Monday, June 10, 2013

1st 5 Pages June Workshop - Staple, Rev 1

Name: Elizabeth Staple, Revision 1
Genre: YA Fantasy/Fairytale
Title: Journey to Slanavalia

I’ve known for a while now that I‘ll be dead by my eighteenth birthday.

But there was no way to anticipate the hollowness in my chest when the clock struck midnight on the first day of my last year of being alive. I was awake to see it, of course, because it’s impossible to sleep in here. Shadowy figures are always coming in and out to monitor or refill or adjust. At times they just stand at the end of my bed, watching me. Screens and gauges beep and tick, a polite reminder that very few of my organs are self-sufficient. A tangle of wires and chords – pressurized cuffs that massage my underused legs, various monitors clipped to my fingers or stuck to my chest, and one big, fat PICC line that goes straight into a vein in my neck – imprison me in bed, even if I did have the strength to stand up -- which I usually don’t.

I ignored the control for my adjustable bed and gingerly propped myself up on my elbows. It was dark, for a hospital room, but I could make out the aggressively cheerful banner that stretched across the far wall. I’m in Pediatrics, and my (private, not bad really, long-term care) room was bordered in a clown pattern. I don’t know if this is why I’m terrified of circus performers or just an unhappy coincidence, but my little sister has made it her job to keep the border covered with artwork, streamers and cards. Tonight, it was a long thread of cobbled together construction paper that pronounced boldly, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY EMMALINE.”

I thought I sensed movement at my door and stiffened, waiting for someone to walk in wielding a syringe. Why is it that needles hurt so much more in the middle of the night? But I must have imagined it, because although the shadow remained, it didn’t move, but stayed sentry-like in the doorway until I dozed off.
The next morning I was awoken, as usual, just after dawn by a team of mysterious men and women in white coats. Sometimes they’re med students, sometimes they’re residents, but they always make me feel like a zoo animal, if zoo animals had less privacy. They change rotations a lot, and I gave up trying to learn their names a long time ago. Now I just hope I’m not sleeping with my mouth open when they come in.

“Good morning, Miss Baska!” One thing the groups all have in common is a Lead Coat with an unnaturally loud voice. It’s ironic, really, because my hearing is one of the few things about my health that’s spot on. “How are we feeling today?” She removed my chart from the end of the bed without looking at me and started flipping through its pages.

“We’re fine,” I mumbled sleepily, bulging my eyes to try and wake myself up. This time I spared my elbows and electronically adjusted the bed. Once I had straightened myself to a sitting position and made an attempt to flatten my hair, I took stock of today’s group: eight coats, all peering excitedly at me over their clipboards like this was a field trip we were rewarded with for being very, very good. I guessed they were in their late twenties – some conservative piercings, a tattoo peeking out here or there, a few scattered wedding rings.

The Lead Coat began her dispassionate litany of my medical problems, which was too jargony for even a lifer like me to follow along with. If anyone had asked, I could have given a much more succinct briefing: Patient suffers from multiple organ deterioration, particularly the gastrointestinal tract, kidneys and lungs. Patient is in constant pain, inadequately managed through the use of narcotic drugs. Patient has been in this hospital for eight months, two weeks and five days. Patient’s doctors say that at the current rate of deterioration, she will almost certainly not survive another year. Patient is terrified.

“Patient is…” Lead Coat was winding up, flipping back to the front page of the chart. I could see her eyes register the date, and for the first time that morning she seemed to realize that this is, in fact, a hospital for human beings. “Seventeen years old,” she finished softly. She finally met my eye. “Happy birthday, Miss Baska.”

By late morning, I was watching a movie on TV. It was a classic with lots of familiar lines, which made it easy to follow along while I dozed. Jerry, an orderly I’ve become pretty friendly with, showed up at my door with a gurney.

“Time to roll, Princess,” he said, lining it up with my bed and lowering the guardrails. I brought a deluxe today.” Jerry knows I prefer gurneys to wheelchairs. They’re much more comfortable because I don’t have to sit up through what can sometimes be a long wait before my daily testing.

