Monday, December 16, 2013

1st 5 Pages December Workshop - Madden Rev 2

Name: Paco José Madden
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: Cinderella, Dragon Slayer (3rd Draft)

Fire. It’s all I ever think about when I stack wood in the fireplace. The fire that ruined my life, that changed everything. I can see it happening right before my eyes.

Flames flicker all about me. My mother screams from above. A screeching sound of something terrible rips through the air and pierces in my ears. I place my hands over them, hands much smaller than my hands are now. Hands of a girl four—no, five—years of age. My tiny feet run to the stairs but the burning steps collapse in ash and smoke. The fire blazes so fast. My father stumbles from his workroom. I run towards him. A flaming beam falls on top of him and traps him underneath.

‘Papa, please. Let me help you,’ I hear myself cry.

My little hands can’t lift the burning wood.

‘Go! Get out! Save yourself.’ He says through fits of coughing.

‘I’m not going to leave you and mama.’

‘You’ll die. You’ll—’

Then my father looks up at me strangely. What’s wrong I think? Before those words can escape my mouth, the roof crashes down. Then all is darkness.

I’ve avoided fire as much as I possibly can ever since. With the logs in the fireplace lit, I carefully place the poker back in its holder and wipe soot from the front of the hearth. I’m just starting my day, and there is much work for me to do before the dawn.

Our house was destroyed by a dragon. When the townspeople came to the wreckage, they weren’t expecting survivors. Underneath the charred roof they found me. Still alive. Bruised and cut. But without a burn on my entire body. From that point forward, I was called Cinderella, the girl found in the cinders.

“Cinderella, bring in the tea and crumpets.”

That’s Auntie. I enter the parlor room with a serving tray. She sits there with her daughters, my cousins, against a backdrop of drapes that are a hideous green color. Each time I see the curtains I feel nauseous.

We’re in Auntie’s manor house. The place I was taken after the fire. The place where I live as a slave. The residence is located outside the walls of town and overlooks a duck pond that has gone stagnant and lifeless. The home itself has two floors. There is also a storeroom below, where I live, and a garret with a turret above that is home to a flock of geese that do nothing but honk all day long. The once elegant estate is mostly rundown due to my aunt and cousins’ carelessness, but I do my best to keep up appearances.

I place the serving tray on the table, pour the tea, and hand Auntie, whose girth fills each crevice of the clawed-legged chair, one of the china teacups and a plate. Elvira and Esmira, as equally protuberant as their mother, whisper to one another other across a small round table.

Auntie takes the saucer and plate from me and says, “Cinderella, I expect the laundry done before noon.”

I nod in my usual fashion, yelling Do you own laundry! inside my head.

Then I take a cup and plate of the flour and yeast cake and hand it to Elvira.

“I dropped a bowl of lentils outside my window. Be a dear and pick up every bean,” my cousin commands in mock gentility.

I nod again. I wish I could take that bowl and smash it over her head.

Finally, I reach Esmira.

“Shouldn’t we give Cinderella something to wear other than that old gray shift or something for her feet?”

She’s talking about the sack-cloth dress I wear everywhere. I would like to take the wretched thing and stuff it down her throat. I also have no slippers for my feet, even in winter. But I do nothing except nod, for I have not a scudi or friend in the world. I’m stuck here with no way out.

Finally, my tormentors deliver the same punch line they say each and every day: “Why? Gray suits her. It’s the color of blandness.

They laugh.

The trio do nothing all day but gossip and stuff themselves with teacakes. They imagine every idleness a virtue and hard work a sin. Without me, these lollygags would most likely starve and die. That fact doesn’t make them treat me any better.

My only happiness is what I find on my windowsill each evening. When I go to bed, after all my labors are done, when my relations have teased and tortured me to no end, there on the ledge outside my window lies a cut red rose. I don’t know who brings it. I don’t know why. And I have never been able to catch the giver. But without fail, since my thirteenth birthday rain or shine, freezing cold or blistering hot, a red flower greets me when darkness falls and the stars come out of hiding. I sometimes imagine it’s my dead mother or father descending from heaven to cheer me up. Silly, I know. Perhaps it’s some admirer from afar. But who would admire me? It may just be some wandering soul who pities me. But I’m grateful. That daily act of kindness tells me there is still good in the world. It gives me hope.

“Daydreaming again?” Auntie calls from the gaming table.

I stand in the kitchen doorway, leaning against a broom.

Her brows furrow, cracking the white paint on her face.

“Lazy girl,” adds one of my cousins looking over a hand of cards. A beauty mark dots her chin.

“Sweep! Sweep!” says the other and fans with her suits of cards in such a motion. This one’s cheeks are so red with rouge you would think she was constantly blushing.

I get back to the work and the three idlers return to their game.

