Saturday, March 5, 2011

First Five Pages Workshop - March, Entry #4

Young Adult by Nicole Zoltack

Chapter One

Little rays of light flittered through the trees, and I closed my book with a sigh. The story was just getting good but it was time to go home before Mom freaked out. I stood and stretched, my hand resting against the rough bark of a giant oak. The forest was my favorite place to read, but twilight made the letters nearly illegible.

A cool wind picked up, and I shivered as I made my way through the trees. Should’ve worn a jacket.

Something rustled behind me. A small creature, I tried to tell myself, but the hairs on the back of my neck prickled. I glanced around. Nothing was there.

Stupid overactive imagination. That’s what you get for reading a horror story in a forest.

I hurried forward until I heard a more sinister sound — a low rumbling growl.

Whirling around, I half-expected to see a wolf even though few, if any, roamed freely in Pennsylvania.

Instead I saw a face with dark eyes and red skin. The being was massive, with broad shoulders and muscles on top of muscles, and so tall it blocked the stars’ light, covering us in darkness. I gasped with fright. Its large mouth opened and revealed rows of gnarled teeth. The stench of rotting flesh surrounded me, and I gagged. I tried to lift my feet, but I couldn’t move. All I could do was stare at the demon.

Its pointy tail slammed toward me. I shrieked and somehow managed to dodge the blow despite closing my eyes. My knees stopped shaking, and I ran.

I glanced behind. The demon bounded after me. My foot caught in a tree root hidden in the underbrush, and I fell. The demon would overtake me at any moment. I patted the ground, scrabbling for a tree branch or a rock, something, anything to use as a weapon. My fingers curled around a large stick, and I brandished it before me like a sword. With a deep but shaky breath, I waited for the creature to attack me, to kill me. I peered through the darkness.

Nothing was there.

Trembling, I climbed to my feet. Belatedly, I realized I must have dropped the book during my flight.

There it was, only a few feet away. I clutched the book to my chest, and tried to calm down.

For weeks now, I had been having recurring nightmares, all about demons trying to hunt me down and kill me.

I shivered as a feeling of déjà vu came over me. The demon I had seen — no, not seen, it had been a product of my overactive imagination — the demon had looked exactly like those in my nightmares.

Demons weren’t real. I repeated this mantra to myself as I left behind the forest and walked up the path to my house. Demons weren’t trying to kill me.

I bounded up the stairs to my room and collapsed into my bed. Mom would call me down for dinner any minute, but I enjoyed the stolen moment of peace and quiet. With any luck, I might have a dreamless night tonight. I knew one thing for certain — I wasn’t going to read another horror novel anytime soon.


The next day at school, I headed down the hallway, rubbing my eyes. After my encounter with the phantom demon last night, I hadn’t been able to fall asleep. I yawned, my jaw aching from stretching so wide.

A sudden shove from behind caught me off guard, and I braced my arms for impact against the cold, hard floor. My papers scattered everywhere, and my books fell with a loud thud. I snatched my belongings and glared at the senior football player who stood there snickering.

“Look at the freak.” He elbowed one of his friends.

“She’s always writing,” a girl scoffed. She flicked her blond hair over her shoulder. “Such a nerd.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I’d had it. Jason was a dimwit and I was sick of his constant bullying. I stood up and stomped over to him. “You’re the type of guy who would throw a drowning man both ends of the rope.”

He frowned, obviously confused. “But…”

Unable to help myself, I chuckled quietly. Insulting Jason filled me with a sense of empowerment, and I fought back a grin.

He glowered. “You better watch it, dweeb.” He flicked his hand at me as if I were a pest. His friends laughed, and the crowd walked away.

Demons haunting me at night, bullies tormenting me at school. Wasn’t my life wonderful.

Artex, a recent transfer student, lagged behind. He leaned against the off-white wall, his gaze fixed on me. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” I scrambled to collect the rest of my papers. Someone’s large footprint was stamped into one of my open notebooks. With a sigh, I brushed some dirt away and closed it.

Artex bent down to help.

“Thanks, but aren’t you worried what your friends will think if you help me?”

He handed me several pages. “Do you agree with everything your friends do?”

Good point. Rifling through my pages, I realized one was missing, the story I started in Spanish class, about an obsessive-compulsive knight named Alessandro. I clenched my fists. If Jason had my page, his bullying would escalate to torture. Even though I dreamed of seeing my name, Alexia Streaming, on the spine of a book, I didn’t have the courage to allow someone else to read my writing.

I looked around and realized Artex was reading it. Temporary relief filled me, quickly replaced by anger. I straightened and frowned at him, my thankfulness melting away. “Is that mine?”

