Monday, June 18, 2012

3 1st 5 Pages June Workshop - Poston 2nd Revision

Author: Ashley Poston
Genre: Supernatural
Title: Malevolent

The man in the black suit was staring at her again.

It was unnerving. The tilt of his head, the sheen of his hair, not quite gray and not quite green, the color of his pallid skin that reminded her of faded cement. And his eyes―white pinpricks. They had to be contacts. Thick ones, too. He stirred his coffee with a white-gloved hand, slowly, clockwise, around and around.

“Excuse me, ma’am?”

Startled, Mal spun to face―the waiter. It was just the waiter. She slapped a hand over her hammering heart. “Please don’t do that.”

Hesitantly, he set a cup of fresh coffee down in front of her and a honey bun. At her request, the coffee was almost a nutmeg brown. “Sorry, ma’am. We were all out of creamer so I hope half-and-half is fine.”

“Absolutely. And I’m just, you know, antsy traveling alone… and stuff.” And your other customer doesn’t help things, she ached to add, pulling her auburn hair over onto her left shoulder. Maybe you can ask him for a few things of creamer because he’s monopolized like twenty of them. “You know how it is, a girl, alone, going to the big city. Good times.”

“I don’t know about the girl part, but I get the big city.” He tilted his head, and a curl came untucked from behind his ear. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. How did he end up working on a train, she wondered. “Long way from home?”

Home. It was just a word. She’d been in plenty of those with Mom― trailers, duplexes, hotels, motels, condominiums, and cheap houses. They’d even lived out of a retired ice cream truck in California, and just thinking about those few months made her back cramp up. Home meant about as much to her as her Mom’s whereabouts meant to the fine authorities of the Philadelphia Police Department.

“Yeah,” she lied, fighting the bitter in her voice, “a very long way from that.”

He nodded, as if he understood her completely. Which was funny in it's own right. He probably could relate to her as well as a sheep dog relates to a cat. “So where ya headin’?”

“My godfather’s in the city.”

“That’ll be fun! Ever been to the city before? I love the city.”

“Once, the last time I went to see him. You might know him… Grant White?”

His eyebrows shot up in disbelief. “Might know him? The Grant White―the playwright?”

“He writes something.”

“No shit! I was Harry in Bones Apart!”

Oh God, she thought, I just opened up a can of worms.

“…And Julius in Midnight Wedding in Dallas! And you know that one, The Clocktower? I friggin’ love that one. Oh man, you―hey, you know, you think you could get me his autograph?”

“Umm…” She only knew three things about her godfather. One, he was an esteemed playwright. Two, he bought a penthouse apartment across from Central Park when she was four, and Mom took her to spend a few weeks there. The apartment had been spacious, and so clean she could eat cookies off the hardwood floors. And three, he was less than excited when the news came that his goddaughter would be spending an unidentified amount of time there until her estranged Mom could be found.

Which, they both knew, might be a while.

If Mom didn’t want to be found, the police wouldn’t find her. Three days ago, Mal had returned to a deserted house. Mom’s clothes were gone. Her jewelry missing. She hadn’t left a note or directions or even pizza money. She hadn’t left… anything. When Mal realized what had happened, what it meant, she felt like an abandoned bag of luggage in the rain.

And now I get to spend quality time with His Impeccable Whiteness.

The train’s food car jostled ever-so-slightly with the steady hiccup of the railroad. The wheels squeaked underfoot like a symphony of mechanical birds. If only it could drown out the waiter’s voice.

“…I mean, ya don’t have to but it’d be amazing. I’d love to cold-read his scripts. Maybe be a stagehand? Does he need an assistant? Here, I’ve a card too…” he began to pat down his pants pockets. “Oh yeah! I’ll be right back. Left ‘em over by the register. Man, I knew ya were special!”

A grin so wide cracked his freckled face in half. She smiled with him, because it was the polite thing to do. Stretch lips over teeth, edges upward, hold pose. Then he left, and her smile sprung shut like a trap.

If he knew what Grant White was really like, would he still ask for an autograph?

She curled her fingers around the steaming mug, and inhaled. The sweet smell of sugar untied her muscles and tamed her nerves. Sweet things did that to her. She didn’t know how, or why. Whenever she had nightmares, Mom would be there with a glass of milk and cookies as if she knew when she had them. Maybe she screamed aloud. Maybe her Mom could hear her thrashing.

Or maybe that was just the way her Mom was. Mal had learned to not ask questions when once, after they’d celebrated the summer solstice and blown out all of the candles in the yard, she’d asked, “Why’re we leaving the wine?”

