Monday, February 6, 2012

1st 5 Pages February Workshop - Mezher

YA Science Fiction
First Submission
Helene Mezher

Survival is the substance of Pangaea. No outdated code of ethics or modern law holds more importance. My family abides by this rule with unparalleled determination, and for this reason, my mother wakes me an hour before school starts.

“Zan,” she whispers, careful not to disturb my brother and sister. We wait, but their breathing remains deep at my side. She continues, “Today’s your shift. Get ready.”

I stretch my limbs slowly to avoid jostling Tor and Reiya then slide out from beneath our shared blanket. Mom smiles and hands me a small bucket of water, and I take care not to spill the precious liquid she spent hours gathering. By the time I finish my ablutions, Tor is running around her knees with his usual energy.

“Hey, little T.” I muss his floppy hair and peck my mother on her cheek. The circles beneath her eyes seem less sunken and her face more full. Good, good. Crouching to Tor’s level, I grab his hand. “What’re you doing up so early?”

“Can’t sleep without Zanny,” he says, swinging our hands back and forth. His collarbone juts with each movement, highlighting the purpose of my morning run. I try to imagine what he will look like in five years, stubble peppering his jaw, an Adam’s apple bulging at his neck, but our future smudges at its edges. I can’t even get a job, not when there are thousands vying for the same opportunity. Knowing the future; having one is the utmost luxury.

My throat tightens with an unspoken need. I swallow hard and strive for lightness. “So it’s not because you want green apples?” I tease and poke his belly.

He giggles and throws his arms around me. “You’re the best, Zanny.”

“Zan.” Mom pauses her knitting, callused fingers wrapped around the needles that create ingenious art. Not for the first time, I wish she could have better quality materials instead of the scraps we manage to muster. “You should get going.”

I nod and kiss Tor’s forehead. Squealing, he rubs his forehead with mock disgust and grins mischievously like only nine years old can. Reiya remains asleep, her long legs stretched out beneath the blanket, bony toes exposed to the cold air. I cover them with the blanket and promise to get fava beans for my mother. The least I can do for her.

Despite the isolation reserved for our neighborhood, walking from the makeshift shack and into Tyme takes less than ten minutes. The city envelops me, its massive buildings squaring each corner in a pattern as familiar as my own skin. It reminds me of the boxed houses I read about—rows upon rows of that same shape with small yards and some legroom, houses for families who could afford suburbia. But that was before the Recall, before space became an issue. How do those Middler families feel when they see these buildings and know their eviction allowed for dozens of apartments to be built in their stead? They may have less room, but at least they can afford food. This thought furrows into me while I hasten to the food depot where I plan to take our due.

Once I enter the market, everybody stares at me. I give a friendly wave to the store owner and smile. His frown deepens into a grimace, but after a few minutes, he turns to the Middler at the counter and they resume their conversation. His action thaws everyone else; they pay no further attention to the scruffy girl strolling through the aisles. In their minds, Standards like me cannot afford the price of fresh food. They think that I am wasting my time, that I have come to drool over what I cannot have, but they are wrong and I will be long gone before they realize it. Silently thanking my mother, I rub the hidden pockets she sewed into my Ozone.

At the produce section, I look around. I weigh the apples in my hands and when no one is watching, stash them in my pockets. I move to the vegetables and on my tip toes, search for the ripest fava beans. While searching, I knock over the assembly and apologize to no one in particular. The shoppers lift their noses and turn their backs while I promise to return the beans to the stand. When I straighten, only half have made it back to the display.

The store owner’s gaze snaps onto mine. He knows. My hands drop to my sides, stinging from his judgment.

“You…” He says, his voice echoing in the sudden silence of the store. Everyone watches us now. So many eyes fixed on me, the person who does not belong. “Come here. Let me see what’s in your hands.”

I do not obey. Before he can alert the security, I bolt from the market, shouts and mingled oaths trailing after me. I am like wind, an unstoppable force flying down the stairs and darting through the masses.

Moments like this, I know that I take the risk for more than my family. The feeling of my hair flying through the back zippers of the Ozone lights my nerves on fire. Hot blood pumps through my veins, pulsing with adrenaline, and I am alive, so alive. Nothing can stop me.

After seven flights of stairs, I pause to take a deep breath and raise my eyes. My pursuers glare down at me, unable to squeeze through the cracks between the throng of bodies separating us. Floor after floor of food rises above me and I am glad that the nearby ration depots are conglomerated in one towering building. If they had separate spaces on the street, the owners might grow to recognize me, even through the warped plastic facemask of my Ozone. Then, none of them would allow entrance to the thief. As it is, I must avoid the thirteenth and eighteenth floors, but thankfully some targets remain. Otherwise, I am not sure what my family and I would do.

Out in the open, too many eyes watch me, the Standard who does not fit among the granite columns and carpeted floors. Lagging is not acceptable. Sucking in my breath, I continue my exit, smiling at how the cache of food rubs against my belly.

Leaving the food depot, I make a sharp left and blend into the crowd, grateful that the Middlers provide me cover. Keeping my head down, I stride past the flood of personalized Ozones and navigate the sea of bodies. Inevitably someone bumps into me and I stumble, almost falling into the street and tripping over the train tracks. I gather myself and avoid the glaring lights of the train. It whistles and prepares to depart, its cars unsurprisingly packed.

Overcrowding: the price of modern medicine and scientific advancement. A price only those with money can pay but something of which we all are aware. A price my family paid and continues to pay in sweat.

One day we will not have enough and this cycle will consume my life before I get the chance to live it. The stolen food seems heavy in my pockets, the burden of a hope too silly to be consequential.

