Monday, December 5, 2011

8 1st 5 Pages December Workshop - Christina

Christina B.
YA Urban Fantasy

Lily’s nerves thrummed like the frail strings of an old violin. Crossing the threshold to her mother’s bedroom, she neared the dresser. Thump, thump. Her footsteps pounded against the linoleum. She glanced over her shoulder, shook her head, uncurled her toes. Moved past the unmade sheets, the opened paint cans. Three, two, one: the mahogany designs loomed before her. Her heart thumped louder, louder, too loud—another glance over her shoulder—unending as she hesitated, her hand in the empty air. Poised but ready. She grabbed the photo frame, but her sweaty fingers lost their purchase and it plummeted towards the floor—a sudden roar plugging her ears as she dove and caught the glass.

            A soft rustle broke the spell. Jerking to her feet, she hid behind the door. Seconds passed without a glimpse of her mother. Lily dashed to her bedroom and closed the door right as her knees gave way. Relief threaded through her veins and only the bite of her nails confined her in reality. She gazed at her prize until a voice interrupted her.


            As usual, her mother sounded exhausted. If Lily opened the door, her mother’s forced smile would underscore the dark crescents beneath her eyes; that exhaustion would vanish once she noticed that Lily had stolen her wedding photo.

            “I’ll be out in a minute,” Lily replied.

            When her mother’s footsteps receded, she scanned the photo. The thin layer of dust coating the glass did not surprise her—her mother didn’t even own Lysol—but she felt as if she stood at the edge of a precipice. One step, two steps, small steps to fall, but there was no going back. Not now, not ever. She looked to her violin, propped on her desk, and imagined drawing the bow back and forth, liberating one of Beethoven’s symphonies. After a few minutes, she unwound her clasped fingers.

            Squaring her shoulders, she withdrew the photo and sucked in a breath.

            While her mother glowed, sunshine and warmth, the man fixed to her side had hair streaked with silver and a body lined with age. Wrinkles mapped the contours of his face, and though his eyes twinkled, light streaming through water, his right hand clung to her mother’s arm with a force that seemed painful. Despite the yoke of his weight, her mother flushed with laughter, highlighting the telltale shine of her youth. The white lace and satin which hugged her slim figure accentuated her olive skin and sunset hair, but her neck lacked the turquoise pendant it usually featured.

The melody humming through Lily’s mind came to an abrupt halt as she searched the rest of the photo. No answers, nothing of use. The photo fell from her fingers, but this time she let it. She stared at the phone beside her bed, and the walls shrunk around her, thin and yellow and too familiar, disappointment curdling like rotten milk into her.

The caller should have told her more.

Hours earlier their phone had rung over and over again while she was washing the dishes.  Now, minutes away from hanging out with Josh, miles away from finding the answers she craved, the memory swept over her.


“Hi.” An unfamiliar male voice greeted her. “Am I speaking with Lily Napier?”

“Who’s asking?”

He laughed, a deep, earthy tune that nestled Lily in its arms until: “I’m one of your father’s friends.”

Fingers coiled around her stomach and squeezed. She jumped off the counter, adrenaline threading through her veins, forcing her to move, move, move.

“You know my father?” She tilted her head to the side and waited, but the silence exposed the fissures in her breathing so she snapped, “Well, do you?”

Another pause. “How much do you know about him?”

Too little. She clutched the phone tighter. “Who the hell are you?”

“Look, I didn’t mean to offend you—”

“Then don’t ask about personal issues. Who are you?”

“I’m just trying to help.”

“That’s not an answer, and if you don’t give me one in the next minute, I’m going to hang up.” Her hands slipped on the phone. He would call her bluff and she would never discover the truth and—

“Wait, I’m sorry. Please…” He sighed, the sound as heavy as the tenor of her heart. “Ask your mom about him.”

“I already have.” She tried not to sound too impatient.

“Have you really? Well, this time, try asking her when she last saw him.”

