Monday, February 4, 2013

1st Five Pages February Workshop - Mezher

Name: Helene Mezher

Genre: YA Science Fiction

Eighteen-year-old Edge, budding scientist and indeterminate prodigy, was persecuted by the promise of adventure. It stalked her every waking thought, her every late-night craving. Working with hazardous chemicals in her pristine lab coat and closed-toed shoes, calloused hands gloved in latex and frayed hair bound by rubber, only amplified the yearning drumming deep in her body. Adrenaline was her hormone of choice as it pulsed through her veins, seeking, coaxing, demanding. When she discovered an abandoned corridor, her first thoughts ran to the possibilities it offered. When she traveled home via the Light Generators, she wished that she could feel their tremendous speed. And when darkness descended on her domed shelter, she thrilled. On most nights, darkness marked the time to play, to explore.

Tonight, it marked the time to worry.

If adventure taunted Edge, trouble personified her fervent and youthful mother. August Gray was the fifty-year-old renowned traveler who had charged through terra incognita and labeled most of the rivers and valleys that curved along this strange planet with a deft hand in cartography and an eye for extraordinary detail. Every month she took a government sponsored trip to uncover new facets of their homeland, to retrieve species of microorganisms and plants and animals for further examination. For her latest assignment, she had journeyed to find yet another sub species of the bacteria that fueled their city with electricity. Though her cargo was long due to arrive, the assurance of discoveries had calmed her supervisors; and even Edge who had last seen her mother a month ago, when they had discussed the implications of overpopulation and the consequences of the PN virus. Edge could still picture the slight pucker in her mother's forehead as Edge argued against use of the monoclonal antibody that targeted the viral protein coat. That image of disappointment, disapproval, dearth of pride was plastered to the forefront of Edge's concerns.

Because of what had happened, Edge did not know if she would remember the sound of her mother's voice, or have the chance to feel the rough wrinkles in her cheeks. Their wireless ear buds, which connected Edge with August in absence, had yielded nothing but a static interface, buzzing a portent that Edge could no longer ignore. Over a month without hugging her wiry body, and now a connection that failed? Edge had enough reason to snoop through August's office for clues of her whereabouts--and the exact details of her mission, which the government had withheld. Edge was not on a need-to-know basis, but the exclusion had simply encouraged her determination.

As she sorted through the maps scattered along the desk, Edge heard the assured step that indicated her best friend's arrival. "I'm in the back," she said as the pressure in her chest decompressed. "Grab gloves and get your ass over here!"

"Well, well, what's the addict up to now?" Sage said, his teasing tone floating through the house. Edge returned to her work with a sad smile.

If Edge was honest with herself, she might admit to the curiosity that August inspired. She might admit to the hurt that their separation evoked. Despite her best efforts at avoidance, that reality persisted; missing her mother and wishing that she could accompany her on trips. But Edge did not deal in personal truths or unwieldy emotions. She dealt in hard facts and cold observations, and her mother's desk was a mess of paper and pens and cracked computer screens. There was a lot of data to organize.

Some seconds passed before a familiar droll voice said, "No death-defying activities tonight, E? I'm shocked. So, so shocked."

Sage lounged against the front of the desk, his arms crossed. When Edge was younger and her mother less in demand, August would forewarn her with the tragedies that had occurred on Earth. One involved an iceberg with a fourth of its mass floating on the cold ocean, and the rest hidden to those who passed. Sage was that iceberg: tall and lean but undoubtedly present, saturating the room with an indelible force. You might never discover what he hid beneath that frothing water, but it didn't matter because he was solid and steady, and harsh and proud, and the best damn friend she had ever had.

"Psh, there's plenty of light left for a good run through the dome-ways. Don't discount me just yet." Then worry wrenched Edge, and her grin faded. "Actually that was a lie. I can't tonight. I... She's gone, Sage."

Without hesitation, he secured his spot at her side and observed her in that frozen way he had, gaze fixed and no muscle twitching. Sometimes his attention bothered her, so she would look at him, really and truly look. You want people to stop? Stare at them until they shift and adjust and focus elsewhere. In her experience, most people seemed uncomfortable with being caught, judgment so clear in their eyes. Sage was no exception, though he tried to withhold his opinions until she asked for them.