I am walking home from the market with a basketfull of goods when I hear a rope snaps and see a crossbeam tumble on one of the masons building the home for orphaned children. He screams as the timber crushes his legs. The first to arrive on the scene is Prince Perfect in his royal blue cape and jodhpurs.

Prince Perfect is the heir to the throne and only child of the King and Queen. His real name isn’t Perfect, but everyone calls him that because he strives in every way to be faultless. In courtesy and manners, in manliness and courage, in compassion and humility, the Prince excels, hence the nickname. This was not due to his parents’ care, but the nursemaid who raised him. She was a saintly soul, who loved and disciplined the child as duty required. The nursemaid taught him never to treat the servants as chattel, that kingship was a privilege not a right, and that one must always endeavor to do good with the gifts in one’s possession. It was said that the Prince as a child told a lie about a theft he committed which he blamed on his manservant. The nursemaid did not punish him, but her disappointment was so great that the Prince vowed never to lie again unless it was to save a person’s life. Prince Perfect meant every word and never lied or committed a misdeed since. He also joined the nursemaid on her daily calls about town to assist the poor and sick. The Prince was a willing helper. He enjoyed being kind and generous. When his gentle-hearted angel of a nursemaid passed away, Prince Perfect grieved terribly, but he kept her spirit alive by continuing to do good and acting properly.

Now kneeling in front of the stonemason, the Prince shouts for help, as he tries to lift the beam from the hurt builder. I drop my wicker basket to the ground, fruits and vegetables spilling everywhere. I bend down to help lift the block of wood. Another set of hands grabs hold of the other side. Something rank stings my nostrils, but I am too preoccupied to investigate the scent. The injured man moans and cries out in pain.

“On the count of three we lift. And you”—the Prince shouts to one of the carpenters at the worksite who arrives—“pull the poor fellow out.”

The carpenter puts his hands under the man’s armpits. He nods at Prince Perfect.

“One. Two. Three.” The three of us lift the great plank of timber just enough, so the carpenter can free the man lying below.

“Let go,” the Prince instructs. The log drops to the ground with a thud. Several other men arrive and load the injured man onto a cart. He mumbles an agonized ‘thank you’ to the Prince, who takes the worker’s hand and says some encouraging words.

Then he turns to one of the masons. “Take him at once to the doctor in the castle. Make sure he receives the best care. His legs still might be saved.” Prince Perfect places a gold ducat into the man’s hand. The men carry away the injured party, as the stoops to collect the fruit and vegetables that fell from my basket.

“Thank you both for helping lift the beam,” he says, as he puts a pair of tomatoes in the hamper. I look behind me. So that was where the foul smell was coming from. The swineherd’s son was the other person lifting the beam along with the Prince and me. The boy stands on the opposite side of the girder with his hair and clothes splattered with mud and slop.

“What are your names?” asks Prince Perfect, still gathering my fallen foodstuffs. From a kneeling position, his blonde lashes catch the sun and sparkle like the gold that was in his palm a moment ago. I don’t know why I remain standing and do not bother to collect the fruits and vegetables myself. Somehow I’m fixed to the spot.

“My name is Cinderella,” I tell him.

The swineherd’s son, on the other hand, dashes off before saying a word.

“I hope I didn’t offend him by asking his name.” The Prince rises and hands me the basket.

“He’s the swineherd’s son. He smells and no one likes him.” I wrap my arms around the wicker vessel.

“If you had been working with pigs all day, you would reek too. I wonder if there is anything I can do to help?”

I blush, embarrassed by what I said about the swineherd’s son. I forget that I’m talking to a prince and Prince

Perfect at that. “You’ll think of something,” I reassure him.

“Again, you have my gratitude.” The Prince is known for profusely thanking those who help him do a good deed.

“I hope I shall soon see you again, Cinderella.” He removes his feathered cap and bows. A footman brings his horse around. Prince Perfect mounts the silvery steed and gallops away.

I sigh, my head full of silly fantasies. Continuing my journey home, I regret how I spoke of the swineherd’s son.

If there’s anyone worse off than me in town, it is him. He lives on a pig farm not far from Auntie’s house. Auntie and her daughters often complain when a breeze blows downwind of the farm, bringing with it the stench of pig and offal. The boy has the unenviable task of caring for the hogs of his cruel stepfather. Sometimes, when passing the farm, I hear the sound of a belt thrashing flesh and the cries of the poor boy. Still it’s hard to sympathize with someone whose fate so closely resembles my own.

“Dawdling again?” Auntie stands in the doorway of the house. Her arms cross over her chest, and she has the usual expression of dissatisfaction on her face. “We’ve been sitting all day waiting for supper. Where have you been? Oh, never mind. I’m not in the mood to hear one of your useless excuses. Get inside the kitchen and cook something edible.”

I duck past her into the kitchen with the basket and begin preparing the evening meal.

