Monday, June 4, 2012

10 1st 5 Pages Juen Workshop - Zoltack

Author: Nicole Zoltack
Genre: YA Paranormal
Title: Crystal’s Magic

“Crystal? Are you dressed yet?”

Crystal groaned and rolled over. Covering her head with her pillow, she peeked with one eye at her alarm clock. If she didn’t leave the house immediately, she’d miss the bus.

She scrambled around the room, hopping into jeans, trying to throw on a shirt and brush her hair at the same time. Somehow she wrestled her way into some clothes (whether or not they looked good together she hadn’t the time to worry about) and ran downstairs. Her kiss missed her mom’s cheek. “Bye, Mom!”

“Wait, Crystal, you forgot your school bag.” Her mom held it out for her.

Crystal grabbed it and groaned again when she spied the kitchen clock. There was no way she’d make the bus. It probably drove past her house five minutes ago.

Still, she had to try. If she was late one more time, she’d get detention. And getting her first detention two weeks before her sixteenth birthday was not on her to-do list.

Crystal threw her bag over her shoulder and hurried out the door. She raced toward the bus stop.

Please, dear Lord, let the bus be there. Please let the bus be there.

She ran with her eyes closed. She never prayed with her eyes open.

When she reached the end of the stone driveway, she opened her eyes.

The bus was just pulling to a stop.

Crystal grinned. Thank you, Lord.

She climbed up the steps and slid into her customary seat beside Kelly Mae.

Kelly Mae took one look at her and raised a perfectly arched eyebrow until it disappeared behind her blond sideswept bangs. “Again, Crystal?”

Crystal shrugged. “I must’ve slept through the alarm. Why… is it that obvious?” She glanced down at her clothes. Dark blue jeans, a black T-shirt, and a navy vest. Definitely not the most stylish of choices.

Kelly Mae reached over and tugged something out of Crystal’s hair. Her hairbrush.

Staring at it, Crystal had to laugh.

Ten minutes later, the bus stopped in front of their school, and the students rushed to their lockers. Crystal grabbed her books and hurried to geometry class. Mrs. Gingrinch began to drone, and Crystal's mind wandered. It’s not that she didn’t want to learn, it’s just that she always felt as if she was wasting her time, as if she was meant for something more than learning the area of a rhombus. I mean, seriously, a rhombus? Who came up with that word?

"Crystal, care to join us?"

She snapped her head up and looked at the stern face of Mrs. Gingrinch. "Sorry," she mumbled.

"Pay attention." Mrs. Gingrinch turned to face the chalkboard and continued writing.

Crystal hung her head. What’s wrong with me lately? She had a hard time falling asleep, and she was always daydreaming—

"Crystal! Come up here and solve this problem."

Crystal gulped. She stood and walked to the chalkboard. Mrs. Gingrinch held out the chalk, and Crystal hated the smug look on her teacher's face.

Shouldn't teachers want their students to succeed?

She took the chalk and inhaled deeply. She could do this.

Until she looked at the math problem and realized she had no idea what to do or how to figure out the answer.

Please, dear Lord, help me.

Just then, the bell rang.

Crystal fought back a grin and dropped the chalk onto the tray. She headed back to her seat as her classmates left the room, talking and laughing. After slinging her school bag over her shoulder, she walked to the door.

"Crystal, I don't know what's going on with you, but if you need someone to talk to…" Mrs. Gingrinch offered.

Crystal raised her eyebrows. Mrs. Gingrinch didn't seem like the kind of teacher to reach out to students. "Everything's fine, Mrs. Gingrinch."

Her teacher humphed. "If you say so. I expect you to start participating in class more. I know math isn't your favorite subject—”

Was she that obvious about it?

"But it's important that you learn the basics. How else will you be able to take trigonometry next year?"

Crystal shrugged. "I'll try."

"Very well." Mrs. Gingrinch erased the problem from the board. "You better be on your way to class."

She nodded and had to force her way through the tide of math students entering the room. Luckily, she had lunch now and didn't have to worry about being late. She returned to her locker, dropped off her morning books and grabbed the ones she needed for the afternoon, and headed into the cafeteria.