Tonight Edge welcomed his looks, his observation. His presence was instant comfort, a warmth that chased the dread of absence.

He cleared his throat. "What happened?"

Gratitude filled her; he knew which questions to ask. "The connection failed. I... We... All I could hear was static. Like her ear bud was damaged, and there's only noise left."

"Did you try tracking the IP address?"

"Nothing there."

"How did the static come through?"

She shook her head.

"What about her partner? Jameson or whatever his name is?"

Edge gave him the look, which, as always, made Sage laugh. "Do you think that I would snoop through her things without having considered every possibility?"

"All right, but I know you, E, and I know that you didn't call the authorities. They're an option too." She closed her eyes when he squeezed her hand; so small, so childish and naive within his. "You work for the government, so you know they're not all bad."

"They haven't done anything good for her, Sage." She took a deep breath as the weight of fear pressed on her throat. "As long as she promises to return with goodies, they're happy. When she doesn't, they send her on impossible trips to find ridiculous crap. Maybe this time it was too much for her. And why should they care if she chose to stay away? Or if she was trapped somewhere? One less mouth to feed in this overcrowded shithole."

Sage rubbed the small of her back and sighed.

"How many people leave the dome? Think about it. She and her crew and their cargo hold and who else? You're the history buff. You know the answer. You know no one would risk leaving without a contingency like hers. None of them care!"

"No one can replace August Gray."

A tear marred her cheek.

"No one can replace you."

Her voice was as small as the hands that clutched the desk when she said, "There are only two people who I trust."

He watched her face in that still way, then her hands, which shook as she created two piles: useful and useless. "You want to leave," Sage said. "You want to find her on your own. And you want me to help."

The tear reached the edge of her mouth. It was no benediction, nothing like the twenty-year-old who stood steadfast beside her in form-fitting clothes, slanted eyes glaring and wide nose flaring as he sought her response. Her lips cracked when she smiled.


  1. Interesting story so far! Science fictiony settings are so intriguing, because they could go so many different directions. Edge and Sage are interesting characters. Their names are almost anagrams of each other. Is that intentional? I don't know if I'd eventually confuse their names, but it's something to consider.

    I think you could skip the first four paragraphs and go straight to Edge going through her mother's office. When Sage comes in, you could work in the backstory much better there. Sage even mentions her adrenaline-junkie habits.

    I like Sage's description as an iceberg. This being sci-fi makes me wonder if he's an android or a construct of some kind. After all, at this point, anything's possible. Especially with Edge's obsession with logic over emotion. :-)

    I think just revising it to put the most necessary information from the first four paragraphs into Sage and Edge's exchange would improve it a lot. Any further comments I'd make come back to "take that up there and put it down here!"

  2. All right! I like the opening, you’ve got voice here in spades. I loved it until “adrenaline was her hormone of choice.” Then I want a period, and I wanted to skip down to end of the paragraph and the “time to worry” line. (Although keeping some reference to the domed shelters, to plant us in the scifi world, would be nice.) But I wanted to get to the good stuff.

    Which is not necessarily the paragraphs about her mom. Can we work that in after we get her iceberg hottie, Sage, on the scene? (Although him calling her an addict was weird. I think you meant adrenaline addict, right?)

    Note: I want you to know you have some amazing skills with language here – please know it’s not that I want to cut all the pretty scifi stuff. I think the reader needs to be thoroughly hooked (on the MC, and the task at hand) before the specific information about the mom’s job and her disappearance take up so much valuable first pages real estate.

    I think I could pare down some of the background information up front, and layer it in over the course of the chapter – maybe even revealing some of it as Sage and Edge go on their Mom Hunt.

    On second reading, I thought maybe some (although not all) of my wish for the mom stuff to be layered I was because of some unnecessary verbiage. For instance, in the second full paragraph, you refer to her mom’s look of “disappointment, disapproval, dearth of pride.” Repetitive, I think, and it took me out of the moment. Possibly why I shied away in the first paragraph at “seeking, coaxing, demanding.” I might follow Steven King’s sage advice, and go back in and cut at least 10% of the words – try to cut out unnecessary words where you’ve repeated for the effect, rather than for understanding. See what you think!

