Monday, December 10, 2012

1st 5 Pages December Workshop - Mahoney Rev 1

Name: Vivian Lee Mahoney
Genre: YA Historical Fantasy
Title: The Rebel Queen

I was born with my eyes open, an oddity that spurred gossip and encouraged matchmakers to find other baby girls to promise to the village boys. Mother and Father didn’t mind when none of the village families claimed me. They saw my life’s beginning as an auspicious sign―a way for me to always see the truth behind the falsities of life―and named me Jin-Ae, Truthful Treasure. How they smiled when I spotted the slight-of-hand merchant who tried to cheat Father with fake pearls that crushed into dust, or the traveling farmer who weighed down the rice with river stones to collect more copper coins. While I didn’t have the ability to see into the future like the village shamans, every silent glance, unheard word, and stifled movement ruffled through me and warned me of people’s intentions. If only I listened when the Palace announced my fate. I only have myself to blame.

A slight breeze rustled through holes in the rice paper window. I clutched my jacket closer to my shoulders as I paced the women’s quarters a final time, a stranger in scarlet silk. My gown, a lustrous crimson, edged with gold embroidered peonies along the sleeves and hem, announced me with every movement. Swish. Swish. Never had I worn a gown so elegant, soft to the touch, a gift to the eye. Yet, misery draped over me. My red satin slippers burned bright along the path burrowed into the heated dirt floor, twelve paces from one wall to another, towards the open door, away from the chamber of my childhood.

“You look just like your mother.” Precious Aunt stood by the doorway, her face softening into a melancholy smile. “She didn't want this life for you.” She shook her head. “Already I speak too much.”

My heart caught in my throat. “Please tell me. No one else is here.”

Precious Aunt hugged me and whispered in my ear. “Don't believe such foolishness. There will always be eyes and ears following you around.” She straightened my jacket and fastened a gold filagreed ornament to my skirt. “Your mother was once a favored friend of the Royal Family. Did you know she was betrothed to the Daewon-gun?”

“How could it be?”

“Aiee,” she said softly, smoothing out my hair. “It doesn’t surprise me.”

“What happened?”

“We must not talk of such foolishness. It will only bring us bad luck.”

“Why are you telling me this now?”

“Shh.” My aunt glanced towards the door. “There isn’t much time. Before your mother left the palace, the Queen gave her this good luck piece,” she said, brushing her fingers against the golden ornament at my waist. “Perhaps if she wore this…”

A shadow passed outside the window and a chill blew through the torn rice paper. Precious Aunt grabbed my hands. Even though she spoke softly, her eyes expressed a wildness, a fear I’ve never seen.

“You’ve mourned your parents long enough.” She reached out and touched my forehead. “It’s time to pay attention, Jin-Ae. You’re treading into new territory and we will all lose, if you don’t wake up.”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“Promise me,” she squeezed my hands. “Promise me you’ll wear this at all times. It’s said this was made from a dragon scale and will protect the owner from harm.”

I nodded, even though thousands of questions burned on my tongue. The shrill cry of the azure-winged magpie shrieked outside my window, and I started. Mother believed in the magpie’s warnings.

“Will this keep me home?” I grabbed her hand. “Please help me stay.”

“I cannot bear this.” Surrendering a sad smile, Precious Aunt turned and fled.

If Esteemed Uncle heard me plead, he’d punish Precious Aunt for not raising me in the proper manner. Who would protect her from his anger when I leave? I sighed. Perhaps I’d do her more good when I’m in the palace, when money and gifts were mine to give.

Time grew late. The Royal Guard would soon take me away. I hastened to say my goodbyes. Thick icicles dripped from our slate roof, sprinkling me as I left the women’s quarters. I stepped across the inner courtyard and jumped over melting ice patches, my skirts fluttering around my ankles. Two stone tigers, faces smoothed by the elements, guarded the entrance to the main house. For the last time, I reached out and rubbed their heads for luck, before suffering the ten steps to the library, where Esteemed Uncle waited every morning, expecting all the household to pay our respects. Today, I knew not what to say. What do I tell my uncle, who seemed too pleased to have one less mouth to feed, who sang his joy of my departure the night before? Deep bows to the ground and muttered insults would suffice for the man who traded me for my home and a life filled with copper coins.

