Monday, June 4, 2012

6 1st 5 Pages June Workshop - Poston

Author: Ashley Poston
Genre: Supernatural
Title: Malevolent

She’d been in the forest before, so often she’d memorized the paths, and how long she could run before it caught her. In every dream, she’d hear a low grunt, the slap of paws, the howl―the memory so vivid her muscles tensed.

But not tonight.

The needle-work woods were quiet tonight.

She eased her way through the thickets, looking for another path. One led to a lake, another to a cave, and the straightest path didn’t have an end. Or if it did, she had never reached it before. She turned down that one, lined with thickets and brambles, berries plush for picking and gnarled, corkscrew roots, and went.

There was something she was supposed to be doing. It was a feeling she always had. She was supposed to be doing something, looking for something―someone? But who? The name was so close, she could feel it, warm as sunlight, on her lips.

A clearing came into view up ahead, moonlight spilling upon an old and worn stone. The air had gotten colder, and she shivered unconsciously, drawing her arms around herself. She’d never made it this far in her dream before, because she’d always wake up a few moments after the chase began, just when the claws were at her back and its breath on her throat.

She neared the gravestone, squinted at the inscription.

There was a hush, a hot breath. She slapped the back of her neck and spun around on her heels―

And let out a soundless scream.

Mallory woke up gasping.

Her hands shook, her bones rattled. Not again. That stupid dream―the running, the chasing―don’t think about it, she told herself, don’t think, don’t think, don’t think. She turned over, and reached to pull the covers up over her shoulder, but there were none.

Bolting upright, startled, she twisted her head around. A train compartment. It jostled ever-so-slightly with the steady hiccup of the railroad. The Northface she had covered herself with earlier had fallen to the floor.

Oh, that’s right, she was on a train. Heading toward a foster family. A dead feeling twisted her gut at the thought. Foster family. She’d never seen foster kids before. Or foster parents. Were they cranky old people with gaped teeth and pimples? Were the kids allergic to everything and living in bubbles? Anti-social? Starving in decrepit houses? She’d only ever seen foster kids on Law & Order, and that didn’t give them a very good rap.

“It’s only temporary. We’ll find your mom,” the police had promised. “She’s bound to turn up somewhere.”

Mal knew that was a big, stinking lie. Mom wasn’t bound to turn up anywhere. If she didn’t want to be found, they wouldn’t find her. Mal had come home a week ago to a deserted house. Mom’s clothes were gone. Her jewelry missing. She hadn’t left a note or directions. She hadn’t left…anything. When Mal realized what had happened, what it meant, she felt like an abandoned bag of luggage in the rain.

“In the meantime,” a spry woman with foster care had given her a bag of M&Ms―to console her?―and said, “we’ll place you with a nice family so you don’t feel as lonely.”

Lonely. Right. She’d feel lonely even if they stuck her in an auditorium full of people who loved her. There was no cure for abandonment―she couldn’t even be shipped to another family member, because she didn’t know any. Or didn’t have any. Mom had never said much either way.

The worst part was that Mal never saw it coming. She’d said just that to the police, and to foster care. Her Mom had been cheerful and outgoing that morning, all smiles and kisses right up until Mal left for the school bus. But if she thought a little deeper, she could remember her Mom wandering the house in the dead hours of the night, muttering to herself. Mal would catch her leaning against the kitchen sink on nights with full moons, moonbeams spilling onto her face through the window as she spoke with it. That didn’t frighten Mal as much as the thought that the moon might talk back.

If Mal tried to go to sleep again, she knew she wouldn’t be able to because her legs wouldn’t stay put and her mind would circle like a vulture around the running dream, about her Mom, and about the foster family―the Whites. That was the last thing she wanted to think about. Foster families. But between living in an abandoned house and somewhere else, she’d choose somewhere else in a heartbeat. She’d never been good at making friends, anyway, so the friends she did have at school would wonder where she’d gone for a few weeks, and move on. Mom had uprooted her enough times in her grand tours across the country for her to realize that.

