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.
Working Title: Patty Pat
Lower Middle Grade
Patty had nightmares about feeding the roosters, but the hens were sweet. She looked forward to their soothing cackles and bright eyes. They fluttered and jumped with excitement when she rounded the corner of the garage carrying a big bowl of carrot and potato peelings and leftover breakfast mush.
Patty tipped half the contents of the bowl onto the floor of the hen shed and watched the hens play with pieces of carrot and peck at the mush. The little brown hen hung back and then darted forward to get her share while the big speckled hens fought over a long piece of carrot peel.
Reluctantly Patty moved to the other side of the shed where the fighting roosters strutted and crowed in their cages. They were prettier than the hens, all reds and greens, shining purple-black feathers and swooping tails. They were also mean, beady-eyed, and sneakier than any villain the Lone Ranger thwarted on the radio. They stared hungrily at Patty and scratched up the dust in their cages with hard, curved claws.
Feeding the roosters made Patty wish she were one of the two big girls who helped Mother with the sewing and heavy housework. Or one of the two little girls with easy chores like feeding old sleepy Ming Chow, who had never nipped anybody. Ever. Patty felt stuffed between her sisters, and not just when they piled into the Buick, the little girls on the big girls’ laps, Patty squeezed between with the back of the front seat for a view.
Imitating the brown hen, Patty quickly opened each cage door and tossed food inside. Still she was pecked twice and nipped once. She had just darted in to check the latch on the last of the cages when she heard the Buick pull into the driveway. Dad was early. Maybe he was going to Three Lakes after dinner.
“Got the chickens fed, Patty Pat?” asked Dad. “Fed and watered,” Patty replied. Patty and Dad climbed the back steps together. Dad took off his hat inside the little screened porch and set it on the shelf.
Patty could see Joan and Connie already at the kitchen table swinging their feet as they waited for Mother to bring them stew and biscuits. There were only five places set. The big girls must be decorating for a dance. Or maybe they were at a movie.
Kristi: I love this setting. It’s reminiscent of CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN, which I read and re-read as a kid. A few things will really tighten this up and get the story moving. Your first line is only okay to me. I’d love it to have more punch. The entire first paragraph can be condensed to really draw in your readers. I’d suggest something along these lines:
Patty had nightmares about feeding the roosters, but the hens were sweet. She looked forward to their soothing cackles and bright eyes. The hens fluttered and jumped with excitement when Patty rounded the corner of the garage carrying a big bowl of vegetable peelings and leftover breakfast mush.
In your 2nd paragraph you overuse the word “hen.” In fact, I’d cut it and move on to paragraph 3 because that’s where I feel like you’ve hit your stride. I like the mention of the Lone Ranger and the radio and the family car. All of these things really set up where we are and what her life is like. Also, I loved that you planted a few things like dad being home early and not sure where the sisters are– this works perfectly in making me wonder if somethings up.
Karin: I completely agree with Kristi’s comments. I really like how you manage to anchor us authentically in place and time. I would suggest tightening a little more and perhaps giving us a little more sense of what Patty wants. All we know is she’d rather be sewing with the big girls than feeding the hens and roosters. I love the reference to the Lone Ranger but would would cut one of the three adjectives describing the roosters. In paragraph five, I was confused as to how Patty was imitating the brown hen. Also, I would add “rooster” in here to remind us that she’s feeding them now. Also, not sure what the difference is between pecked and nipped. The ending makes me want to read more so I can find out why the older sisters aren’t there. Well done and good luck!
Gabrielle: Your prose is lovely–simple and evocative. I’m right with Patty Pat in the hen house. I agree with Kristi about too much use of the word “hen”, and would add that you also repeat “mush” too frequently. I would keep the first sentence of your first paragraph, but move it to the end of that paragraph. It gives us some good tension, with her fear of the roosters, but you could flesh it out a little with some details of the nightmares. Does she just have to feed them again and again in her sleep, until she wakes in a cold sweat, or do they get huge and chase her, or something different? Your line about the radio is a very clever way to show us we’re not in today’s hen house.
Overall, I think this is a great beginning, and it reminds me some of A YEAR DOWN YONDER by Richard Peck, though I do wonder a little about what’s going to be at stake. Hopefully, there will be an upping of the tension fast. You’ve got a good set-up with her being smashed between her sisters, but I want to see her decide to do something about it, or for there to be hints of something huge coming toward her that will throw a wrench in her life–soon. For example, In A YEAR DOWN YONDER, the heroine is leaving her mother and the life she knew behind, thrown into her crazy Grandmother’s life to make her way. She’s miserable, and we see every moment of her longing for home. As an aside, the scene you paint is easy to see, but I think you could also squeeze in a detail or two about Patty’s physical appearance that would help us see her better. Also, please mention what kind of creature Ming Chow is, so we can see her too! Nice work.
Rebecca: I like this start! We definitely see Patty is stuck in the middle of a large family and get a good sense for her life on the farm. Like the other’s, I’d like to know what the story’s about. Is Patty’s goal to be seen as one of the “big girls?” But this is only 400 words and I like your writing, so I’d keep reading.