His lips curled into a lazy smile. “I’ll have to finish reading it first to find out.”

My fingers itched to yank the paper from his hand. “I would rather you didn’t—”

He chuckled. “Poor Alessandro. You really wrote him into a tight spot. Those bloody pirates are more than he can handle.”

I snatched the paper from him and glowered.

“Are you going to finish it?”

“Eventually,” I said coolly.

“You’re a good writer.”

The compliment neglected to instill a sense of pride within me, and I bristled. “You shouldn’t go around reading other people’s stories.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t stories meant to be read? Why don’t you want to share your writing?”

He had me there. I shuffled my books in my arms. “I have to get to class. So do you, for that matter.”

I walked over to the staircase and waited in line to climb it. The back of my neck pricked. Looking back, I saw Artex still staring at me and immediately felt ashamed. After all, he helped me while the others had laughed and harassed me. I smiled, blood rushing to my cheeks.

His eyes sparkled, and he tapped his forehead twice with his right hand before brushing some of his dark hair back. With a curt nod, he disappeared into the throng of people.

“Come on, Alexia, we’re going to be late!” a tall, bubbly brunette said.

I grinned at Cassie Willows, my best friend. “Yes, let’s hurry. Chemistry is my favorite class after all.”

We both giggled at my lie and ran up the stairs and dashed down the hall, barely reaching the room before class started. I slid into my seat and tried to catch my breath while Mr. McMichaels distributed a pop quiz. Students groaned, me included. My reward for arriving to class seconds before it started — a pop quiz. Just my luck.

I stared at the blank periodic table before me. Let’s see… hydrogen, helium…. I preferred English and history to science. But Mr. McMichaels hated me ever since he confiscated a story I wrote during class.

A story about an evil goblin warlord. Named McMichaels.


  1. Hi Nicole,

    I'm torn on this one. Your writing is strong, but the premise here is going to be a tough sell because there is so much of this already out there. You have three elements that I think are going to work against you, 1) the demon, 2) the geeky girl being bullied, 3) the mc who is a writer. There is a lot of stuff already out there with one or more of these elements. Starting with all three is really setting you up for a hard road.

    That said, there are some unique and interesting things in here.

    First, I would recommend beginning your story with the line, "Mr. McMichaels had hated me ever since he confiscated a story I wrote during class. A story about an evil goblin warlord. Named McMichaels."

    Right from the get go, we'd love Alexia. How could we not? But I didn't love her until then.

    I assume from the name, I'm guessing Artex is a demon? If that's the case, having a love interest who is a demon, that's interesting. Having that come out in her dreams and visions, also interesting.

    (As an aside, three characters with names beginning with 'A' is confusing, Alexia, Artex, Allesandro. Even two would be too much. Especially since they both also contain an 'x.')

    Your writing is good, but do not start in the forest. The description has been done many times, and you aren't bringing much too it. Also, you start us off in twilight, then suddenly it's dark. The way it reads, it's a set up for the demon scene. Having her run off to the woods to read doesn't work for me overall.

    As far as general notes go. If you are going to use adjectives or describe setting, make it unique. Use it in a way that gives us true insight into the character as well as the story, not just to paint a picture we've already seen. Unveil that in the course of action.

    If you have a character cracking herself up or congratulating herself on her wit, you are setting yourself up to lose the reader's sympathy. At the very least, you draw attention to the joke, which here (rope) doesn't seem funny, original, or even appropriate. I'd rather see her come up with something original and biting, and throw it off without fanfare. She's a writer, right? Or is she the type that can't think of anything to say until much later? The kind many readers could relate to?

    I like the girl that would pick up a stick to fight a demon. But that's not the girl that faced the bullies. Reading this, I get the impression that you might want to spend a little more time building Alexia and figuring out what's unique about her and your story. Get that into the first five pages, and you'll be okay. As it is, even the best friend seems cardboard. Not to mention she appears out of nowhere. Where was she while Alexia was being harassed and flirting with Artex?

    There's no question you can write, Nicole. I think there's also a story in here. But you are facing stiff competition with story elements agents and editors are already going to have seen. You're really going to have to bring it to make that work for you. I'd love to see a rework on this one!


  2. Wonderful writing and intriguing. The story really got moving for me in the second part at school. I have nothing to add to Martina's suggestions, just can tell you that your writing is smooth and I'm all wondering what's going to happen next. Also, I'm thinking maybe the teacher Mr. McMichaels is actually the demon McMichaels -- I could be totally wrong though. Heehee. Great start! :D

  3. I'm sorry, but I'd put this back on the shelf just because it feels like I've seen the scary opening a dozen times before.

