Monday, December 9, 2013

Paco José Madden: Cinderella, Dragon Slayer Rev. 1

Name: Paco José Madden
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
Title: Cinderella, Dragon Slayer (2nd Draft)

Fire.  It’s all I ever think about, as 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 ever since.  A safe distance from the logs lit in the fireplace, I carefully place the poker back in its holder and wipe soot in 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.

I’m sixteen now.  For the past eleven years, I have been living with Auntie and her two daughters, Elvira and Esmira in a manor house on the outskirts of town.  To say they took pity on me would be a lie.  Auntie gives me nothing to wear but an old gray shift and no slippers for my feet, even in winter.  I am also tasked with all the chores within and without the home.  Before dawn, I the carry water, make the fire, cook, and wash.  I clean in the afternoon.  I prepare dinner and run errands before the sun goes down.  Life isn’t so terrible if it’s simply drudgery, but Auntie and her charges find every opportunity to cause me grief and make me look ridiculous.

“Handle the plate and silver with a dishtowel.  We don’t want it to get grubby,” gripes Auntie.

“I dropped a bowl of lentils out my window.  Pick up every bean,” orders Elvira.

“Cinder, gray suits you.  It is the color of blandness,” sneers Esmira.

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 playing 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.


A rope snaps and a crossbeam tumbles on one of the masons building the home for orphaned children.  He screams, as the wooden timber crushes his legs.  The man’s weather beaten hat lays beside his balding pate, as workers above scrabble down a series of ladders, ropes, and pulleys from the frame structure that appears as nothing more than ribs of wood.  The first to arrive on the scene is Prince Perfect in his royal blue cape and jodhpurs.
I’m walking home from the market with a basketful of goods when I see this happen right in front of me.

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 in 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 attempts to lift the beam from the hurt builder.  He turns to me and says, “Can you give me a hand?”  I drop my wicker basket to the ground, fruits and vegetables spilling everywhere and 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 a carpenter who has reached the ground floor—“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.  The other workers arrive and load the injured man onto a cart.  He mumbles an agonized ‘thank you’ to the Prince, who takes the man’s hand and says some encouraging words.

Then he turns to one of the mason’s.  “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 Prince 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, his hair and clothes splattered with mud and slop.  His hair is rangy and looks as if a pile of straw was laid on top of his head.  The boy also has a squat if stout build. 

“What are your names?” asks Prince Perfect still gathering my fallen produce.  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 that 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.


  1. Hey Paco,

    I have to say, the introduction of more explanations made a big difference. Even if you basically added only three more paragraphs to the original story, I felt a big difference in the way I perceived the character. That was very educational for me. The story made more sense all of a sudden.
    You introduced the memory very well. Now I see that she is not intrigued by her gift; she does not even want to know. That added a lot to the characterization. I am used to read YA fantasy stories about pro-active protagonists, so I was expecting her to search for answers and wonder about the accident more. However, you decided to stay very close to the original character of Cinderella. Instead, you decided to push for the emotional side of the story. Well done. The second draft is definitely more emotional because we get more into the head of the character. I like the explanation about how she feels about the swineherd's son, her pity for him. Adding more emotions had two effects: 1) give a character more authentic and 2) make the reader care more for her.
    I see now what you meant when you said she will only discover her power when she will be fighting the dragon and that will happen despite herself. In this regard, she sound much younger. Even if the voice is not MG, the character sounds more like an MG character.
    Just love this version, really love it.
    I still think the Prince perfect's scene is cliche, but they've got to meet one way or another.
    Now, I am wondering if it is not the pig's herder who drops a rose on her window sill every evening and make her go all emotional about it. The idea is very intriguing.

  2. I am just being curious.
    Do you have an author website?

  3. Soumayan,

    I had a website when I ran my own theater company. Since I started to focus more on prose fiction and haven’t produced theater since 2011, I shut the website down.

    The swineherd’s son ends up going with Cinderella to find a Dragon Slayer. They find one, but he’s injured and can’t fight. So the Dragon Slayer agrees to train both of them, which is another reason why I can’t have Cinderella have an obvious power. It would be like training Harry Potter next to a Muggle. The rose giver is revealed towards the end of the story.

    Also, can you go into more detail of what is cliché of the Prince Perfect scene? It’s not your typical boy meets girl scenario since the girl helps boy lift a beam off someone who is injured. Is it some aspect of the meet rather than the meet itself or something about how the two characters are portrayed?



  4. Hi Paco,

    This is interesting, and while my first reaction was that there probably isn't going to be a lot of enthusiasm for another Cinderella retelling given how often these pop up in agent's mailboxes,I LOVE the idea of Cinderella in a world with dragons -- especially if she has some connection to being able to withstand dragon fire. That sets her up for a lot of potentially fabulous things.

