Saturday, April 2, 2011

1st 5 Pages Workshop - April Entry #5

Young Adult -- Jenna Wallace
I stood near the bed, eyeing my pillow like an enemy. I wanted to fall into bed and sink into 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 in the field by the canal, kept me from closing my eyes.
Unable to force myself to lie down, I wandered over to the window and climbed onto the window seat. Although it was after ten, daylight lingered on the gardens and the flat green lawn surrounding Heraldsgreen House. The light was disorienting. In Virginia, it would have been dark by this time, but June nights in Scotland were so short. As I stared out into the fading day, a restless wind stirred the towering chestnuts and the leaves murmured with secrets, sending twitches of anxiety into the depths of my stomach.
Too tired to put off sleep anymore, I unfolded the massive wooden shutters across the window, struggling against hinges gummed up by centuries of paint. The fading daylight was reduced to strips of brightness around the edges, throwing the room into deep shadow.
The bed was cold, the sheets slightly clammy. The backlight from my laptop screen lit my room, which still looked wrong and unfinished. I stretched out, lying rigid with my hands clenched in tension, hating to give into exhaustion and leave myself vulnerable, exposed.
The darkness pressed against me. I lost count of how many times I dozed and woke in the night. I had that distant, awake-all-night feeling, though I must have slept at some point. After grabbing a t-shirt from the floor and draping it over my eyes to shut out the eerie nightlight glow from the laptop, I drifted.
The sound of screaming woke me from a deep, dreamless sleep. And then I realized I was the one making that terrible noise.
“Abby! What are you doing?” My father’s frantic voice somehow cut through my screams.
“What?” I cast around, trying to get my bearings. Squinting in the darkness, I made out the outlines of the living room. I stood next to the window by the fireplace, where bricks were stacked in sharp piles and the wind echoed down the chimney. Midnight blackness pressed against the rippled glass panes and the lawn beyond was a washed-out gray.
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.
“Daddy?” I pleaded for an explanation in a raspy voice.
Dad stood in the half-light coming from the tall, bare window.
“I woke up because I heard screaming,” he said, his voice flattened by tension. “You weren’t in your room. I came down here and found you standing there by the fireplace. Then you just grabbed the curtains and ripped them out of the wall.”
“Why did I do that?” I asked, my throat so tight I had a hard time getting the words out.
“I don’t know.”
I couldn’t see his face very well in the dark. The tone of his voice told me he was scared, which scared me because Dad was the calm one in our family.
“Are you OK?” he asked.
I was most definitely not OK. I was cold and scared and I had just ripped my curtains down in my sleep.
I looked around the room, still and eerie in the moonlight. Shadows clung to every surface. Some unseen draft swirled dust and debris around my bare, icy toes. My jaw ached with the effort of stopping my teeth from chattering. Tears pricked at the corners of my eyes.
“Abby, are you OK?” Dad asked again, more sharply.
“Yeah.” I didn’t trust myself to say anything more.
“Were you dreaming?”
I had to think about that for a moment. “No, I don’t think so.”
Dropping the curtains to the floor, I brushed the plaster off my shirt and out of my hair. Dad came to me 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.
“Let’s get a drink,” my father said, putting his hands on my shoulders and steering me through the massive oak door to the kitchen. He gently pushed me toward a chair and then took out some glasses. He joined me at the table, sliding a glass of water toward me, while his own glass contained a pale, amber-tinted liquid, telling me there was some whisky in his water.
“I really freaked you out, I guess,” I said, nodding at his drink, before cooling my raw throat with my own.
“Yeah, you could say that.”
“Out of five nights of sleepwalking, it’s only the first night of property damage, so I guess that’s something.”
Dad gave me one of his wry, lopsided smiles in response and took another big swig of his drink.
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 living 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 to the kitchen door before waking up to my father’s concerned face. Each time, we’d gone back upstairs in silence, neither of us knowing what to say.  Each morning, we’d laughed a little bit about it, made a few jokes. Now it wasn’t funny anymore.
Five nights of interrupted sleep. My head, heavy and leaden, sank to the table and I rolled my forehead on the cool wood.
“Do you think I’m going crazy?” I asked.
“No, of course not. Stress makes people do funny things. You’re in a new house, a new country, you miss Mom.”
“I suppose.”
“It’s a lot to handle all at once. If you are worried, we could make an appointment with a doctor.”
That was the last thing I needed, being poked, prodded, analyzed. I picked my head up and concentrated on looking unconcerned. “Not necessary. I must have been having a dream.”
“Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea,” he said thoughtfully.
“It’s just sleepwalking.”
“Well, there’s something else,” Dad said in a weird kind of voice that stopped me dead.
“You were talking in your sleep earlier.”
“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.”
“Hard habit to break. Anyway, I came in and you were just mumbling. Then you stopped and a moment later, you started up again, speaking clearly. I could understand every word.”
“So what did I say?” I asked again. As far as I knew, I’d never talked in my sleep before, so I couldn’t imagine what I would have come out with.
“Does the name Giles Fielding mean anything to you?” Dad asked.
“Doesn’t sound familiar. Why?”
“You were talking about Giles Fielding. According to you, he’s the younger son and a painter. Is this a boyfriend I should know something about?”
“I’m sure I’d remember if it was. You know I only date musicians anyway.” I was trying for jokey, but the funny got lost in the strangeness of the moment. “What else did I say?”