Standing and putting on her Northface, she slid out of the compartment and wandered down the hallway. She thought she’d seen a dining cart when she boarded the train, and she was kind of hungry. When was the last time she’d eaten? Yesterday? That sounded right.

When she finally found the dining compartment, it was almost empty, save for a single man in a booth, flipping through yesterday’s paper and sipping a cup of black-as-sin coffee, and the waiter. She sat down in the furthest seat from the man, and waited for the waiter to come, a tired guy who looked like he needed a few hours of sleep, too.

“A coffee and… do you have any Poptarts or anything? Something sweet?” she asked. After her nightmares, Mom could somehow sense her panic and come into her room with a cinnabun or a cookie she’d baked the day before. The sweetness soothed her. It was strange, but she always chalked that up to just that―being strange.

“We have honeybuns,” he said.

“That’d be awesome.”

“Cream and sugar?”

“Nah,” she replied, “I take mine as black as my heart.”

He chuckled. “I’ll have that right up for you, ma’am.”

Ma’am. He must’ve been from the south. She’d lived in South Carolina for a while―Charleston. Her Mom loved it there, and would disappear to the ocean every full moon, and come back just before sunrise. She did a lot of crazy things, now that Mal thought about it. She’d always just chalked it up to her Mom being, well, Mom. She’d never known anything else. Because of the way Mom was, Mal had never gone to the doctor. When she had the sniffles she’d drink a nasty tea, and when she hurt herself she’d slather a salve over it. When she was sad, Mom would twine dandelions into my hair, and when she was happy they would go on picnics and adventures and explore every nook and crevice in the city they occupied.

Home was just a word to Mal. It meant about as much as she meant to the kids at her old school. As much as she evidently meant to her Mom.


  1. You've done a great job with hooks here--the missing mom who seemed perfect with the cookies and stuff, but in retrospect did act oddly at times; Mallory being sent to a foster home for the first time (sometimes you see the theme of 'kid jaded by the foster system' happen too frequently, but I think you've put a good spin on this with her wondering what it's like but not truly knowing); the strange dreams. All good hooks!

    I wonder if starting off with the dream is needed. First, opening this way is something agents see a lot, and should be avoided unless it is paramount. To me, I feel like you have enough going on here without needing the dream to pull us in--just show is a girl who is scared at what is to become of her, yet also deeply upset at her mom's abandonment.

    You have a fabulous setting--a train--which again is not typical and so also works well to keep us reading. I think the dream can and should come later as your story set up without it has enough legs to make it compelling.

    One thing I would like to see a bit more is how Mallory feels about her mom leaving her. Some of the things she thinks leads me to feel like she isn't surprised by it (Mal knew that was a big, stinking lie. Mom wasn’t bound to turn up anywhere. If she didn’t want to be found, they wouldn’t find her.) but other parts--not seeing it coming, portraying mom as possibly Wicca or something, but otherwise a caring, loving Mom (all smiles and kisses, and baking cookies or cinnamon buns when Mallory was upset)--these things are at odds. What does Mallory feel, other than abandoned? Betrayed? Hurt? Angry? Worried for her mother, because this was not like her at all? This needs a bit more I think. She almost seems too accepting of her circumstances, if anything, and that strikes me as odd.

    You have some really fresh writing here, and some nice metaphorical phrasing. There are two phrases that I think could be freshened though: black as sin/ black as my heart. So, just thought I'd flag those two for you to consider.

    You have a small POV break here: Mom would twine dandelions into my hair from third to first.

    Great beginning and I hope something here helps! Thanks for sharing. :)

  2. Writing wise, you're very capable and you're able to communicate the story effectively. I echo Angela's comment about considering not starting with the dream. I read a lot of blogs, and a lot of first pages, and the general consensus is beginning with a dream sequence is overdone. I personally think your story starts the second she announces going to foster care. I think once we know who this girl is and a few things, she can mention her bad dreams.

