Monday, July 9, 2012

10 1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Koon

Author: Shelley Koon
Genre: YA/SF/Dystopic
Title: Axiom

Imp twisted her long dark hair into a ponytail, pulled on the hood of the stealth suit and tucked her hair inside. She activated the suit’s monitor initiating the camouflage data transfer.  The white fabric of the suit phased to a mottled pattern of charcoal and black, a perfect match to the charred, petrified forest that surrounded her.  A tingling began at the base of her neck where the suit’s probe was plugged into the port wired into her spine.  The sensation snaked through her nervous system and exploded across her skin turning it a deep grey to match the suit.  Imp held her hand out and wriggled her fingers, straining to see them against the backdrop of the forest.

She wound through the dead trees, her skin and suit shifting colors to match the changing scenery.  The sensation was unnerving, like a million tiny spiders marching across her flesh.  Imp couldn’t imagine what the data transfer would have felt like when the forest had been alive, lush with countless shades of green, yellow and blue.  But the Great Wars had come and left the forest nothing more than a negative of itself.  The only time it ever looked green to her was in the dark, through her night vision contacts.

The trees that made up the forest were long divorced from their bark and had turned to stone.  They more closely resembled skeletal arms than trees.  Their upper spindly branches disappeared into the low hanging clouds of the darkened sky.  They reminded Imp of fingers searching in vain for the sun that might make them whole again.

Lightning lacerated the sky, followed by the rumble of thunder.  The storms came more often these days, but they never brought rain.  Even if they had, Imp wasn’t sure the ground was capable of being fruitful anymore.  The only thing that thrived outside of the mountain colony were Variants, creatures that had once been human. Descendants of those at ground zero of the bio-chemical warheads, the Variants were one more causality of the War.  Many Variants had long ago come to the mountain and pledged their allegiance in exchange for shelter and safety, but not all had.  Those that stayed in the poisoned fields continued to mutate into more volatile species.  It was these Variants that Imp, and her fellow Slayer candidates were being trained to eradicate.

Imp reached up and flicked her headset on.  A series of numbers and letters streamed across the heads-up display embedded in the hood.

“Janip, you there?” Imp asked.

“Yep, where you been?” came Janip’s voice from her headset. “The other teams have their direct stealth test stats coming in already.  We’re falling down the ranking girl.”

“Yeah, because the other teams are slackers and staying down low where the easier trees are.”

“So what’s the plan?”

“I’m going to head up hill.  The trees there are worth three time the points to tap into.”
“Falcor said to stay low,” Janip said.

“No, he said don’t go high.  Technically I am only going midway up the hill.”

“You’re impossible.”

“No, I just hate to lose.”

Imp jogged up the hill toward a small grove of trees she had noticed on the map for Zone 00.  Used primarily for non-combat and peripheral training, the Zone was locked down and swept twice a day for stray Variants.  Still, Imp had been uneasy when the trainers had told them they would not need their weapons for the day’s training.  Over the past year five Slayers had disappeared while on duty, the most recent being Larkin.  Imp had no plans for being number six.

As she neared the grove, she caught a fleeting glimpse of something from the corner of her eye.  She whipped her head in the direction of the movement and the backdrop of the forest rippled slightly.  Her hand fluttered to the empty holster on her belt.

“Jan, did you see that on your display?”  Imp whispered.

“See what?”

“I saw a…” she stopped mid sentence and frowned.  She hadn’t really seen anything. 

“Like a ripple.”

“A ripple?”  Janip questioned.

“Yeah.  Like when you look at your reflection in water and then poke the surface and it ripples.”

“Probably someone having trouble with their stealth suit.  The system’s been kind of glitchy today and there are a couple of suits that aren’t reliably tracking.  I don’t see anything near you on the map.”

“Gotcha,” Imp said, her hand still gripped firmly on the empty holster.

She reached the grove and walked around the perimeter.  The trees were smaller than those on the forest floor and positioned so closely together that it was difficult to distinguish one from the next.   Their branches entwined, twisted by the ancient winds and froze in time by the petrification.  They reminded Imp of a group of survivors, clinging to one another for safety.  She supposed in some ways they were survivors.  While the trees below had begun to crack and break, many of them losing their branches as the stone got too heavy for the trunk to support, these had managed to defy the years and remain as they were in life.  Stone monuments unto themselves.

“Are you seeing these?” Imp asked Janip.

