Monday, March 12, 2012

8 1st 5 Pages March Workshop - Casey

The boys on display are behind glass walls. They line the edges of the hall, standing inside of their transparent cages. The cages are so narrow that there’s only enough space for the boys to stand. They can’t move. They can barely breathe. They squint in the white light that shines down on top of their heads. The cages, blue and clear, were made so the slaves can’t see out of them – but I still feel nervous whenever I walk in front of them. I still feel their eyes following me as I pass them by.

The hall is filled with polite laughter. Wine glasses clink. Dresses made of ruffles and lace slide across the marbled floor, and the walls shine like porcelain. A group of women and one man stand together in front of a cage and whisper as they examine the boy inside. They eye him as though he’s a statue – a piece of art to be analyzed – and gesture and smile. The back of one boy’s cage opens and he’s pulled out, having been bought and sold. The sound of a piano spills into the hall.

My mother’s heels snap on the marbled floor. She clicks her tongue impatiently as we walk. “Do you know which one you want?”

I press my lips into my mouth to stop myself from answering. My mother already knows that I don’t want a slave. I’ve never much seen the point in having one. I don’t need a pet that accompanies me wherever I go, whenever I decide to leave the manor or every time I go to school. I don’t want a boy to carry my things or lift the ends of my dresses and bring me tea in the morning.

Most other girls on the satellite receive a male slave for their sixteenth birthday. Owning a slave is supposed to be a symbol of entering adulthood – a birthday present for society’s debutantes – but really, it’s only an opportunity to prove that a person such as me can afford to own another human being. While my mother says that she only wants me to follow tradition, I suspect she also doesn’t want anyone to think she can’t afford to buy me a slave.

I try not to look at the boys as my mother and I walk. The shadow of my reflection follows me in the glass walls.

“You need a slave that won’t be difficult to control,” she says without looking at me, eyeing the boys we pass by. “One that won’t be defiant.”

“I can handle defiance.”

She ignores me. “You can’t be timid with your new slave – once you finally decide to choose one.” I can see her eyes scanning each cage – probably trying to find the weakest, most complacent slave in the hall. “Don’t be afraid to beat him to keep him under control. There are far too many owners that let their slaves get away with anything.”

My mother stops walking when a hollow thud echoes through the hall. I pause beside her. There’s another thud against a cage wall, this time accompanied by the sound of skin squealing as it presses and drags against the glass.

A few women crane their heads curiously, while others frown and whisper to one another. Even the piano seems to falter. My mother stares at the cage in front of us. The boy inside has begun to slam his hands against the glass. Though he can’t see anyone standing in the hall, the corners of his lips twitch as though he’s fully aware he has everyone’s attention.

The boy slams his hands against the wall again. The glass shudders with each smack. I can feel its vibrations in the soles of my shoes. His heavy eyebrows cut over his eyes. His red skin is pulled tautly over his bones. The hollows of his cheeks are too narrow, as though he hasn’t had a decent meal in a long time. His collarbone juts out through the gray uniform. Even though he’s smiling, his eyes are thin and his teeth are clenched, making the muscle in his jaw jump and pop. I’ve never seen such resentment on a slave’s face before. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such resentment on anyone’s face before. I can’t help but smile. I know that my mother won’t want me to buy him, so this boy is immediately the only slave in the hall that I want to have.

I say, “I’d like this one, I think.” My voice is louder than I meant for it to be, and several women surrounding us look away from the boy to look at me. Heads twist and lean in to one another and whisper.

My mother stops. With her back turned to me, I feel a clench of uncertainty, but I straighten and raise my chin by the time she turns around to face me again. She squints like she can’t quite believe she’s heard me correctly. I meet her gaze to let her know that she has. This time, she doesn’t smile as though I’m trying to be funny. “Unacceptable.” She shakes her head. “Absolutely unacceptable.”

She begins to walk away once more, but I say, “You asked me to choose. This is the one I want.”

She spins back to me, her calm demeanor about to break. “This is the one you can’t have.”

“That’s my decision to make. Not yours.”