  1. I really enjoyed this! It pulled me in and held on to me. I want to know what’s going on. Your descriptions are wonderful.

    It sounds nitpicky, but I’d like it to start later at night than 10 because she’s so tired and been fighting sleep for so long. Though I do understand she’s been having several nights worth of trouble. But if it doesn’t hurt the plot at all, then that would take care of the potential question that slowed me down a bit.

    I have only a couple more small things, which tells you what a great job I thought you did. You use the word “scared” quite a bit, again that’s an easy fix. And the father presumably just caught her at the window, but already had a glass with whisky in it. When did he have time to pour himself a drink? Or if he does it while she’s with him in the kitchen, she’d see him put it in. Again – very nitpicky.

  2. Hi Jenna,

    Love this! Nicely written, gripping, well paced. You make us feel that she’s in Scotland, and see the details of what she sees out the window are lovely and evocative. I love the mention of the younger son, instantly giving us the sense of time travel or a ghostly possession? And I love her humor. I’m completely pulled in, so I have only a few, minor suggestions.

    1) I think I’d make it a little later in the night, and keep her reading, maybe in an armchair or something to avoid going to avoid sleep, but she keeps nodding off and waking herself. Finally, she has to face it anymore. Make it clear she has barely slept in five nights from the get go, then make us wait to find out why. Let her finally admit she can’t go without sleep forever, but avoid mentioning her tiredness and exhaustion so many times. Just show us. For example, ditch things like “hating to give into exhaustion and leave myself vulnerable, exposed.”

    2) Ditto with her being scared, afraid, etc. You show us beautifully. Trust that we get it.

    3) Overall, watch repetition, there are a lot of shadows throughout, and you mention the tension flattening her father’s voice, for example, then two sentences later tell us there is fear in his voice.

    4) Give the interior of the house as much atmosphere as you’ve given the grounds. From that brief view out the window, I got the impression of a small but historic manor house. Later, I didn’t get that feel at all. This could be easily fixed by changing the rooms you choose to mention, library instead of living room, for example. Give us some more detail to help us envision it.

    5) Avoid telling us that her sleep was dreamless in the immediate aftermath. Save that punchline for the dialogue with her father.

    6) Why are there bricks stacked by the fireplace? Do we need to know that now? It stopped me reading a little bit.

