Saturday, April 16, 2011

12 1st 5 Pages Workshop - April Entry #5 Rev 2

Jenna Wallace -- Young Adult

I eyed my pillow like an enemy. It beckoned, white and smooth, the promise of oblivion. And yet I dreaded sleep. The fear that it could happen again, that I might wake up wandering somewhere in the house, or even worse, down by the canal, kept me from closing my eyes.

From my perch on the window seat, I turned to stare out into the fading day. Though it was well past eleven, the last threads of light lingered on the gardens and the flat green lawn surrounding Heraldsgreen House. In Memphis, it would have been dark by this time, but June nights in Scotland were so short. A restless wind stirred the towering chestnuts and the leaves murmured with secrets, sending twitches of anxiety into the depths of my stomach.

Five nights of interrupted sleep. My head, heavy and leaden, dropped against the window and I rolled my forehead on the cool glass. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how many books I nodded into or songs I blasted through my headphones, I couldn’t stay awake forever.

I unfolded the massive wooden shutters across the window, struggling against hinges gummed up by centuries of paint. The bed was cold, the sheets slightly clammy. The glow from my laptop screen lit my room, which still looked wrong and unfinished. I stretched out, lying rigid with my hands clenched, fighting. But exhaustion won in the end.

The sound of screaming woke me from a deep sleep. And then I realized I was the one making that terrible noise.

“Abby! What are you doing?” My father’s frantic voice cut through my screams.

“What?” I cast around, trying to get my bearings. I stood next to the window by the fireplace in the great room. The room was still and eerie in the moonlight and shadows hid the high ceiling and distant corners.

The dusty blue velvet curtains were bunched in my hands and crumpled at my feet. Above me, the heavy wooden curtain rod dangled from one screw, the rest ripped out of the wall. My shirt and face were gritty with plaster and the taste of chalk was in my mouth.

“Daddy?” I pleaded for an explanation.

“I woke up because I heard screaming,” he stammered. The waver in his words freaked me out because he was the calm one in our family. “I got down here and you just grabbed the curtains and ripped them out of the wall.”

My father stood in the half-light coming from the tall, bare window. I couldn’t seem him very well but tension rolled off him in waves.

“Why did I do that?”

“I have no idea, Abby.” He cleared his throat a few times before he spoke again. “Are you OK?”

A draft swirled dust and debris around my bare, icy toes. My jaw ached with the effort of stopping my teeth from chattering and tears pricked at the corners of my eyes. I had just ripped the curtains down in my sleep. I was most definitely not OK.

“Yeah.” I didn’t trust myself to say anything more.

I let the curtains drop to the floor. With shaking hands, I brushed the dust from my shirt and shook out my hair. My father took me by the shoulders and blew some plaster out of my ear. My answering laugh was small and shaky. I breathed deeply, trying to get my heart to stop tripping in my chest. Tremors shook me.

“I think we need a drink,” he said, steering me through the massive oak door to the kitchen. He gently pushed me toward a chair and then went to the sink. The rush of water, the clink of glass, and the rasp of a cap unscrewing from a bottle all sounded loud in the silent room. He slid a tumbler of water toward me and then paced the kitchen floor. His own glass contained a pale, amber-tinted liquid and I knew there must be some whisky in his water.

“I guess I really freaked you out,” I said, nodding at his drink before cooling my raw throat with my own.

“You could say that.” Dad was giving me one of his scientific looks, usually reserved for crime scenes. He took another big swig of his drink. His hand quivered ever so slightly.

“But, hey, out of five nights of sleepwalking, this is the first property damage,” I said. “So I guess that’s something, right?”

He just grunted and studied me some more.

Last night, the sound of my father calling my name had awakened me. When I’d tried to get up from my place on the cold floor of the great room, I was so stiff Dad had to help me. The night before, he’d managed to catch me before I made it out of the bedroom. And the night before that, I had gotten as far as the kitchen door. Each time, we’d gone back upstairs in silence, neither of us knowing what to say. In the morning, we’d laughed a little bit about it, made a few jokes. Now it wasn’t funny anymore.

“Do you think I’m going crazy?” I asked.

“No, of course not. Stress makes people do odd things. You’re in a new house, a new country, you miss Mom. It’s a lot to handle all at once.”

“I suppose.”

He came to the table and sat across from me, skewering me with that look. “I think we should make an appointment with a doctor.”
That was the last thing I needed, being poked, prodded, analyzed. I took a huge gulp of water and concentrated on looking unconcerned. “Nope, totally not necessary.”

“Abby…”

“I’m fine. It’s just sleepwalking.”

