Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s Four on 400 contest!
Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.
Below, we’ve posted the first 400 words from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least four of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.
Casey Buckles and the Keeper of the Ice Caves
Casey Buckles clutched the torn note, certain its words would lead to his death. He’d found the paper, jammed between the fridge and kitchen cabinet. Thinking it a lost homework page, he plucked it out, horrified at the one sentence.
He sank back in the bus’s musty seat, squeezing his hand around the ominous message. The rickety old coach jostled him about as it bumped along the dirt road. A cold sweat blanketed his arm making it look like the surface of a wet peach. He closed his eyes. The load of noisy kids and vinyl odor made his head swim with scenes of his demise: a slow death, trapped in a pool of water, freezing over.
The grayish paper lay limp across his palm as he unfurled his fingers. Although its contents freaked him out, he hadn’t shown it to his mom. She’d already been hiding her tears at him leaving. This would’ve sent her over the edge.
He smoothed the paper across his thigh to reread the chicken scratch:
Marty, your family, danger, killing, get to the ice caves.
A shiver tingled down his back at his dad’s name. His boring family being in danger was laughable, but he cursed his father all the same for sending him off to these mountains in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho. His hand tremored as he hoped the note was nothing, a joke. After all, he was just going to summer camp—a camp with ice caves.
Outside the window, a dense forest slid by. Pine trees lined the road, offering peeks into the deep darkness beyond. A skittish brown squirrel flew up a tree trunk, disappearing into a shadowy knothole. Casey would’ve liked to join the squirrel. He contemplated sneaking out the bus’s emergency exit to take his chances in the forest. Bigfoot would be cake, compared to four weeks at camp, with a bunch of strangers—oh, and dying.
Enough. He clenched his jaw. His imagination might be off base with the note, but he had to be prepared to keep his family safe. Even if he knew he’d probably fail. He wasn’t athletic, couldn’t swim, and was scared of bees. Yeah, the honey making kind. How could he keep himself safe, let alone his parents?
He pulled a tablet from his backpack, giving the screen a couple of swipes to display the camp’s webpages he’d downloaded last night.
Sussu: Thank you for choosing The Winged Pen and trusting us with your work. First of all, I have to say well-done. This is a nice beginning with high stakes. There is a disturbance and I know what the story is about. However, 1) The pace is fast, so fast the passage sounds more like a summary. Show Casey’s reaction when he picks up the paper, his astonishment, the fear growing in his heart, and explain why he would take this threat/warning seriously. Would he hide something that would put his family in danger? 2) Although I appreciate the fact that Casey is facing the problem alone, I thought the initiative and the voice felt very mature. This being said, the writing ran smoothly and was engaging and this is something I would read. Good luck.
Jessica: This sounds like an intriguing story and I love your use of detail (vinyl odor, wet peach, etc.). However, I agree with Sussu that there is quite a bit of room for fleshing all of this out; as it stands, there are several items that might confuse the reader. In particular, it’s not clear why Casey would take the threat seriously, especially since we are told that the thought of his family being in danger is laughable. It’s also not clear why he’d be imagining his own death (trapped in a pool of freezing water) so vividly. Finally, I’d encourage you to flesh out how/why he feels responsible for keeping his family safe–since he’s left his family behind, what makes him think there’s anything he can or might be expected to do? The way the note is written, it sounds to me like he’ll be safe at camp and thus should be more worried about the family he left behind. Thank you for sharing your work and best of luck with your revisions!
Laurel: Are there really ice caves in Idaho? What a fascinating setting! This passage made me think about how to decide what information to withhold and what to reveal. I’m wondering if it’s a good idea to suppress the contents of the note. It almost feels like the suspense would be greater if we knew what it said up front. Say, right after the one horrifying sentence. 🙂 If Casey then thought about all the reasons this message was bad, the tension could still escalate in the same way you’ve built it in here. Are there words missing in the sentence because Casey can’t quite make out the chicken scratch handwriting? The message’s contents could get more attention from the reader if that handwriting hint was a touch broader. I was a little puzzled that Casey thinks about keeping his family safe. The note is addressed to the father, so I thought Casey was in danger. (Hence the icy pools.) There’s a lot of nice detail in this passage that makes the setting feel real. Best wishes for many readers!!
Julie: I agree with everything that’s been said. You’ve got an exciting premise, a fabulous character name, and some intriguing details. But slowing this passage down will help draw the reader in more in this first scene. You’re trying to grab us with an intriguing first line (which is important), but since the next two sentence jump into a the past and then the next paragraph jumps forward–from the kitchen where the note was found to the bus–it’s a little jarring. I also wanted some more details about this world to give us a stronger sense of whether he’s in a present-day world or a magical/alternate world. Some of the words evoke a classic or old-timey feel (rickety old coach, ominous message, shadowy knothole), but then he’s sitting in a vinyl bus seat, swiping a tablet, and using slang like “cake” that feels much more modern. Address these few small things and I think you’ll have a winner!