My mother’s black eyes won’t look away from mine. I know this tactic from training: don’t look away from the eyes of the prisoner during interrogations. It’s supposed to remind the prisoner that the officer is the one with the power. The prisoners that look away have been properly broken. force myself not to blink. I feel heat creep up my neck, and the palms of my hands become cold with sweat. It’s harder than I expect, to speak while looking her in the eye. “If you’re going to force me to take a slave, then it’ll be one that I choose. I’m not going to let you choose one for me.”

The echoing thud continues to rattle the hall. She doesn’t speak. Her eyebrows twitch as though she’s about to smile, but her lips are still pressed into a hard line. I know my mother would never want punish me in the hall of a slavehouse, in front of a crowd of watching strangers. To her, that’s something that should be done in private. If she breaks down and begins to scream at me, she’ll only be admitting that she’s lost control. I smile, and she continues to watch me, as though daring me to disobey her – to buy this slave without her permission. The piano’s music reaches a high note before it fades away again.

The thuds stop. The boy presses his hands against the glass so that the skin of his palms turns yellow and green. He does nothing else. He only stands there, hands straining against his box, as though he believes he can push the glass wall aside.

I tell my mother that I’ll be waiting for outside, and I turn away to place my bid.


  1. Hi Kheryn,

    I love this concept and the setup. Your details are unusual and vivid, and you sell it well. And I really like the fact that she is going in to put the bid and defy her mother. I also like the promise of consequences in the suggestion that her mother wouldn’t scream at her here. Great job!

    I do miss the description of why the boys are slaves,and for me, knowing that seemed more important than the paragraph about the interrogation and the prisoners. Without some additional context as to the mc's training and her mother’s position, that paragraph slowed the pace for me at the same time that it intrigued me. It was a lovely crumb, but the balance was off so that I either wanted to know more, or less about that particular situation.

    I wonder if your reference to the slave's red skin without any description of the skin of the people buying the slaves may be confusing later once you bring in the explanation about the criminals etc. As it is, you risk the reader assuming this is a race-based slavery.

    I’d love a little more motivation for your mc's decision to ask for *this* slave—some connection with her own resentment perhaps, rather than simply defying her mother and stating that this is the only one in the room she wants. You can build sympathy and really ground her for the reader, give us a stronger connection to her.

    Overall, I think that there are pieces I would love you to expand on, and I feel you may be rushing a little. Trust that you REALLY do have our attention. Give yourself time to attend to the critical points that will ground us. Also be careful about how and where you introduce concepts. Ensure that you have strong reasons for each of your sentence and phrasing choices, other than purely stylistic ones. This reads beautifully, but when I go back and break it down, there may be room for some consolidation and tightening, which would let you squeeze additional detail within the five pages.

    As an example, consider your opening paragraph.

    The boys on display are behind glass walls. They line the edges of the hall, standing inside of their transparent cages. (You could add that they are displayed in lighted cages of clear, blue glass that stand lining the edges of the hall. That would give us a clearer image, and at the same time this would save some space later.)

    The cages are so narrow that there’s only enough space for the boys to stand. They can’t move. They can barely breathe. (I love the punch of these short sentences, but here might be a good place to add that there's barely room for the boys to breathe as they stand upright in their grey slave uniforms – and maybe you could point out some similarities and differences in their faces and shapes and ages or whatever you want to say as a commentary on the societal structure)

    They squint in the white light that shines down on top of their heads. The cages, blue and clear, were made so the slaves can’t see out of them – but I still feel nervous whenever I walk in front of them. I still feel their eyes following me as I pass them by. (Here you will have said everything already except that she knows the boys can’t see out, but she still feels as though their eyes follow her—and then you can immediately but in some action – as she follows her mother who is stopping every once in a while to inspect one of the boys or something along those lines.)

    Don't get me wrong, this is already VERY strong. But I'd love to see you push yourself even a little more to put us deeper in the story. Can't wait to see where you go!