“Well, there’s something else,” he said, leaning forward. His eyebrows drew together so tightly that his forehead furrowed. “You were talking in your sleep earlier.”

“What? I was? What did I say?”

“It was truly bizarre,” Dad said. “I came in to check on you—“

“You still check on me? Dad, I’m seventeen.”

“Parental privilege. Anyway, I came in and you were speaking out loud. I could understand every word. Does the name Giles Fielding mean anything to you?” he asked.

“Don’t think so. Why?”

“According to you, he’s the younger son and a painter. Is this a boyfriend I should know about?” He was trying to smile but his lips just went flat.

“I’m sure I’d remember if it was. You know I only date musicians anyway. What else did I say?”

“You mentioned a place called Ormidale House. You sounded a bit strange, talking in full sentences.”

“OK, yeah, that’s weird.” My eyes were locked open like I’d forgotten how to blink.

“Do you remember dreaming any of that?” he asked.

“Nope, not a thing. But I don’t usually remember my dreams.” Most of the time, I slept like a rock, hard and heavy.

Dad drained his drink and then yawned so wide his jaw cracked. He scrubbed a hand over his face as if he could wipe away the anxiety there. “It’s late,” he said. “Back to bed. But we’ll talk about the doctor in the morning.”

Even though I had no intention of talking about the doctor in the morning, I nodded and followed him up the stairs. When we got to my room, he turned and looked at me with concern and something else I didn’t quite understand. I was too tired to try to figure it out.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked, taking my arm and helping me to my bed like I was an invalid. Normally that would have annoyed me, but not tonight.

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

He stared at me for a few more seconds before squeezing my hand and going back to the door. He kept it open a crack and left on the hall light, just as he had when I was a little girl. There was something about the gesture that made me want to cry. After he left, I lay in bed and couldn’t stop thinking about what my father had told me. Who the hell was Giles Fielding and why was I talking about him?

12 comments:

  1. Your first paragraph really drew me in (possibly because I was having a similar moment myself). You captured that early morning sleep deprived sarcastic feeling beautifully.
    -Aaron

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  2. Hi Jenna,

    This is better -- and it was terrific to start with -- but the dialogue is still a problem. It's still not fluid and natural, although I love the sense that she's pleading with her father to explain, to help her. THAT's awesome.

    As you know, the best dialogue is so much more than the words. Let that pleading come through in the subtext exactly how you have it, but really think about what needs to be said and what doesn't. For example (and as always, this isn't IN ANY WAY an implication that this example is better -- I'm going extreme to give you an idea of what I want you to do so that you can shake things up and look at it differently):

    Fabric ***** in a choking cloud of dust. I fought it.

    "Abby, no! Watch out!" My father’s frantic voice cut through my screams.

    I cast around, trying to get my bearings. I stood next to the window by the fireplace in the great room. The room was still and eerie in the moonlight and shadows hid the high ceiling and distant corners.

    The dusty blue velvet curtains were bunched in my hands and crumpled at my feet. Above me, the heavy wooden curtain rod dangled from one screw, the rest ripped out of the wall. My shirt and face were gritty with plaster and the taste of chalk was in my mouth.

    “Daddy?” I pleaded for an explanation.


    “It's all right,” he stammered. The waver in his words freaked me out because he was the calm one in our family. “You grabbed the curtains and they came out of the wall.”

    He stood in the half-light coming from the tall, bare window. I couldn’t seem him very well but tension rolled off him in waves.

    “But why?” What was I even doing down here? Why was I fighting the curtains?

    “I have no idea, Abby.” My father cleared his throat a few times before he spoke again. “But you're okay. It's just sleepwalking and we'll go see Doctor... in the morning.”

    "I don't want to go, I don't need it..." Great voicy thing goes here.

    Something crossed my father's face... blah blah blah.

    "What is it, Dad? What did I do? It's not just sleepwalking is it?"

    Blah, blah, blah, dad goes into the kitchen pours me a drink, pours himself a whiskey. Blah blah.

    "Does the name Ormidale House mean anything to you?"

    A *physical reaction* blah, blah, but I couldn't think why. The name didn't mean anything. "Should it?"

    "You were talking just before you pulled the curtain down, like you were having a conversation with someone."

    Again -- this is just to get you thinking about how quickly you can convey information. Obviously, I don't know which information is really critical, or what emotions you want to invoke and where, and I don't want to meddle in your story, especially since you write so beautifully and have such a good grasp on your narrative elements, but the dialogue really needs to be condensed and brought to life.

    Hope this helps!