“You always have both my back and support for my back,” I said, clicking the TV off. “Do I need to bring anything?”

“Just your smiling face. Ready? One, two, three.” I lifted with my hands and scooched my bottom while Jerry guided my feet onto the gurney. He covered me with a thin, scratchy hospital blanket and spent several minutes adjusting my tubes and wires. With separate poles for my IV and PICC, oxygen tubes that hooked over my ears and into my nostrils, a heart rate monitor clipped to my finger and a morphine pump, I don’t travel light. When I was finally settled, we pushed off into the hallway.

The long-term care pediatric ward is, unsurprisingly, depressing. The people who work here are wonderful, and spend a great deal of time and effort trying to make the experience of dying a pleasant one. There’s lots of artwork and posters on the walls, and everything is painted in bright, optimistic colors. We have a playroom, a library, and a parlor, where patients who are well enough can host their guests in a more normal setting. I’ve made the mistake of dying in Upstate New York, as opposed to a large city where I might get an occasional visit from an athlete or pop star or something, but that’s OK. We do get some magicians and puppeteers. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I hate clowns.

No matter what else fills the ward, though, there’s no counteracting the people in it. We’re a bunch of sick kids, frequently visited by family members in various stages of falling apart. It’s a tough place to be for any length of time, yet the very purpose of the ward is to settle in and hunker down. I know it’s rude, but I prefer not to make eye contact with anyone. It’s too painful. I don’t want to recognize their faces. I don’t want to know their names. I don’t want them to mourn me when my turn comes.

Jerry wheeled me all the way to the end of the hallway and into the wide patient elevators. We rode to the bottom floor, where the Radiology Department is located. I should be one of the X-Men by now, based on all of the radiation I’ve been exposed to down here. Still, unless I have to drink something disgusting to show contrast, the tests rarely hurt anything but my dignity.

“OK, Princess,” said Jerry, wheeling me into an antiseptic X-Ray room and putting on my parking break. “I’ll be back for you in an hour. Don’t run off on me.”

“Would that I could.”

Shortly afterwards, a young technician entered the room. He moved with business-like efficiency, checking my monitors and adjusting as he worked. “Miss Baska. Dr. Roberts wants to check your circulation today.” I’d never heard of a Dr. Roberts, but that wasn’t unusual. I nodded. The room smelled like rubbing alcohol and cleaning supplies, a combination that always left me nauseous. I focused on slow, even breathing.

He held up a syringe. “It’s very important that you don’t move during the testing, so I’m going to inject this medication into your IV. It won’t hurt, but you’ll probably feel a little stiff as it takes effect. You’re not going to be able to move your arms and legs, but you can talk and rotate your eyes.” Well, as long as my eyeballs were free. “Ready?”

The medication crept into my arm, cold and acidic. I’ve learned in my eight months here that “this won’t hurt” is code for “this is definitely going to hurt,” but I was unprepared for how painful it was. I tried to cry out, but the air seemed trapped in my lungs. Instead, I bugged my eyes and blinked frantically, trying to get the technician’s attention. His gaze was locked on the monitor, disinterested in the specimen in the bed.

I forced my eyeballs as far as I could to the right, where a window led to the observation room. A tall, thin doctor with a neatly trimmed beard was behind the glass, clipboard in hand. I’d never seen him before. I silently pleaded with the stranger as a tear dripped down my frozen cheek.

The doctor immediately leaned forward and hit a button. “That will do,” his voice crackled over the intercom. The tech put a second injection into my IV and I slowly felt the burning subside. I glared at him and hugged myself, ashamed that I’d cried but also furious that he didn’t care. Then I put my head back and stared at the ceiling, waiting for Jerry to come wheel me home.


  1. Hi Elizabeth,

    I continue to love your protagonist; she has such a gutsy sense of humor in such difficult circumstances. I would keep reading because I like her. However, I think the revised version still has the problem that it feels like a straight-up contemporary. I would guess the shadow that appears at her door in the night is meant to hint at the fantasy to come and perhaps the unpleasant doctor, but I think I'm projecting that because I know it's supposed to be fantasy - otherwise I think I'd miss the significance. Something here needs to point more strongly to fantasy and to what kind of fantasy. The title feels like it's probably high fantasy set in another world, but of course it could be urban fantasy or dark fantasy or science fantasy. I'd like to have a better sense of what I'm in for.

