Monday, September 9, 2013

1st 5 Pages September Workshop - Noser

Name: Ann M. Noser
Genre: Young Adult Dystopian
Title: WIP with a TIP (work in progress with a title in progress)


Chapter 1 - HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME

Dad died five years ago today.

It was the worst day of my life.

It was also my tenth birthday.


***

My birthday is the worst day of the year. So far fifteen doesn’t feel any better than fourteen. Most kids request a vacation pass on their birthday, but not me. I’d rather forget the whole thing and help Old Gus prepare the chilled bodies in the hospital mortuary. I jump out of bed and pull on teal blue scrubs.

I scramble for socks and shoes, and a ray of early sunlight glints off my Dad’s picture hanging on the wall. Once again, his eyes capture mine, as if he needs to tell me something important. On the floor beneath the photo sits a memory trunk full of how things used to be. But I won’t open it today. I just can’t.

Dishes clink in the kitchen.

“Hurry up, Silvia. I’ve got a surprise for you.”

Mom sounds happy, but I can’t tell if it’s real or fake. Since Dad’s death, both of us have done a lot of pretending. So far this year we’ve been able to avoid Psychotherapy Services and Mandated Medication, but sometimes I think I was sent down to Mortuary Services to push me over the edge. Instead it was exactly what I needed. Since I never got to see Dad’s body after the accident, caring for other people’s dead loved ones soothes the empty ache inside.

So does Old Gus. He always knows what to say to me and what not to say.

Too bad Mom doesn’t have a clue.

I enter the kitchen as she brews green tea.

“Sit down.” She turns away. “Happy birthday.”

I sigh. “You know I don’t like my birthday.”

“I’m determined to change your mind.” She forces a smile. “I planned a big surprise today.”

I tense, expecting her to bust into tears at any moment. “What is it?”

She raises her eyebrows. “Well, first of all. You’ll need to change.”

I glance down at my standard issue medical scrubs. Things are definitely getting interesting.

Mom pours both of us some tea. “I got us Park and Art passes today.”

“What if Gus needs me?” I take a sip of tea.

“Don’t worry. He knows all about it. I told him weeks ago.”

“Really? Gus must be good at keeping secrets. He never even wished me ‘happy birthday’ yesterday.” Probably because he knows me better than you do.

“Eat quickly. We shouldn’t waste the day.” Mom slides over a bowl of oatmeal and berries and I dig in.

After breakfast, I rush into my room to exchange the work clothes for jeans and a long-sleeved green T-shirt. All my clothes are soft and plain, without decoration, made by hands like my father’s. Only Dad proved himself to be Gifted, so he didn’t make Basic Worker Level clothes for long. Instead, he got promoted.

“Hurry up!” Mom calls from the front door hallway.

We clamber down six flights of stairs in the airless stairwell. Once we reach the main floor, we push out the airlock into the swarms of people flooding the streets. Dashing across the busy bike path and an empty car lane, we finally reach the closest walk way. Traffic is orderly today. No bikers stray from their lanes into ours. Men, women, and children wearing blue scrubs of various shades hurry towards the hospitals and medical facilities. Those in green coveralls rush towards the monorail station to speed off to one of the numerous Plant and Protein Production Facilities.

A splash of envy hits me as I glance back at a beautiful dark-skinned woman wearing a green turban. Normally, I don’t mind my job. In fact, I feel more at home in the mortuary than anywhere else. But part of me still longs for the lucky woman’s green uniform. I’d love to spend all day surrounded by plants. Nothing can be done about it now. The Occupation Exam is over, and I’ve been placed where I’m most effective.

The street is crowded this time of day. Men, women, and children whoosh past us on bikes, as those on foot press constantly forward. Only the car lane remains empty.

We march past building after building, offices on the first two floors and apartments up above. We make good time until we hit the Citizen Family Planning and Redistribution Building. Traffic stalls. A crowd of walkers fidget in place ahead of us.