With those words, the line sputtered to its end. The dial-tone stung her ears, but she couldn’t move. Why would their wedding night be different? The thought repeated its mantra in her mind as a half-formed plan rose slowly to meet it. She didn’t realize how long she stood there, staring at the phone and wondering why now, why after seventeen years this would happen, until the voice floated on the air behind her and reality shattered her reverie.

“Who called?”

Lily spun around and her shoulder collided with the counter, jolting her bone. She swore, but her mother’s expression remained neutral—well, except for the slightest raise in her brow, a sign which Lily had trained herself to see. Without it, there’d be nothing.

“Wrong number,” she said hastily.

“Oh.” Her mother turned, already bored with her.

“Hey, can we order some pizza, maybe watch Jane Eyre? Isn’t AMC showing it tonight?” Her mother loved the Brönte sisters; they rang too Gothic for Lily’s taste, but there were things to be discussed.

Ouais, ouais, mon ange.” My angel. Lily almost snorted. “Maybe later.”

Her mother’s gaze fixed on her bedroom—to continue painting her mural or to soak her sheets with perpetual tears, Lily wasn’t sure which; that room was as forbidden as ever to her. Either way, she knew the answers would have to wait. In this state, her mother was a duet in an orchestra: out of time, out of place.

As was Lily. She shook herself, dislodging the memory. Even if she had dedicated the past few hours to the photo, it didn’t matter. Her plan had failed. The photo yielded nothing, no clue of what the man had meant, and now the only way forward was the woman who had refused to answer her questions since she had been old enough to ask them. Her mother. The word promised more than her memories suggested.

Red and black dots spotted her vision, violin notes without sheets. Damn him. Damn this home and its thin walls and the high windows. This room which offered only the illusion of privacy and comfort. Her mother’s sobs which haunted the hallway time after time. Lily was a goddamned mistake, but her mother was too proud to admit it and she was too proud to ask.

Fire burned through her veins, and she stared down at her fingers, tracing the anthem of anger there. She couldn’t hide anymore.

Disregarding the photo, she marched through the small hallway, wincing as her heels clanked on the tiled floor. Her mother didn’t notice. When Lily entered the living room, she started and dropped her crochet needles.

Chaos enwrapped Mireille Napier—eyes ablaze with a feverish light, outshining the dark circles for once; overalls spattered with a mishmash of paints crusted in the denim edges; hair unwound and writhing like withered branches around a face carved in shadows. At forty-five years old, she carried a wild beauty which Lily could never have with her carefully applied makeup and polished shoes. She was the artist and Lily the musician; no matter what, their paints would sing to different harmonies.


  1. Hi Christina,

    Your writing is beautiful, and many of your similes are stunning. I love the theme of art versus music -- it's something I am playing with in my current manuscript so I was fascinated to see it here. If you'll pardon the pun, I admire the artistry with which you are approaching it.

    That said, and even taking into consideration that the artistic temperament of your mc which could make her tend more toward hyperbole, I feel that you are overdriving the emotion and descriptions. The overwriting leads to disappointment when the situation doesn't match up with the intensity, and it made it hard to get into the story. In short, I stopped believing, because I found the narrative unreliable.

    Part of the problem there was that you started with effect before cause. Your first sentence is reaction, and you presented it before the action to which she was reacting. Furthermore, you didn't give us any motivation for the over the top fear that she was showing. As a reader, I was willing to go along with you for a bit trusting that I would get that motivation soon. When I did, it came in the form of a flashback.

    I'm sure you know that a flashback in the first chapter is a big risk. As a general rule, flashbacks are disorienting to the reader in the first chapter because they disrupt the forward flow, and in the first chapter we are still struggling to get into the story to start with. While obviously, they *can* work, I have to say though that for me, this one doesn't succeed.

    I tried to think exactly why, and the best I could come up with was that the action in the opening paragraphs would need to be far less ambiguous. Second, with the emotion in the opening paragraphs as dramatically presented as you have it, the revelations in the flashback didn't justify the setup. Nor did all that emotion seem credible when I found out that she was only after a wedding photo. In addition, the flashback itself seemed overdriven and not sufficiently motivated for the amount of emotion and the language that you've used.