  2. I love the changes that you've made, especially how you hinted at the otherness so early with the shadowy figure in the corner. It worked for me and instantly changed the tenor of these pages (though, as Rebecca mentioned, my perspective may be colored by knowing it's YA Fantasy). One line-edit piece of feedback - you misspelled cords as "chords." :)

    I really liked the new pages starting with Jerry. If he's going to show up again, I'd like to get a sense for what he looks like, even if it's just a general one. (Also, you're missing quotation marks in one place where Jerry is talking.) The line where the MC says, "You always have both my back and support for my back," doesn't feel very teen-ish to me. Not a big deal, just feels a little stiff. Some of the explanation in these new pages halted the flow of the action for me. For instance, when you're explaining the ward and people there, it pulled me from the story for a moment. I'd consider condensing that a little.

    I'm intrigued by the doctor and the burning test. Did the injection wear off that quickly that she could already hug herself? If so, you may want to comment on her surprise at how quickly it faded, or something.

    I love this version! Good luck with the next revision!

  3. Good improvements in this version, definitely a change in tone with the shadowy figure and the new doctor. The painful injection makes me wonder if it will have anything to do with the fantasy element. I would love some hint of how fantasy is going to fit in.

    While I enjoyed the outline of her day from the first version, I found that I didn't miss it. I am really wondering what is going to happen to her next.

  4. I do like this version better! And good job keeping that awesome voice. I love your protag. I don't think you need more, but if you want it, you can have her imagine the shadowy figure is actually someone there to escort her too early to heaven or something. IDK. Don't listen to me, I'm babbling. I like that strange test and it makes me wonder what's going on but I also wonder how the second injection worked so fast. Take your time letting her move again. Then she can hug herself!

  5. Oh, I love this revision! I still love the first part, and your MC is so awesome, funny, and brave. I do agree with all the suggestions you've received here, particularly that it would be great to have a definite hint of the fantasy element. If there's a tie-in with this particular testing, maybe it could be hinted more strongly.

    The new second part is so engaging. I really liked Jerry, and the testing he takes her to really gives us a feel for what Emmaline goes through on a daily basis. The daily schedule was interesting, but this was so much better. I'm so glad you gave us this scene :).

  6. Hi Elizabeth,

    WOW! That shadow makes a huge difference! Your voice and your MC are still so engaging, and I love what you are able to do with her in this version. The testing is another great touch.

    I would love to have you take out some of the filter words and the transitions to jar us a bit and make us feel a bit of disorientation with her. For example, "It was dark for a hospital room" strikes a bit of an unnatural/information-conveying chord, so you could look for a more natural place to throw that in.
    "But there was no way to anticipate the hollowness in my chest when the clock struck midnight on the first day of my last year of being alive. I was awake to see it, of course, because it’s impossible to sleep in the hospital," for example. Then watch for the repetition of the word shadow/shadowy so that it makes a really visceral punch. I love your word choices, imprison, and so forth. Awesome.

    "The next morning I was awoken," is another example. Let her be disoriented. Let us experience that disorientation with her. I woke -- and then tell us what she sees and how she figures it's morning. Do you see? Otherwise it's nonlinear and we're momentarily pulled out of the action.

    Go through and really get in deep and see what you can do to bring us closer to her!

  7. Thank you all so much for your comments and suggestions! They're tremendously helpful and so appreciated. :)

  8. Great re-write! I'm not that concerned that the fantasy element hasn't come on strong yet -- an agent will know the genre, and readers will also know from the title/jacket/blurbs. And fairytales often started out by describing the MC's current aweful life (Cinderella!). Your story is a great modern day take on the classic princess imprisoned in a tower. Love the new mysterious doctor, and the open question of whether he's an ally or a foe.

    Agree with the above suggestions for making this even more awesome!

  9. Thanks for your comments, VGC. That's exactly what I was going for, and I'm SO excited that it came across!