Monday, June 4, 2012

8 1st 5 Pages June Workshop - Levy

Author: Michelle Levy
Genre: YA speculative fiction

I hadn’t cried yet today. Not that I wasn’t sad, but losing my mother at a young age was something I had been prepared for my whole life. Being prepared didn’t make it hurt any less. There was now a gaping void deep down inside me that would never, ever be filled no matter how hard I might try.

I struggled to remember the last conversation my mother and I had in person, after she’d helped me move to New York for college. She told me how proud she was of me. She hugged me tight and kissed my forehead. I shouldn’t have been in such a rush for her to leave. I should’ve savored the moment. I should’ve told her how much she meant to me, how she made me the person I am, how much I loved her. I should’ve …

I wanted to change out of my scratchy wool dress and bury myself in my grief, but the wake hadn’t even started yet. Hundreds of people who didn’t really know my mother were on their way to our home, and as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t attend my own mother’s wake in sweats.

My mother was forty-nine years old. Just three years shy of the longest living female in the Cunningham family bloodline. My grandmother died when she was forty-seven. My great-grandmother died when she was only forty-five. My great aunt died at the ripe old age of fifty-two. That’s when we moved to Cunningham Manor. I was seven.

I don’t really remember much of our old life back in Manhattan. My earliest childhood memory was of the intimidating iron gate as we drove up to our new home on the coast. I remember crying because I was so scared of it. Later I would come to understand its beauty, but at seven, it looked more like the entrance to a haunted house. Two huge stone pillars flanked either side with giant gas lamps flaming atop each of them. An archway of intricate metalwork reached between the pillars stretching almost two stories high, and below it, two massive gates opened outward like a monster lying on its side, waiting for someone to climb inside its mouth never to be heard from again.

Plus, in my memory, there were dark clouds and lots of thunder and lightning. Or maybe it was night and there was a full moon and wolves howling in the distance. Or maybe I had an overactive imagination.

Cunningham Manor was built in the late 1800’s in the neo-gothic style. Like a scary old European castle. It was beautiful, sure, but also kind of creepy. My great aunt Bea left it to her only living relative, my mother. Being the last heir to the Cunningham estate, my mother felt obligated to restore the dilapidated mansion to its original splendor. Something she would be able to pass along to me when the time came. She had traveled back and forth from the city for months preparing it for our arrival.

I remember being so excited when I saw my room done up in my favorite color: blue. My mother was always a little disappointed that I didn’t like pink or purple like other girls, but she never felt the need to force them on me. It’s not that I wasn’t feminine, I was, I just liked the color blue. Girls can like blue.

The walls were exact the pale blue of glacial ice. The large bed, framed by a tall canopy of ice blue velvet with cream fringe accents, stood in the center. The window seat, piled high with fluffy pillows in varying complimentary shades of blue and cream, overlooked the gardens and the cliff beyond. It was the one room in the house that almost didn’t look like a dreary old castle – aside from the massive stone fireplace at the far wall.

That first night I was so afraid of that fireplace that I made my mother sleep in my room with me. I thought a witch was going to fly down the flue and kidnap me, which wouldn’t be too hard. I could fit inside the fireplace standing up, even on my tiptoes. After the second night I was a little more at ease, but my mother stayed in my room for the whole week just to make sure I was okay. My parents’ bedroom was all the way over in the other wing.

“Miss, Fiona?” Edvina said from the doorway. I’m pretty sure Edvina came with the house – and, I think, was as old as the house. “The guests are beginning to arrive,” she said in her thick German accent.

“Thank you, Edvina. I’ll be down in a minute. Has my father been notified?”

“Kent has gone to fetch him.”

“Thank you.”

“Miss Fiona?”

I turned to meet her uncharacteristically caring gaze.

“Miss Catherine was a true angel.” She didn’t wait for a reply. She silently closed the door behind her, leaving me to collect myself for the guests.

I felt my eyes get hot as tears threatened to escape, but I refused to allow them freedom until I could surrender to them completely. After the guests were gone.

I sank onto the fluffy, blue velvet bench at my vanity and touched up my make up.

Once I had successfully collected myself, I made my way down the long stone hallway toward the grand staircase. Somber voices crescendoed from below with each step.

