Monday, December 5, 2011

9 1st 5 Pages December Workshop - Ledbetter

Christopher S. Ledbetter
Young Adult Fantasy

I trudged back up the sandy beach, digging my toes in with each step. Visions of pearl-skinned sea nymphs still danced in my head. I closed my eyes to savor the images. Just a moment more.


“C’mon, Zeus,” Anytos called.


“I’m coming.”


Life was easy. All except the hard runs every morning. Hated them. I couldn’t wait to get back to the goats I tended with my mother. Against her wishes, I’d named each one. That’s why she never let me slaughter them for food. Or rather, why I never participated. My heart broke every time I thought of eati… Oh, nevermind.


Other than, ick, the slaughter, there was nothing too terribly stressful about goat herding. They were a self-sufficient lot. Sometimes watching them was like watching the sun crawl across the sky. And, it had been in those moments that my mind wandered.


I’d always felt like I could do more. Be more. But what? Something inside of me clawed for the extraordinary. Yet I had to face that I’d likely never leave Crete.


My friend Anytos stood at the top of a dune calling down, “Sometime today!” He looked into the sky. “Sun’s high. We don’t have much time!”


I joined him, looking across the dusty Cretan expanse that reached into low-lying hills. Tos turned to me. “All right. You ready?”


“Let’s do it…”


Before I’d finished, Tos had taken off running, like being shot from a bow. His feet pounded the path as he gained an early lead.


As I crested a high ridge in pursuit, a burning sensation spider-webbed through my lungs. Pushing onward, I strained to keep pace with Tos, whose legs moved at a pace I simply couldn’t match. Not yet anyway.


“Faster, Zeus. Run faster,” he yelled.


I stopped and clutched my chest, ragged breaths coming in gasps. “We’ve been running non-stop since the southern coast.” Resting my palms on my knees, I inhaled deeply. I knew that the daily running regimen would benefit me at some point. But, that didn’t mean I had to like it. And besides, today’s strenuous run was a punishment of my own design. “Let me walk a few steps to catch my breath.”


Anytos turned abruptly. “Whose fault is it we’ve been running such a distance, huh? I promised Amalthea I’d keep you safe, Zeus,” he responded. “You. Here. Not safe. Let’s go!”


"Hmmmph." I stood upright, stretching to one side then the other. I clasped my hands behind my head and took another deep breath as I stared into the vast sky above.


“I knew I shouldn’t have let you talk me into going to see those sea nymphs again,” Anytos continued. “Shoulda known better than that. You always keep us on the edge of trouble.”


“Don’t act like you didn’t have a good time, Tos.” I managed a half smile despite my fatigue, rustling fingers through my hair.


"That’s totally beside the point. The longer we’re away from the cave, the less safe you are."
I totally resented not being safe. I’d watched my mother’s pained expressions over the years. Stress from living in constant fear. Sometimes I wished to be the most powerful man in the world. Hiding from no one.


"All right." Rocking back on my heels, I resolved to finish. One last push for today. Come on. Dig Deep.


I lunged forward. Chasing Tos up the next incline, my feet barely touched the ground. I ran so fast, I didn’t even feel the rocks. As I crested the next ridge, I forced my stride farther. Wider. My arms whipped the air at my sides. I grinned as I closed the gap between us.


Ahead, the cave opening beckoned. The Cave. My home. I knew the drill. Get to the cave before someone sees you. Someone like who? I always wondered who’d ever come looking for me?


I saw my mother sitting on a hillside just above the cave, surrounded by lightly grazing goats. Her weathered face warmed as I came into view. Crouched, her right hand gripped a hooked staff, on which she counterbalanced her weight. Her gray tunic rustled gently in the thick, salty breeze.


In the foreground, my guardians, the Kouretes danced and chanted. Fully armored, they jumped and twirled. Their tunics flapped around their frames as helmets clanked atop their heads. Shouts echoed across the pastoral calm, punctuated by the clashing of spears to shields. They always said that they danced and sang to ward off evil spirits. To protect me. All I heard was constant noise, really.


I drew closer to the cave. My mother stood suddenly, turning toward the sun. The sky brightened, and the sun’s brilliance grew more insistent. I shielded my eyes but the heat nearly burned me. I watched my skin darken by the second. Sweat beaded all over my bronzing skin at once.


My heart began to race wildly. “What’s going on here? Why is the sun falling?"


“Remember how we kept telling you someone might see you if you’re out too long?”