Mount Claymore High was a small school, but the cafeteria was a huge room. Crystal made her way to the center, where she and her friends always sat.

Kelly Mae was already there, as were Brian and Paula.

"Where's Vince?" Crystal asked.

"In line." Kelly Mae jerked her head to the long line of students waiting to buy food.

"I'll be back." With a wave, Crystal cut through the line to join him. "Hey, Vince, how's it going?"

"Crystal. I asked the others already, are you doing anything Sunday? Thinking about having a cookout.”

“What time?”

“Around noon.”

She tilted her head and thought for a second. “Sure.”

Vince smirked. “Church won’t be a problem?”

“I can go to an earlier Mass.” Crystal normally went to the twelve o’clock service every week.

He shook his head, his longish brown hair falling into his eyes. “I don’t understand how you can believe in God and all that.”

Crystal smiled sadly but said nothing.

“He does nothing to help anyone.”

Vince was worse than an agnostic. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe that God existed, he thought God was apathetic. And he did have a legitimate reason for feeling that way.

Almost two years ago, Vince’s little brother died from cancer—leukemia. Vince, and his parents, blamed God. A lot of his aggression and hostilities started then. Before, Vince had been one of the sweetest, most caring boys she had ever met. He was one of her oldest friends, ever since the second grade.

“He does help some people,” Crystal said softly.

“Really? How can you bother praying to someone who doesn’t bother to…” He sighed, shook his head, and ran his fingers through his hair.

“He helped me this morning. I should have missed the bus by a good five minutes, but I prayed and the bus just pulled up when I got to the end of the bus stop.”

Vince’s lips twisted into a grimace. “How naïve can you be, Crystal?”

She smiled, unfazed by his tone. No one else understood her relationship with God. Nearly everything she prayed for happened. “I don’t want to fight.”

“Me neither.”

“You want me to make some brownies for the cookout?” she changed the subject.

“Sure, your brownies are the best.” He grinned, and the awkwardness of the moment passed.

They reached the front of the line, grabbed their food, and paid for it before heading back to their table.

“Whatcha doing the weekend after next?” Kelly Mae asked as Crystal sat down next to her.

Crystal shrugged. “Nothing yet.”

“I figured we could celebrate your birthday then.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“Make it Saturday,” Paula cut in. “Sunday doesn’t work for me.”

“I’ll have to check with—”

“I’ve already started on a list of people to invite.” Kelly Mae opened a notebook to a long list.

Brian grabbed it from her. “You forgot to add Josh.”

“You’re right.”

“Woah, guys, slow down!”


  1. First, the good points. Exposition is minimum without leaving us clueless, pace is at a good level, and dialogue is easy to follow.

    Your writing style is down-to-the-bones, with almost no description or sensory details, but it depends on what you're aiming for.

    However, for a YA Paranormal, these first five pages are more mundane than a lot of the realistic fiction I had read in the last couple of years. You start with Crystal waking up (considered cliche by most people), and then we are walked through her school day. Little conflict is going on. There're only a couple of cliches (Crystal missing the bus), but the school doesn't stand out.

    Also, as of this point, I see little speical about Crystal. A couple details pop out, like how she isn't concerned about fashion, she hates math, and she probably believes highly in God, there's not a lot about motivation, her needs, her personality, and other stuff. Hopefully, you can find a way to showcase her traits.

    On the other hand, I find Vince intriguing. I'm not sure what term he probably applies to himself, but he's probably a "dystheist" (or a "naytheist", just for fun.) I think religion would be a cool angle to explore here, if you're going to explore the paranormal.

    Also, there's a slight foreboding mood than comes with the cookout. My writer's senses indicate that the cookout is where all the magic will begin.

    If the inciting incident is indeed there, see if you can write around that point too. Schools are a hard place to start a story in if you don't have an anchoring conflict.

    These are just vague observations, so factor in all of the comments you receive.