    Martina

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  3. Jenna,

    Great job! Love the sense of panic the mc feels over being fearful of sleeping. That comes through so well. The part I continue to get hung up on is the pacing.

    Regarding what Martina wrote, if you edit the dialogue, you can address the issue of pacing. I feel like a lot of that could get addressed by eliminating unnecessary dialogue.

    The mc isn't sleeping at night. Her dad's helped her out for five nights, but tonight he actually heard her say something in her sleep that's given him pause. I'd like to get to that part--the part that gives the father pause, a little faster.

    Heather

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  4. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I will definitely take another look at the dialogue so that I can improve the pacing.

    What's tricky is finding the balance between good tension now and leaving room for developing tension later (if he panics and insists on dragging her to the doctor now, it doesn't leave much room as the stakes increase later).

    At this point in the story, the sleepwalking was odd, now it is getting into the bizarre, later it will escalate to the dangerous. So I don't want to spend it all now, so to speak.

    But you are all right...I know there must be a way to get to that discussion quicker in this first chapter, with better tension, while still leaving room for future developments. Back to the drawing board...

    And thanks again! Your critiques have been so in depth and spot on.

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  5. I still love this story. The one thing that is nagging at me is that I (and I might be weird so take it with a grain of salt) would find the sleepwalking/ tearing down drapes a lot more disturbing and weird than the sleeptalking even if it is bizarre and in full sentences. Unless those sentences say something truly disturbing.

    As to the dialogue, I think what's happening is that I have questions about the dad's previous knowledge and motives, but I'm not sure I should. Do you know what I mean? Is he really just upset because of what's up with his daughter? Or does he know something more? If he DOESN'T, I think the dialogue is too much. If he DOES, I can see why you are pulling out the conversation. Does that make sense at all?

    You could up the tension during the conversation by starting it in the room with the curtain, having Dad get uncomfortable and try to get out of it by saying he needs a drink, but follow him to the kitchen prying for more info on what she did. Etc.

    Again - still really like this. :D

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  6. I love this. Still. Your narrative is fantastic. Her voice really sings, but I agree with the comments above. The dialogue could still use work. I like the information that's communicated, it really ratchets up the tension. But as it stands now, I think it comes off a little too forceful, or direct. I think adding some subtlety would really help make it even more eerie. I hope I'm making sense... Anyway, again, I love this. I would just suggest maybe toying around with the dialogue a little bit to see if you can make the concerns etc. more subtle.

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  7. OK, must admit I'm struggling a little now. You know how if you say a word often enough, it starts to sounds wrong? I think I'm feeling that a bit with focusing on the dialogue.

    Perhaps if I tell you what I'm trying to accomplish, you can help me a bit with direction (since a few of you have asked/wondered what the desired feel is).

    But first, a quick note. Sleepwalking is not uncommon (I used to do it in college). People who sleepwalk don't usually act out dreams, but often do things that are a normal part of their lives, like eat, clean and even send emails. People who wake up sleepwalking are often disoriented and aren't sure why they are where they are. Sleeptalking is also common. It is usually mumbling, and often does relate to dreams. Both sleeptalking and walking are not considered a medical problem and in most cases, don't require or need doctor intervention. In fact, medication can make things worse as it can screw up sleep cycles even more.

    Abby and her father are weary. They've had several nights of her sleepwalking, which is odd but not dangerous. (I think I need to add a sentence that shows that they know the above, which is basic info obtainable through Google or through the UK National Health website). Obviously, ripping down the curtains is getting a bit more strange. Combined with the talking (again, unusual but ultimately not a major concern) the father thinks that perhaps the stress Abby is experiencing is more than he thought and that is why he suggests the doctor.

    In this opening chapter, I want to convey Abby's frustration and exhaustion, plus a sense of the house (small manor house, slightly eerie that night). In the curtain scene, I'm going for disorientation, the mild panic you feel when you are wakened in the middle of the night, the oddness of her action, their weariness, and a father's growing concern (all while maintaining a scientist's rational approach).

    Of course, overall, my main goal for this chapter is to get the reader to turn from page 5 to page 6. I want people to wonder what is going on, why Abby is walking and talking in her sleep. While I do want there to be tension throughout, I also need the mystery to unfold over time.

    So there you have it...I'm going to take another hard look at the dialogue to see where I can tighten it. But I think I may also need to take a moment and come back after the rest of the story is complete to make sure this arc starts it all in the right place.

    As I work on it, any additional comments based on the above info are certainly welcome (and the way I feel today, desperately needed).