The stairs were on the far side of the three story front entrance, which meant I had to cross along the balcony while all the people below watched me, their eyes filled with pity. I always hated that the stairs weren’t just right smack dab in the center of the house. I hated those extra twenty or so steps I had to take to reach them. I hated it even more today. I held on to the cold, ornate iron railing for support. The staircase seemed to lengthen with each step as if I would never reach the bottom. The faces below were indecipherable from one another. I wouldn’t possibly remember any of their names today. I was usually really good with names and faces, but now it was all just one big blur. What I wouldn’t give for one friendly face.

When I reached the bottom of the staircase a man that worked with my father greeted me with a sympathetic hug. I couldn’t remember his name. He led me across the room toward the large fireplace that welcomed people as they entered the massive front doors. This particular fireplace could fit an entire basketball team standing shoulder to shoulder without ducking. The heat generated from the fire embraced me in its warmth as the man introduced me to a few of the other early arrivals, some of whom I vaguely recognized. I was relieved to see my father’s boss among this small group. At least I could remember his name: Franklin, though at that moment I couldn’t remember if that was his first or last name.

“Fiona …” Franklin sighed heavily, then he placed his bulbous hands on my shoulders and nodded like he didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to say either so we sort of bobbed our heads at each other for an uncomfortable minute until I finally excused myself to “check on something.” I walked briskly toward the drawing room, thinking that if I looked like I was going somewhere with a purpose, people wouldn’t try to stop me.

It worked.

The drawing room was empty except for the coffin at the far end. I hesitated slightly before descending the five steps that led into the massive two-story room, and found myself being pulled toward the coffin.

I couldn’t help but think how the cathedral ceilings had never looked more like a church. The gothic arched windows that stood behind my mother looked out onto the grounds and I thought about how my mother and I used to sit at those windows on rainy days and read in silence, occasionally looking out into the distance to ponder our books. Then we would crack up when the other one caught us. Especially if the book made us cry.

I smiled warmly at the memory as I gazed down at my mother. She looked so beautiful. She always looked beautiful. Her light, golden hair perfectly coifed in a gentle curl, cascaded around her shoulders. I always wanted her hair but I was blessed with my father’s chestnut brown, bone-straight locks. I did, however, get my mother’s brown eyes with light golden flecks. I wished more than anything for one more chance to look into those eyes again. I wanted to place my hand on her shoulder and wake her up. I wanted her to put her lithe arms around me and hold me just one more time. I felt a tear roll down the side of my cheek and quickly blinked the rest back before they followed suit.

A hand on my shoulder startled me. My father looked like he’d been crying. His usually hazel-green eyes were a brilliant green – probably in contrast to the red skin around them. I didn’t want to speak because I knew I’d really lose it. He seemed to be thinking the same thing so he just placed his arm around my waist and we gazed down at my mother resting peacefully.

I leaned into my fathers embrace. He was tall. I got that from him. He was six-foot-four, I was a little over five-ten. My mother was a petite five-foot-three. My father loved that about her. The year I outgrew her I cried. I was twelve. I was so upset that I’d never find a boy taller than me. And I didn’t until high school. I got my father’s build, too. I hated it. My mother envied my broad shoulders. She called me statuesque. She said that models would covet my frame. She always tried to put a positive spin on everything. I loved that about her. I would miss that about her.


  1. Great entry, Michelle! You have some great description and atmosphere!! What I think :)
    Setting: I didn't feel grounded in a time or place with the first couple of paragraphs. That's an easy fix! Consider bleding memories into the action and movement.
    Character: At times Fiona seems to be not crying, then remembering crying or being sad. Let us see who she is now and her reaction to the wake, to seeing her mother in a coffin, which is a powerful image and thought.
    Voice: At times there is an older form of prose and line of thought, and others it seems more contemporary, young adult. Perhaps go through and look at a few phrases, and see what you think, and decide what style of voice you were going for.
    I think you have a great start with just a few things to work on : ) Good luck!

  2. Okay, a couple of observations. I'm all for a slow start, but I'd prefer to have an active scene set before we start remembering things that happened when the MC was seven. I think you're trying to use the setting back then to set it for now, because people are coming to the house for the wake, but it's not working for me. I'd much prefer the MC to walk around the house, touch a mirror and remember the first time she saw it. Go up the stairs and be flooded with the memories of coming to the manor for the first time. Etc.

