Monday, July 9, 2012

7 1st 5 Pages July Worskshop - Marie

Author: Anne Marie
Genre: YA Urban Fantasy
Title: The Serpent's Covenant



I’m the girl plagued by voices that no one else can hear. I’d trade my right kidney for them to leave me alone. Not even Rian, my younger brother, believes they exist. The voices don’t care about me. They chatter day and night about changing seasons, serpents, and warriors in a strange language that I somehow understand.

If they were only in my head -- which is what Grandmother says -- they’d talk to me all the time and follow me everywhere, right? But they never go beyond the boundary of my house’s four walls. They never talk to me either. That is, until tonight.

From the dark corner of my bedroom, a voice speaks directly to me, “Cori, you don’t belong here, you know.”

“Who are you?” I whisper into the void, the covers pulled tautly beneath my chin, my heart beating furiously against my ribcage.

“Join us,” another voice begs from under my bed.

Deep in the marrow of my bones, I shiver. I wipe the palms of my hands against my pajama bottoms and gulp in air. “Join who?”

“Don’t ask questions, wanji ceĥpi. Join us, and we won’t drive Rian to madness.”

“Or take him away,” a voice says, close to my ear. Gritty and ancient.

Coarse laughter floats past me like the rough sound of a violin played wrong. Every muscle tenses to race into Rian’s room and protect him. Or hide in there. The possibility of something grabbing me from under the bed keeps me from moving an inch. I can’t decide whether to stay or go, so I tuck myself deeper beneath my sheets. I bit the inside of my cheek, hoping this is a dream. The sharp sting tells me differently. The wrist I broke when I was nine throbs from twisting the sheets between my fingers. Even after six years, it burns as sharply as the day I snapped it.

Rational thoughts, if you can be rational when you’re hearing voices, take over. The voices don’t have bodies, or if they do, they’ve never shown themselves or touched me. Then again, they’ve never talked to me either. I spring from bed, feet barely touching the polished wooden floor, and run out of my room into the hallway. A shape moving down the street causes strange shadows to play on the walls and catches my attention.

The window that looks down onto the front lawn sparkles as the streetlight glints through the beveled glass. I can’t quite make out the shape. Pressing my forehead to the glass, I see a boy. He’s wearing sweat pants but neither shoes nor shirt. It looks like he’s been jogging. Under the streetlight I see sweat trickling down his back. He pauses on the sidewalk in front of our house. Pauses and turns around to look right at me.

I back away from the window into Rian’s wide-open doorway. The soft light of his nightlight -- which he won’t admit he uses -- illuminates his bunk bed. I climb the ladder to the top, pausing to watch him in the lower bed. He clutches his pocketknife. Some kids sleep with security blankets; he sleeps with the red Swiss Army knife that used to belong to Dad. Rian snores drowning out the voices in my room. It’s the most comforting sound in the world.

Thousands of constellations, carefully drawn with glow-in-the-dark paint, shine across his ceiling. The familiarity of the star clusters soothes me. This used to be our room until Grandmother decided that it wasn’t appropriate for a sister and brother to share a room. The clock on the dresser ticks faintly. When I look over it’s gone from just after midnight to four in the morning. Sleep eludes me and my thoughts return to the strange boy. Did he see me, or did he see the reflection of the streetlight against the glass?

On the other side of the house, Grandmother gets up for the day. One shouldn’t say such things about their only living relatives, but she’s a mean old lady. Her family comes from a long line of wealthy pioneers and politicians. She has enough money that she doesn’t have to work. In spite of that, or maybe because of it, she’s been the Chair of the Surgery Department for almost three decades. She’s brilliant. Cold and distant like the stars painted across Rian’s ceiling. Sometimes I think she got promoted to keep her out of the patients’ rooms after surgery. She probably tells them “pain is temporary” and makes them run up and down the concrete stairs to “get the blood pumping”.

