Sunday, May 8, 2011

8 1st Five Pages Workshop - May: Entry #1

Name: Ann Braden
Title: Swimming with Tchaikovsky
Genre: YA Magical Realism

By the time the apartment door clicked shut behind Sally, she was heading down the stairwell. The cello case strapped to her back bumped against her with each step. What did her friends know? She was tough enough to handle a week in Russia. Who cared if that Hallmark ad with the boy and his lost cat always made her reach for a tissue? It was designed to make people cry. She was just doing what she was supposed to.

And she could do that here, too. Just supposed to focus on the competition, right?

No problem.

At the bottom of the stairs, Sally pushed against the heavy metal door. It didn’t budge. She grit her teeth and tried again. Come on. How about while twisting the door knob? Still nothing. With a slight growl, she reared back and slammed her shoulder against it, only to get the elbow of her fleece caught on something. A deadbolt quietly holding the door in place. Groaning, she turned it, and the door opened.

But Sally didn’t move.

Sprawled across her path was a man, ripe with alcohol and snoring forcefully. He hadn’t made it far before calling it a night considering the bar was next door. He swatted at some imaginary thing on his nose. Just stay focused. Sally took a deep breath and leapt over the man, barely missing the edge of his black leather jacket.

Then she straightened up and headed for the concert hall. Take that, Hallmark.

When she turned onto Nevsky Prospect, the main street of Saint Petersburg, cold wind whipped through her hair. She tugged her scarf up over her chin. Her host mother had given her the scarf moments ago as Sally was walking out the door.

“You must keep your throat warm. Very important.”

Sally had resisted, but not for long. The scarf was beautiful. Small black flowers wove around each other against a gold background.

“It was my great-grandmother’s,” Sally’s host sister Irina had said, nodding to the scarf before she disappeared to get a mop. Their large black poodle had piddled on the floor. All those people standing in the doorway had been too exciting.

Even though the scarf was thin, Sally could feel the heat from it radiating out. She had heard the city wouldn’t turn on the heat until October 1st, still a few days away, so she might just leave it on until then.

Sally stopped to look at her map. The Bolshoi Concert Hall was only seven blocks ahead, and she didn’t want to be too early for her time slot. Extra time would just give her nerves a chance to get out and stretch. As it was, her insides were already churning. When it came to competitions, her stomach always demanded that she feel nauseous and make countless visits to the bathroom.

Sally started walking again but more slowly, letting the waves of people in blacks and grays swell past her on their way to work. The grim color choices didn’t surprise her. Neither did the presence of dead animals serving as coats and hats. What did surprise her was the colors of the buildings. Pink. Blue. Green. Peach. No one had told her the city would be this beautiful.

Just ahead the road rose up into a bridge, and the sidewalk tucked down beneath it where pedestrians disappeared into shadows. The sad notes of a balalaika floated towards Sally, and she followed them under the bridge. Clustered on stools and blankets, selling bits of trinkets, were bundled old women. Their faces poked out from head scarves like the one wrapped around Sally’s neck. She fingered her scarf and then saw the musician.

The man had a weathered face, and his eyes were closed as he plucked the strings. The folk song danced above Sally like a injured bird until it came to rest on her shoulder. The cold wind was gone. The air was now humid and thick. Sweat beaded up on Sally’s upper lip and the back of her neck. A buzzing joined the music, weaving around her, as a stench rose up from the ground, thick like the air, rife with decomposition and decay. The shout from a man behind made her spin around.

“Unless you want to join him, you better keep digging. He was lucky to die in the morning because the tsar wants this done today. Now, move!”

The voice was so close, but where was the man? And who was he shouting at? Looking around, Sally saw only the same grumbling crowd. And the buzzing. Like a mosquito. But it couldn’t be that. It was so cold. At least, it had been. Sweaty hair stuck to the back of Sally’s neck. Desperate to cool down, she tore off the scarf.

It was cold again. The wind was back. The smell was gone.

What was wrong with her? A panic attack? The beginnings of a fever? Sally shook her head. Getting sick this week was the last thing she needed.