I peeked into the empty library and rustled past the bamboo sitting mats, silk screen, and mahogany desk with the ink bowls and calligraphy brushes. My favorite part of the room―the stacks of books piled against the wall―beckoned me. How I loved these books, most which Father read to me in secret, teaching me to decipher each character and string into words. My fingers ran along the worn spines, avoiding Instructions for Women, a book of virtues Uncle demanded I study these past couple of months, by order of the Palace. This thin book contained so many expectations for women on the proper rules of conduct―piety, demure countenance, deference to the wisdom of men―standards Mother and Father had not followed, reveling instead in passionate discussions, mutual honor, and respect. My failings multiplied with every word from the book and weighed on my shoulders. My knees gave way and I sank to the ground, without a care for the ceremonial gown that nestled around me.

This was my home, the stronghold of all my memories of Mother and Father. I did not know if I would ever be given permission to return. I was sixteen-years-old, yet I aged over a hundred years since the Daewon-gun, the Prince of the Great Court, selected me from his harvest of the most beautiful and wealthy girls of yangban, noble lineage to be his son’s, King Dae-Jung’s wife. Why the Daewon-gun chose me, the poorest of nobles with no family influence, I didn't know. But now, knowing Mother’s history, I could not erase the slight possibility of revenge. I shivered. I would be Queen of Korea in a few short weeks and already counted one enemy, one powerful enemy in the court. My lips quivered and I stood up, wiping away evidence of the dirt floor and the melancholy that imprisoned me.

I must find a way to stay home. Perhaps Esteemed Uncle would relent if I doubled my chores and found a way to earn my keep. It wouldn’t take long before my hands, softened by empty chores and luxurious oils from King Dae-Jung, regained their usefulness in the kitchen. I will find Uncle and beg.

My favorite book, The Legend of the Dragon King, lay on top of the pile next to me. My mood lifted and I tucked the small volume into my waistband, next to Mother’s filagreed ornament, before rushing into the kitchen, stumbling on the heavy silk skirts. Once Esteemed Uncle agreed to halt the wedding, I would change into my comfortable cotton dress, tattered from constant wear, and prepare the most magnificent feast our meager rations would allow. Barbecued bulgogi. Steamed rice. Pickled vegetables. My stomach growled.

I hurried past the stink of the stove that heated the floors, the heady scent rising from the large clay pots of onions and garlic, and into the comforting fragrance of the warm kitchen. My cousins loved to linger over breakfast and gossip, while Precious Aunt chopped vegetables and buzzed around her children, urging them to eat and study hard. I paused. Rather than lively company, empty dishes piled high in a pail and a bowl of rice porridge waited for me, steam rising in the clay oven. My eyes teared. Precious Aunt arranged extra portions of salted beef and kimchi, her rations, in my bowl.

Discomfort quieted me and the unusual silence roared in my ears. Where were the baby’s cries, my cousins’ shouts, my aunt’s song, and even Uncle’s complaints? Unease trembled along my skin, curling deep within my belly.


  1. I liked that you changed the second paragraph to go straight into her present day. I personally thought you used a lot of colorful words to describe her dress in the second paragraph, however, and this is just me...I find that poetic and colorful language often gets lost in the YA reader. I try to think to myself is the information I am giving the reader helping the story move forward. Is the point that she is pacing, feeling anxious and not use to wearing such fine clothes lost in the poetry of the words?
    The sentence "Why are you telling me this now," felt off to me because the aunt isn't really telling her anything and said lets not talk about this now.