    I also thought the beginning part about being prepared for her death was okay, but really, the interesting hook for the novel is this line: "My mother was forty-nine years old." And I'd ad "when she died." at the end and lead with that paragraph, because it establishes for the reader that this is a society that is a bit different than what we live in now. You know?

    A few paragraphs down you spend two entire paragraphs on the color of her room. I'd prefer to be IN her room when we see it for the first time. Have her smell the memories there. See the paint. Let us know it's blue, and be done. It almost sounds like she's justifying to everyone that "girls can like blue." And I'm not sure what I'm supposed to take from it. She likes blue. Got it. You told me that in the first sentence. I'd prefer to be SHOWN it, and only once.

    Then we meet Miss Edvina. And she's old! I was not expecting that. I was under the impression that women died young. I know you said "Cunningham blood line" but only because I went back and re-read it. Not sure you have to do anything, but it might be worth noting. Like, does Fiona feel jealous that Edvina's lived so long? Does she wonder what her mother or grandmother might be doing with those extra years of their life? It might be worth a few sentences to inject some emotion into this piece--something I think it's lacking a bit of--using Edvina who's old, and her mother, who will never be old. Make sense?

    Something I've noticed with your pages: You say the same thing in a few different ways. Here's an example of what I mean. "The faces below were indecipherable from one another. I wouldn’t possibly remember any of their names today. I was usually really good with names and faces, but now it was all just one big blur. What I wouldn’t give for one friendly face."

    I feel like you've said something about their faces being indecipherable, then blurred, then unfriendly, and then how she usually remembers. It's overkill, and bores readers.

    I'd prefer you to find places like this, and trust the reader to understand what you mean from one instance. So I'd rewrite this to: "I was usually really good with names and faces, but now it was all just one big blur."

    And to insert some emotion, it might make sense to rewrite it to: "I was usually really good with names and faces, but that was when my mother still lived in this world. Now everything was one big blur." Adding the mother really makes it seem as if everyday things--like recognizing people--are impossible without her. But you don't HAVE TO SAY EXACTLY THAT. You imply it in the flow of the writing, and let the emotion seep onto the page on it's own. Readers will take from it based on their experiences, and they'll be with you until the end if you let it seep instead of blurt it out. Hope that makes sense.

    In the paragraph after that, there's 4 mentions of recognition or of not remembering a name. Too much, IMO. I'd edit for flow and clarity, but also not bang the reader over the head with it.

    Overall, I want the sadness to seep from the pages. Blur everything. Make it harder to breathe. As it's written, I feel like I should feel sad because you TOLD ME TO, but I don't really feel it. You know?

  3. Very sad stage for a story, and the fact that we open with a daughter grieving for her mother knowing all along she would die early is a great hook! I love that and immediately want to know more. I like that you don't give it to me either. You do a great job conveying the regret and love Fiona is feeling. I love her anger at the stair's placement, that she must endure being on display to people she does not care for or feel close to. This for me starts to build empathy toward her.


    The backstory of the house and moving here as a child is a huge interruption to the pace. I don't think this is the place for it here. I would pull it out and find another spot where it could go, and tighten it up so it 's not such a large drop into the past.

    I also think that the sad circumstances here are well wrought through the mood you create, but it doesn't quite sustain me. I need to see something more here happening other than the ritual of a wake...something surprising that the main character does or feels that is unexpected, because as far as a scene goes involving a wake, this is all very expected if you know what I mean. Another hook here is needed--a detail or something that suggest there is more happening here that it seems.

    I also think that by having Fiona do or say something unexpected, it will endear us to her a bit more. As a reader I sympathize with what she's going through, but I have not yet fully forged an empathetic link just yet. This will happen through her actions, through what sets her apart. She must command the scene in some way. Does this make sense?

    What does Fiona do here in these first 5 pages that gets the reader on her side? What makes her real to us, want to root for her, aside from sympathy at her grief? Don't let her go through this scene on autopilot, even though this may seem like it's how a person would really act. Fiona isn't just anyone--she's your main character. She must step out of what's expected and give us something more, something unique. :)
    Hope this helps!