I nodded nervously.


“Hyperion is descending!” He pushed my shoulder. “Get in the cave!”


“The Sun Deity? Why is…?”


“Don’t ask questions. Just do it. Now!”


The Kouretes’ noise grew louder. But, I still didn’t understand. My mind clouded with confusion and anxiety. And yet more impatience at more hiding. I wanted to turn and stand my ground.


Tos pushed me. “Hurry!”


I took off running with Tos close behind. We’d just reached the cave when I heard my mother yell. We stopped in our tracks and turned.


Fear spiked inside of me. My breathing shortened. I turned to head back into the brightness and searing heat. Tos grabbed my arm to pull me back.


"No!"


"I can't leave my mother out there!" I yelled, yanking my arm from his grasp. I placed a helmet on my head, grabbed my shield and spear, and ran into the clearing outside the cave.


"Well, you’re not going without me!"


The fiery orb hovered close to the earth. Flames grabbed at the atmosphere in every direction.
"Mother!" I called. She scampered down the hill as fast as she could. The goats scattered in front of her.


The Kouretes took up battle stances, shields folded across their chests, spears ready to throw. A loud explosion erupted in the sky that shook the ground with its force.


Hyperion, the Elder Sun Deity, emerged from the freakishly large ball of fire. A mountain of a man, his immense black chariot came to rest on the ground, its wheels scorching the soil. He stood behind the monstrous, fiery stallions. Flames leapt off his muscular arms as he held fast the reins.


I was sure none of us had ever seen the Sun Deity this close before. Was this who I’d been hiding from all this time? Uncertainty quaked through my limbs. Fight or flight?


Hyperion nodded his head forward. Two smaller guys jumped off the back of the chariot. Both young men were blond and muscle bound. Both brandished long black spears.


The Kouretes took aim and began launching their javelins. Hyperion waved his hand dismissively. They all missed. All twelve javelins. I stood slack-jawed at the display of power.


Fright gripped me. My chest heaved like I was hyperventilating as I gripped my shield and spear tighter. White-knuckled. Sweat pooled in my palms and ran down my forehead and into my eyes.

9 comments:

  1. Love the premise! The confluence that makes the cult of Zeus on Crete depict him as a young man, and the myth that he was raised in a cave in Mount Ida is perfect ya/mg fodder. How closely are you sticking to the idea of Amalthea being a goat? I was almost hoping you might be going for a shape-shifting version of her, hidden among the grazing goats until she straightened when we first met her. :)

    Overall, you have fresh emotional reactions peppered throughout, and you've woven in description and characterization well, although you could perhaps make the setting a little more prominent, almost a character itself.

    I love that you've made Zeus relevant and accessible to a young YA market, but I wonder if he doesn't seem *too* young. The voice and character seemed more MG to me at the beginning, despite his interest in the sea nymphs. Has anyone else had an issue with the age? It might just be me.

    Apart from that, my main concern is that I didn't really get grounded into the story until we got back to the cave, and I often found myself bogged down by the events and motivation instead of reading forward. I believe these pages could really benefit from some restructuring.

    Specifically, it bothered me that Zeus would be out running in daylight at all, especially without the Kouretes. Each time the dialogue or narrative introduces the danger, I find myself pulled out of the story wondering why his guardians would let him alone, so the run felt contrived. Also that setup made Zeus comes off as physically and morally weaker than his friend. Even at the start of his character arc, I wonder if we couldn't have one heroic trait from the very first page to anchor us? As the son of two titans, it seems that, at least physically, he should not be human.

    Trying to break down what was bothering me, I found it hard to separate the story from the myth, so bear with me. But assuming that the Kouretes have evolved from their initial function to mask the cries of the infant Zeus from Cronus, then what noise would they be masking now, in your story, and who are they masking him from? You say evil spirits. Was Zeus raised in complete igorance of the titans' existence? You mention Hyperion, so clearly he knows them, and simply doesn't know that his parents were in fact Rhea and Cronus. In that case, why go through the hoop of calling Hyperion the Elder Sun Diety--which is so specific and confusing that it took me out of the story--instead of calling him one of the Twelve Titans from the get-go? We already know he is related to the sun from your description.

    Finally, motivation-wise, whether it is evil spirits or titans the Kouretes guard against, and whatever noise they are physically trying to mask now that Zeus is older and no longer crying, wouldn't they be tied to him as escorts rather than to the cave?