  2. HI Nicole! First up, thanks for sharing your work--it takes guts to put it out there for people to comment on, and shows your commitment to taking your writing to the next level. :)
    I think you've captured the typical teen life here that readers will relate to. The theme of believing in God is good if you're targeting the Christian YA market specifically, but if not, it might come on a touch too strong in these opening pages and you might want to tone it down slightly or revamp so it isn’t rushed (more below). You did a good job making me wonder if God is really listening to her pleas for help, or if she's just lucky. I like the discordant pairing of Vince and his negative view of God--this makes for a complex friendship (or something more).
    Here's the thing however--I feel like there is not a lot happening here other than story set up. Right now, I see Crystal's exhaustion as interesting, but for me it isn't enough. I think part of it is that I'm not feeling her own unease about it clearly enough--on a scale of 1 to 10, how worried is she about her exhaustion/lack of focus? (Is this a lead in to something bigger?) It seems like she’s only mildly bothered by it, but I think we need more. For example, when her not-so-warm-and-fuzzy teacher is disturbed enough to offer to talk if Crystal needs it, how does it make her feel? Embarrassed? Worried because maybe it is a big deal as this is the last person in the world who would normally offer help? I want to feel what she feels, but it isn't coming through.
    With Vince, is it strictly a friendship, or something more? She seems to immediately want to know where he is and goes to him right away, but again, I don't get an emotional vibe from her over what her motivation is. Why does she cut the line to be with him? Does she smooth her hair? Wish she'd taken a bit more care when she dressed this morning? Give us some clues as to what might be brewing there, if anything. Same thing for the weekend cookout. Is she happy to be spending time with him outside of school? Hoping he’ll give the ‘You believe in God’ sarcasm a rest? Show us, because it adds a layer to their relationship.

  3. Setting and description are minimized here, which is fine for early drafts, but will need to be addressed. The cafeteria scene is where it feels like we’re starting to get more involved in Crystal’s world and sensory detail will really help us see it more than just a backdrop, make sense?
    I also feel that the classroom scene feels rushed, like it's there only to provide an example of how her praying for help works. It's the same with the morning ‘slept in’ scene. Both need more substance if they are to hold their own weight, providing story movement, characterization, tension...not just be a vehicle to show how praying works. If you decide to keep them, they need development, and if not, cut them so that you can choose a scene that feels layered and offers enough depth that readers feel a part of it.
    Small things: Go through and cut most names you mention in dialogue. I have to do this myself, because my fingers never recognize what my brain does--we rarely ever use someone’s name in conversation. :) Instead of using her name in dialogue, the teacher could rap her knuckles on Crystal’s desk and say, “Anybody home?” This gives me an instant visual, and it tells me about the teacher’s personality. Also, watch how often you use Crystal’s name specifically--I would try to cut these down quite a bit.
    I would also rethink your opening, and the whole ‘sleeping in late scenario as it’s something done a lot and you want your first pages to scream ‘original’. Is there a reason why the story can’t start where Crystal’s friend pulls the hairbrush from her hair (I love that image!) and have her pray for help in a different way, like maybe she’s forgotten a school assignment at home and a surprise school assembly happens, taking the place of first period? Something else?
    Lastly, think about stakes here. What terrible thing will happen if Crystal does miss the bus and is late? What happens if she can’t solve the problem on the board? If you hesitate in answering, then build in more stakes or change the events so that there is a stake involved. :)
    I hope these thoughts help! Keep what works and toss the rest. :)


  4. I'm wondering if the title Crystal's Magic is really prayer and not a paranormal ability. If not, maybe what Crystal thinks is prayer is really something else. I suppose it depends on where you're going with the story. I like the idea of examining faith in books, but I think what you do with will be vastly different depending on if this is written for the Christian publishing market or mainstream. If it's mainstream, and it is centered on prayer and God, you do have to watch becoming overly preachy and moralizing.

    This reads more middle grade to me, it might be helpful to get an age in there. I agree that waking up and starting the school day is a bit we've seen often in first pages. Perhaps the story begins at the cookout, as mentioned. You can still introduce your characters there and have them mention school. She could even relate the story about the bus showing up after something else happens.

    The main plot of your book should be hinted at in 5 pages. Obviously you can't get everything in there right away, but clarifying Crystal's motivations and her quest, and what is stopping her from acheiving it, even if it's just a foreshadow, will keep readers interested. Get that conflict in there! :)

  5. Thank you for all the comments!

    Beginnings are by the far the hardest part for me. I constantly rewrite them and tweak and can never seem to figure out where exactly to start the story.