    And of course, thank you thank you thank you! :)

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  8. Jenna,

    This is such an engaging story. I love the unique sleepwalking angle (and thanks for you explanation of it... you might want to hint that they’ve already looked into sleepwalking) and your MC’s voice. The only thing holding these first five pages back is pacing and dialogue. However, these are much easier to fix than voice. Martina offered some excellent advice for how you could address pacing and dialogue. I’ll only add a few more examples to help give you another point of view about what you might do with your dialogue/pacing.

    For example, you might cut some of the unnecessary/repetitive dialogue/description:

    Before:
    “I woke up because I heard screaming,” he stammered. The waver in his words freaked me out because he was the calm one in our family. “I got down here and you just grabbed the curtains and ripped them out of the wall.”

    After:
    “I... I heard screaming,” His voice faltered, which freaked me out. Dad didn’t stammer. “When I got down here, you... ripped the curtains out of the wall.”

    Why these changes? We know the MC’s Dad woke up... cut. We know he got down here and that the MC grabbed the curtains... cut. Focus instead on the screaming and ripping. I added the ellipses to indicate stammering.
    As for the dialogue tag, I just wanted to show that you could get a similar effect with less words. Your MC’s voice might not phrase it exactly like that, but hopefully it gives you the idea.

    ***

    Before:
    “Parental privilege. Anyway, I came in and you were speaking out loud. I could understand every word. Does the name Giles Fielding mean anything to you?” he asked.

    “Don’t think so. Why?”

    “According to you, he’s the younger son and a painter. Is this a boyfriend I should know about?” He was trying to smile but his lips just went flat.

    “I’m sure I’d remember if it was. You know I only date musicians anyway. What else did I say?”

    “You mentioned a place called Ormidale House. You sounded a bit strange, talking in full sentences.”

    After:
    “Parental privilege,” he said, “Anyway, you were talking about a Giles Fielding. Is this a boyfriend I should know about?”

    My cheeks warmed. “I’m sure I’d remember if he was. What did I say about him?”

    “According to you, he’s the younger son (of who?), a painter, and .” He tried to smile but his lips fell flat. “You sounded a bit strange, talking in full sentences.”

    Why these changes? We know the Dad came into her room and heard her talking so I cut that. He understood her... not necessary. I added in an emotional reaction after the boyfriend question... to break up the dialogue and give some more feeling to this section (your MC might not have the same reaction). I switched around some of the Dad’s dialogue to allow me to condense your MC’s response. Also “he’s the younger son” made me wonder “of who?” So you might want to mention that. I also tightened up the failed smile description by getting rid of “was trying” and “just went” and replacing them with “tried” and “fell,” which are stronger verbs (at least to me). Lastly, I attached the Ormidale House dialogue to Giles because I suspect their is a relationship between them... if they aren’t connected in some way, then you could separate them again by breaking them into individual sentences.

    ***

    Before:
    “Nope, not a thing. But I don’t usually remember my dreams.” Most of the time, I slept like a rock, hard and heavy.

    After:
    “Nope, not a thing.” Most of the time, I slept like a rock, hard, heavy, and dreamless.

    Why these changes? Would your MC tell her dad about how she doesn’t remember her dreams? I added the “dreamless” to your MC’s thoughts because it gets across the same info, but with less words.

    I hope these examples are helpful for you... I know we weren’t supposed to do line edits, but Martina broke the rules first! ;)

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  9. OK, Joseph, I'll end up having to give you co-author status on the first chapter because these suggestions are REALLY GOOD and I might have to take some of them as is! (Although I just can't bring myself to kill my 'only date musicians' darling yet). Excellent suggestions! Thanks so much.

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  10. Jenna,

    I'm glad my suggestions were helpful for you... I've always found concrete examples to be most helpful for me as a writer and it sounded like you needed some to help you with your dialogue struggles.

    As for killing your darlings... I know the feeling. I've had to kill so many with my book I feel like a hatchetman. It helps to put them in a "cutting room floor" file (that way they aren't gone forever)... sometimes I even find new places for them in the text.

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  11. Btw... one of my example sentences got cut off due to a formatting goof. It should read:

    “According to you, he’s the younger son (of who?), a painter, and (insert Giles’ relationship with Ormidale House, if any).”

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  12. Jenna, I think Joseph's suggestion about stating somewhere that she's researched this info herself would be good. If it was bothering me, it's certainly something I would do. Then make it clear that whatever happens in this scene is just a bit TOO out of the ordinary. Remember that you want to start when something is different from the character's norm (thus most of the time around the inciting incident). And Joseph's other advice is great too, basically eliminating anything from dialogue that we (or the characters) should already know or have established.

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