    I still enjoy lots of fantasy and paranormal stuff, but I'm not sympathetic toward the MC before creepy things start happening, I'm not going to care if it bites her, eats her, or impregnates her.

    As for her aspiring goal to be an author. Since this feels too familiar as well, maybe you could make her want to be a children's book illustrator and give her an artistic side? Also, characters who are aspiring novelists make me think that the author is living their own life through their character, which usually isn't a flattering thing.

    Alexia's concern that Artex's friends will look down on him for helping her makes me wonder where he fits in on the social heirarchy. We know he's a transfer student, but does that make him prone to be popular, or dweeby? It sounds to me like Alexia thinks he's stooping below his social station to help her, but being a transfer student makes me think of him more as an outsider--on her level. Also, I think having Jason be a football player is cliche.

    Really liked the beats between the dialogue and that you provide several details without lots of lengthy prose. You have a very nice writing style.

  4. Hi! Here are my first impressions:
    1. I think your story starts with the very last paragraph. I really like the attitude in that last line. To me that illustrated more about your MC than most of the stuff above that could be worked in to the rest of the story. I'm afraid it does come off a tad cliche - but don't despair! That can be fixed because I'm sure your story ISN'T. You just need to lead with what makes it special. Hook us and real us in. I think it might be scarier to have her keep thinking about these "demons" (and how does she know so confidently that that's what they are?) that she keeps dreaming of, and then catch a glimpse of one. You don't have to start with her being attacked just because you think it's a stronger hook. Hook isn't always about intense action.
    2. Your MC is interesting, but as I said in another critique, not clear ENOUGH. Again that last line - already five pages in - does more for me character wise than the other descriptions. And as to the other characters, so far I'm afraid they are a bit one dimensional. The mean, popular blonde girl. The doofus popular guy who bullies her. The intriguing transfer student (and all the A names are getting a little confusing so you may want to revisit that). I say all this not to be mean, but because I see such promise in your work that I truly think you can do better. In today's market it REALLY needs to stand out. I'd say to do this you need to take your time introducing and describing characters. Not listing traits mind you, but let's see what Alexia notices about them. Does she really label her best friend the "Bubbly brunette?" for example?

    I enjoyed reading this, and I think you have a really intriguing story - I'm curious to see where you are going with it.

  5. I liked that she was reading a horror novel.
    I agree with Martina about maybe starting with those last couple of lines of the excerpt. I'd love to see what comes next, however, to see if I care more about Alexia and learn more about who she is.

    Good luck with it!

  6. I feel a little like I'm jumping on the bandwagon, but I liked the last line, too. Poor Mr. McMichaels. :)

    I thought the action started too quickly. This girl was running from a demon, but I wasn't invested because I didn't have a sense of who she was yet.

    The bullying caught me off-guard, and I didn't get a good sense of the scene. I thought that a few sentient details (smell, sound, etc.) would have really helped put me there.

    I was definitely intrigued by Artex. Ready to see more of him. :)

    Best of luck with it!

  7. Thank you so much for all the great feedback, guys! I've started this story in so many different places - the beginning is definitely my Achilles heel.

    I really like the idea of starting the story with McMichaels. Had never thought of that before. Interesting.... *wheels start churning*

    Changing Allesandro's name is easy. Changing one of the two MCs, though, is harder. I really like the otherworldly nature of Artex so that means I'll have to change Alexia's.

    My first thought was to just drop the a - Lexia, but there are still two names with 'x's.

    Any name suggestions?

  8. Argh names, they do my head in! lol I got about halfway through a story once and realised almost every minor character had a name beginning with J...

    I'll reiterate what a lot of people have already said - I'm so bored of bullied heroines. Clearly your MC has some attitude and knows how to give as good as she gets, which is ace - I'd love to see more of that! A passing jeer in the corridor would work to show her place on the high school heirarchy, but as the scene currently plays out, I'm just thinking 'Not again...' I think it's okay to have a character that the highschool population are largely indifferent towards, particularly if she feels the same way about school - which I get the sense she does, what with writing in class and her attitude towards her teachers!

    If she's been dreaming about the demons, I think it would be much more scary for her to see glimpses of them in the corridor at school, or something like that - there in the corner of her eye, gone when she blinks. Way more sinister than just seeing one outright. Plus, I don't believe you could dismiss an incident like that as overactive imagination, whereas with glimpses, she could.

    That's just a couple of ideas, anyway, feel free to ignore me if it's not in line with where you want the story to go!

    Overall there's lots that interests me in this, but, as others have said, it needs a bit of a shift around to be really gripping.

    I can't wait to see a rewrite starting with that last line! :)


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