She took a deep breath, stuffed the scarf in her pocket, and looked around. The music had stopped, and the man was now tightening the strings on his balalaika. She starting walking again. She shouldn’t have stopped to listen. She needed to stay focused. The Bolshoi Hall was just a few blocks further. But she found herself rubbing the back of her hand against her jeans and looked at it.

She came to an abrupt halt. On the back of her hand, angry and itchy, was a mosquito bite.

Chapter 2

By the time Sally arrived at the concert hall, she was determined to ignore whatever that was that had just happened. Now was not the time to be distracted. It’d be three years before the next International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians. This was her only chance because next time, she’d be 18 and ineligible.

After registering, Sally climbed the red carpeted stairs to the warm up area. At the top she found dozens of other cellists sitting amongst the massive white columns of the Grand Hall, many bent over their instruments, tuning and retuning. Every so often a triumphant flurry of notes would burst forth. Eyes squinted, listening for imperfection. Bodies swayed deep in concentration.

After making a trip to the bathroom, Sally found an empty spot under one of the large, glistening chandeliers and unzipped her cello case. She took a deep breath and began her warm up routine. She rosined her bow while imagining herself swimming through the first movement of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto as though it was water. Each transition fluid. Each phrase flowing around her just as Dvorak intended. Another trip to the bathroom. Next, tuning and then scales, first as long fully-shaped notes, then in time with the rhythm at measure 97. Trip to the bathroom. Finally, she bowed her head until her brown curls tumbled forward, and she sat there with her fingers poised over the strings, focusing on the indentation the strings made in the flesh of her finger. Until it was time.

When Sally opened the door into the small room, three sets of eyes stared back at her. No words. Just a nod to the chair. She sat. She exhaled. She began.


  1. Part One: (Sorry, this is too long for the comment box to accept.)

    You’ve got an intriguing set up here. I LOVE the idea of the musical thread in the magical realism elements, and the time leaks that you’ve set up. I love the idea of the scarf tying this all together (pardon the pun). You’ve got a lot of sensory detail here and a nice voice, and your writing style is smooth and pleasing. But I don’t really know very much about Sally yet. I’d love to see a little more of how she interprets what is going on around her and how this relates back to her “real” world. While I get a sense that she’s overcome some obstacles to get here, you only hint at some teasing from her friends.

    Overall, my biggest problems related to the placement of information, thoughts, and action. The first paragraph, for example, makes it sound like she is still in the U.S. somewhere and leaving to go to Russia; this needs a better grounding. Also, would it be more natural for her to question whether she is tough enough to handle international competition here rather than tough enough to go to Russia overall? Also, the Hallmark reference may need some additional clarification. Will every kid know that ad? Suggest you either make it more specific, or more generic – e.g. – “Who cared if I always cried at Hallmark commercials. The company probably spent millions making sure people cried.” To work well, this reference could also benefit from a follow up. Why does she think she is going to cry? Is it because she is going to lose it if she doesn’t win the competition? We need to know what her stakes are since you’ve introduced them in this way.

    The sequence with the door and the drunk may not be your optimal way to use the valuable real estate on the first page. Especially since, presumably, she has exited the building before? (I have this issue several times. How long has she been in Russia?) I’d rather see the interaction with the host family directly. You hint at a lovely scene with the family, and the dialogue there is a great beginning. Why not start there--the host family, the gift of the scarf, the dog piddling? As it is written now, the family seems warm and loving, which makes me wonder why they didn’t accompany her to the competition. That makes her journey to the hall alone implausible and casts doubt on the very realism you need to pull off the magical elements. Consider creating a reason why the family isn’t accompanying her, then having her ready to walk out the door, and having someone—who and why is important—provide the scarf at the last minute. That brings the scarf into greater prominence. Also make it clear whether it’s a gift or a loan. She refers to it as “her scarf” but why would it not have been given to Irina if it was that important? And it isn’t plausible that no one in the family would know its significance.

  2. Part Two:

    I suggest you go through this beginning and consider where you can best reorder the information. Think about what she knows and what she doesn’t know in each spot, and consider the optimal way to reveal necessary backstory to the reader. Should you reveal the significance of the competition closer to the beginning? Would the heat not being on until October serve you better in the scene with the family? Why isn’t she surprised at the fur hats and coats but is surprised about the color of the buildings? Hasn’t she been outside before? Be careful the kinds of questions you introduce. You want plot-related questions to help you force the reader to turn the page, but you don’t want unanswered trivial questions that keep them from doing so.