“For the rest of us,” Mom had replied and kissed her auburn curls.

Whatever that meant gave her nightmares for the rest of the year. For the rest of us, as if she and her Mom were just a small part in something larger. Whatever that community was, it’d ostracized them. She still felt as alone as she did the moment she stepped into their abandoned house three days ago.

Mal shivered. Loneliness made everything a little colder, even under the air vent. Was it bad that she missed her Mom’s weirdness? Mom did a lot of crazy things, and because of the way she was, Mal had never gone to the doctor. When she had the sniffles she’d drink a nasty tea, and when she was sad, Mom would twine dandelions into her hair. Sometimes her Mom would lean against the kitchen sink and speak with the moon. She even missed that, although it frightened her, but not as much as the possibility that the moon might talk back.

For the rest of us, she mocked.

The pre-dawn light outlined the fir trees that passed her window, intermingled with cold patches of a clear night and crisp stars. But somewhere in the distance there were towns on the cusp of another ordinary day where ordinary families wavered on the brink of ordinary alarm clocks.

She pressed her head against the coolness of the window as someone slid into the booth opposite of her. The waiter? If he thinks he can smooze up to me to get my godfather―The booth across the compartment was empty. A cold chill trickled down her spine. Don’t look at him, she urged herself, definitely don’t look.

“You haven’t eaten your sweet,” the stranger observed.

She pressed her lips into a thin line, her eyes trained on the space between the trees and the sky. He slithered a hand over the table to move the pastry closer to her, insisting. She said lamely, “I’m not hungry.”

“Sweets sooth me, as well.”

Her skin scrawled. “Sir, can you please get awa―”

“I can tell.” He sounded amused. That rubbed her the wrong way. “You are apprehensive. Nervous. Your eyebrows furrow in that peculiar way when you are.”

Her knees began bouncing under the table; he was seriously freaking her out. His shoulder leaned inward, his arm stretched across the table, successfully barring her into the corner of the booth. Where’s the waiter?! She began to motion to him, but he stood slumped against the counter, a thin line of drool oozing from his mouth. Oh, great. Such a help he’d be.

“You’re not who I imagined you would become,” he said, more to himself than to her. She stiffened at the remark. She’d seen scenes like this on CSI, and she didn’t like where this was going. Two people alone in a dining cart, if one of them screamed and no one was around to hear it… would she make a sound? “But then again, you have always surprised me.”

“Do I know you?” she couldn’t help but ask.

“Perhaps.” He tilted his head, his index finger tapping the table in frustration, “...someday.”


  1. This is my first look. I have a bunch of suggestions below, but it's all just buffing and polishing. Particularly, I wasn't on board with Mal's reactions to events. I need a few more clues as to why she responds as she does. Setting this opening in a train is great. Good tension.

    I suggest you move the sentence: "He stirred..." to be the second - thataways I am immediately grounded in the coffee shop. Addendum: I suggest you add some physical sensation to indicate that she's on a train right there in the first paragraph. I had pictured a small-town coffee shop and was thrown to discover it wasn't so. Giving that up front will make the discussion about going someplace make sense too.

    At the first "her" - go ahead and use the mc's name. I was confused whether Mal was the same person when I got to the name.

    Can you make "please don't do that" more specific? I had to think twice about it, wondering if I'd missed something. Maybe don't sneak up on me or some such.

    Suggest "okay" instead of "fine" - I never hear people ask if somebody is fine, that is usually the response.

    I think you need to establish why Mal would confide in the waiter. It should take just a few words of interiority.

    I am confused by the sentence: "Maybe you can ask..." I have no idea what the subject of the sentence is.

    Back cramping is an odd sensation - was the truck super uncomfortable?

    I don't get what the lie is.

    You break out of voice with "esteemed" what word would she use?

    Is "estranged" the right word? Who is she estranged from? Do you mean missing?

    Suggest delete of "she hadn't left anything" Obviously, she left her daughter...

    I need some explanation for "impeccable whiteness" - her mother's nickname for the guy? Doesn't seem like Mal knew him enough to come up with one.

    I find the ya's and cut off words distracting. Need them?

    I am having difficulty reconciling the mom who abandoned her daughter with the one bringing milk and cookies. You don't need "sweet" smell - the reader knows that about sugar. That paragraph needs some editing to smooth it out.

    Make clear Mal and mom are alone at the solstice party. Nightmares seem an outsized reaction to the experience. Does she think her mother is crazy?

    The "ordinary" sentence - there are logic problems lurking therein.