“You’re kidding”


“There’s no way you can do a direct stealth merge to that.  I mean maybe by the end of the week we can give it a try when you’ve practiced a few directs…”

“I was fine on the way up here.  We’re doing it now.”

“No way.  All you’ve done before is indirect phasing – direct phasing is completely different.  Anything happens to you and it’s my ass in trouble.  Well, yours and mine but yours will be dead, so I’m more concerned about mine.”


“Why would you even want to try that?”

“Because the stats are based on my ability to create a successful camouflage with a tree and the amount of image data I can match.  There has to be eight to nine trees in that formation, the data stream is going to be gigantic.  This one merge will give us three times the points the other teams are racking up and get top ranking again this week.”
“Winning’s not everything, you know.”

“Actually, it is,” Imp said.

Imp crossed her arms and looked further up the hill as she waited for her Navigator’s response. Her headset remained silent.  She noticed a smaller grouping of three trees a few yards away and crossed the short distance to get a better look.   The branches of this group were also entwined but, unlike the larger group their trunks were spaced further apart, allowing just enough room for Imp to wriggle between them.  Being the smallest of the Slayers had its advantages.


  1. Shelly, this is an interesting concept. The stealth suit, the spinal port, Slayers and Variants, a highly-motivated main character. All good stuff. That being said, I unfortunately wasn’t drawn in to this opening. Mainly, I believe the culprit is Imp’s lack of emotion. Emotion is what bonds readers to characters. Readers feel what the character feels. If the character feels nothing, then there must not be much important happening, or the character’s feelings would be involved. And if there’s not much important happening to the character, then why will the reader care?

    To remedy this, I'd like to advise that you inject some emotion into your character. What is she feeling when she activates her suit (anticipation, unease, dread)? What’s she feeling when she sees the ripple (fear, curiosity, uncertainty)? What about when she decides to stealth-merge into those trees (excitement, determination, nervousness)? How does she feel about being a Slayer? Imp will be feeling something at these (and other) points in this first chapter. The reader needs to see that emotion. Show us through her thoughts and what’s happening to her body--her voice rising in pitch, or her scalp prickling, or her stopping and pinching the bridge of her nose to keep from speaking her frustration. Show me Imp's emotion in a way that makes me feel it, too, and I’m on my way to caring about what happens to her.

    Secondly, I think the I-hate-to-lose mindset is a bit overstated. If Imp is this competitive (and I’m guessing it’s her defining characteristic), no one will have to say it because it will be so obvious to everyone around her, including Imp herself. This kind of characterization really needs to be shown rather than told. See what you can do to show her competitiveness without labeling it outright. In the second example, for instance, at the end of the chapter, she doesn’t need to even respond to Janip (cool name, btw). She could just grunt and start looking for the next challenge.

    I’ve got a couple of other ideas, but I think this will do for now. You really have a great idea for a story here; the opener just needs a little tweaking. Thanks for letting me read!

  2. Thanks for the great feedback Becca - so excited that you like the story concept! I totally see what you mean about getting her thoughts into the piece. I'm always paranoid of slipping into "telling" that I end up leaving a lot of internalization out. I will definitely get some of that in there.

  3. Shelley, I loved your concept. You've done a great job creating rules for your world and giving us something different.

    Becca has excellent points above. I also would tack onto that to be careful not to overdo your world-building in terms of defining variants, etc. As I read, I felt like those sections really slowed down the scene and started to deplete the tension. You have unique ideas for the world. Let the reader struggle a bit mentally to figure them out on their own before you define them organically throughout your piece. Maybe closely look at how dystopian novels like INSURGENT, MATCHED, or even HUNGER GAMES open up and how much they give the reader in those first pages.

    You've got fantastically new ideas. Can't wait to see where you go with this next week!

  4. Very interesting concept. This really isn't the kind of thing I like to read, so I'm not sure I can add anything except to say I really loved the the description of the place and chameleon effect of the suit. Good luck with this. I know there is a huge audience for this kind of writing, even if I'm not part of that audience.

  5. Like Rosi above, I don't read much dystopian. Still, I enjoyed this enough to want to read more. There are enough things happening that sparks my interest. I do wonder why they'd send trainees into the wild without any protection though. Especially after 5 have been murdered. Unless, of course, someone inside is behind the murders.

    Interested to see what you do with this.

