Monday, September 9, 2013

1st 5 Pages September Workshop - Yuen

Name: Sunni Yuen
Genre: Young Adult Sci-Fi
Title: The Germ Factory

Saskia chucked the damp rag into the waste bin and splayed her fingers over the old-fashioned cash register. The muted sheen of the long brass keys reflected the pink of her nail polish. Perfect. She gazed down the sun-dappled aisles of Uncle Peter’s corner store, inhaling the comforting scent of paprika and honey. The shelves were laden with bottles of sunflower seed oil, chocolate wafers, and crusty loaves of poppy seed bread. The beets and pickles glowed ruby and moss green in their jars.

The corner of Saskia’s mouth twitched upwards. She had worked hard all summer stocking inventory and working the till to show Uncle Peter she could run the store. And now, it was actually happening. She, Saskia Brennan, age fifteen, one week shy of high school, was managing the store without any adult supervision. Once school started, she could work late afternoons and weekends freeing Uncle Peter to focus on his research.

“Why are you smiling? No one else is here.” Chloe asked with a stifled yawn. She wore a petulant expression and slumped low on her stool, legs dangling.

“I’m here,” March said. He leaned over the counter, absorbed with applying a bead of Elmer’s glue to his stamp book. Stamps were his latest obsession.

“I meant customers. People who matter,” Chloe amended before she clamped her lips around a red braid of licorice and sucked hard. That behavior might be tolerated from a ten-year-old like March but definitely not a high school student. Chloe used to be Saskia’s closest friend and normal. But once Chloe fell in with the computer geek crowd, she began rejecting anything mainstream. At least March was still the same boisterous boy, even if he was a pain-in-the-neck to his sister. But that was Chloe’s problem.

“Don’t listen to her, Saskia,” March said. “Chloe’s grumpy because she wants to play that dumb computer game but Mom and Dad made us come here.”

“Excuse me, dumb game?” Chloe scowled at March.

“Dumb and boring game. All you do is shoot smoke rings,” March taunted.

“The game’s not just button-mashing!” Chloe declared hotly. “There’s way more to it. It’s Pygmalion’s Quest! It’s about—it’s like – it’s, erm,” She fished for an adjective. “Well, you have to try it.”

Saskia decided to indulge Chloe. “How does it start?” she asked.

Chloe closed her eyes. “The game loads and it’s like stepping into ancient Greece. It’s white everywhere. The floor is chalky. The walls are marble but with blue veins so thin and faint, they’re like cracks. There’s a man crouched over. Suddenly you see he’s surrounded by pedestals but there’s no statue on the closest one. He raises his face – there are white handprints on both cheeks.” Swaying gently, Chloe hovered her palms two inches from her own cheeks for dramatic effect.

“Then what?” Saskia asked, slightly perturbed. Did Chloe really think she lived in this game world?

Chloe’s voice became sing-songy. “The man is Pygmalion, who creates a statue of a woman. In the Greek myth, he falls in love with the statue, and she comes to life. But in the game, when she comes to life, she panics, slaps both sides of his face, and runs away, which is less cheesy than her falling in love with him at first sight. Pygmalion is devastated. He doesn’t know where she’s run. He’s so heartbroken the other statues come to life.”

“And then they run away and you hafta catch them,” March volunteered as he flicked little balls of dried glue from his fingers on to the counter. Saskia frowned and swept the glue debris into the waste bin.

“No,” Chloe said impatiently. “They’re avatars. There’s a queen, bishop, king, knight, rook . . . ”

“Like chess,” Saskia commented.

“Nuh-uh. Mine’s a mage. The cool part is that I get to give special powers to my mage by writing code. Like firebolts! I had to work out the physics of the temperature and the speed depending on the angle,” Chloe explained, eyes shining with excitement.

This sounded complicated. “Mmm-hmmm,” Saskia said.

“So if a robber attacks, Chloe can save us!” March laughed.

“Can we please not talk about robbers?” Saskia interrupted. She wasn’t superstitious but she could not help glancing out the window. Luckily, the street was clear. A robber was the last thing she wanted to think about on her first day working unsupervised.

Chloe waved her arms. “March was the one who brought up robbers. Anyways, my point is that playing Pygmalion’s Quest challenges your mind. Plus, the team that finishes first gets to help design the next release from Fossilware. I mean they’re only the most cutting edge game developer ever! It’s pure torture to be this close and not finish when school is about to get in the way.”