    I was confused where the stranger and the booth were. Across? In hers? Next to?

    The "Oh great" is a muted response. She's alone with a weird, aggressive man and a guy who might be dying. Thinking about a TV show? Not believable.

  2. Hmmm, okay. This is quite a bit different than what we've seen before.

    This line is a bit confusing to me: "Home meant about as much to her as her Mom’s whereabouts meant to the fine authorities of the Philadelphia Police Department." The police don't want to find her mother? After she abandoned a minor? Really? And Mal's mom hasn't done this before, so it's out of character and why wouldn't the police want to find her? That doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

    Okay, and then reading on, you call the mom "estranged" and that both she and Grant White knew it would be a while before the mother is found. I was so not getting that from the previous reads. Is this something new? I didn't realize the mother ran off all the time and that this wasn't the first time. I also had no idea the mom was "estranged." This word implies that someone's moved out or that people are no longer in contact, at least to me. So if Mal was living with her mother, it doesn't seem that they were estranged... I could be reading this more literally, though.

    The whole bit about the mom being there with milk and cookies and all that just doesn't seem like an estranged person. Sorry, I'll stop harping on you now!

    This is a great line: "her smile sprung shut like a trap."

    And this one too: "But somewhere in the distance there were towns on the cusp of another ordinary day where ordinary families wavered on the brink of ordinary alarm clocks."

    I am confused about where the stranger sits. When you say "opposite of her" I thought you meant he slid into the same booth as her, across the table. Then you say it's "across the compartment" which to me, sounds very far away. I'm thinking of a long rectangular room (on a train) that maybe only has booths pressed up against one side of the car and an aisle on the other. So maybe some setting of the dining car would help too (for those of us who've never been on a train).

    She should be SERIOUSLY ALARMED that the waiter is suddenly drooling at the counter. Because five seconds ago, he was bouncing around and going to get his card. He wouldn't just give that up. So something is SERIOUSLY WRONG. And her reaction to that is all wrong.

    She should be darting her eyes to this stranger. Taking in everything she can about him. Cataloging exits. Looking for someone, anyone, else for help. Even the creeptastic guy who was staring earlier--unless that's who this is. It's bothering me that we don't get to see the guy. IS it the same guy that was staring at the start? Or someone new? We should get an up-close-personal OH MY FREAKING HECK what's wrong with his eyes? view of the guy if it's the same freakazoid who was staring earlier. You know?

    It feels too casual and mundane, and thus it's lacking the tension it needs to drive us to keep reading.

    Hope something helps!

  3. I think Elana has some very valid points here so rather than echo her, I'll just add a few specific details--the greenish hair, the white pinprick eyes. I don't know, I love the creepy vibe you're laying down here but this detail seemed too out of place to not be noticed by the waiter. I had a hard time imagining white pinprick eyes, which sort of slowed me as I read, as did wondering how she could know the thickness of his contacts. I think you actually do better with the subtle details--his white gloves, his stillness, how he has all the creamers. Perhaps with the eye detail, he's got sunglasses's a touch more subtle, but brings up a slew of question--why? It's not exactly bright, and it's night time to boot. Then maybe she could allude to a one point he adjusted them, tugging them down slightly to peer closer at something (her?) and she swears his eyes were white. A quick flash tho--enough to plant the detail in the reader's mind, but also that she doubts what she sees--if he's too 'out there', she'd be up like a shot and out of the dining car.

    Also here: “Absolutely. And I’m just, you know, antsy traveling alone… and stuff.” ... “You know how it is, a girl, alone, going to the big city. Good times.”

    The fact that she volunteers this info...I don't know, I just didn't quite buy into it fully. It made her reveal her weakness, and women (or teens) rarely do this, especially when they are already creeped out by someone close by. It felt more as a technique to be able to lead into talk of the city and her Godfather. I wonder if instead the Waiter could draw her out a bit, ask her if this is her first time to the city, suggest she catch some shows while she's there, and she can say something about how she'd be getting more show business as it was on this move, the waiter asks what she means...and you have a natural segue into who her Godfather is and the Waiter can add his bit about being an actor, fawning over Grant, etc.

    Love the convo between the stranger and your MC. It's disturbing but makes me feel like there's so much more going on here.

    Only other thing--I still feel that the detail about not ever seeing a doctor is something that edges into 'info dump' territory. It has no bearing on this scene, so it sticks out--why is she thinking about how her mother never took her to see a doctor before? I'd cut it and bring it up later when it can naturally fit into the scene.

    Anyway, good stuff. :) Thanks for sharing the revision!


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