    Also consider whether Irina might accompany her to the hall. If she doesn’t have a ticket or something, then perhaps she is just walking her there. Having someone else walking with her through the magical stuff at the beginning of the bridge could force you to be really clear and magical about that description in a way that the reader will immediately “get.”

    I love the scarf element and the magical aspects—especially the way you work in details like the mosquito bite. But as I started to express above, I feel that sections here need greater clarity, too. The descriptions are not fully realized yet, as if you—the writer—aren’t quite picturing what is going on clearly enough.

    Be careful with your sentence accuracy. For example, heat wouldn’t radiate from the scarf. Her stomach can’t demand that she make countless visits to the bathroom—that would be her bladder. It’s questionable whether you even want to use the nausea line in this way, because while some readers will love it, others may balk and get thrown out of the story.

    Ensure that when you interject thoughts and reminders into the action, you do so in a way that doesn’t confuse the reader. “He swatted at some imaginary thing on his nose. Just stay focused. Sally took a deep breath and leapt over the man, barely missing the edge of his black leather jacket.” The just stay focused thought doesn’t follow logically, since we don’t see her having any distracting thoughts about the man.

    These comments are all mechanical stuff. Overall, the setup is terrific, and I'm looking forward to reading it again.

  3. I also thought Sally was still in the U.S. in the beginning and it would be cool to have the interaction with her host family since the scarf seems to play a big part in the story.

    There are a few places where she's walking and stopping, then walking and stopping, that could be taken out - mostly things that the reader can already assume.

    I like the premise and the title is great - it immediately caught my attention.

  4. Forgive my comments if they are a bit fuzzy - I blame the pain meds. :P

    Okay, I enjoyed the voice that started to come through right away talking about her friends attitudes vs. her own. I especially liked the line "Take that Hallmark." But I also agree w/Martina that you should clarify both the stakes and whether it's Russia that's the issue or the music competition. I'd like you to bring this voice in even more throughout.

    I really enjoyed the way you used the music, and totally bought that she could be a potential musical protege.

    As to the setting, I loved that it was set in Russia and was hoping for more details sooner. It would be great if you could incorporate them through her actions. Show us her personality w/them too. Does she ignore the homeless and staunch people in favor of concentrating on colorful buildings on purpose? Or vice versa? You can fix any timeline issues pretty easily by giving a timeframe in a line, and then saying something like, "Sally still couldn't get used to..."

    I think there is plenty there to hold the reader's attention, so you can slow it down. You don't need to rush to the performance. I like the details of the scarf and bite, but wanted a bit more clear what happened exactly w/that time lapse or whatever it was. I know it's tricky because she's confused, but you can do it.

    I'd also love to meet the host family, especially if they are an important part of the story.

  5. Hi Ann!

    Great title indeed! And a great premise, you've got a wonderful start here. I too think a short few paragraphs with her host family in the very beginning would set the scene, show us her interactions with the host family and place importance on the scarf. I didn't understand why the dog piddled...who were all the people standing there that upset it? I think you can make those first few paragraphs absolute magic when you tie in the family, setting, scarf and voice all together.

    Keep going - you've got a great start!



  6. Chapter One-
    1st paragraph-is she overly sensitive? (Sally didn’t think herself overly sensitive as her friends did. She had a large and very caring heart, was all.) By the end of the chapter, I’m still confused what this paragraph has to do with the book besides we learn she’s in Russia for a week. Why do her friends feel this way? Why does she? I’d like to get a feel of what her being sensitive to things has to do with the book. It seems as if it’s supposed to be important.

    I'd actually love to see this start out with her interacting with the host family. Perhaps there you could have her talking about this crying thing she has a problem with or way to explain what you mean. Have them encourage her and so on.

    Next line-Um, I didn’t think she was in Russia yet.

    I’d put a comma here rather than break up the sentence …caught on something(,) the deadbolt….

    Is the man homeless or just a drunk guy? When you say he swatted something imaginary, I think of him being away, not passed out drunk. Or just add, …thing on his nose, still asleep and let out a loud snort…. Something to imply he’s sleeping, not awake an actually seeing things.