The sky darkens, as if reflecting my mood with its threatening storm clouds. If only it would rain enough to wash away my thoughts. On rainy days, Reiya says that my hair is like tumbleweed doused in alcohol, ready to catch fire despite the humidity.


  1. Your eye for detail is highlighted here. I can picture your characters very well, and adore your MC's interaction with her brother. The world you've created is detailed and you reveal those details in a way that's easy to follow.

    However, I can't help but feel like the beginning here--the character waking up and venturing into the world to break the law for their family--feels a lot like the opening of The Hunger Games. i don't think it's at all intentional, but opening with a character awakening is used often enough that you're bound to bounce up against something already out there. I'd start thinking about finding somewhere a little different to start your story, and apply your hand to detail there.

  2. Clearly you are a good writer. The problem I see is that there isn't enough here that's "different" from so many dystopians out there to set it apart. I'm not saying that that's true of this piece, I am only giving you my first impression. The part that really caught my attention was her foray into the grocer and the escape. Can you start there then have her arrive home to introduce others? Also, I feel like there's too much "telling" commentary on the society. It's really tough when you are crafting a whole new world, but let those truths show through your MC's interactions. Does she really think about society as a whole and it's fallibility? Or does she think of her specific problems and family only?

    Give us a taste of the plot in these opening pages even if it's only a hint, not just the situation. Looking forward to reading more.

  3. I agree with the previous comments... I loved your writing -- particularly the family interaction -- but it did feel too similar to the opening of The Hunger Games.

    Obviously, I don't know where your story is going from here, but I wonder if you could combine the loving family interaction with the details of overcrowding (which from this seems to be the key detail setting it apart from other dystopians) and begin that way. So, maybe she and her brother on in some crowded spot, dealing with the challenges of the society (and if you can do it while hinting at where the plot's going, all the better!)

    I want to reiterate that your writing is fabulous, so I'm really looking forward to seeing what you're revision looks like!

    Good luck!

  4. Now see, I'm strange. I didn't go to Hunger Games as immediately as I went to Scott Westerfeld. But I think that having a comparison to any of these works is a testament to your writing. That said, I do agree that there's a bit too much world building here, and that perhaps the market -- or at least en route to it -- is the place to start. There are some great opportunities to explore things in that situation. I'm intrigued by the fact that the mother has sent her out to steal. What a hook! Now I wonder what will happen if she can't steal enough for everyone in the family. How do they divy it up? Who goes without? How does Zan feel about the stealing--about that moment when the shopkeeper knows. We see that she likes the rush. But in the encounter, is it his judgment she worries about? Or about the food she is taking from someone else? (Although it sounds like some people have more than enough, is the shop keeper one of those? Or more like Zan and her family? The line about not admitting the thief and the structure of the building is a bit confusing, and I'd like to know more about that than about some of the other things. I'd love for you to bring us in closer by giving us more of the context and immediacy of the moment there, and leaving some of the rest of the world-building until it's needed. In addition, you could increase the urgency of hook here by giving us a deeper sense of the stakes if she gets caught. Presumably there are other thieves? Etc. etc.

    LOVE the premise that I'm seeing--I'd just love to get in deeper and get the stakes a bit sooner, a sense of the inciting incident that launches us into the journey on which we are embarking.

    I'm eager to read the revision and see what you do!



  5. Helene,

    I really liked this. If this was a book, I would read more. Your writing is clean and strong. Good job.

    However, I don't believe you have a strong enough hook. The reader needs to be taken by the throat or heart and really dragged into the story. Increase the tension, add more conflict at the food supply building. Maybe she's caught or almost caught and she slips away somehow. Amp it up. The reader cares about your MC, now put her in danger so we can root for you.

    Also, your worldbuilding is good, but perhaps a little too subtle. I try not to compare one book to another, but Dystopian is a flooded market right now. As it is you have a mix of Hunger Games and Divergent, both amazing books, but so far what I've read has been done before. Make your MS stand out. Add to the world, brainstorm, make it your own. You are working with great bones here. Build it up. Your writing has the power to really wow us.

    Really looking forward to seeing this next week!

  6. Hi Helene, this is a fun read! I don't see science fiction as often as fantasy and paranormal these days, and you create an interesting world in this one.

    You do a nice job creating a sense of urgency in the opening paragraphs. Clearly, this little family is on the verge of starvation, and Zan's love and worry for Tor instantly makes me love her. I also like that you don't explain everything up front. There's just enough mystery to pique my curiosity, but not so much that I feel frustrated.

    You do such a nice job showing the family's dire straits that I feel like the opening paragraph--which is "telling"--isn't needed. I think it would be more effective to start with the second paragraph and weave in the name of the world later on. The need for survival is obvious from Zan's thoughts; no need to spell it out. Similarly, I don't think you need to drop hints such as "highlighting the purpose of my morning run." Information about Tor's jutting collarbone evokes sympathy, and I think it would be more powerful to show Zan's emotional response to this or some degree of nervousness about her upcoming theft. The emotion draws the reader deeper into your story while deepening the mystery: what is it Zan is going to do?

    I was a bit confused about the water situation--if water is so precious, why is Zan using it for "morning ablutions"? I'd think the family would save it for drinking.

    My only other (nit-picky) suggestion is that I'd like to see/hear/smell this new world a bit more. I really like what you have so far--I just wanted more :). With a bit more sensory detail, you will create more of an experience for your readers. Right now, I feel like I can envision the outlines of the story's setting, but it seems like you have a much richer, detailed setting in mind.

    My comments are nit-picky because this is a pretty solid piece. Thanks for sharing it!


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