat down hard on the dried, needle-like leaves and broken fronds.
In the gloom under the yew tree, the spreading branches above my head looked like the dusty roof beams in an old house. There was room enough to stand up in places. It had rained earlier in the day, but it felt warm and dry under there, the ground wasn’t damp, and pulling my rucksack through the needles towards me, I gasped with sudden fear. I’d been running with the straps undone!
I searched frantically about inside, my hands trembling, and then gave a big sigh of relief. It was still there, it hadn’t fallen out. I might as well own up. Before I went to school that morning, and after the row I’d had with my stepmother about her not letting me go trick or treating, I was so mad at her that while she was cooking the breakfast I stormed into her bedroom and took something from her dressing table drawer. It wasn’t really hers – it belonged to my Mum – so it wasn’t stealing, and why should my stepmother have it anyway when it didn’t belong to her?
I was going to hide it in my den, where no one would ever find it, and then go home. But what if my stepmother had already noticed it was gone? I could say I didn’t know anything about it, but I wasn’t much good at lying, she always seemed to know. It would be best to stay in my den - keep out of her way for a while. (I don't really think you fessed up. You still haven't said what it was.)
I’d found a rusty tin box that still had a key in it, so I could hide it in there. (She found it in the woods or she found it at home?) I’d also found an old sleeping bag, a bit of carpet, and a stool in a skip. (She bought all this with her in her rucksack or had she left all this behind last time she was here. Also, if she's all right hiding in the dark woods, why was she too scared to run through dark yew trees?). I’d covered the roof of the den with plastic sheeting, so I didn’t need to go home at all. I began to feel excited at the thought of spending the night in the woods. I’d planned to do that many times, and now was the time to do it. The trouble was, the plastic sheeting lifted up in the wind, letting the rain in and it made the bit of carpet soggy. I’d have to fix the roof first.
I shivered. It was even colder now, but the thick yew fronds protected me from some of the wind and that gave me a brilliant idea. If I cut some of them, they’d make a great roof for my den. I looked up at the thinner branches, wondering how many I’d need. I searched in my rucksack again, looking for my penknife, and my school recorder fell out, but I hated playing the thing so I didn’t bother with it.
Scrabbling amongst my dirty netball kit and muddy trainers, I pushed aside pages I’d torn out of my maths book to play noughts and crosses and found my broken watch (at first I thought that's what you were looking for because you used the word 'found'). I was stuffing it back out of sight at the bottom of the bag when my fingers touched the smooth mother-of-pearl handle of my penknife. I wasn’t supposed to take it to school, but school rules didn’t bother me anymore. Mum had been an artist - it was her special penknife. I loved to hold it. It was where her fingers had been. It made me feel she was there with me.
Scrambling to my feet, I was about to cut off one of the smaller branches above my head when I was alarmed to see the tree branches closest to the path move. I shrank back, letting out a yell. There was a white face poking through the fronds, but it was only Thomas, pushing through the branches, crawling into the hollow, and dragging his shoe bag through the heaps of needles and berries after him.
‘I thought I told you to go home,’ I said angrily, when I’d recovered from my fright.
‘I went home and hid behind the gate, and then I came out. It’s nice under here. Did I frighten you, Alice?’ he asked with a giggle as I pulled him to his feet. (Didn't he want to make a lantern? Why didn't he just go into the house?)
‘That wasn’t funny! Why can’t you do as I tell you just for once? I’m the one who’s going to get shouted at when you don’t come home - not you!’ I said.
Muttering angrily, I grabbed hold of a branch, sawing savagely at it with my penknife, there was a blinding flash, and a voice above my head thundered, ‘Ouch! Stop it!’
Blue sparks were shooting from the cut I’d made in the bark. I jumped back, frantically shaking my hand to be rid of the burning fragments and cried out in pain.
‘That was fun, do it again Alice, I want to see more sparks,’ Thomas shouted, jumping up and down with excitement. ‘I like sparklers, Alice!’
‘Shut up,’ I cried, fearfully watching the fountain of hissing sparks fizzling out and slowly disappearing, ‘it isn’t funny!’ I sucked at the back of my hand, hoping to cool it down. Then remembering yew trees are poisonous I spat until I had no spit left and rubbed my tongue on the back of my sleeve, just to make sure.
I looked fearfully at the cut I’d made in the branch. What was happening? I’d never seen sparks come out of a tree before. Was it something to do with Halloween? Were those stories that grown-ups told to scare us, about witches, ghosts, and goblins, true? (How would she make the leap from sparks in a tree to witches?)
Hurriedly putting away my penknife, and making sure I’d fastened my rucksack, I crawled from under the tree, told Thomas to follow me and I was angrily scolding him, and telling him he shouldn’t have followed me, when I saw something white moving in the graveyard.
I shivered with fright, thinking that at first it was a ghost. Then realising it was only a small white dog trotting between the tombstones, and giving a sigh of relief, I heard a weird noise coming from the top of the church porch and nearly jumped out of my skin with terror.
It sounded like a stone bird clattering its beak and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up in fright. I tried to see where the noise was coming and I saw something hunched on the porch roof. Then I realised it was only one of those horrible gargoyles. This one had a bat’s body, frog’s head, and a wide gaping beak. It was one of those strange carvings crouched above the porch or made to peer down from the ledges of the bell tower, and this one had veined wings and bulging fishy eyes.
‘What’s that, Alice?’ Thomas asked, pointing up at it and tugging at my skirt.
‘A silly gargoyle. It’s what they put on the churches years ago. The rainwater runs off the roof and drains through their mouths. The men carved them out of stone and made them ugly to scare witches away.’
‘Did it make that funny noise?’
‘Of course it didn’t. It must have been a bird or something,’ I said scornfully. ‘Look, I’ll show you.’
I picked up a large white oval stone from the path and felt its smooth, flat surface. I’m good at throwing and I flung the stone hard at the creature squatting on the church roof.
It hit the gargoyle smack in the centre of its forehead, and to my horror, the creature leapt to its feet and let out a fierce screech. Flapping its bony wings, it launched itself into the air and flew like a screaming arrow straight at my head.
Terrified, I grabbed Thomas’s hand, spun round, and dragged him after me. The gargoyle seized me by the pigtail, jerking me backwards, I pulled myself free, my head stinging, and through the mist I saw Thomas running down the path towards the yew trees and I plunged head first into the tunnel after him.