Monday, February 6, 2012

6 1st 5 Pages February Workshop - Blair

Title: Voice
Author: Chelsey Blair
Genre: YA Magical Realism

The whoosh of brakes at Penn Station drowned out the announcement informing passengers to collect their belongings. I should’ve been pressed against the window, straining to catch my first glimpse of the city of my dreams. Instead, I stared at the pixelating screen of my dying laptop, barely able to make out the conversation I’d been having on the Selective Mutism Messageboard.


If you could speak to her, what would you say?


I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

“Move your ass, Kyra,” Jessica snapped from the door of the train car. I shut the laptop in time to watch her leap from the train, her ponytail of elaborate braids cascading down after her. If I didn’t hurry, she’d leave me to make my way to the dorms alone.

The conductor who’d chatted with Jessica all the way from Grott’s Crossing to Hartford came over to me. “Can I give you a hand, young lady?”

I let him help me lower things into the aisle. The duffel bag that held my art supplies clattered on the way down.

“There you go. Time to start your New York adventure.”

His expectant gaze made my stomach clench. Hadn’t he figured it out earlier? He’d come by to take our tickets and asked where we’d be going. I’d sat there with my lips glued shut. Jessica took her time intervening. She’d made a game of seeing how long I could last before total panic overtook me. Now she wasn’t around to take up the slack, and I couldn’t even say “Thank you” aloud.

But someone did.

I scanned the aisle. Everyone else had left the train. The conductor didn’t join in my search for a mysterious interloper. He nodded, and pushed past me to the door of the train.
So, unless somebody had said the words seconds before dematerializing, the person who’d spoken had been me.

I’d spoken.

To a stranger.

Without inducing serious psychological trauma.

I hadn’t done that for eight years.

I stood frozen, my focus zeroing in on my luggage tag. K. Anderson, it said in Dad’s neat script. He liked things tidy and predictable. So did I. But we could never have predicted what had just happened.

I had thanked the conductor.

If an impatient voice hadn’t broken into my thoughts, I might have stayed there, a breathing version of Rodin’s “The Thinker”, forever attempting to figure out what this meant.

“If you’re chickening out, you’ll still have to get on a different train.”

I met Jessica’s gaze, hoping she’d read what had happened on my face. She only scowled. She’d stopped trying to figure me out.

We banged our bags through Penn Station. Jessica’s long legs propelled her way ahead of me. I struggled to keep up, my mind still reeling.

I had spoken to the conductor.

This thought gripped me so tightly that I broadsided a man coming out of a coffee shop near the cab line. His coffee sloshed out and a brown stain coated his dress shirt.

“I’m so sorry!” The words came out of me without effort. They hovered for a second in the air between us. Then the man’s calculating gaze, one I recognized from the times I’d knocked into someone in a crowded school hallway, turned into an understanding smile.

“No problem,” he said, then continued on, dabbing a flimsy paper napkin against his shirt. He would never wonder about the random girl who’d collided with him and hurried off without a word. I stood still, waiting for my breath to catch—the calling card of the anxiety attacks that came from my smallest attempts to speak—but it didn’t. I stayed loose, relaxed, panic free.

I had to be dreaming.

Jessica cut her eyes back to me, her pursed lips radiating impatience, and I hurried to take my place in the cab line. It moved faster than I thought such a large group of people could. Fine, I based my expectations on the sluggish pace of the Grott’s Crossing cafeteria line, but I couldn’t believe how little time passed before we’d taken our seats in the back of a cab with a driver asking, “Where to?”

Jessica rummaged through her purse. I listened to the sound of crumpling paper for a beat and then reached into my messenger bag. Dad had put together a folder of all the paperwork we’d been sent. I glanced at the cards he’d made for these occasions. They had the address and cross streets all typed out. I took one out to hand to the driver. He twisted in his seat, impatience oozing from every drop of sweat the summer afternoon brought to his face.

I kept my eyes on the serif font on the card. “122 East 12th. It’s 12th between Third and Fourth Avenues.”

