Monday, December 3, 2012

1st 5 Pages December Workshop - Johnson

Name: Tiffany Turpin Johnson
Genre: Young Adult Speculative Thriller
Title: The Phoenix


This just in: There's a dead boy at my window.

I've faced death before, but this is different. My mom nearly drowned in our bathtub seven years ago. I was only nine when I found her drifting in a sea of pale red water.

Now, I look out at my ex-best friend Evan as he clings to my window frame in the moonlight. A year and a half ago we sprinkled his ashes (so we thought) behind the Coral Beach High School football field. His parents said some nice things, and a lot of kids cried. The principal even shut down school for a few days. Seemed like an overreaction to me, but when the most popular guy in school disappears and turns up dead, overreaction is status quo.

Yet somehow here he is, staring at me through the glass with eyes wide and bloodshot and definitely alive. His hair is all gone, his skin so sickly pale it glows silver in the moonlight, and there's a huge, jagged scar running across his skull. Beneath the hospital gown his body is shrunken, concave. Not at all the quarterback I remember. Despite all that, I'm sure it's him.

Even though it can't be. People don't just come back to life. The Reanimist Association raised an animal or two in its day, sure, but the one time they tried with a human was a total disaster. So bad that no one talks, or even thinks, about resurrection anymore. Jenny's Law makes it illegal to attempt.

No one's stupid enough to try resurrection again. Not even the RA.


"Brie," Evan says, voice muffled through the window, "are you in there?"

I blink a few times, so hard that blue spots swirl on the backs of my eyelids. Am I hallucinating again? It's four a.m., so who knows if my eyes are telling me the truth. I know I could trust my camera, but I'm afraid to move to get it.

Okay. I have to be logical about this. If I'm hallucinating, why would I hallucinate a Frankensteiny Evan? We haven't spoken since elementary school. That's been more than a third of my life ago now, a good part of which he spent being dead. I'm over him. Completely. So why would I see him now if he weren't really here?

Evan reaches up one hand to tap on the windowpane. When the sleeve of his hospital gown rolls down, I see that part of his right thumb is missing. Something about that empty space where the other half of his thumb should be transfixes me, holds me still and silent, but then the sound of his fingernails tap-tap-tapping on the glass makes me recoil in the darkness.

"Brie." I watch his lips shape my name. He leans toward the window, opening his eyes even wider, as if that will help him to see me lurking to the far side of my pitch black bedroom. "Brie," he says again. "Let me in." I can hardly hear him through the glass, and though the voice is raspy and exhausted, damaged even, I recognize it. He must really be here.

"Evan," I whisper, and find my feet shuffling forward without permission. I get all the way to the glass before my legs freeze and pull me to a halt.

On the other side of the window, Evan lets his head fall forward, pressing the scarred flesh of his bald forehead against the pane. He closes his eyes and presses the palms of both hands flat on the glass. I feel mine rising to meet them, pressing against the window with my fingers lined up to his. His fingers eclipse mine in all places but one, where the sad little half-thumb ends in a jagged knuckled stump.

"Please let me in," he says, speaking so softly now that I can barely hear him at all and have to read his lips forming the words. "Someone's after me. Brie. Please. Let me in."

"Evan," I say again, the word a mere breath this time.

I think of the day we first met, the day he disappeared, of all the days between. The scrawny little boy whose long auburn hair always fell into his evergreen eyes. Who shared ice cream with me on blazing summer days and let me have the melty chocolate bits at the bottom of the cone. Who let me camp out at his house whenever Mom went on one of her binges.

The same awkward little boy who grew up into the gorgeous guy that pawed my stepsister on our living room couch after games on Friday nights.

I shudder and shove that image away.

What if he's a vampire, and he's going to eat me if I let him in? God, that would be so cliched. Plus he's not glowing or fangy or anything. He's not even dripping blood. Not a vampire then.


I unlock the window and slide it open.


Before I can do anything else, Evan tumbles through the window and throws both arms around me, forcing me to stumble backwards until I hit the bed and we crash into a pile. He smells vaguely of something chemical, a familiar odor that I can't quite place. Whatever it is, it burns my nose. Instinctively I shove him away and scramble toward the headboard, drawing my legs up to my chest and wrapping both arms around my knees as tight as my muscles will allow.