“What’s going on?” Mom cranes her neck and raises up on her toes. “Can you see?”

After a long pause, the people ahead of us begin to shuffle past the building one at a time. A few cast furtive glances over their shoulders. Everyone’s in a hurry to get somewhere. Now I see who is causing the fuss. A red-haired girl who looks to be about my age shoves an orderly away. The crowd behind us pushes us closer. Tears stream down the girl’s pale face. She backs away from the building and turns as if to run. Then she cries out in pain, and clutches her swollen belly, breathing hard.

In her moment of weakness, the orderlies surround and restrain her.

“I won’t do it! I won’t do it!” the pregnant girl screams as they drag her away.

12 comments:

  1. I think I might like that first info built into the opening paragraphs a little more organically. Perhaps this is because I’ve read a lot of “my parent died and I’m sad” stuff lately... (maybe just try it out for one pass?). I actually find your little hints at world building the most compelling thing to keep me reading. Like: “ooooh she’s assigned to the morgue and she might have been forced to take Mandated Meds?” I think if she looks at her dad’s picture (and we don’t already know he’s dead) we’d probably get the idea.

    Another thought regarding the action moments of this first scene. You use verbs like “jump out of bed,” “scramble for socks” and “digging in” to her oatmeal. It all sounds high energy/enthusiastic where I would guess on this tough day she might be dragging a bit more.

    I’m definitely finding myself curious about the accident and why she never got to see her dad’s body.

    Very nitpicky note: the line “you know I don’t like my birthday” is like low context dialogue. Moms and daughters probably don’t need to say this type of thing to each other. Like, I rarely say “you know ____” when the person I’m talking to does know that. Maybe that’s just me. But I’d like a line more like “since when has this day been happy?” or something else maybe...

    I’m getting a very real sense of the place as she and her mom walk outside.

    Wow: the end of these pages has me very intrigued!

    Overall, I’d definitely keep reading, and I’m very interested in the world you are creating. Like I said before, I maybe want to feel a bit more about how difficult this day is for her. I couldn’t really tell if she’s happy to have the day off or not.

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  2. Hi, I'm sitting here in the UK with a cup of tea, about to go through and post my notes for everyone. First off, I thought all the pieces were of a very high standard, and it was great to read such a variety, too. You all obviously take your writing seriously and I wouldn't be surprised to see any of these in the bookstores some time soon. So, on to notes for Ann:
    --

    I like your sharp, controlled lines very much. They move the story forwards quickly and efficiently.
    It’s a good move to start with an attention-grabbing opening like this, but I think yours could be much more effective than it is. I found the way it’s set up now slightly awkward in terms of the train of thought you want to create in the reader.
    At the moment you have the biggest impact (the dad’s death) in the first line, so then lines two and three are anti-climactic.
    Dad died five years ago today. (reader thinks: Oh, that sucks.)

    It was the worst day of my life. (reader thinks: that’s not surprising, of course it would be –in other words you’re not raising the tension, the reader already knows this, implicitly)

    It was also my tenth birthday. (reader thinks: that must have been an awful birthday. Wait, how old does that mean she is? *does sums on fingers, loses focus*)
    I suggest you swap the lines around so the big impact comes at the end. See the very first page of Sally Nicholls’ book Ways to Live Forever, for an example of a similar introduction that builds to an elegant but devastating climax.
    Maybe something like:
    January 5th 2008 was the worst day of my life. (reader thinks: why?)
    It was my tenth birthday. (reader thinks: huh? Aren’t birthdays supposed to be fun? – see how this sentence now clashes with the one above it and gives the reader a reason to read on, to find out why?)
    It was also the day my dad died. (reader thinks: OMG how awful).
    In the next section you can then step right into it being her 15th birthday today, and there’s no need to explain why she feels so sad – the reader will understand.
    I suggest you cut the first line of the main bit,('My birthday is...') because it repeats what’s gone before – in fact I’d cut the second as well. The third is much stronger, it instantly sets up that *this* girl is different from other girls- which is why you should want to read about her.(cont)