    At this point, I recommend several things:

    1) Identify your true conflict and the backstory for your inciting incident. This doesn't have to be on the page, but it needs to be clear in your mind. If the guy calls, you need to know exactly what he hopes to achieve by that call and you need to know your character well enough to know how she would credibly react to that kind of a phone call. As it is, it simply wasn't credible to me.

    2) Present the inciting incident in a linear fashion. Take advantage of the phone call and the conflict with the mother to SHOW us the relationship more clearly.

    Continued in next comment...

  2. Continued from previous comment,

    For example, if you were to place the mother and daughter in proximity, engaged in some activity that demonstrates the relationship and the conflict between them, you could ground us briefly before the phone call. *Then* you could have the phone ring. If the daughter had to formulate her answers in front of her mother, that would add tension to drive the situation, and allow you to understate rather than overwrite the dialogue. At the same time, it would give you the opportunity to reveal more about the relationship between her and her mother. Once the phone call concluded, the mother could ask about it, and the daughter taking time for introspection before she answered could allow you the opportunity to fill in the backstory about the father. And then, still proceeding linearly, you could have the mother drift of to do whatever character building activity is consistent with your plot, and have the daughter think of the wedding photo and decide to act. If you have shown the relationship is abusive or perilous in some way, then you have demonstrated the stakes for her sneaking in to get the wedding photo, and the motivation for her fear becomes understandable.

    Does that make sense? Obviously, there are a thousand different solutions you can use to address the problem. Whichever way you decide to go, the essence is that for your first revision, I think you need to ditch the flashback, ground us in the story, and play more honestly with us. It seems as if you are writing intellectually, adding conflict to the page through words instead of building it in via the situation. In other words, you're working too hard. :)

    Trust yourself. You write beautifully. That will come through. But writing beautifully is secondary to the honesty of the story and the characters. Don't worry about words right now at all. Concentrate on blocking out what is really happening. Choose two scenarios, setting details, and character actions that really demonstrate who the mother and daughter *are* and the relationship between them.

    I suspect that by doing that you will find that the overwriting takes care of itself and allows your voice and words to really shine as they deserve.

    Looking forward to seeing what you do with this!


  3. Hello Christina,

    I really loved the imagery used. I loved some of the lyrical passages. I love the metaphorical comaprisons... and the musical theme that runs as an undercurrent.

    From a big picture standpoint, I wonder about the voice. Even though I love the lines used... I'm not entirely sold that it fits Lily, and Lily's story. And, maybe it does... and I just don't quite know it yet because I haven't read further.

    If anything, third person would certainly allow for that a little bit. But even with third limited, the language is a bit off from what I might expect from Lily.

    With a story like this, it could be an interesting exercise to write a few chapters in 1st person to see if you could capture Lily's voice a bit more.

    I really like and anticipate delving more into the mother daughter relationship. I like the tension presented there. I also like the tension presented by the phone call.

    I think the first paragraph reads a bit clunky. The imagery is nice, but I had to re-read it several times. And the worst place to hang people up is the first paragraph.

    I eagerly anticipate seeing how this story develops.


  4. Hi! As usual Martina beats me to the punch. LOL. Let me tell you in my own words and maybe something will connect. I was very put off by the initial paragraph. I heard the same thing over and over - she was afraid. TERRIFIED. But nothing close to why or a clear picture of what was happening. Pick your favorite way to say it and go with it. This is the best way to approach something throughout.

    I think you need to start in the kitchen before the phone call. I think a quick set up of the tension between mother and daughter followed by the phone call would be just right to pull us in, and it keeps everything in chronological order.

    Your writing IS beautiful. But it comes out feeling a little forced. Like you're trying too hard. And you want it to be an easy cadence beneath the story. That's your voice. And it's lovely. I want to see your MC's voice more though as well. If Lily is a seventeen year old musician, what does she sound like? What are her thoughts? Show us.