I ran my tongue along the edges of my teeth, letting them bite into it a little. It hurt. That should mean I wasn’t dreaming. I couldn’t believe it. Any minute now the conductor would shake me awake. I’d look into his eyes and my mouth would refuse to open. He’d—

A clatter from beside me brought me back to myself, and I turned away from the card in time to see twenty of Jessica’s makeup bottles tumble out of her purse.

“What the hell?” she demanded. “Did you just—?”

My brain filled in the talk, but the cab driver obviously thought I’d given him the wrong address. “Your friend lie to me?”

She slowly shook her head and he pulled into traffic. I’d bent over to pick up her makeup, but I could feel her bug-eyed stare on me. I wanted her to ask what’d happened, or maybe even to be excited about this development. “She’s my stepsister. Not my friend,” she informed the driver.

No shocked demands. No have you been faking all this time? No a cabdriver, but not me? No sign she cared at all.

I handed over her restocked purse and turned to the window. The nearest street sign said we’d turned onto Fourth Avenue. The no-smoking decal on the window mocked my jangling nerves.

“Those buildings are so oppressive,” Jessica commented. “They block out the sky. It feels so unnatural.”

Your tone is unnatural, I thought, sticking my nail underneath one of the rolled edges of the decal to help it along in the unsticking process. She didn’t exude half the passion I’d have expressed if I could. I stopped picking at the adhesive on the window. Could I now?

I licked my lips, focusing on the window, trying to pretend the driver wasn’t there. I used to be able to talk to Jessica alone, the same way I could talk to Dad, but for the past year I’d been gripped with anxiety attacks even around her. I clenched my fist, awaiting the familiar signs of terror, and ventured, “There’s a park over there. The natural tones of the flowers sort of balance out the manufactured grays next to them, don’t you think?”

At first, I thought I hadn’t been able to say the words. They echoed in my head the way they tended to because I couldn’t let them out.

“They are pretty flowers,” the cab driver offered. I smiled at the rearview mirror. He couldn’t know what he’d just validated.

Once-upon-a-time Jessica would never have ignored something I said.


  1. You've definitely grabbed me. I want to see what happens. The only part I'm not certain about is the selective mutism message boards at the opening. I don't know that you need it because you do such a good job showing us she doesn't speak with her first interactions.

    I'm not loving Jessica, but then I don't know that I'm supposed to. The cab driver sure loosened up and started acting nice too. Just an observation.

    Now that we know what's changed though, I expect you will take us further in the plot pretty quickly. If she hasn't spoken for 8 years, it's a pretty big deal she's doing it now. I'd expect an equally big reaction from her.

  2. I think this is a cool idea, and you handle it really well.

    I agree with Lisa that the message board bit threw me off a bit and seems unnecessary to include on that crucial first page (since I assume the exchange isn't central to the plot), but I was thinking that it might be nice to start in with a something that focuses on her not talking so that when she does, the reader experiences the change along with her. For example, you could start off by describing all the yammering Jessica had done throughout the train ride, and then add that she hadn't said a word. I feel like that could set the scene, and make it clear what's going on more directly.

    And I, personally, really like the way you have the MC reacting to the change. Her disbelief feel very believable (if that's possible :)), and I like how her reaction progresses as it becomes more real to her.

    One little thing is that I had a hard time picturing the guy she spilled coffee on, being nice about it. Maybe if some of the coffee went on her, too?

    And I think Jessica sounds like a great character -- one that I'd hate, but great none-the-less. :)

  3. Hi Chelsey,

    You have a very smooth style that seems effortless, and this idea is very gripping -- and unique; I can't recall that I've seen anything like it before, so it's definitely something that hooks me and makes me want to find out how you handle it and what your mc is going to do.

    I will admit I had a few problems with realism or characterization. I disagree partially (for perhaps the first time EVER?) with Lisa about the selective mutism bulletin board. I think it reads like a bit of a crutch, but it definitely clues us into the significance of the moment she hears herself speak, and more importantly, I'm curious about the "I'm sorry," portion of the conversation. I do hope, if you choose to keep it in, that part of your story is going to revolve around that aspect and about the reactions of her mute friends and acquaintances concerning her developing the ability to speak. If not, then I would caution that you are setting up reader expectation with everything in these crucial first five pages and that they must reflect what the story will be about as well as the tone and characterization, etc.