    I am confused as to why she is going away and why it is bad. I think you should hint at this earlier because I was had it in my head that one wanted her to marry because she was born with her eyes open. Also, I knew her parents had died because I read the earlier version. YOu may want to just add the fact she is an orphan and raised, reluctantly?, by her aunt and uncle. I enjoy your writing and find the rhythm and flow enjoyable to read. I would just emphasize again to read through and ask yourself if the descriptions and details you are adding are telling us about the character and helping us to connect with her and her plight. There is a lot of information given in your pages but is it drawing us in? I hate these words more than anything...but I have been told again and again that a publisher doesn't feel connected with my characters. Use the limited words you are allowed to submit to really get the reader into the story and care about what is happening to your MC. SOmetimes that means shorting descriptions that although poetic don't move the read forward.

    YOu are a beautiful writer and I enjoyed your pages.

    1. This is so much tighter, you've really gotten us to The Day Things Happen quickly.

      ----"sleight of hand"

      I'm thinking about this sentence in the first paragraph: "If only I listened when the Palace announced my fate." Is it that she didn't listen because she was out of it? Because she had hubris? Because she was naive? I'm wondering if a different verb than "listen" would help us out here. "If only I had paid attention." "If only I had understood the consequences." "If only I hadn't been so stubborn." etc.

      I find your details fascinating, and you are obviously a literary writer. You may want to go back and make sure you polish down to the most exacting details that you need. For instance:

      The paragraph about the dress:

      "...a stranger in scarlet silk. My gown, a lustrous crimson, edged with gold embroidered peonies along the sleeves and hem, announced me with every movement. Swish. Swish. Never had I worn a gown so elegant, soft to the touch, a gift to the eye."

      Do you want to call it scarlet or crimson? You tell us it announces you with your movements, then you demonstrate the swishing. You tells us you're a stranger to the silk, and tells you've never worn a gown so elegant. This passage can probably be whittled down. But please, don't lose the gift to the eye phrase!

      And then, be sure to hit the contrast that you have set up:

      "Yet, misery draped over me"

      Can we have more of a feeling of weight? A description of physical feelings?

      I think that's what I'm missing over all. The visual elements are quite stunning. But the MC's feelings--well, I'm not feeling them. And I don't have any senses except sight. There are some kitchen smells at the end, but make her drool or something, so I drool too.


      Can her uncle defy the grand poobah and not give her hand in marriage?

      She seems shocked that her mother got out of being betrothed to the grand poobah.

      So either you can or can't get out of being betrothed to the grand poobah. If you can, then her response to her mother getting out of it should be something like, "how the eff did she get out of it?" as in, perhaps I can too. But if you can't, then her crazy mental ramblings about how to get out of being betrothed to the poobah should focus on running away or something, not making a deal with her uncle who can't do anything about it. something's gotta give---> *cue music*

      If you are having her walk through the house as a build-up before the attack, I can totally see that. I would shorten it, however. Put more of her melancholy turning into agitation turning into fear/panic as she realizes everyone is gone. Make us feel it in our guts. *ow*

      This is a fabulous plot. I love a smart heroine, and I know this girl is one. I am excited to see the next version!

  2. How about starting with rustling wind, and then putting the first graph down a bit further?

    And there is a lot of back story. The love of books and the library is great, but you could say that all in a few lines as she sneaks the book. I think things like female customs and other cultural descriptions could come later on, and be spaced out a bit more.

    Also, as you are developing her character--eyes wide open--you then slip her into a scene where she has no choice. She missed the Palace could that work? She can't predict the future but has some powers. So she goes from that to being chosen. (The revenge part was confusing...the queen passed a token to the mother and?) I'd like more of a connection to her powers.

    I wonder if you could just start with the leaving scene without the mysterious mother part, and then mention eyes-wide-open. I assume her power is part of the plot, so maybe you can foreshadow or show it more than just the marketplace issues, which were good but seemed removed from the current day.

    Hope this makes sense. I enjoy the writing and want to hear more about this rebel queen.

  3. Hi Vivian -

    I still love your first paragraph as it immediately orients us to the general time period as well as her intriguing abilities, and I like the last sentence you added to it to bring us up to the story's present. Maybe you could also add right in that paragraph a brief comment that she couldn't foresee her parents' early deaths.