The click of her heels on the wooden floor signals it’s time for me to return to my room. Exhausted from another sleepless night, I stumble down Rian’s ladder. The bunk bed makes him seem half his fourteen years. Before I leave, I pull the sheets up around his shoulders. He doesn’t move, his blond hair sticks out at irregular angles and his eyes move in REM sleep behind closed lids. That kid could sleep through anything, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

My bare feet don’t make a sound as I sneak back to my room.

“Bad dreams again, Cori?” Grandmother asks. She’s in an expensive pantsuit with bobby pins holding up her perfect coif. The stern look she never loses -- even in her wedding photographs -- is held in place with make-up and a bitter heart. She never asked to raise her grandchildren. Honestly, we never asked for it either.

“No, ma’am,” I say. It’s easier to lie than explain I’m now having conversations with imaginary things. I don’t want a repeat of four years ago when she took me to see a priest. We’re not even religious, so I told her that exorcism was passé in the 21st century. She didn’t laugh. 

“I have several committee meetings this week, so I’ll be later than usual,” -- seven or eight’s usual -- “Please make sure to keep an eye on Rian. Call Mrs. Waterstone if you need anything, and get started on your summer reading list.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I turn in the direction of my room.

Grandmother makes a slightly disappointed noise. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Damn, not even six in the morning and I’ve already managed to upset her. I walk toward the smell of L’Heure Bleue perfume and underlying tobacco. The sun’s barely up, and she’s already had her first cigarette of the day. She smokes from her balcony, hiding the ashtray and trying to cover it up with perfume and breath mints. Rian and I have known she smoked since we were dropped off at her doorstep, red-eyed and orphaned, at three and four years old. I’m not sure why she tries to hide it. Maybe because it takes away from the image of health and vice-free living she pretends to embody.

I kiss the cheek she offers me and say, “Have a good day at work.” Her face is soft and smooth. Hard to believe it covers such an adamantine woman.

“I’ll call in a couple of hours,” she says, pulling the phone off her hip.

Grandmother might be detached, but in her own way she cares fiercely for our well-being. There will be no more unexpected deaths in the Anders family. Not on her watch.

* * *

I nap in the afternoon. It’s enough to convince my brain to function better, though not enough to make the dark smudges under my eyes go away. It’s Thursday. I haven’t slept for more than three hours at a time in the past nine days. I’ve got to figure out what’s going on before it’s too late. Sure, I hear voices all the time, but now they’re threatening Rian. I wish I could spend the night at Maya’s house. The voices can’t follow me there.

The problem is that Maya’s in Europe. Grandmother almost let me go with her until she found out that Maya’s parents weren’t going. Instead, Vivica’s mothers had agreed to chaperone. Grandmother doesn’t think they’re very responsible. After all, they let us dye our bangs flamingo pink at the end of term. Not to mention, they’re lesbians. Clearly, they can’t be trusted.

Rian walks into the office where I’m lounging on the leather sofa. He twirls his pocketknife across his knuckles. Another trick to add to the number of skills he’s been working on. Grandmother gave it to him when he crossed the bridge from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts. Since that day, I’ve never seen him without it.


  1. Hi, Anne. There are a lot of interesting elements here. The girl who hears voices, but only in her house--that’s a unique slant to the hearing-voices story. The voices are threatening her brother. Orphans and a stoic, distant grandmother. All good stuff.

    Unfortunately, there’s a little too much exposition/telling in this first chapter; it’s slowing the pace. Some of this information is important to reveal right now so the reader understands what’s going on. But most of it isn’t necessary at this point in the story. As I mentioned for one of the other entrants, I suggest you go through and highlight every instance of telling (and, again, if you have trouble finding those spots, message me at Then identify the telling bits that are necessary right now. THEN, go back and rewrite those bits so they’re revealed through the current context of the story. For instance, remove the paragraph explaining that Grandmother is mean and independently wealthy. Show this information through Cori’s interaction with Grandmother--through the words Grandmother says, her appearance, her possessions, her attitude, her body language, the way she interacts with her grand kids. Showing this information will improve the pace by eliminating paragraphs of exposition and keeping the reader firmly entrenched in the current-time story. The readers will also appreciate figuring out on their own what kind of person grandmother is, without having it explained to them.