    Due to space restrictions in the comments blocks, I'll continue in a second comment.

    Martina

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  2. Continued from previous comment:



    I do have a possible solution to all these problems to suggest. If Zeus had to sneak out to get past the Kouretes, then he would be the one driving the action. You could also make him drive the training rather than Anytos being the instigator. It seems that might be more consistent with his character, too. If he wishes to be more powerful, not wanting to hide all the time, would he perhaps be the one desperate to build his strength? That would make him more immediately interesting as a protagonist on that first page, too. You did a great job setting him up to heroically rush to rescue his "mother" before the 5th page. But making him want to get physically fit would also serve to make him seem more heroic from the 1st page. And that would make it easier to evolve your initial plot points overall. If he snuck out while it was still dark and meant to be back before the sun rose, perhaps Anytos delayed him by admiring the sea nymphs. That could put him in the position of having to justify getting back and realizing how much he chafed against that authority without truly understanding it. That would allow your backstory revelations to flow more naturally. Danger --> chafing --> encounter.

    Obviously, feel free to ignore all the suggestions. There are countless ways to address the issues, I'm mainly trying to point out where I am seeing flaws.

    Overall, the writing is very strong, but I spotted a few areas you could work on:

    1) You used great verbs, but included a few throw-away adjectives that you could replace with fresher, more specific descriptions that go deeper into character and scene specificity. (Bruce Coville's twenty questions maybe? :D) Just from one section: "Freakishly large ball of fire," "mountain of a man," "immense black chariot," "monstrous, fiery stallions." The guy who came up with "thick, salty breeze" can do better than those. See, hoist on your own petard. :)

    2) Be careful of telling or introspection that covers what you are already showing us.

    3) Watch out for echo words in close proximity.

    4) Watch for verb pairs in close proximity: danced and chanted, jumped and twirled, danced and sang. (danced also being an echo, but probably not an intentional one?)

    5) Not much pastoral calm if they are shouting all the time. That phrase stopped me for both credibility and cliche.

    Overall, this is a really good opening. As far as the writing goes, the problems I've pointed out wouldn't be nearly as obvious if you didn't use such great, strong verbs. Your skill there forces you to up your game with everything else. Looking forward to the 1st rev!

    Martina

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  3. Okay, I'm coming at this from a completely different angle. I know of the story, but not that many details. I am not familiar, for example, with the protectors. As I read, I was curious about what they were. Are they human? Also, because I, and most of your audience, WON'T know the full story, you have to tell it as such. That can be hard to do when you know it so well. The best way to do this, IMHO, is to give Zeus an unforgettable voice. We have to fall in love with him and want to follow him anywhere. That's how I felt about Percy Jackson, whether you like those books or not, there's no doubt they worked. I agree with Martina, that the voice felt too young. I want him to be older, but I think again, that comes with a strong voice. Really get in his head and show us what makes him unique. Show us what makes the king of the gods human. :D I know you can do this.
    Show him interacting with the nymphs. Show his friends' nervousness. Show him being torn between wanting to do his duty and hang with his buddy. That kind of thing.
    As a side note, you did some "telling" instead of showing in places. Here's an example: "My mind clouded with confusion and anxiety. And yet more impatience at more hiding."
    Can't wait to see what you do!!!

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  4. Hi Christopher,

    I enjoyed your first five pages! I think you've got a story that will really appeal to kids with it's level of excitement.

    Good stuff:
    • The place I really felt an emotional response to your writing was at the part when Zeus and his friend were almost back to the cave where he lives. At that point, it got exciting and although I had a few disconnects where I didn't have a perfectly clear image of what was happening, I still think you did a great job of writing the action out.

    Concerns:
    • The opening line was so-so as a hook. It didn't have the draw that the second half of your submission did.
    • The first half has a lot of backstory and came across to me as kind of pointless, because although they talked about hurrying back to the cave, I didn't really understand there was any urgency until they were at the cave and the situation was severe.
    • The reason that Zeus was away from the cave wasn't clearly defined to me. Does he just love the risk and living on the side of danger? Is he clueless about how dangerous running around in the middle of the day is? Who is he? I felt the questions the beginning brought up were more confusing than enticing, but I think they have to be answered in a way that is better interwoven with the danger and drama.

    Looking forward to seeing what your revision will look like. : )

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  5. Hi, Chris!