    I think those are the main points I'd like to see you work on for the first revision. I'd love to see what you do with this!

  5. My first impression when reading this was that I didn't have a clear image of what is going on. I don't know why Lily is upset. I don't know why she's afraid of her mom/mom's reactions.

    I realize that you're probably trying to build mystery and suspense to hook your reader, but even though there's a lot of emotion, there's nothing that I can detect that would cause it. Is Lily upset suddenly because of a specific event (perhaps the phone call)? If she's just always tormented, I don't think anyone could realistically live at that stress level for long. Also, it seems like she'd have more compassion or anxiety for her mom rather than just complete disdain, even if she was torn between the two emotions.

    I agree with Lisa G. that it would be easier to understand if you started with the phone call as a natural means of creating tension and putting the whole thing in order of when it happens. Right now I'm kind of confused.

    It also seemed that you were trying to sound like what you think a YA writer should sound like rather than just writing from your own voice and heart. Even though much of the imagery was intense and strong, it came across to me as melodramatic. Some of this might be from repetitive of phrases such as "relief threaded through her veins," "adrenaline threading through her veins," and "fire burned through her veins." [I began to wonder just how much her veins could take, and it was distracting. : )]

    You're probably looking for the bigger picture issues right now, and a lot of the text is going to change, but maybe try reading it out loud to find awkward or repetitive wording as you get into further revisions.

    Looking forward to see what you do with your first revision. : )

  6. Christina -
    My thoughts were mostly covered above, but I'll say it my way and it might be helpful.

    I was struck by the beauty of your writing, but that didn't necessarily translate into pulling me into the story. If anything, I think it did the opposite. I was distracted by all of the description and, as others have mentioned, I felt let down when I found out what the source of the conflict was.
    That is to say the conflict itself - in the form of a mysterious phone call about her father, also mysterious - works for me, but it didn't seem to match the opening and Lily's extreme emotional and physical reaction.

    I love the idea of the different forms of art in conflict and contrast - rich with possibilities:)

    I echo was Christopher said as well regarding maybe trying out first person - the story seems so personal and immediate, first might be really effective.

    I'm looking forward to seeing your next revision - Lily has me intrigued:)

  7. I think my comments got deleted! Okay, I'll start again. Your writing is strong and you've got great descriptions. I thought at first this might be historical fiction, "washing the dishes," instead of a dish washer, and a land mine phone, are getting historical! Somethings jarred with the prose. But I agree that the tension isn't paying off for the reader. You're great at tension so I'd keep it taut, just make sure your pay off is worth it. The phone call was anti-climatical. If you look at it, it doesn't really give us any information. I think this is the kind of draft you do as you are working toward figureing out what it is your MC wants/needs and I think when you can answer that, this will fall into place. Again, nice writing and tension. Lots to like hre. Best, shelley

  8. Hi, Christina!
    I'm trying not to peek at what the others said, so forgive me if I repeat what they've said. I thought some of your descriptions were lovely, but often too descriptive. The simple act of picking up a photo bordered on purple prose. I love the bit about the violin strings, because that was entirely your character's voice. Great!

    The tone is very dark and there's a lot of great tension. Thin walls and mother's tears: love that. There were places that also sounded like the setting was in the past. I think the word "purchase" gave me the idea it was very old-fashioned.

    I'm not getting a good sense of a teen mc here. The line about her being a mistake and her dialogue on the phone were my only indicators of her age. Even asking to watch Jane Eyre made her seem much older--even if she was only trying to lure her mom. Instead of bemoaning the story's gothic-ness, maybe she could find it boring, stupid, or torturous.

    Back on the dialogue with the person on the phone, I was struck with the idea the convo wasn't very smart. Of course she would ask about her father and about the last time her mother saw him. That was a no-brainer question to me. Makes her caller sound more lame than mysterious. You're a great writer, so I KNOW you can come up with something else for him to say to get the girl thinking and questioning.

    Great start! Hope I said something helpful. Best wishes, Sandi


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