    Oh, and all those telling bits that aren’t necessary for this first chapter? Find other spots later on where they can be reinserted (via showing, not telling) through the context of the current story.

    I’ve attended a number of agent and editor panels at conferences where they do first-page critiques of the attendees. Every single time, one of their complaints is too much exposition. Too much telling anywhere in the story is going to be a problem, but telling in the first chapter is a killer. Cut every piece of it, show the necessary parts instead, and I guarantee your story start will be stronger. Thanks for letting me read!

  2. Wow. This is such a great concept. Honestly, I don't read much fantasy. It just isn't my cup of tea, but I would read on with this one. I did feel there was a bit too much exposition, but I think that's an easy fix. Nicely done.

  3. Anne, love the premise and enjoyed the world you are starting to build. I thought you did a great job showing that Cori wants to protect Rian, rather than just telling us.

    I second Becca in terms of not giving us too much backstory right away. I noticed an abrupt shift from the present scene to backstory that was almost a rift. The other thing I felt was that when Cori saw that guy outside, it seemed abrupt that she got into bed and then we didn't hear about where he went or what happens next. Likewise with the presence of the voices. I didn't feel like those two elements got closure, even if it's just for now, so that she eventually crawls into bed.

    I'm excited to read more. You've got a great twist going and you've quickly developed a picture of Cori, Rian, and grandma. Great job!

  4. I think this is an interesting concept and I'm interested to see where it goes and how the stakes continue to build. I do have a few comments. Big picture items, from what I've read I'm not sure this would be categorized as urban fantasy. Perhaps I need to read more of the story but my first impression was that this would be paranormal given the other-world voices the protagonist hears. There's definitely a lot of telling but I think that can be fixed by editing the interaction of the characters so we'll know them from how they interact with one another rather than you telling us how they feel.

    More micro level edits, I thought it might be even more engaging for us to witness the voices right up front rather than you summarizing the voices. What I did really liked was the line, "But they never go beyond the boundary of my house’s four walls. They never talk to me either. That is, until tonight." The descriptions that follow are really well done. One I had issue with, however, is that her wrist would hurt 6 years after she broke it. I find this hard to believe. I snapped my collar bone in half playing soccer when I was younger and I can certainly tell you that, while it hurt for a long time it certainly did not hurt for 6 years. That's an easy enough fix, however.

    Other micro level edits are that I found it hard to believe that a teen would know the exact perfume her grandmother wears. There's also a place where Cori thinks in the third person.

    One thing that would be really, really cool is to have a little insight into whether the character thinks she's going mad, because you say the spirits threaten to make her brother go mad. What does she think madness is? If it's hearing voices then does that add another layer to your story: that Cori's goal is to protect her brother from becoming like her? (Even if she doesn't believe she's going mad, there must be a little sliver of a doubt, some fear that just perhaps she is...I would think. This could be neat to explore a little throughout your story and hint at here.)

  5. I really liked this entry and was properly creeped out :) I love Becca's suggestion about the Grandmother, and think you're being steered in the right direction about getting away from the telling. I actually don't mind backstory in published novels I read, even at the beginning (which is probably why it sneaks into my writing more than it should--I'm so guilty of telling early on), but I understand that agents want the pace to be flowing well from the get-go.

    Well-done~ looking forward to seeing this again!

  6. Hi Anne -

    Well, I'm sucker for a good ghost(ish) story so this is right up my alley! I too would love to see some of the dialogue of these voices, even if it is random thoughts that don't make much sense at first (it makes it that much creepier). I think the fact that she is protective of her brother is great - it gives a sense of who she is.