“Get in the way?” Saskia shook her head in disbelief. “Gee Chloe, high school actually matters. You need to join the debate club or Model UN and build your resume, learn to put on makeup, dance with boys–” Seeing Chloe flail her arms about in a mock waltz, Saskia paused and pressed her lips thinly together. Chloe needed to grow up, badly.

“What should I be learning?” protested March in a tone Saskia recognized as his give-me-attention voice.

“Fractions and to stop rolling down hills like a feral child,” Saskia said and she jabbed a key on the register for emphasis. The metallic clang punctuated the silence followed by tinkling wind chimes. A customer had arrived. Good thing too because March was about to ask and discover what “feral” meant, which would have resulted in an argument.

The customer hovered inside the entrance. He was tall and his broad shoulders were hunched over in a rumpled trench coat that fluttered to his ankles. He wore a battered fedora, under which Saskia could see a deeply lined forehead. He looked haggard. He wordlessly surveyed the store, eyes roving down the aisles to the back where Uncle Peter kept his workshop.

Saskia tossed her hair over her shoulder and greeted the man with a weak smile. She walked up to him and offered a pair of tongs and wax envelope. “Can I help you?” She spoke in her most grown-up voice.

He leaned close, and she caught the odor of burnt matches and sour yeast. He licked his lips. “Where’s the hive?”

“Excuse me?” Saskia’s nostrils curled. There was something unsettling about this man. His hand kept drifting to the pocket by his left hip, as if he sought to reassure himself that something was still there.

“The hive,” he repeated as he took the tongs and wax envelope from Saskia. “Where is it?”

“If you’re looking for honey,” Saskia said, fishing for comprehension. “It’s in the far left aisle.”

The man lumbered in that direction, pockets clinking. Saskia watched him stoop over the bins and snatch handfuls of dried apricots, toffee, and black pepper crusted walnuts. These he jammed into the same wax envelope. It was going to be a headache to ring him up.

The man was now running his finger along the inner rim of an open jar of beets. He stuck it in his mouth and smacked his lips. “Trace remnants of elementals.” He whistled softly, rapping on the walls. “Where are you hiding? It’s no use. I’ll find you.”

Saskia stiffened. What was he rambling about? He patted the pocket by his left hip again, briefly flashing a black metal handle.


  1. Sounds like a great store.

    I know very little about computer games, so the descriptions probably mean more to those who actually play them, but you wrote them up nicely.

    The customer sounds appropriately creepy.

    I'm not sure why the MC's friends are there with her working. Might want to give a reason. My thought would be that Uncle Peter wouldn't want her distracted with friends if she was running the store. Just thought I should bring up that point, in case other people think it besides me.

    If this book morphs into something resembling a video game, you've foreshadowed this quite nicely.

  2. There's some great writing here, vivid and visual so I could really imagine the scene, and you write good dialogue too. You’re very good at seeing through your characters’ eyes – that detail about Saskia imagining the robber makes me think you really know these people. I was convinced that that’s exactly how she’d react in this situation, exactly what she’d be thinking.
    Do you really need the damp rag in the first line? It takes the focus off the very strong image of the cash register. The description that follows could be broken up by some dialogue or action.
    Chloe’s mentioned kind of late in; I was imagining Saskia was alone (the long description added to this impression – it seemed that if other people were in the store, she’d be noticing them).
    Who is the main character? I thought it was Saskia but then Chloe takes centre stage for a very long time. It’s not clear what the story focus is for quite some time, the relevance of the computer game isn’t clear – and then bang! An amazing scene, the entrance of the mysterious man. This is really well done, there’s great use of Saskia’s point of view, it’s even funny! Again, I felt you know Saskia so well, and it feels as if we can trust you to tell this story.
    So, briefly, I think you need to get to that amazing scene sooner, and make it much clearer who the main character is (Chloe or Saskia). If the video game is relevant, can it be worked in later on in the book?
    I also wondered if we are in a parallel world or something because it sounds so unlike the usual video game. I don’t know where you’re going with plot, but on first sight it does look like the kind of information that should be revealed later on, in an active, shown scene.

  3. You oscillate between great description (like sucking on the licorice rope and the store description) and telling. He looked (insert adjective, She said (adjective). Go back through and take your time and show us, then trust us to get it.
    As it is, I feel like I know the gaming friend much better than I know your MC. Can you fix that? Or do you have the wrong MC? Something to think about. I also have no clue where this is taking place other than the store. Is it a small town then?
    I don't want to be too harsh, I think you have something good here, I just want to see in these opening pages a clear understanding of who and what you want to introduce.