  4. It's very brave of you to post this for critique. There were some stand out points and a lot of emotion, but this beginning didn't quite work for me. I suspect it's simply because you're beginning at the wrong place.

    To me, what do I get from this scene? A girl is sad because her mother died (of course she would be), she has some happy memories (expected), and there's some memories about a house (these get skimmed because I'm more interested in what's going on NOW), and something about how none of the women in their bloodline live beyond a certain age and that the MC knew her mother would die young her whole life (VERY INTRIGUING).

    I think this scene buries the interesting part, which is that little mystery. Everything else is sort of predictable. What captures attention and interest is the UNPREDICTABLE, which is the bloodlines thing.

    I think you could honestly start this with: "My mother was forty-nine years old [when she died]. Just three years shy of the longest living female in the Cunningham family bloodline." I think that would be a bitchin', hook opening. Then skip the entire rest of this, possibly even the whole wake scene, and go to where things start getting more unpredictable for the MC. I think your inciting incident (the point where something shakes up the situation, which will lead to the MC's journey) should happen in the first 5 pages, and her mother's death isn't it. She's known that was coming. What happens that starts things on the story path? What thing happens that she didn't expect? What CHANGES for her? If this is in the wake, skip all this part and start right before it happens. If it starts in a different scene, set us straight down into there.

    In general, because these pages are so important, I'd ask yourself what function you want the beginning to serve, what you want the readers to feel and experience, and then ask yourself if what you have is all serving that function or if you can trim away anything that isn't.

    (If you want to look more into inciting incidents/calls to adventure, I suggest HOOK by Les Edgerton or THE WRITER'S JOURNEY by Christopher Vogler)

    Best of luck!!

  5. I agree with the other commenters; a story is here but it's a bit buried. A wake can be a tough place to start a book, but showing her react to the house is a nice way to tie it in - given it's the name of the book, and I assume plays a large role given the genre. Whatever is the main plot of your story should be active here along with her greiving. I assume there is some sort of journey, mystery or something that happens current day in the house, which can be hinted at as she goes through it.

    You mention this as YA but the protag has already left for college. The publishing industry tends to be sticklers on YA being the range prior to college. Even if you're telling a story that happens in the past, if it's narrated by an adult it probably doesn't fit in YA. Now, having said that, I'm all for books about college aged characters. It just wouldn't be YA if you're looking to publish.

    As for the opening lines, I'm very intrigued that she'd prepared for her mother's death. I want to know why. It works to not say it right away, but I was looking for a hint of it shortly after. Was it cancer? Something mysterious? Why did she foresee her mother's early death? Dropping hints keep me intrigued.

    This line is such a great start: "There was now a gaping void deep down inside me that would never, ever be filled no matter how hard I might try."
    I would challenge you to go deeper, rather than a phrase we've heard before (gaping void deep down inside) describe the void and what it feels like. As much as Stephenie Meyer gets dinged for bad writing, she wrote a great image of grief when Bella constantly wrapped her arms around herself because the hole inside her felt so real.

  6. I think these are great comments, and could be boiled down to "show don't tell." You clearly have a great story here and some deep emotion to play with. Use them to bring us inside of your main character. Show everything to us through her eyes. That's what will turn this into a gripping, can't put it down kind of book. Don't say, there's a hole that can't be filled. Show us through your MC's behavior, thoughts, and actions. :D I can't wait to read the revision!

  7. I agree with the others. Show us her feelings, let us see what she sees, feel what she feels. Use backstory sparingly since it almost always slows down the pacing. With backstory, I always ask myself if it's necessary for the reader to know right now. If not, I move it to where it is necessary. If it's never absolutely necessary, it gets deleted.

  8. I agree with starting with the hook of the early death, and the rest of the comments. I am not supposed to be commenting this month, but I wanted to add a couple of quick points since this does have the potential to be very fresh. If you deepen the mystery and unbury the lead about the Cunningham's dying young, make sure that you make it clear why Cunningham manor seems to pass through the women or take away the ambiguity Also, since YA tends to be inherently self-focused more than adult lit, is your protag thinking ahead to her own death? THESE strike me as the hooks that would bring us into your story. That and simply adding immediacy to your descriptions. Put things where we encounter them, by having her interact with the environment instead of telling us about them.




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