    Note: be careful of POV issues. Would Edge think of hugging her mom’s “wiry body?” That stopped me every time. Also, would you consider simplifying some of your sentences? For instance, “August would forewarn her with the tragedies that had occurred on Earth.” I got tripped up. Did you mean “August would remind her of the tragedies that had occurred on Earth?” Or something else? Sometimes simpler language is a good thing.

    BTW, this sounds just like my cup of tea – I love YA fantasy and scifi! Have fun revising.

  3. Like all the info that puts me in the story immediately but the distant third person doesn't make me love Edge at first (I love the name, though). However a few sensory details and putting her in her mother's office at the beginning would ground me further and leave me wondering what's going on. Put her feelings found in paragraph three/four - remembering her mother's voice (what about it makes it unique?) above the paragraph describing what her mother does would help. I'd cut the dickens out of the paragraph describing her mother's job.

    Having Sage's voice ("Well, well, what's the addict...") cut into Edge's thoughts would serve better just as he enters and Edge hears his footsteps.

    The interaction between them is excellent.

    POV switch when "She closed her eyes when he squeezed her hand;(that is her POV) so small, so childish and naive within his (sounds like his POV).

    Does she feel her lips crack when she smiles? Does it hurt? Is this normal?

    Great writing!

  4. I'm going to recommend doing an exercise here. I want you to get deep inside your MC's mind and try rewriting the first page at least in first person. I feel like there's a connection issue for the reader and if you do that you'd see what she would and wouldn't say/think. If you like it great! If not you don't have to change everything, just see what it does for you. Otherwise agree on all else, pare down the backstory and get to the interaction! :D

  5. Helene,

    You have a great command of language and it's beautiful to read. I really like the setup for the story and already have a great sense for Edge's strong personality.

    My only critique, and it may just be my own personal preference on style, is to restrain your writing a little bit. Pick your spots to show off your amazing skills. A few times it got in the way for me. Nothing major.

    Thanks for sharing your work. I look forward to the next version.

  6. I agree that the first four paragraphs are good backstory for you to understand, but can be presented in the context of action and dialogue. Some of it is already sort of repeated in cliff note form as it is.

    An important note here is that many if not most YA readers do not feel as deep an admiration for their mothers as Edge does. Can you give us something out of the ordinary to ground us in that worldview for her? Something personal, a part of Edge's unique experience of her mother that can complement her public hero persona. At age 18, parents don't always get street cred at home for saving the world outside the family.

    The dialogue between Edge and Sage is strong - I'd like to see Edge declare her intentions though rather than having Sage do it for her. Sage could even go first, saying, "Of course I'll go with you." But the intention would be stronger, I think, coming from the MC's cracked lips. :)

    I think you've got a solid foundation for the opening and great world-building in place. A little reorganization will carry it a long way and make it as compelling for the reader as the story elements promise.

    Looking forward to seeing the next version.


  7. Hi Helene,

    I'm going to recommend that you take Lisa's advice and Nikki's. You have incredible voice here, and an interesting story, but the problem is that I don't believe it. I'm getting it at arm's length, and it seems too old and detailed for the MC. I'd love more immediacy and grit for this kind of a story. You can go first person or third person, either way, but get rid of the distance between us and your mc, and you will bring us deeper into the story and let us experience it with her. That will automatically let you see when you are not saying something that she would say or think.

    I already pointed out a book I love about deep POV in one of the other critiques this week, but here's a quick blog post that I thought was helpful, too: What's so deep about deep POV?. That has some very clear examples.

    Ultimately, I would love for you to start with Sage entering the room and show the scene between them while sprinkling necessary backstory within the scene. Start with that incredible iceberg reference to his personality. It not only sets the stage for your world, but gives us a brilliant quick, basic character description that speaks volumes. It's wonderful. Don't bury it!

    Most importantly, we need action in these first pages. Action as in motion, not necessarily car chases or murders or explosions. Just something happening that you can envision. Imagine this as a movie and show it unfolding. Sketch it out as a storyboard and you'll see immediately where you are lingering too long.

    Looking forward to seeing what happens next in the story as you trim this down! :)