  4. Hi Sunni,

    The language in your opening two paragraphs really drew me in. "She gazed down the sun-dappled aisles of Uncle Peter’s corner store, inhaling the comforting scent of paprika and honey." Lovely. In terms of setting, the second-hand description of the computer game felt less-compelling. (It took me out of the wonderful store.)

    There is a nice tone to this opening, and tension builds on elements like the lack of adult supervision and unknown nature of Uncle Peter's research. Saskia's concern about robbers ups the stakes a bit in the middle of this scene, but it isn't until the end that I'm really worried/excited. You could turn up the tension with more IM from Saskia. (Her friends could eat profits, accidentally break things, question what goes on in the workshop...)

    Saskia is a charming character in her new role as sole shopkeeper. I'm rooting for her! I like March too. And Chloe is a good contrast to the MC, but I'd like to hear Chloe's voice more differentiated in dialog. (She could sound more like a geek.)

    There's not a lot of action in this opening, but your sensory details are strong and the pace feels natural. Again, I love the world of the shop and the possibilities of interesting research in Uncle Peter's workshop. Pygmalion’s Quest takes me in a different direction. You'd need to offer me a few more hooks to draw the two together at this point.

    Best of luck with your revision. I look forward to reading it.

  5. Hi Sunni,

    Good set-up for the story – you ground Saskia as a smart, practical protagonist, striving for maturity while her less-mature friend, Chloe is focused on her computer games. But, I suspect Chloe’s computer smarts will prove valuable as the story unfolds. You also create a strong sense of place -- I could almost smell the honey in Uncle Peter's shop.

    There was one awkward turn of phrase you might want to re-order: ‘Chloe used to be Saskia’s closest friend and normal.’ Perhaps, ‘…normal – and Saskia’s closest friend’?

    The description of the computer game went on a bit long for me, taking the focus off Saskia. I’m assuming this is setting the stage for whatever adventure is coming, but perhaps some of this could be dripped in later?

    The haggard shopper adds a nice note of menace at the end of the excerpt with his questions about the ominous-sounding hive.

    Best wishes

  6. Overall, I’m intrigued. I’m not sure I would have realized this was sci-fi if you hadn’t told me that, but knowing that makes me more interested in what her uncle is doing, what the role of the video game is going to be, and what the heck that customer was talking about. The big thing I think you can improve is making sure you have a clear idea why each character is saying what they are saying and doing what they are doing. I don’t feel a great cause and effect in their interactions. I want more reaction to what the other’s are saying and I want it to flow a little more naturally. Try reading it out loud and see if you think they would talk that way, perhaps.

    I jotted down some nit-picky things/observations while I read.

    I can really “see” the store and the prim way Saskia is taking on the responsible role. :)

    Is “Uncle Peter’s corner store” the name of the store? I would capitalize the whole name if it is.

    “twitched upwards” I wasn’t sure if this was a small smile, maybe elaborate.

    For some reason I was sure she was alone until Chloe talks. Perhaps mention that she has minions or something.

    “Chloe used to be Saskia’s closest friend and normal.” Didn’t make a lot of sense. Break it into two sentences. “Chloe....closest friend. She used to be normal.” Or something.

    I’m not entirely following the dialogue. Did March accuse her of button-mashing? Also, I’d like it if Saskia in indulging Chloe just asks what the game is about (not just how it starts) and then when Chloe launches into it, starting at the beginning, Saskia can be more annoyed that she answered a simple question in so much detail.

    Is there really danger of robbers? If this is a seedy place, I’m not really getting that in the description.

    The set-up of Chloe explaining the game feels a little stiff and forced overall. I’m guessing the game is central to the story? (If it isn’t, then you spend a lot of time on it here.) I’d rather see Saskia playing the game for the first time, or having Chloe just hint at it.

    Not sure why Chloe says “March was the one who...” was anyone disputing that fact?

    “I mean they’re only the most...” I’d rather just know she reveres Fossilware, like she could look dazzled while she says it.

    Not sure why Chloe is flailing a waltz. I’d be super super annoyed if I was Saskia. I’m not really seeing how they were friends...I realize Saskia’s growing up and Chloe is sort of stalled out, but what did they have in common before?

    Why does Saskia jab a key on the register? How does she know March would ask that and then argue?

    Love the description of the customer. Things really really pick up when he enters. I’d love if we could get to that a little quicker.

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