    I did have trouble with the characterization of your mc. Does she have other phobias? I looked it up and it does say that not everyone with selective mutism has other phobias, but most do. Showing some of her anxiety more clearly might make it easier. On the other hand, I would expect that there is a cessation of anxiety in some way to precipitate her speaking. First and foremost, I would have liked to know--just a half sentence so it's clearer--whether she speaks in other circumstances so that the feel of the speech physically is usual or unusual. You imply later that she hasn't spoken to Jessica either, which would make me think the feel of sound traveling, the physical sensations, would be unusual.

    Second, could you make her perhaps start to lip the words, to explain? So that she is aware she is forming the words with her lips, but surprised that sound escapes? Is there something about the conductor or the situation that creates a difference?

    I love Ann's comment about the coffee spilling on her. That would explain the stranger's reaction as well as give Jessica additional reason to denigrate her. I didn't believe that Jessica wouldn't comment on her speaking though. At the very least, it seemed like she would make some disparaging remark. Perhaps that is why the line about the buildings being oppressive struck me as a false note.

    I think, at least partially, the reason I had a problem with Jessica's reactions is that you have her chatting so amicably with the conductor. I'm not sure why, but the kind of girl who would let the mc struggle with the conductor's confusion initially wouldn't necessarily chat amicably with him. Or that he would want to chat with her? There's something in her characterization that niggles at me and doesn't ring true.

    Overall, my suggestions for this are to get deeper into the characters. It's clear you can write, and it's clear that you have a story. I'd love to see you push yourself to make your mc's voice become more distinct.

    Great job!


  4. The Selective Mutism Messageboard confuses me, because it seems to come out of nowhere and doesn't immediately connect with her not having talked to a stranger for eight years. I like the concept here, but I was very confused at how everything played out. Her saying thank you to the conductor didn't register with me at first--I had to go back and reread because initially I thought she meant she had spoken on the message board and didn't know what she was talking about. There's also the card--I thought she had spoken those words aloud? but then she didn't? She just handed the card to the driver, right?

    I'm also kind of confused at how the MC views Jessica--on one hand, she wants Jessica to know what happened but on the other, she says Jessica's tone is unnatural?/doesn't seem to like her.

    I really, really like your concept and can't wait to see what you do with it next!

  5. Chelsey,

    This is very interesting so far. The message board threw me a little, but it explained a lot. To counteract this, I would like to see this expanded, even if by only an extra line or two. Also, I loved the concept. Very unique. The scene in the cab line revealed just enough.

    The cab ride is where you lost me. I didn't understand who was speaking or what the point of this scene was. At this point, I'm ready for the magical realism to peek out and say hello. Throw us into the inciting incident/main plot thread. After learning about the MC (the train and the bumping into the guy in the cab line), I'm ready to begin the story, not listen to small talk in a cab.

    I hope these suggestions help and will be looking forward to rereading this next week!

  6. Hi Chelsey,

    What an interesting idea for a novel! I love that you begin this story at the point when Kyra's voice is mysteriously starting to return. I also love that you begin with her in a situation with her stepsister, showing the conflict between them, and that you begin with them en route to an unknown destination. The opening raises lots of interesting questions without it feeling like you're holding out on the reader.

    I was surprised to read that this is a tale of magic. Even though it's a tale of magical realism (my favorite kind, btw), most books that feature magic have some hint of it in the opening pages. I don't think it's essential, but it might help an editor/agent get a better idea of your story.

    Once you introduce the oddity of Kyra speaking, I wonder if you might be able to more the story forward a little more quickly, perhaps skipping her apology in the train station, to get to the point where Jessica finally notices. Her reaction--or lack thereof--says a lot about their relationship and opens the door for you to inject a little backstory (why has Kyra been mute?) or to catapult the reader into the next scene. At that point, we have ALL sorts of questions, are sympathetic with Kyra, and definitely want to keep reading!


Tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you! :)