    I agree that there is a lot of telling going on here and a lot of info to take in. Slow the pace down a bit and let us get to know Cori. What does he think about these voices? Do they scare her? Annoy her? You say she would give her right kidney to not here them but there could be many reasons why that is.

    The bit about the boy in the street feels random. I assume he is important to the story but does he need to appear right now? There are a lot of characters in these first five pages; Cori, Rian, the boy, Grandma. I'm guilty of the same thing (I like to invite a lot of people to my parties to so it's a natural extension of that I suppose...) but someone explained that introducing too may characters at once can be like going to an event and getting introduced to a whole room full of people at once. It's a bit jarring and you really don;t get to know anything about them to make a personal connection.

    One last little bit I found odd was the line "Coarse laughter floats past me like the rough sound of a violin played wrong." I got hung up for a few minutes trying to figure out how one plays a violin "wrong". Upside down? Backwards? My guess is you probably meant "being played poorly". Little things like that can take readers out of a story - easy to fix but just a heads up.

    Thank you for sharing!


  7. Hi Anne:

    So excited I got a sneak peek of this after our Fairplay retreat! I’m super intrigued by the idea of the voices and the mystery surrounding the deaths in the family. I’ve got some great questions brewing after these opening pages that would definitely compel me to keep reading: what happened to their parents? What’s the deal with the exorcism in the past? What’s going on with the voices? Who was the boy in the street? Overall, I think you’re off to a good start – I’m hooked.

    A few related suggestions for your consideration:


    I worry that the opening line, coupled with the straight telling that follows for two paragraphs, gives too much away and saps all the potential tension from the scene. It’s like an advanced warning -- by the time we actually hear the voices, I already know it’s coming, and I’m not unnerved or curious like I want to be. It would be much more creepy and compelling if we could learn about the voices as she’s hearing them. So, try starting with a fairly normal moment that gets interrupted by the voices, and let us feel her fear / confusion / frustration when the speak to her for the first time right there on the page, right as she’s feeling them. (Similarly, if the inciting incident is when the voices talk to her directly, I would build that up more slowly rather than revealing it in the first 2 paragraphs).

    I also think you could really amp up the tension from the moment Cori sees the boy in the street to the moment her grandmother gets up for the day. I was a little confused about the passage of time – it read as if she were standing in her brother’s room watching him sleep for four hours, which seems improbable. After the threatening voices and the scary sighting of the boy outside, nothing else happens that night – it’s over before it really even began. There’s a great opportunity there for lots of creepiness and tension, so see if you might stretch out that opening a bit and really let us feel Cori’s fear and her protectiveness of her brother.

    When the grandmother is introduced, I’d love to see her characteristics come through in scene. *Show* us that she’s a mean old lady, cold and distant and brilliant, who still cares for them fiercely, rather than telling us all about it before she’s even fully on the page. For example, a tense interaction between Cori and her grandmother the morning after the voices and the strange boy (perhaps an argument about why Cori was sleeping in her brother’s room, which g-ma thinks is inappropriate) could be a great way to both reveal character and amp up emotion and tension in the opening.

    Given the creepy nature of the story and the immediate hint at the supernatural, there’s a natural opportunity for tension and suspense – take advantage of it! Try to trim some of the more telling backstory details (like what I mentioned about Grandmother and the voices, as well as the details about the Europe trip and the relationship with Maya, which don’t seem that important just yet) and instead infuse the opening with a little more tension, creepy foreshadowing, and characterization. Basically, it just comes down to showing rather than telling. Ask yourself how much we *really* need to know before jumping into the active scenes and see if you might work in some of the backstory later.

    I’ll suggest my favorite reference, particularly his chapter on tension and micro-tension: Donald Maass’ THE FIRE IN FICTION. If you have a chance, play with some of the exercises in his book and see what you come up with.

    Thanks again for sharing!

    -Sarah Ockler


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