Saturday, July 2, 2011

12 1st 5 pages workshop - July entry #2

Leah Miller
YA Fantasy

A whimper escaped her lips. He was coming for her again, but there was nowhere to go. Everything started shaking and that weightless feeling of falling washed over her. Her stomach clenched and her legs kicked out, connecting with something hard and metal. Her hands shot out searching for something, anything to keep her above the water.

Reality flooded back as she looked around at the faces of her classmates sitting in their desks. Everyone stared at her with varying expressions of surprise, pity, and disgust. Even the teacher, who stood at the white board, hand poised in the middle of writing a word, let out an annoyed tsk at being interrupted. Penny lowered her arms back to her desk.

Her heartbeat throbbed in her throat and her cheeks flamed. A bruise was already aching on her shin where it hit the wire basket of the desk in front of her.

“Are you okay?” Amanda whispered from behind her. Penny just nodded.

The bell rang and she took her time gathering her things, not wanting to make any contact with everyone else as they rushed out to lunch. Amanda waited for her, though.

“Sorry I woke you up like that. I didn't think it would startle you so bad. But it sounded like you were almost crying,” she said.

“It's okay. At least you woke me before I started snoring.” Penny grinned at her, hoping the cheerfulness she didn't feel reached her eyes.

“Miss Masters, could I speak to you for a moment?” Mrs. Birdhill said from behind her desk.

Amanda squeezed Penny's arm and gave her a reassuring smile before going into the hall.

“Yes, ma'am?” Penny said as she walked up to Mrs. Birdhill's desk.

“That's the second time this week you've fallen asleep in this class. Is there something going on you'd like to talk about?” she said with what Penny could tell was fake concern. The woman wasn't even looking at her, just shuffling the papers on her desk.

Penny thought about all the things she could lay on her teacher: her parents' disappearance, being terrorized by reoccurring nightmares, struggling to barely pass her classes. It could be fun to watch the tight-lipped woman squirm.

“No, ma'am. I'm fine.”

“Well, if you ever feel like you need help, you know where the counselor's office is, right?” Mrs. Birdhill raised her brows.

“Yes, ma'am.” Penny rolled her eyes as she left the room.

She shuffled to her locker and shook her head at Amanda.

“What? What did she say?” Amanda asked.

“Oh, you know, same old thing. 'Miss Masters, is there something you want to talk about because I don't have time to deal with you or your problems so maybe you should take your nutty self off to the counselor's office.',” Penny said as she fought with the contents of her locker that refused to stay.

What could a school counselor do for me that the psychiatrists haven't already tried? Penny thought as she tossed two pens that had rolled out back into her locker and slammed the door.

“Ugh, what a witch. And you are not nutty,” Amanda said. Penny scoffed at that statement.

Yeah, right, and bears don't poop in the woods, either.

After grabbing some bag lunches from the cafeteria, they went into the enclosed atrium in the center of the school. Penny watched the students milling around the plastic picnic tables, their voices echoing off the concrete floors, and thought, after her incident in Mrs. Birdhill's class, she didn't exactly want to be around many people. Not that any of them wanted to be around her either.
“I'm going to sit outside, okay?”

“Are you crazy? It's freezing out there,” Amanda said, eyes wide.

“It's okay. I like the cold.”

Amanda's brow furrowed. “Okay, I guess.”

At the vending machine, Penny bought two sodas, one for now, one for later. An icy afternoon breeze hit her when she shoved the double glass doors open with her shoulder. She inhaled it gratefully. Finding an empty spot against the school's brick exterior, she tossed her back pack to the ground and opened her first caffeinated beverage of the day. It was half-empty by the time she decided to sit.

In her bag lunch was an apple, a soggy ham and cheese sandwich, and a bag of chips. What? No dessert? There goes your four-star review, lunch ladies.

After a couple of bites of apple, she pulled out her art journal and markers. Choosing a black, fine-tipped pen, she let her thoughts wander and her hand doodle whatever came to mind. This was one of her favorite hobbies. To her it was an almost Zen-like experience, the closest thing to sleep she had found so far.
A single cab red truck rumbled into the parking lot and her eyes shot up to lock on it. It pulled into a parking space, the driver door swung open, and he stepped out. Stevie Brown. Penny's stomach quivered. He was the typical handsome jock: blonde, tall, a football player.