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  3. (continued)
    The detail about her character – she cares for others’ dead loved ones – is nice, believable and makes her empathetic. But the passage beginning ‘Instead…’ is tell-y. I suggest you re-work this so it’s showing, instead. You could also show her attitude to the society she lives in at this point – for example, if she feels glad she hasn’t given them the satisfaction of being pushed over the edge, if it feels like a bit of rebellion.
    Could there be a few more scene-setting sentences in general? Since it’s dystopia I think there could stand to be more description of the world (in keeping with the character’s point of view of course) . What does the kitchen look like? Is it like a normal one, or are there differences specific to this society’s lack of technology, or over-reliance on technology, (for example)? Would they eat oatmeal and berries in a world where there’s a Protein Production Facility?
    I really like the scene with the pregnant girl, that’s so tense. That’s the point at which it gets really exciting. I wonder if you could even work the previous scene, the back-and-forth where they decide to go out, into that scene. At the moment you’ve got an opening scene that isn’t very energetic - the dialogue in the kitchen, she changes clothes twice which doesn’t really take us anywhere. Then there’s a big clump of text with no dialogue in it.
    Imagine if, right after your three line intro, we saw Silvia and her mum walking down the street, having their kind-of argument as they dodge bicycles , Silvia saying, ‘I’m not sure about this, what if Gus needs me’ but really thinking about her dad and how the last thing she wants is to have a day off on the day he died, and her mum replying ‘You ought to enjoy your birthday,’ all the while the city humming around them – but Silvia’s not listening any more, because what’s going on up ahead by the Family Planning building? She cranes her neck to see as her mum rattles on about art and parks.
    Commercial films are really good at this, they never open with a scene that doesn’t go anywhere - there’s always movement, purpose, action, change. People are almost always walking somewhere, running somewhere, driving somewhere as they talk. It might be worth watching something like ‘The Island’ and noting how the scenes play out, what’s actually happening in physical terms as well as dialogue. It’s rare that even in a more art house film, you get a scene that doesn’t have some physical tension in it, even if it’s a quiet breakfast scene it gets the viewer somewhere, it shifts the balance somehow.
    Basically this is a really good start but I think it could definitely be stronger. Hope that’s useful!

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  4. Hi! Love this line: So does Old Gus. He always knows what to say to me and what not to say.

    Too bad Mom doesn’t have a clue.

    Great voice. Now, I must say I think the opening is a bit standard for a dystopian. You really have to catch the eye because it's such a flooded market at the moment. That said, you have some amazing elements to work with. I love that she works in a morgue. I love that she is accessible to teens in that she feels like her mom doesn't get her. But what really made me sit up and take notice was the pregnant girl. I wonder if you can get to that earlier? You would still need to set up the character, but obviously you are clever so you can figure out a new way to do that. Perhaps they can already be out and about and she can be itching to go back to Gus? IDK, but it's better not to start at the waking up/starting the day moment if you can help it. :D

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  6. Hi Ann,

    I enjoyed meeting you in the Pitch Madness contest in March and am glad to read your work again here.

    I love this line: 'I’d rather forget the whole thing and help Old Gus prepare the chilled bodies in the hospital mortuary.' This establishes tone and setting so well. Could you start with it? I think you've said what you need to about the MC's birthday in the lines above the ***.

    Each time the MC's perspective moves to the mortuary, I'm right there with her. I don't need to know much about what she does there yet, but would like a deeper insight into her character. Her IM about 'caring for other people’s dead loved ones' is a good vehicle for exploring this. Also, you've differentiated the characters of the MC and her mother around their approach to the birthday, but think that the dialog could say more about them.

    You've captured my interest with your world building in these five pages. The mortuary, the airlock, the empty car lane, the color coded scrubs, the Occupation Exam - these are all page-turning details. And I'm intrigued by this early line: "... his eyes capture mine, as if he needs to tell me something important." I'm expecting this revelation soon (since it's an important day). Like the other readers, I think you could move faster to the event on the street that left us all on the edge of our seats.