  2. Wow! Very different and intriguing plot. I'm in. I love your descriptiveness in the opening, and I think you lose a little of that as you continue on, trying to fit in the story elements. I think I'd like to have more of a moment between your MC and the boy. Meeting each other's eyes perhaps? She's distracted then by the mother's reaction? Does she empathize with him? How does she actually feel about the slavery. Is she not wanting a slave because it's wrong, or because she's being defiant to her mother, or just doesn't think it's fashionable? Also, the world building is always hard in these sorts of situations. You have so much to work with. Can you give us a bigger picture of where they are and what's happening? You mention the satellite. Is this Earth's future or something different altogether? I like to be clear and grounded when I enter a new world. Where do the slaves come from? Are they fresh captures from a current war? Etc. Great job, I can't wait to see more!

  3. I've been thinking about this since the last post - so congrats! You've got me hooked.

    I miss the part about the slaves being criminals - IMHO that piece is more important than the fact that the protag is training to become an interrogator.

    Also - some more insight into the thoughts of your protag would be helpful. Right now she seems indifferent to the thought of owning a slave. If she hates the institution of slavery, her view of the guests could be of disgust. If she feels too independent then her anger could be against her mother for forcing one her. Right now, except for the fact that she picks the one her mother wouldn't pick, she seems reactionary. I get the feeling she is a strong character - I want to see that in the first page. What is it about her that bucks tradition? We see how she's doing it, I'd like to see why.

    Great work - the beauty is in the details you've use.

  4. I love this. :)Just to add on the above, the last sentence
    "I tell my mother that I’ll be waiting for outside, and I turn away to place my bid."

    So as not to "swallow up" the dialogue, I think it'd sound stronger if you added the dialogue.
    "I'll be waiting outside," I turn away to place my bid...

    Otherwise,great job. :)

  5. I think Martina is spot on with her comments. The one thing I noticed this time that I didn't the last was the piano music. I LOVE that element, like IN LOVE with that element. I can picture everything, there's so much rich description, but the sound of the lace, the shoes, the piano just makes everything pop.

  6. Kheryn, this really is such a fabulous, attention-getting concept. I love your style and tone. I really just want more info about the slaves. I agree that we miss out not knowing why they are slaves in this version. I'm sure it comes up later, but I'm wanting to know if this is a race issue also, if it's a gender issue, etc. In this world, is it just debutantes who receive slaves? Are slaves only male? I hope it's obvious you have my interest. I am hooked. I just want to know more!

  7. Thank you all for the feedback! I have to admit, I'm struggling a little here. I believe in taking the beginning slowly, raising questions that'll make the reader want to read on, taking time with describing the details... so it goes against my instinct to jump right in and explain everything in the first pages. I've even written a different beginning since last time, kind of introducing the world a little more before jumping right into slavery. I will try to please, but it's a little hard! I definitely get that Sigourney needs a reason to choose this particular boy, I've made some changes that I hope will help.

    Thanks again!

  8. The two large chunks of description right away were slow for me this time around, but that could just be because I'm used to the story ;) but you could try to weave her conversation with her mom in between the description a tiny bit more.

    When the conversation turns to her mom telling her to get a complacent slave and she can't be timid, etc., I felt like these were things your MC would already know. This is her society, after all, so I grant she's fully aware of the type of slave her mother wants. So it feels like this is said for the reader's benefit. I think you show us what type of slave her mom wants by the fact that her mother doesn't want her to have the defiant one?

    I'm also not sure, given her mother's need (?) to appear a certain way in public, that she would openly tell her daughter no. Would it be in character to have her try to talk the MC into looking around more or perhaps deciding, herself, that none of the boys are worthy of her daughter? Then I feel like it would be more of a mind game between the MC and her mother, which would add more tension between them?

    Last, I wish your MC had a little more emotional reaction. A part of me wonders if I want to keep reading MORE because of the boy, who's has my instant sympathy, than for your MC.

    But honestly, these are just suggestions of how maybe this could be improved. I really like this, and I want to read more at the end. You raise a lot of questions that I'd totally keep reading to find out.


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