    Wow, you've got lots of great action right from the start. Fantasy readers will be drawn right in. I loved the boyish thoughts of Zeus, wanting to watch sea nymphs! Funny and fitting. At first, the running reminded me of Oh My Gods, a YA about a teen girl who's running at the opening of the story and is a descendant of Greek gods. But as I read on, I pushed comparisons to the back of my mind. Still, you might keep the similarity under consideration.

    My main suggestion is to try to deepen your mc's POV. It's first person, but I still feel distanced from him. When someone grabs his arm, I want to feel it. I like that I can feel the sand in the first line, but then the senses grow further away as the story progresses. There also seems to be a lot of telling (which I'm always guilty of, too) as if he's chatting about his interests, likes and dislikes: goats and running.

    That's my two cents. I'd love to see this on bookshelves. Best wishes!

    Sandi

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  6. Thanks so much for all the wonderful comments. All of them are well received. I swear sometimes writing feels like you're trying to bake a cake from scratch when you've never done it before... and all you know are what ingredients need to be in it... but not how much and in what order... and though you have a vague idea... it's still "try some of this and a little of that." And it's only through trial and ERROR (lol) that you figure it out.

    I'm very thankful for programs like this and critiquers like you all.

    ~Cheers

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  7. Hi, Christopher. I haven't read the other comments because I don't want them to influence my opinion, but I do apologize in advance if I repeat something that they've said.

    I think that your first sentence needs to be a bit snappier. The second sentence would work as a better hook, I think.

    The two paragraphs after Anytos calls out to Zeus threw me off. The transition from sea-nymphs to running to goat-herding was a bit sudden and unexpected. Also, I think the description of his heart breaking is a very girl thing, but that might just be me.

    Anytos's dialogue seems to suggest that he's Zeus's age, but if he's Zeus's protector, then shouldn't he be older?

    The use of totally also is another one of those things that throws me off-- sometimes Zeus's POV doesn't sound like a boy's to me.

    I was so confused by who exactly was speaking and what was going on when they got to the cave. I think you need to build up the suspense more there. Show more in the descriptions why the sun descending is different/something to be feared. It came on so suddenly that I didn't feel the immediate danger.

    Also, if it is so dangerous for Zeus to leave, why did he go to the sea nymphs? I'd like to get a glimpse of them too to understand why he would risk it all.

    I would also like to know why it is dangerous for Zeus to be out-- why does Hyperion hate Zeus? Who else hates Zeus? Does Zeus have his powers yet? What have Anytos and his mother told him in that regard?

    I can't wait to find out more about your story! This sounds like a really interesting side of Greek mythology I have yet to read, and you bring us right into the story with action. However, I think you need to add more a bit more for his POV (make it sound more boyish) and let us know why he wants to visit the sea nymphs--is he that reckless? Is it a power of the sea nymphs? Is it that he has his powers yet? etc. Looking forward to seeing your revision!

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  8. Hi Christopher-
    This is a unique story line and it’s obvious you know your mythology. It’s been many years since I’ve read any so I’m not as up on this as some of the other critiques. Which in a way might be good, because I’m a little confused, so you’ll want to make sure you really are clear, especially for MG-er’s who probably have little, or no, reading experience in mythology. I wasn’t sure about the sun falling, and why he couldn’t be seen. Though all of this is very intriguing!
    I felt you could do more with your opening line, and hook your reader immediately. Beaches are generally sandy. Not always, but I think there could be a stronger hook here.
    “I’d always felt like I could do more. Be more. But what? Something inside of me clawed for the extraordinary. Yet I had to face that I’d likely never leave Crete.”
    You might play around with this. It gives us more of the MC, gives us setting, and an idea of what the MC wants/needs.
    Toward the end especially there’s a lot of telling how he is feeling. You might show more and maybe throw in more dialogue. Telling us that, “Fright gripped me,” falls flat and doesn’t do what you want it to. But maybe he can grab his spear, stumble on rocks and beg Tos for help or whoever is with him.
    Lots of potential here for this kind of story. Certainly a strong market for male MG. Best of luck with this and looking forward to your revision.
    Shelley

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  9. I think one of the most interesting aspects of reading your comments is that the opening is raising a lot of the questions I *want* raised. And I don't know that it's good story telling to answer all of those questions in the first 1250 words. Some of those questions are what I use to lead the reader through the story.

    I will work on the voice. Hopefully it comes through better. And I will try to clean up and tighten up the other areas of concern. I'm already planning a new opening paragraph. Hope it works.

    ~Cheers

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