He sits perfectly still at the foot of the bed, staring at me with deer-in-headlight eyes. The hospital gown crinkles with each of his quick breaths.

I have no idea what to say. We're both breathing hard now, and staring, staring, just all this stupid staring. What do you say to a dead boy? A boy you weren't even friends with anymore when he died?

The longer we sit in silence, the more I feel like I should say something, anything, to kill this moment and move on to the next. But everything I can think of sounds idiotic.

What are you doing out of your grave?

Does Jesus really wear Jesus sandals?

Have you missed me at all since fifth grade?

I turn on the bedside lamp. Evan squints, waits, clears his throat.

"Thanks for letting me in," he says after a while. His breathing has slowed somewhat, and I realize I've been holding my breath while imagining all the ridiculous first lines I could drop.

I let out a huge breath and say, "Um, sure. No problem." I clear my throat and add, "So what are you doing here, anyway?"

No success picking a clever first question. It's not even possible for him to be here, so why bother asking? God, what if he's not here? I think I was only joking before when I thought I might be a bit whacko, but holy hell, what if I'm right? It wouldn't be the first time.


  1. Hey there!

    Really like your first pages. It really draws me in and your writing in strong. A few suggestions...take them or leave them.

    I do not really like your first line. I think it would be stronger if you took off the This just in part. I think "There is a dea guy at my window had a better punch to it all alone.

    Even though it can't be. People don't just come back to life. The Reanimist Association raised an animal or two in its day, sure, but the one time they tried with a human was a total disaster. So bad that no one talks, or even thinks, about resurrection anymore. Jenny's Law makes it illegal to

    This paragraph is confusing because it makes me think...okay this tells me we are not in present day because they are resurrecting people but I am not told when it is and I am not given any info on whether this is a normal occurance. Although I don't suggest an info dump I did continue to read waiting for an explanation and it didn't come so I am hoping that if i read more pages that would be explained.

    I also got a bit confused onthe time line with him being in high school, ex best friend from elementary school? I would make it a bit clearer. Maybe give a time that the friendship ended and a quick reason why. i wonder if it is because of the step sister but not sure.

    Just little tweaks here and there. Over all great job.

  2. I agree with Connie about the first sentence - "this just in" suggests seeing dead people is routine for Brie and contradicts the subsequent weightiness with which she ponders going to the window. The boy at the window is definitely intriguing though and pulls me in as a reader.

    I also found myself getting caught up/distracted in calculating her age based on elementary school being "more than a third of my life ago," and Evan's being dead for "a good part" of it confused me if that was just 1-1/2 years ago... But again, I am intrigued and want to know how their relationship ended and what he is doing there. I feel for poor Brie as it must have been so awful to find her mom in the bathtub.

    Thanks for the good read!

  3. Hi Tiffany,
    Cool premise. Agree with dropping the first sentence. And as for placing the story in a future time frame, sometimes writers pull in something contemporary (ie, Ipod, the first African-American President, solar vehicles) and then say something to establish that is well in the past--especially as it fits into your plot. You would only have to mention this a couple times, I would think, if the future world/alternative world is not key to the plot. Conversely, you may want to say something like "the RA of my parents' time...." Just a couple of ideas. ;-)

    Is Brie a guy? Since Evan is his best friend? You may want to establish that, as there is hugging, etc. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

    I do like the premise and am looking forward to reading more. Dead guys rule!

  4. The rhythm of the story just PULLS you along in an amazing and page-turning way - definitely the tone you want in a thriller. The voice is delightful too; it reveals a character who is compassionate and curious and smart-mouthed without being too over-the-top-snarky.

    However, the first chapter feels a little busy. There are a lot of ideas here competing for the reader's attention. There’s the supernatural element (reanimation) and the personal element (Brie’s relationship with Evan), and what I felt was a distinct lack of *reaction* from Brie at what she's witnessing.