    I was slightly jarred at the transition to the second paragraph. An opening sentence or phrase there might help place her -- I wasn't sure of her age at that point, or if she were already in the palace or still in her childhood home.

    Perhaps you could omit the "why are you telling me this now" question and condense Aunt's comments to something like, "Shh - such talk will only bring us bad luck..."

    Re "I peeked into the empty library," I missed the significance at first of its being empty, that Uncle should have been there and was not -- you might reword or break apart that sentence to keep that important info from getting lost... perhaps she could express mild surprise, which then intensifies when Aunt and cousins are also absent from their usual post. To make it clear that Aunt is not there in the kitchen, I would add "had," as in "Aunt had arranged extra portions..." to show she wasn't actively arranging them.

    More details - I think filagreed should be spelled filigreed, and you use the words "foolishness" and "rustled" twice relatively close together...might want to substitute another word to retain more impact.

    Again, I think you write beautifully and I enjoy your style. Its poetry might be lost on some YA readers, but I believe some YA would love it... if you can just get it in the hands of the right agent, editor, and teen readers!!

  4. I still think the writing in this piece is lovely and evocative. It does a lot to establish setting and mood, and I don’t think it’s necessarily offputting in a YA. True, this won’t work for all readers, but I think you can get a lot of mileage out of this beautiful sculptured prose. You might want to consider breaking up the big blocky paragraphs - this might help counteract a reader thinking the writing is hard to read if the chunks are smaller.

    I agree with the comment that this story still starts a little too slowly. In the previous version, we had a nice intriguing attack on the house at the end, but that’s absent from this version. Jin-Ae wandering around her childhood home being unhappy isn’t building enough tension for me. Maybe Precious Aunt is hunting for the token she gives to Jin-Ae and can't find it? Maybe Esteemed Uncle is telling her to get her backside into the courtyard to meet her escort?

    Nice work on the new version - looking forward to what you come up with next!

  5. I agree with the above comment. Never dumb it down for teen readers, especially older YA. They'll sniff that out in a second. ;D I'd like to see a bit more action too. Your prose is lovely.

  6. Great job on the rewrite, I feel like what's going on in this version is much clearer, and the flow is better. I do agree with many of the above comments however. I think what Connie was trying to say is that flowery prose can trip a YA reader in particular, and I still think you have just a bit too much of it here. Again, that may just be stylistic preference, and again I tend not to go for historical voices, so Connie and I could just be the wrong audience for this voice, but it's something to think about. I don't think you'd have to dumb it down to abolish some of the flowery-ness; just whittle down to the most necessary details and retain some of the most beautiful and meaningful of the flowery parts, and it'll be amazing!

    I agree with the backstory comments as well, I miss the attack scene that came so quickly in the first version. Much of the narrative here is interior with not a lot of action going on outside, so if you just whittle and condense you'll really get to the heart of the story quickly. I look forward to seeing what you do next!

  7. Hi Vivian,

    The opening works much better for me, although I think you could smooth out the transition from present to past between the two paragraphs. That first paragraph would be a natural place to insert the information about her parents dying, which she also didn't foresee, and I agree with the Lisa that you could give us some information about her character arc by signaling her feelings about listening when the palace announced her fate. I'd also love a bit more information about what is going to happen at the palace. It's a little bit too nebulous yet.

    Your writing absolutely is gorgeous, but the beautiful words that make up the beautiful sentences do need to earn their place or you dilute the power of the story. This early in the piece, every one needs to paint a vital picture, set a mood, build a character, comment on theme, and/or advance the action. There are plenty of YA stories that are both literary and popular, and they do that by making the beautiful words advance the action and build tension. I think you are nearly at that point with this, but I would love to see the conflicts you have set up made less oblique. Don't shy away from giving us enough information to ground us firmly so that the questions you leave open build urgency rather than confusion.

    I do love this story and your writing. I'm eager to see the next version!