    The scarf radiates heat? Perhaps…-Sally could feel it trapping in the heat.-

    I love this line: “Extra time would just give her nerves a chance to get out and stretch.”

    Chapter Two
    In the first paragraph you say it isn’t the time to be distracted. I’d take out since you’ve said that several times in chapter one.

    Um, is she throwing up in the bathroom? Or so nervous she has to pee continually so she doesn’t wet herself on stage?

    You could add her having a pep-talk with herself in the bathroom mirror or with Irina...

    Overall, I really want to read more! Please and thank you. :-D

  7. I agree with the others that the timeframe is confusing at the beginning. I think they've given sufficient notes on those so I'll refrain from repeating.

    I found this to be sort of disjointed, like you had other stuff in here and you took that stuff out so you could fit all that you wanted in this sample. I'm not sure why the dog piddled/who the people were or what the purpose of the drunk man is. These things don't seem like they belong in the story at this moment. Perhaps you have a new first chapter, or you bring the reader back to these moments later on in the story. It's obvious that the scarf is causing the weird stuff after the mini-flashback. Maybe leave that out until later in the story. Let us have a bit of mystery.

    She's supposed to be focused on her performance, right? Then why is she noticing and placing such importance on these things? Why not instead have her notice the repetition of the windows on the buildings or see a string of notes in the cracks of the cobbled streets?

    Perhaps she taps her leg in a rhythm, or her footsteps remind her of a certain passage of music she has trouble with. That tapping/footstep sounds can become sort of hypnotic to the reader if it's carried throughout the scene. It can tie these scenes together too, if it's something she does all that time.

    You've got some okay description but I hope you can take it a bit further in the revisions. I'd like to see more of the five senses in here so I can taste the decay, want to take a shower after experiencing that scene. I want to hear the crunch of her steps, birds singing, the exotic sounds of the other people talking on the streets. I want to feel the clamminess of the scarf after she gets hot. She's in a new place and she's not been there long. I would hope that she notices more than just the colors of the buildings.

    I also agree that you need to bring Sally more to the front. She's fifteen, but what does she look like? What's her style? How does she see the world around her? When she hops over the drunk man, that's it. Does she judge the drunk man? Is she used to it because it happens back home, too? Is she afraid? Does the smell make her even more nervous/queasy for her performance? If it doesn't effect Sally's story or reveal her character, consider if it's even worth mentioning.

    Try writing this in first person, past tense. Don't treat it like you're telling the story to someone afterwards, but more of an as-it-happens. Like this section: "After registering, Sally climbed the red carpeted stairs to the warm up area. At the top she found dozens of other cellists sitting amongst the massive white columns of the Grand Hall, many bent over their instruments, tuning and retuning. Every so often a triumphant flurry of notes would burst forth. Eyes squinted, listening for imperfection. Bodies swayed deep in concentration."

    can be changed to be, "After registering, I climbed the red carpeted stairs to the warm up area. Amongst the massive white columns of the Grand Hall, dozens of other cellists were bent over their instruments, tuning and retuning. As I tightened my bow, a triumphant flurry of notes burst forth from somewhere on my left. Everyone's eyes seemed to squint in synchronicity, each of us listening for an imperfection before returning to our own slow dance of concentration, both terrified and itching to break out next.

    Do you see how that brings the reader into the story more? I feel like I'm right there with Sally rather than just hearing her tell me what happens in that "this happened, then this happened, then this happened" sort of way.

  8. Anne,
    My first thoughts when I read this pretty much echoed Martina's. I thought she was in the US and then I wanted it to start with the gifting of the scarf and I wondered why the host family wasn't accompanying her to the event. That seemed odd to me.

    You had some beautiful images in
    The folk song danced above Sally like a injured bird until it came to rest on her shoulder.

    I thought your first chapter was rather short and didn't really end with a hook. I didn't really get the mosquito reference the first time I read it, so maybe it was just me.

    I would like to the first scene/chapter expanded to almost double with vivid discriptions. She's on an incredible adventure and I wanted to feel her sense of wonder.

    Can't wait to see where you go with this.


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