Monday, June 3, 2013

1st 5 Pages June Workshop - Staple

Name: Elizabeth Staple
Genre: Young Adult - Fantasy
Title: Journey to Slanavalia

I’ve known for a while now that I‘ll be dead by my eighteenth birthday, but I still couldn’t 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. Nurses are always coming in and out to monitor or refill or adjust. Various 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 unused 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.”


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. They change rotations a lot, and I gave up trying to learn their names a long time ago. Now I just focus on making sure 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.”

Daytime in the hospital isn’t much better than the night. I have my laptop and a good rotation of books to keep me busy. I’ve already gone through the entire meager library here and most of the public library as well. A few of the staff nurses and I have a casual book club, by which I mean they glance at the titles sprawled across my bedside table while changing out my saline bag and ask, “Is it good?”

You don’t realize how much of a role food plays in regimenting your day until you’re not allowed to eat. Now morning just slips to afternoon, which gives way to evening, which eventually yields to bed. I used to be able to sneak by on the BRAT diet – bananas, rice, applesauce and toast – but my stomach objects to even that, so I use a PICC. The PICC is basically a feeding tube. It gives me the calories I need to stay alive, without getting to actually taste any of them. It also doesn’t satiate my hunger, so I continually feel like my stomach is eating itself. Believe me, though, that’s an improvement on feeling as though my stomach is eating the rest of me.

I watch a lot of terrible daytime television. There is a dead period between about 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. that features a stunningly bad collection of shows. I’ve tried getting into soap operas, but they’re a little too ridiculous for me. Besides, dying at eighteen seems like drama enough without throwing evil twins and amnesia into the bargain.

A typical day consists of the following:

5:30 a.m.: Wake up to a team of Coats standing at the end of my bed. Feel like a zoo animal, if zoo animals had less privacy.

8:00 a.m.: Receive a breakfast tray. Despite the fact that I’m not allowed to eat, I never, ever fail to get that tray. It’s usually a cloche covering just a small glass of water and a plastic mug of stone cold tea.

9:00 a.m.: Wash -- a relative term.

9:15 a.m.: The day’s biggest journey: two nurses help me move from my bed to a nearby armchair so they can change my bedding. Inevitably, they suggest we go for a walk, which actually means a roll in my case. Most days I agree, and we spend half an hour or so wheeling up and down the hallways.

10:00 a.m. Nap.

11:00 a.m. Testing. A lot of it is to see how far gone my organs are, but sometimes it’s to check new theories about what might be wrong. Most of the time it doesn’t hurt anything except my dignity, but it’s definitely not my favorite portion of the routine.

1:00 p.m. Return to my room to discover that, sadly, I have missed lunch.

1:30-4:00 p.m. Reading, either books or Internet. I tend to go through phases where I’m very into some random topic – the Knicks teams of the 1980’s, or fracking or the history of soy – and read everything I can on it. I’m a wealth of useless information in that way. I keep hoping for an announcement about some kind of intra-hospital quiz bowl competition, but no word yet.

4:00-9:00 p.m.: Visiting hours. Technically they don’t apply in Pediatrics, but I actually prefer if my family toes the line. I don’t want them in here with me all of the time instead of out living their lives. There’s no air in here. Visiting hours gives me a framework for pushing them out so I don’t drag them down with me. I’m a stickler for them.

9:00 p.m. –Lay awake. Try, try, try to fall asleep…


  1. An intriguing beginning! I really get a sense of your main character, her keen eye for the "coats", her concern for her family, her imprisonment.

    That said . . . the description of how boring and limited her life goes on too long, for me as a reader. The 'typical day' could be severely cut, to help get to the conflict/tension sooner. That sounds harsh (she's a dying teenager, after all), so I'm interested in what other reviewers have to say!

  2. You clearly have a great hook right from the first sentence. There's a natural sympathy with someone in such a difficult situation and you build extra sympathy for your main character through subtle touches like worrying about her family spending too much time in the hospital. Her sense of humor also comes through nicely.

    I do wonder if we need a stronger hint of what kind of story this is going to be? If it weren't for the genre at the top, I would have assumed this was a contemporary YA. Is the main character's disease related in some intimate way to the fantasy elements that arise later (e.g. is she dying because, unknown to herself, she's from a fantasy realm and our world is toxic too her)? If so maybe you could give some characteristics of her illness that make it clear its something well beyond the norm?

    I'd agree with VGC that the description of the typical day isn't advancing the story and could be shortened.

    Random comment - what is the origin of the name Slanavalia? I struggled a bit with how one might pronounce it.

    Anyway, I'm intrigued to see where the story is heading.

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  4. Thank you both so much for your comments -- I'm so appreciative! Rebecca, I based it on an Irish blessing ("slán abhaile)" that roughly means "safe travels home." In my head, it's Slaan-ah-vall-e-ah, but it's good to know that that may not roll off of the tongue for others.