    If reanimation was really such a big deal in this society, I’d expect her to have either a stronger reaction to the presence of a dead body or a stronger unwillingness to let him in. If the illegality and/or taboo against reanimation is going to figure prominently in the story, Brie has to react that way, at least initially.

    Can't wait to see what you come up with next!

  5. Wow. I REALLY like this one. I'd totally keep reading. I agree on dropping the "This just in" part. There's a dead boy at my window is a killer line. No pun intended. Also, the RA thing makes me wonder what else is different about this world. I'm feeling scifi here. I know you say speculative, is there a reason? Just curious. Oh and I would like to know a slight bit more about the MC at this point. I'm more interested in the dead boy than her so far despite her awesome humor.

  6. Hi Tiffany,

    This is wonderful, and I had no trouble picking up that it is set in the future or an alternative reality, but it would be great to have one or two other things different -- everything else is so identical to our world that just that one bit of difference is a little jarring.

    I did feel a little disconnected from her reactions. She's shocked when she sees Evan. We got that--but what else is she? Hopeful? Happy? Conflicted? You mention that she thinks about all the times between his death, but we don't really have a sense of what she felt in that time. Also, since he was dating her sister, wouldn't she wonder why he's coming to see her? Where has he been? Why is he in a hospital gown?

    Not sure why you cut the chapter in mid-scene there?

    Really great concept and great core voice!



  7. Hi Tiffany,
    Thanks for sharing your pages. I really like Brie's voice and the world you created. As Christine and Martina mentioned, make a couple things different. One can even be the hospital gown! :) Maybe it's because my daughter was in ER last night and was so embarrassed about the hospital gown that I couldn't help but wonder whether Evan's hospital gown is open in the back.

    As you work on your revision, develop the setting. All we know is she's in her bedroom. I'm assuming it's her house? Does she live in the country or city? House or apartment building? Was she worried anyone saw him outside her window and would report it? Is there a nosy neighbor who lives across the street and she sees a light go on? Do shrubs or trees hide him from view? Is her bedroom on the first floor, 2nd floor, etc.? Is she worried about any of her family members hearing them or even smelling Evan once he's inside?

    "He smells of something chemical" -- All I could think was GROSS. formaldehyde. slime. Why isn't she grossed out when she sees him? He was gorgeous when he was alive. Now, he's in a hospital gown and looks like a science experiment. Use this opportunity to show Brie's reaction. She's a bit calm when she sees him at the window. Given resurrection is illegal, I'd think she'd have more of a reaction at seeing Evan and freaking out about the consequences. What are the consequences?

    Minor detail - Not sure if this is an inconsistency - Evan was Brie's best friend in elementary school. They haven't spoken since elementary school. In high school, he dated her step-sister. Didn't they talk when he was at her house? Did she have a crush on him?

    I definitely want to read more. Looking forward to your revision!

  8. Hi everyone! Thanks so much for the excellent comments! It was great to see that a lot of you had the same comments, that makes the editing easy. :) I just wanted to address here a few of the concerns that I didn't address in the manuscript...

    Connie: I deliberately left some questions unanswered so as to keep the reader turning pages. :) I also didn't wanna stuff too much in the opening pages.

    Christine, Lisa, & Martina: You all mentioned what I'd consider to be an issue of genre, something that's plagued me with this manuscript as well, since I feel like it sort of crosses several genres. I ended up calling it speculative because I wanted the ability to resurrect people to be the only thing different about the world; it's just a world that answers the question, "What if we could resurrect people anytime we wanted?" I'm concerned that all 3 of you found that confusing and wanted to see more different, but I don't really picture this world as being all that different from ours. It's sorta like magical realism, except the one wonky element is scientific and not magic. Does that make sense? The story is about the relationship between Evan and Brie as they search for Evan's murderer while discovering how his resurrection came to be. I'd love to get some more feedback from you guys now after knowing my intentions behind not making changes to the world at this point.

    I think that everything else you guys mentioned, I addressed in the new draft. I actually had an agent who requested a partial mention the lack of reaction issue, so I'm really glad to hear that confirmed here. Check out what I've added and let me know if that makes it more realistic, or if I've gone too far.

    Thanks so much everyone, I really appreciate the help!