    7) Tighten overall. Check for echoes (Each time, Each morning) , clarity (I looked around the room, still and eerie in the moonlight) , and ensure transitions or actions are there to account for anything that would pull the reader out (presumably the father goes to the butlers pantry and fills the glasses before joining her at the table). You’ve also got a lot of “ing” words in here, so see where you can make those sentences more active and immediate.

    8) I think you can condense the dialogue between your mc and the father a little bit without losing anything, and at the same time pull in a little more of the voice that gives us the ‘only date musicians’ line. That’s fabulous.

    9) The dad doesn’t seem worried enough to me, frankly. You mention his fear several times, but I’m not seeing it in the lack of a course that he’s charting—although the whisky does speak volumes. (Love that.) I’d rather see him insisting they have to do something, and her insisting that she’s fine—on principle, even though she knows she isn’t.

    Anyway, that’s it. Great otherwise!


  3. Jenna,

    Wow! This was a riveting and well written read. Martina took most of my suggestions. I think her nine points are well worth considering, especially making it clear that the MC hasn’t slept well for the last five nights and increasing the worry of the father. His dialogue doesn’t seem invested enough, especially when you write:

    “I woke up because I heard screaming,” he said, his voice flattened by tension. “You weren’t in your room. I came down here and found you standing there by the fireplace. Then you just grabbed the curtains and ripped them out of the wall.”

    This reads a bit flat (pun intended!) to me... it’s like a grocery list... there isn’t much life to it. Give it more emotion... after all he’s just seen his daughter act very strangely. Also “flattened by tension” is telling, which isn’t always bad, but in this case I think I’d like to see the worry. Think of worried body language and use that as your dialogue tag.

  4. Jenna, I love the rich detail. Nicely done. This is a strong piece, but feels like it gets a little repetitive in places and this is where you need to keep us on our seats. In the beginning you talk about the mc being tired in all three paragraphs. As the reader, I feel like you've said that wonderfully in the first paragraph alone.

    Other than tigtening the language in places, as was mentioned above, I'd really work on making the dialogue sound more realistic. Shorten the sentences and be careful not to information dump. "You weren't in your room. I came down here and found you standing there by the fireplace..." The mc knows where she's standing. Also, was the father in the room when she ripped the curtains out of the wall? Wouldn't he have tried to stop her? When the father talks it feels as though it's a bit unnatural, like he's "telling" the reader information.

    Good work. Looking forward to rereading the work. Heather

  5. First of all, thank you so much for the positive comments. I've been working on it so long that I have no perspective anymore and tend to open the file each day thinking 'This is total dross." You've given me new strength.

    And thanks even more for the suggestions. You've provided some great guidance here. Interestingly, I've done a quick search and the word 'shadow' only appears twice, 'scared' three times and 'exhausted' and 'tired' one time each. But there is obviously something that is making it feel like those words are overused and the passages are repetitive. (Perhaps because I've used 'night' 11 times, 'sleep' 8 times and 'dark' 4 times.) So I will definitely focus on fixing this.

    I'd love to get some more feedback from followers...go ahead, be brutal! I can take it.

    And on a side note, I'd love to find a new beta reader so if anyone is interested after reading this, please let me know.

  6. I loved this. I don't have a whole lot to add after the great comments above. Basically, I just want to keep reading. I want to find out what's going on!

    I do think the Dad's dialogue could be improved. I think you could make him seem a little more freaked - if he's the closed-mouthed type, then maybe just add some more body language to make us understand how worried he is.

    Anyway, great job. I can't wait to read this again next week!

  7. I like your descriptions/setting.

    Something about the father's dialogue rings a little "as you know, Bob" to me. I get we need his explanation, but maybe work with his character a little more to come up with something a little less stiff.

    Also, this line of dialogue doesn't seem like something a teenage girl would say:
    “Not necessary. I must have been having a dream.”

    The writing here is really very good, my only critique is work on your dialogue. I find reading aloud, or talking aloud as your characters will help you find a flow and get more of you characters' voices into their dialogue.

    Hope this helps and can't wait to see what you come up with for next week.


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