  5. What a gripping opening! I actually think it could be stronger if you broke the first sentence into two, though it's already strong. I am confused about her age, though, because the doctor said she's 17, yet still acknowledged her birthday. Maybe I missed something, though. :)

    I agree with both of the comments above. Her daily routine is taking space that could more quickly lead to the crux of the story and be worked in organically, where essential. I would like to see hints of fantasy in here, because I don't yet see how it will fit. I'll say, too, that the switching of tenses doesn't feel right considering she's explaining part of it as if it's still her typical life when it can't be if there's a fantasy twist. I could be off on this, though. :)

    It feels like you've really done your research on this type of disease, and I love the respect that you show the topic. I get a sense for what your main character is struggling with and how her daily life feels, and I instantly care about what happens to her.

    I'm excited to see how this evolves, as I feel like it already has a lot going for it!

  6. Dynamite opening sentence, although the first part of it should stand alone, in its own paragraph: "I've known for a while now that I will be dead by my eighteenth birthday." Then move the rest of the sentence to the beginning of the next paragraph. However, does that mean that the birthday she is now celebrating in her seventeenth? Make that clear.

    Also, add another one-sentence paragraph to this short section before the scene break, giving us her reaction to the birthday banners-- Does she groan and flop back on her pillow, stare at it in silence, laugh with a hint of hysteria? Bring the scene focus back to her.

    The rest of the opening after those few paragraphs is, however, problematical. Your character's voice is good; she is intelligent, brave, and far more knowledgeable about medical conditions than a 17-year-old would be (heart-breakingly so to me, although a YA reader might not have that reaction). Your problem here is that in the always critical opening scene, nothing is really happening except normal hospital routine. We don't even get a hint of anything different going to happen, let alone of the fantasy element that your genre designation promises. What can you do about this?

    Move this scene to later in the story. The Kress Swimming Pool Theory of Fiction says that, as with kicking off from the side of a swimming pool, you need a kick before you're allowed to passively glide. So insert a first scene that will both grab your reader and introduce your fantasy element, preferably with dialogue. Since I don't know what your fantasy element is going to be, I can't be more specific, but consider a more exciting visitor than the medical doctors: a fantasy creature (if you're doing that), a boyfriend with Issues, a girlfriend with a mysterious message, a father she hasn't seen in six years who comes in drunk--whatever. We need something to happen here, and whatever it is should involve another person AND raise a question that makes us want to read more.

    Finally, a tiny point: How can she "make sure I'm not sleeping with my mouth open" if she's asleep?

  7. The voice is amazing in this! I love it. And that is by far the hardest thing to master. The first paragraph I have a problem with though. I felt at first it was a tense issue, but I think the sentence is just a bit convoluted. Simplicity here is a more powerful punch. I've known for a while that I'd be dead by my eighteenth birthday. Then move on. I love the white coats and her sense of humor. I do agree that there must be a hint of what the story is about. Even a sentence to give us hope or a mystery. Does she hallucinate something, but realize that's a new symptom? IDK just pulling stuff out of the air here! LOL. I really look forward to the revision!

  8. I agree with earlier comments about the hook. I would end the sentence after 'eighteenth birthday', and then start new paragraph. I was looking for something relating to the fantasy element, whether it's a real place or in her mind. Since it appears she can't walk, I'm trying to figure that one out.:) Loved your character's voice, and how she manages to find humor in a seemingly sad/hopeless situation. Was sorry to see the first five end so soon!

  9. Wow, this is a gripping opening, and I absolutely love Emmaline's voice! What stood out for me was the paragraph where she summarizes exactly what she's going through. I could imagine that, if I were going through the same thing and had dispassionate doctors coming in every morning, going over my case with an entourage of residents, it would be sooo frustrating, and that' s exactly what I would want to say to them. Really well done!

    I agree with the suggestions others have made about either significantly shortening the description of her typical day or showing it organically. I love it; it's done with humor and it's enjoyable to read, but it does slow the narrative down. I like the idea of showing it organically, and maybe there's a way to do that. Maybe make this the day that changes everything, and show the typical day by breaking that mold early on by introducing your fantasy elements.

  10. Hi Elizabeth,

    Awesome voice and a very dramatic premise. I am very intrigued by that first sentence (although I definitely agree about breaking it up). From the fluency of your writing, I have every faith that this has the makings of a compelling, emotion-packed book, and I already love your mc.

    That said, I agree that this isn't the scene to start with, and I'm a little worried about how you are going to pull this off. The scene promises a book about a courageous, witty teen lying in a hospital bed knowing she has at most a year to live. What else? You have a great premise, but what is the concept that is going to carry us through the rest of the book with the promise of a series of escalating events that are different from each other? What, on this day, is she going to do or decide that will launch her into something other than what she has been doing? What is the story question that is going to make for compelling reading? What are we going to be turning pages to find out?

    On another note, I'd love to see you try this in present tense. That would make the frequent switches between action and present tense thought more seamless and let us get deeper into the story. At the same time, since we know there is a clock running, the present tense would add a sense of urgency.

    I know this is hard to hear when you truly have created a masterpiece of voice and character. But I want you to make the most of that character and ensure that her story reaches as many readers as possible.

    Eager to read your revision!