But he's still a douche, she thought. Why had she let him kiss her at that party? She couldn't stop herself from remembering that kiss. At the time, she thought she must have been the luckiest girl in the world. But later that night, when he stumbled from the party groping Aubrey Chambers, Penny had felt like such a fool.
Penny hung her head, letting her long not-quite-blonde hair block her face. He passed her up without a second glance. An expensive, musky smell wafted to her as she glared at his retreating, letterman jacket clad back.

And he still smells yummy, that jerk.

Resolving to forget about Stevie for the hundredth time, she went back to drawing. The crunching of feet on gravel made her look up. Aubrey was looking perfect as always. Her fitted, baby pink jacket must have been purchased online since there were no good clothing stores in this small town. It probably had a designer tag, too. Penny was wondering who Aubrey had paid to break in her jeans when she made eye contact and realized she'd been caught staring.

Oh, crap, no bueno.

She grabbed for her bag and pretended to look for something in it, hoping Aubrey would just leave her alone.

“What are you looking for, Penelope? Forget where you put your bong again?” Aubrey sneered. Penny felt her ears heat up at the ensuing snickers from Aubrey's two clone friends, Adrienne and Lindsey.

After a few months of Penny showing up to school with red eyes and her head bobbing in class with sleepiness, Aubrey had taken it upon herself to inform the student body that Penelope Masters had to be a pothead. Penny still had kids asking her if she had any “green” she could sell them and the dirty looks from the Bible Club members hadn't stopped.

Before Penny could think of a witty retort, the three of them were already inside. She looked out over the parking lot, disgusted with herself. Not that she would have had the guts to say anything. At this thought, she let her head fall back to conk against the bricks. She tried to cheer herself up by picturing Aubrey and her friends years from now as the housewives to cheating car salesmen. 


  1. Love that last line! I'd like the voice that shines in a couple places like that to really come throughout. Right now I'm having trouble distinguishing this from so many other 'downtrodden, loner, female protags' in YA Fantasy. I can tell there's more here, but I need it to break through.

    The opening paragraph was a bit confusing. First she was falling, then hit metal, then in water. I get the metal was the desk, but why would she have continued dreaming at that point? And starting with a dream... It is a little cliche, unfortunately. Though I like the way you have it happen in the middle of class. Also love the teacher's suggestion that if she ever needs anyone to talk to the COUNSELOR! That was great.

    The first half felt like you were holding back a little. Would she really call her teacher "Ma'am?" Would she she say bear "poop"? IDK, considering she calls Stevie a "douche" later. Which I loved btw. I thought, uh-oh cliche jock she's in love with, then you pulled that out. Nice. Though he still feels a tad cliche as well. Cute, jock, jerk. As does Aubrey. I hope that you show a bit more depth to them.

    I know it feels like a lot, but I also believe you can do it! You are clearly talented, and I look forward to reading your revision.

  2. Thank you so much for the comments, Lisa!!! I guess I'm kind of taking a chance in these first few pages, with the cliches and all, because I want to lull the reader into an easy state-of-mind. Everything goes crazy after these first couple of chapters and the reader has to think outside the box. It's hard to make a change. I want to put across that everything is mundane until you decide to change it. That's the character arc I'm going for with Penny. Stevie and Audrey are not really important in the grand scheme.

    Oh and the starting with a dream thing is something that I've been anguishing over for, I don't know, FOREVER! The problem is, my book is all about dreams! The dreams my characters have are real, basically. Originally the beginning was this long dream sequence, then I noticed that beginning with dream sequences is a big no-no. How am I supposed to make this work when the whole book is about dreams?

    As far as the cliche protags, maybe I should mention that she wasn't always this way? She used to be on the track to popularity, then her parents disappeared and the nightmares started.

    I totally agree with you in that I'm holding back. In my mind, I would never just say "poop". I guess I just don't want to scare people away on the first page.

    Again, thanks for the critique!!! It's what I really need at this point!

  3. This opening reminded me too much of Lisa McMann's WAKE; beyond that, it does feel like you pulled your punch a bit.

    I like the character arc that you described in your comment, but you're not really drawing the "mundane world" in your opening. You've opened it with her having this horrible nightmare: you've referred to her parents disappearing, her inability to sleep, her dealings with "psychiatrists," plural. None of this seems designed to lull the reader into an easy state of mind. It seems like you're setting hooks. Since it's the opening, that makes sense -- you're supposed to be "hooking" the reader.