    You've all given me a lot of food for thought. I love the whole assembly idea! I think I'll work that in and see if that doesn't make the beginning better. If not, then I might cut more and start later. We shall see.

    And I worried as I wrote this story as to how it would be received. Combining faith and magic isn't going to be an easy sell, I'm afraid. Crystal's faith is important to her and when she learns that it hasn't been God answering her prayers but her answering them because she's magic incarnate, she doesn't know what to think.

    *time to tweak, tweak, tweak*

  6. Hi, Nicole! I like your character and her relationship with Vince. I like the premise too, and get what you're doing with her assumption that it's God helping out. I do agree that you can do more to make this situation unique. Be careful of phrasing too. At times you nail it, like talking about where the word Rhombus comes from, but at other times... Like "whether or not they looked good together she hadn’t the time to worry about" or the teacher saying, "very well". Most of my friends who are teachers don't use that terminology. If you slip something magical in early, even a slight hint, that might go a long way toward upping the stakes and our interest. Look carefully and decide what parts really move the story or character forward, take out what doesn't and embellish what does with detail.

  7. Hi Nicole,

    Though it might be a hard sell, I find the idea of religion and magic clashing in your MC's belief system really interesting. Depending on what her conclusion is might help you figure out how to tone it right for the audience and how to market it. If she ends up concluding that God is there, despite magic, that sounds like Christian Lit to me, and probably you'd have her defend her beliefs at the beginning, go through a crisis of faith, and end with strong beliefs. If you take someone religious and end with them realizing what they were told was wrong, definitely paranormal, but I'd also strongly look at how you frame religion at the beginning, to make it very clear you won't be using this story to convert people (I'd watch and study the film THE OTHERS with Nicole Kidman for inspiration here).

    Anyway, about the passage itself, I echo everyone's critiques thus far. I wanted to add that I see what you're doing with the beginning (demonstrating that Crystal's wishes are coming true without her realizing it), but this beginning is far too mundane of a day. Instead of all the little things, consider doing one bigger thing that's richer, more unique, and more of a demonstration of what's happening. It sounds like maybe you're beginning at the wrong place. What's her first BIG thing she makes happen? Start there.

    Also, it seems you give Vince more texture than Crystal, getting into his history. While we of course want our secondary characters to be interesting, our main character should be the MOST interesting and that has to be established first. Otherwise, people start thinking, "Aw, why do we have to read about the boring one when that character's way cooler?" It's perfectly fine if you want Crystal to be an everyman sort of character, but that doesn't mean she shouldn't be special in some way. She needs a compelling point of view, some good points and some flaws, she needs quirk and voice that are unique to her. We know that she's religious--if magic is going to be the major conflict to that, it's probably good to set her up as having very little conflict, falling back on her belief and maybe even feeling like she's got proof a higher power's got her back (work that into her character at the start). But then, her world crashes when she realizes it's not God, it's magic, and magic isn't looking over you making sure things are okay. Magic doesn't have a plan, it's not safe, and does it mean she's evil or does it mean there's no God?

    I think that's going to be fascinating, so I'd make sure to look at your story as a whole (to understand what message you're going to send--Christian or Atheist) and once you understand very clearly your ending, it should give you a clearer idea of how to begin and how to frame your character's starting place.

    Best of luck with this!

  8. One last thing to add: really work on pushing your dialogue so that it sizzles. One general way to look at your dialogue more objectively is to take away everything around it and see if it's interesting on its own. From a passage above, with the dialogue only:

    "Where's Vince?"
    "In line."
    "I'll be back." "Hey, Vince, how's it going?"
    "Crystal. I asked the others already, are you doing anything Sunday? Thinking about having a cookout.”
    “What time?”
    “Around noon.”

    Where's the tension? Where's emotion or underlying feelings? On the other hand:

    “Really? How can you bother praying to someone who doesn’t bother to…”
    “He helped me this morning. I should have missed the bus by a good five minutes, but I prayed and the bus just pulled up when I got to the end of the bus stop.”
    “How naïve can you be, Crystal?”

    Still a little stiff (how many times does she say "the bus"--in real life, we're lazy and start using "it" and abbreviating phrases), but much more tension filled. It introduces the conflict between the two and it really stands alone. It also moves things forward by giving us new information.