  6. I agree with Becca and Marissa about being able to trade a little of the world-building (particularly the Variant bit can be shortened a little--unless they're out there hunting them, I just need enough to let me know that there are some rogue creatures out there somewhere) for some more emotion from Imp. I have to say, I loved the relationship between her and Janip~ I totally got a Top Gun flashback and was seeing Maverick and Goose :)

    Good stuff~ interesting world~ love the suits and the mysterious ripple!

  7. I love your use of language here. This sounds like such a cool story idea. The suit and the night vision contacts are things I'm sure YA readers will love.

    I agree with the comment about adding some more emotion. I was also confused when you explain that the suit is changing colors because I thought the whole forest was gray. I found myself with a lite whip lash being introduced to two characters at once but really only in name: Falcor said to stay put, Janip said. I needed a moment to process this. It may work better to have Janip merely say they're supposed to stay put and we meet Falcor later. This will allow us to focus more on Janip upon first introduction and the relationship he has with Imp.

    You're onto something. Just keep tightening the narrative and inject some more emotion/vulnerability so we too want to cheer for Imp.

  8. (Part 1 of 2)

    Hi Shelley:

    This is gearing up to be an action-packed story, and I’m intrigued by the Variants and the looming conflict between them and the Slayers. Imp seems like a strong (and headstrong) character, and I’d keep reading for sure – I want to know what kinds of trouble she gets herself into and how her stubbornness and risk-taking ultimately pay off.

    I have one overarching suggestion for your consideration (well, it’s more like a few related suggestions wrapped into one). Here goes:


    I liked the details about the Variants and the other destructive effects of war, but there was a lot of info-dumping in the opening paragraphs, and this early in the story, I really wanted to get into an active scene and more strongly connect with Imp. For example, instead of telling us about the Variants and the fact that Imp and her Slayer candidates are being trained to eradicate them, why not introduce the Variants in a scene where Imp actually encounters them (not that you have to do that scene in the opening, but I like the idea of leaving the Variants a bit of a mystery, letting us wonder what the Slayers are training for)? That would be much more active and evocative, showing us rather than telling us about their mutations and dangers, and we'd see a lot more about Imp's character by her actions and feelings during those moments.

    Same with the description—the setting details are vivid, and I could easily picture the bleak forest, but you’ve got a lot of heavy description in the first few paragraphs, and much of it is repetitive. For example:

    - a mottled pattern of charcoal and black, a perfect match to the charred, petrified forest that surrounded her
    - She wound through the dead trees
    - But the Great Wars had come and left the forest nothing more than a negative of itself.
    - The trees that made up the forest were long divorced from their bark and had turned to stone.
    - They more closely resembled skeletal arms than trees.
    - They reminded Imp of fingers searching in vain for the sun that might make them whole again.
    - Imp wasn’t sure the ground was capable of being fruitful anymore.

    The imagery here is great, but it’s really all telling us the same thing: the forest is dead. Instead, see if you might pick out a few key details and weave them in right alongside the action, using the opening paragraphs for more active scene and characterization. Otherwise, the setting takes center stage and relegates the characters and conflict to the background, which is not something you want to do in the opening.

    (End of part 1)

  9. (Part 2 of 2)

    Some of the dialogue also felt like an info-dump, particularly the conversation between Imp and Janip about the new tree formations. It seemed like information each of them would already know (how the data transfer worked, why Imp would want to go for the big points), so it felt like a conversation just for the readers’ benefit instead of something the characters would actually say to one another. If this information is important for the reader to know, try to find a more seamless way to get it across. Then, use the dialogue to help us get a better sense for Imp -- how she feels, who she is, what she wants, what she'll end up risking as the story progresses.

    Overall, think about how you might tweak the opening to get us into an active scene right away, to allow us to learn more about the characters and lay a bit more groundwork for the looming conflict without all of the backstory. As a reader, I want to have more questions in my mind that compel me to turn the pages for answers. So, while I don’t want to be disoriented, I’d love just a little more left unsaid so I can learn as I go. Like I said, I’m definitely intrigued by the characters and the conflict, and I think if you can cut some of the telling description and info-dumping in place for more characterization and tension, you'll be in great shape.

    One resource to check out for some fun exercises -- Donald Maass' THE FIRE IN FICTION. I also really like Christopher Vogler's THE WRITER'S JOURNEY.

    Thanks for sharing!

    -Sarah Ockler

  10. Thank you all so much for your comments! Will get to work right away on edits ;)


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