    Unfortunately, as Lisa points out, a lot of this is ground already covered in YA Fantasy. She feels like a familiar character, and the secondary characters -- best friend, handsome jock, mean girl -- feel overdone. The fact that she used to be popular but now isn't due to a traumatic event (parents' disappearance) feels a lot like Allyson Noel's EVERMORE.

    I get the feeling you're trying to show her as relatively weak and "mundane" until the dream aspect teaches her to take charge of her life, but right now, I'd say you need to do something more with this opening.

    For the next revision, you might consider going over the top -- you can always rein it in later. I'd try something outrageous, and see where it takes you.

  4. I like a lot of this, definitely. One thing, could you try to get her name in the first paragraph? Also, I think she'd feel her pulse in her throat, not her heartbeat.

    I like Penny's voice, but I have so many questions and not a light of desire to keep going--no real feel of what this story will be about or what Penny wants aside from knowing that A LOT is going on in her life.

  5. Just a quick response to your comment (yes I'm listening). I think Cathy did an excellent job explaining it. A thought on the "dream" thing. What about having her trying her best to stay awake in the first paragraph but fails, only she's jarred awake before the dream/sleep can really take hold? It would still be distracting, but introduce the sleep issue right away.

    Also if the other characters aren't important, you probably shouldn't have them there, especially early on. Find another way. It's tough, but worth it.

  6. After reading everyone's comments, I have to say I agree. You opened with a very punchy beginning, then it kind of fizzled out. At first, I assumed Stevie would be the main love interest, but if neither he nor Audrey play much of a role later, I think they need to go.

    Are there any other important characters beside Penny and Amanda? Can you put them in the scene instead? Can you hint a little to the dreams being real? I know it's though, but I truly believe it would make your opening shine to spice it up a little more! Your writing is lovely, and the voice is good.

    Personally, I would have kept reading a few more pages to see if the pacing picked up, but I'm not sure a lot of readers would have. I can't wait to see what you come up with in your revision! Good luck!

  7. Ugh, I'm having a hard time trying to fix this. I'm starting to realize that even though there are some lines in this first chapter that I love, maybe the real story doesn't start here. I feel like you guys are telling me the big problem isn't the writing, but what's happening and the characters. Which, when I'm honest with myself, I agree with. So, do i start in a completely different place? Is that allowed here?

  8. Leah - Yes. You can ABSOLUTELY start in a different place. Just send the first five pages. We've seen others do that and the improvement is phenomenal. Go for it! Why not test it out?

  9. Yes! I agree with Lisa--you can totally start in a different place! I recently had to do this with my first novel--start the whole story an entire day earlier. I know this can be discouraging, but you are obviously a talented writer. In my opinion you have captured a female teenage voice with almost near perfection (something I suck at), and I really enjoyed her internal commentary and I felt a connection to Penny even if the story didn't quite start in the right place. Maybe if she's tired often and having issues sleeping (something I'm familiar with), then perhaps she may halucinate? "Him" (from the first paragraph) roaming her school halls? That would amp up the creepy factor, because that first paragraph was nice and creepy! I don't know, just a suggestion. I know you can work this out. Good luck! Can't wait to read the revisions!

  10. Oh! Almost forgot! I totally grew up saying "ma'am" and "sir"--even through college. It was how I was raised. (Texas) It took a lot of effort to break that habit when I (finally) became an adult, haha.

  11. I really like the concept of the dreams. I think you captured Mrs. Birdhill wonderfully and I could really hear Penny's voice. I do agree with the other comments and will look to see what you send in if you start in a different place. One thing I noticed is that you have a lot of girls names starting in A - makes it a little harder to follow so you may wnat to consider that. Also, she mentions that drawing is the closest to sleep that she comes but you open with the dream - so I'm wondering if that is on purpose and she doesnt sleep or is that an inconsistency? Looking forward to seeing how you revise - and I'm from Texas as well - so I got the sir and ma'am.

  12. Wow, thanks for the comments, you guys! Ya'll totally made this girl feel better :) (yes, I use ya'll or y'all, I never know which is right, lol) The story is set in Louisiana, which is where I'm from, so it just felt natural for my characters to say ma'am and sir. I hope my new beginning is an improvement. Thanks again for all the wonderful and constructive comments!


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