    Dialogue can be very difficult to get right and to know what works and what doesn't. I'd say isolating it helps, like I did above, and reading your work aloud, and reading the dialogue aloud as if you were saying it like you imagine the character saying it. If you find yourself with the urge to take verbal shortcuts "and I prayed and it pulled right up," within reason, follow that instinct.

    Also, I strongly recommend doing what I found invaluable to my own writing, which is to search the web (and books if you please) for people willing to break down the craft of dialogue. Here's a starting point: (The Barry Lyga links are especially cool.) The more you study, the more you practice, the more natural writing kickass dialogue will become.

  9. Okay, first off, I like the idea of combining religion and magic. I guess I'm not overly concerned about it, because if the writing is stellar and I feel like the author is going to tell me the story that needs to be told, it won't come off as preachy and it'll twine together the way it's supposed to. I'm not sure if I can tell that right now, after having just read these few pages. But I would read more to see. Others have commented on this extensively, and I don't really have much more of an opinion than that. (If you haven't read GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS, though, I would. It's a mainstream book that's heavily religious.)

    For me, I think this story should be started slowly. I know you want to show instances of her praying and thinking God answers her prayers, when really it's magic. I'd prefer this to be done in a slower scene--not one where she's rushing out the door and the bus comes--that's very deliberate and almost surprising.

    Because, honestly, her praying for the bus to be there and then it is isn't all that deliberate of magic--or prayer for that matter. Buses can run late, right? So I don't see this particular incident as being one where I'll look back and go, "Ohhh, she MAGICKED the bus not to be late!" And I don't think the author should have to tell readers that. I think when the MC finds out, the readers should be able to go, "Ohhh, that's why the bus wasn't late, and why XYZ." all by themselves. And in order to do that, the examples you weave into the story have to be deliberate.

    I'm finding the pace of this too fast. It is bare bones, and sometimes that's good, but here, it's lacking in character development and really grounding the reader into the scenes/setting. To me, it reads as a "She did this. She did that. She said this. She said that." And that's not enough, I don't think.

    I think here you really want to take her outside of the regular, mundane school day and put her somewhere where readers can begin to fall in love with her and set up the mystery of magic vs. God. I'm picturing a forest where she's alone, maybe somewhere she's gone to think through things--this will give us a chance to learn interesting things about HER. Her family. What she believes, without being TOLD. Maybe she gets lost and can't find her way back. So she prays, maybe more earnestly than she ever has. She's scared, alone, it's getting dark. You know, tense it up for us.

    She prays. "Magically" knows where to go to get home. And she doesn't realize it--and neither do we--because she thinks it's an answer to her prayers. But later, when she learns what's happening, we'll all be able to look back on this opening image and realize she magicked herself out of that danger, away from her fear, etc.

    I don't know. I don't want to change your whole story. But I do think you need something tense and deliberate that's STILL PART OF HER NORMAL LIFE. And getting up, running late, and going to school isn't tense or deliberate, IMO.

    The scene in the classroom doesn't feel deliberate either. I think maybe an idea to make the magic seem more deliberate--but still masked by prayer--is with her conversation with Vince. They can be discussing prayer/religion as you have it here (I still want it complicated by Crystal's emotion/family life, which we could get if you gave us more in the opening scene), and have her PRAY for help with the discussion. So that she can say the right thing, so that she and Vince can still be friends. Have words there that she'd never thought to say. Something pop to her mind, whereas in the past she's been tongue-tied and they end up arguing. Again something tense and deliberate that she solves--she thinks--with prayer.

  10. A few nitpicky things: Chalkboards? I think whiteboards would be better. Most schools, even the old ones, have updated to whiteboards and smartboards by now. Chalk feels so 50s to me.

    She has one period and then lunch? Really? That seems way off to me. Usually schools have a few different lunches, but after one period of high school, that would be lunch at like 9:15 AM. Right? We had five periods in high school and you either had lunch after third period or after fourth. In my son's junior high, they only have 4 periods, and you have lunch either after second or after third. But not after just one period... Did I miss a class? She only went to geometry, right?

    Hope something here helps!


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