Paco José Madden
Playwright/Poet/Speculative Fiction Writer


  1. Hi Paco,

    You definitely need an author's page so that people know where to find your revamped fairy tales.
    Anyway, I have read your chapter with fresh eyes.
    Something occurred to me. People die more often of the fumes during a fire than from the flames. So, not only is Cinderella immune to fire, but she also can survive the smoke of a raging fire, which is not a small gift.
    You definitely made her appear more conflicted and more angry, which works great for a teen. The voice comes out stronger and more authentic.
    I think you could remove: "Our house was destroyed by a dragon. When the townspeople came to the wreckage, they weren’t expecting survivors. Underneath the charred roof they found me. Still alive. Bruised and cut. But without a burn on my entire body. From that point forward, I was called Cinderella, the girl found in the cinders."
    This paragraph seems out of place.
    She could wonder more about the rose. Roses do not bloom all year long, so how can someone drop a rose on her window sill all year long? That sounds very magical to me. And what a wonderful romantic gesture.
    Could you describe her going to the market or watching the mason's tumble from her window? The passage to the second scene is just too abrupt. You need some kind of transition.
    The mason held under a beam could remind her of her father who had the same problem when the house got up in flames.
    And I wonder if the prince is always in the village helping people, how come he does not know all the names of the people there? I imagine this is a village and not a big town.
    IMO, this version works better as a YA novel's first chapter. I would read more.


    Happy writing :)

  2. Hi Paco!

    I love fairy tale retellings! They're so much fun. I especially love the idea of a dragon in Cinderella. Fabulous!

    I like knowing that it was a dragon that started the fire, but I agree with Sylvie that the paragraph telling us this feels out of place. The reason why is your story begins with flashback. It's hard for readers to look back before they even know where they are. The story should begin with an action scene that draws in the reader. Flashback is better later and even better when the backstory is weaved rather than told outright. Personally, I'd love to see the dragon fire scene rather than hearing about it after the fact. If you start with the scene, we get action. We see/feel/smell/hate the dragon. And we sympathize with Cinderella more. Flashback stalls the forward motion of the plot and the telling distances the reader from what's going on, not allowing them to connect and feel with the characters.

    As for Cinderella, why does she stay with her aunt and cousins? They don't provide her basic needs. She doesn't even have shoes in the winter. She does all the work. She even knows that without her they'd die. She's snarky and observant and smart, so she knows she's holding all the cards. What do they have over her? Why doesn't she leave and find work as a housekeeper or something? What is making her stay?

    What does she want? Knowing or having a better understand about what makes Cinderella do what she does helps propel the plot and helps readers sympathize. In other words, we need to see that she doesn't have a choice but to be there. And if she had a choice she'd do something else. (And what that something is.)

    The scene when the beam falls on the guy is startling. Yet her reaction is to describe Prince Perfect. In the midst of the action, don't stop to give backstory on a character. It seemed like Cinderella didn't care about the guy because she spent the next few paragraphs focused on the prince. Once the action begins, go there, dwell there. Wherever the character focuses speaks volumes about her character, state of mind, etc.

    When in the midst writing scene, expand it by weaving action, dialogue, internal dialogue, and moments of introspection. Make sure that every detail furthers the plot and gives insight to the characters. Keep characters' motivation in mind in whatever they say and do.

    Even though your story is a retelling of a classic, I really think it's fresh and worth pursuing. I look forward to seeing where you take it. Thanks for sharing it.

    Write on,

  3. Hi Paco,
    I'm reposting this here because it is for this weeks. I don't have anything earlier as I just found out. Sorry for the duplicate but wanted to make sure you saw it : )

    I agree with Soumyanam and Martina, so I don't want to repeat. But I'd also start with Our house was destroyed by a dragon. That gets my attention. Also the red rose on the windowsill gets my attention. And the fact she wasn't burned. I think a short flashback while stirring the fire is a great idea. I'd maybe even string it out. Snippets here and there. But instead, show not tell Like: I tremble as I toss another log onto the fire.

    Because the character is so well known, I didn't need the narrative of how bad her life was. I liked the dialogue of what the cousins said, that was enough. I'd rather hear her say she hates her life, even though its telling, than the narrative why. If you key the reader into her character as the same as Cinderella, they'll get the picture.

    I, too, was jarred by Cinderella's appearance with the prince. I felt it was too much of an info dump when you talk about the prince. Just his wanting to save the man compels us to like the guy. With the exception of his name. It's hard for people to relate to someone who is perfect. Maybe that's his nickname and he doesn't like it, because he knows he's not, though he does his best. But too much info on him. Let us see from you showing us his character throughout.

    I do like the remake part of fairytales, but only if there are enough differences. Which I think is where you need to concentrate. Hook the reader with these differences before you lose them with the same old story.

    I, too, would like to hear and feel, etc., from her POV. not just be told. But the ideas are there. You can do this!