    Finally, I'd enjoy a little more sensory detail in an opening like this. For example, I like that mom ignores the MC's desire to avoid her birthday and think you could rub it in with a more elaborate meal. How could you use food (the sight, smell, taste ...) to say more about your world?

    Best of luck with this!

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  7. Hi Ann,

    I liked this excerpt and the way you introduced us to Silvia’s world, including how you dropped in the terminology of this civilization (a Gifted, Occupation Exam). Silvia comes across as an interesting protagonist with an unusual job which I think will appeal to teen readers.

    I thought the first three lines of the excerpt could be edited and folded into the opening paragraph of Chapter 1 to better draw in the reader. I spotted one typo in the text: my Dad’s/my dad’s photo, and also had one other writing ‘niggle’. The use of ‘you’ in ‘probably because he knows me better than you do’ felt awkward. Perhaps stick with third person and substitute ‘Mom’ for ‘you do’?

    Since Silvia doesn’t see her dad’s body after the accident (which I assume readers learn more about further into the story), I can’t help but wonder if he’s actually dead. Silvia’s sense that there’s something he wants to tell her is a nice device to keep the reader intrigued.

    There are some lovely turns of phrase in the excerpt. In particular, I liked the ‘memory trunk full of how things used to be’ which beautifully captures Silvia’s wistfulness.

    Since Silvia makes it clear from the outset that she doesn’t like celebrating her birthday, I was surprised she didn’t show more reluctance about going out with her mom, a hint of her worry that she won’t be able to lose herself in work. Nice ending note for the excerpt with the pregnant girl -- which would certainly keep a reader turning pages.

    Best wishes.

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  8. Hello Ann,

    Great voice and I love how quickly you've established Silvia's relationship with her mother. I agree with everyone else's comments about the pregnant girl being the key hook. But the transition between Silvia leaving the apartment and seeing the girl is very interesting as well. Please give us more details about the rules of this society ("Gifted v. Basic Worker Levels), what a normal day/routine is like for Silvia and how she typically reacts to structure/ authority figures. This line in particular is atmospheric: "We march past building after building." Does Silvia passively obey or accept the conditions of society? Is it normal for people like the pregnant girl to be dragged away by the authorities? Are people silent? Or do they try to oppose? And how does her mom respond differently?

    I think the opening lines about her 10th birthday and then her 14th birthday sets up a lot of contrasting questions.
    Is the point that all her birthdays are the worst ever because that's the day her father died? Or is it that she hopes it gets better each year?

    I'm hooked but very greedy for more about Silvia's place in this world.

    Cheers!

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  9. Hello Ann,

    Great voice and I love how quickly you've established Silvia's relationship with her mother. I agree with everyone else's comments about the pregnant girl being the key hook. But the transition between Silvia leaving the apartment and seeing the girl is very interesting as well. Please give us more details about the rules of this society ("Gifted v. Basic Worker Levels), what a normal day/routine is like for Silvia and how she typically reacts to structure/ authority figures. This line in particular is atmospheric: "We march past building after building." Does Silvia passively obey or accept the conditions of society? Is it normal for people like the pregnant girl to be dragged away by the authorities? Are people silent? Or do they try to oppose? And how does her mom respond differently?

    I think the opening lines about her 10th birthday and then her 14th birthday sets up a lot of contrasting questions.
    Is the point that all her birthdays are the worst ever because that's the day her father died? Or is it that she hopes it gets better each year?

    I'm hooked but very greedy for more about Silvia's place in this world.

    Cheers!

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  10. Also meant to add, this one sentence sounds a bit strange: "A splash of envy hits." Maybe simplify it to "I envied" so that it's more concise.

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  11. Also meant to add, this one sentence sounds a bit strange: "A splash of envy hits." Maybe simplify it to "I envied" so that it's more concise.

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  12. Thanks everyone! Just got done with revisions. See you all next week!

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