    My other point, and I realize this may be nitpicky: I used to work for a foster care agency and my mother was a foster care worker for like 20 years. Most readers are not going to pick apart state regulations, but based on my experience, no child put into foster care is put on a train by themselves. The one exception might be if she were going to live with a relative, but she would know where she was going (even if it was a seldom seen aunt). Foster families live in the community where the agency is, so she wouldn't need a train unless it was a local type train in a city, and she would definitely be escorted by a social worker or police officer. Sometimes both. Usually there are too many people hanging around when a kid is transferred rather than none.

    That may sound sticky, but I think it's essential to get the framework right. If you have an answer to this already that's not in the pages yet, it would serve your story to make it clearer. The other thing is, to be removed from a home takes a lot these days. The protag would be aware that her family was dysfunctional, she might be in denial about it, and also shocked to be taken from her mother, but I don't think she'd have to dig too deep to figure out why. Most older kids I worked with in foster care had it together more than their parents and often covered for them. It wasn't a mystery, but it was difficult for them to let go.

    You have a lot of great elements here, I hope this feedback is useful to you. I like seeing stories about foster children, and each story is unique, some terrifyingly so.

  3. Okay, so it's quite obvious that you can write. There are some really great moments here that tugged me gently through the story. This one was spectacular: "That didn’t frighten Mal as much as the thought that the moon might talk back."

    The line that I absolutely love is this: "Home was just a word to Mal." And dare I suggest you make it first? Set me up that way and then tell me all the stuff about how her mom left, etc. I think that would paint some beautiful imagery.

    Overall, I would definitely keep reading. I think you did a great job setting me up for the mom being some kind of witch, or werewolf, or something to do with the moon. The dream at the beginning doesn't bother me as much as some others I've seen, mostly, I think, because of the length of it. It's short enough that I know the "real" action is going to start soon enough. (I still want the "Home" line to be first though... Maybe Mallory can be dreading going to sleep, because then she knows the dream will come? Just thinking on screen.)

    I will admit that I like story that starts somewhere, instead of mentioning a place (the train) and then delving into backstory about how the person came to be at the place. You have this here, but since it's woven together so well, I'd go with you a few more pages to see what you were going to do next.

    Hope this helps!

  4. Your writing is beautiful! I agree that you need to start without the dream or waking up because there are agents and editors that will stop reading right there. You wouldn't believe how often they see it. Though honestly, it was so nicely written, I personally would keep reading. :D That does make it hard though to look at this as something "different" which is what you want. Especially with so much paranormal/werewolf stuff out there. Show us what's different about yours (the writing and the character to start with) without giving us reason to even wonder if this is "another" one of those stories. Does that make sense?

  5. I agree with the others. You have a way with words. I don't think you need the dream, at least not right now. Maybe you could incorporate it later on into the story?

  6. I very much agree with Lisa (and the other reviewers). Bring the unique up early. Also, if you're not quite convinced about cutting the dream, you may want to take a look at this post by lit agent Mary Kole who just posted about this a week or so ago:

    I also just finished Hook by Les Edgerton and starting with a dream and/or waking up is one of the biggest no-nos he lists for beginnings. Like Ms. Kole said, it's been ruined by so many people doing it and misusing it, so even if yours is good, it's probably not worth getting your query tossed out for it.

    I'll also add that it may be more powerful in regards to the mom's odd quirks to chose one incident to really flesh out and make meaningful to the protag and flesh that out here. Maybe a time that spooked the MC because she didn't know what was going on with her mother, making her mother almost a stranger to her. It seems like that's something you've got here underlying both her history with her mother and their current situation, but bringing it out in one incident might drive that home. You could even flesh out the moon incident, starting with her just gazing, but then Mal hearing her start whispering to it and being spooked. I think wrapping some of the MC's emotions around the odd hints of her mother's past might make the current situation read as more ominous and mysterious.

    Great job so far!


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