    That said, I have a few major questions about this that I think you will need to address before it could be successful. First, your 16-year-old protagonist ages you from MG to YA in almost every possible interpretation, so writing it this way is going to make getting published a difficult endeavor. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but I would recommend rethinking the concept here. And if you age up to YA, or really, even if you stick with MG, you are telling and not showing the story, and that makes it problematic. You want to bring us closer to the character by letting us experience the story with her, and let us sink into the story by suspending disbelief. By telling it in this way, we (as readers) don't have the opportunity to do that.

    I enjoy the tongue-in-cheek telling here, but some of your elements and lines feel over the top and a little forced. Ultimately, I'd like you to try this as if you are genuinely Cinderella. What does she feel/think/experience that is DIFFERENT than any Cinderella has experienced in in past retellings. You've given us this kick-ass premise, so now exploit it.

    I would recommend starting in the present and showing us the unique action unfolding rather than telling us the story, and I think that by getting deeper into the story, you will find ways to make it really come to life and establish a voice that is both readable and engaging.

    Did I mention how much I love the premise of Cinderella with a dragon? So how far can you take that? What starts us on a path that pits Cinderella against the dragon? What does Cinderella really want? What's she doing to get there? And how is the dragon going to stop her?

    At least that's where I hope you're going, because I'd love to read that story!

  5. Actually, my name is Sylvie :)

    I know we have a different concepts concerning this story. I am not trying to convince you. I am just answering because you are asking.

    It's just the whole idea that the prince has to save someone and he is good as gold.
    They meet because there is a danger and the prince has to help everybody, as if a prince would do that in real life. He puts her back in her place, displaying perfect wisdom, then right away he tells her he would like to meet her again, showing perfect polite behavior. (If someone did make this comment in front of me, I would not feel like meeting this person again.)
    Of course, he is perfectly gentle and concerned about other people and does not have one ounce of pride and does not find any problem talking with commoners.
    It's just so black and white; it's fairy tale cliche.
    Humility is not a quality in the US because it is viewed as a weakness. It is a quality in other cultures. It happens that all these fairy tales were created in Europe where humility is seen as wisdom.
    It does not work in YA fiction because the hero does not look three dimensional or authentic. Your prince perfect is an ideal from another culture. That's why most of the characters in "Once Upon a Time" (TV show we mentioned before) are changed. They all display a dark side. (ABC is an American company)
    In the traditional fairy tale, Cinderella ascends only because she is lucky enough to have a Fairy Godmother. In the TV series, Cinderella changes her life by using dark magic. She feels she has to because 'Rumpie' kills her fairy godmother. She says she would do anything to get out of here. She has no morale.

    Snow: "Do you realize what an inspiration you are to everyone?"
    Cinderella: "All I did was get married."
    Snow: "All you did was show that anyone can change her life."

    Hope that clarifies.

  6. Slyvie and Martina thank you for your notes.

    I think the closest comparison to CINDERELLA, DRAGONSLAYER, in terms of the characterization of the protagonist and some style elements, is BEAUTY by Robin McKlinely. I am also reading A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS by Marie Brennan, for obvious reason, but it’s in the same general wheelhouse in terms of style and presentation. These fairytales I am reworking are also largely influenced by the Katniss from the HUNGER GAMES and Merida from Pixar’s BRAVE (since the first two of the stories I am retelling feature warrior protagonists). So I will probably put it back in the YA category.

    There is more development to the Cinderella that goes beyond the fairytale character during the course of the story. The first third of the DRAGONSLAYER is sort of a mix Cinderella and setting up the quest she will eventually choose. At the ball, Prince Perfect is ripped from Cinderella’s arms by the dragon Flamethrower and Cinderella goes on a quest to find a Dragon Slayer to save him but ends up training to become a Dragon Slayer herself.

    One of the things I am trying to do with DRAGONSLAYER is subvert the Cinderella mythos (and not simply the fact that Cinderella goes on a quest). It’s also about dispelling the fantasy of finding the perfect prince/person. It’s one reason why I actually made Prince Perfect out to be the perfect prince. It’s George, the swineherd’s son, however, who joins Cinderella on the journey to find the Dragon Slayer, trains with Cinderella, and sacrifices himself at the end because of his love for her. Cinderella in her quest to save the perfect person (i.e., Prince Perfect), let the person with the perfect love for her (George), slip through her fingers. The story concludes with Cinderella rejecting Prince Perfect but she has grown wiser from the experience. She is unattached and open to what the future holds. So it doesn’t end with the girl getting the prince. Not sure if this will work. But it’s that’s what I’m aiming for. This is also the reason why I make the prince the ideal prince. Maybe there’s a way I can make this work better with the meet.
    Martina, can you clarify some of the over-the-top elements? I can’t fix them if I don’t know what they are.

    In the beginning, I wanted to quickly establish Cinderella and her routine. As the story develops a bit of a snarky side to Cinderella is reveal. If I write the beginning as a scene, this may come across earlier and present some differentiation between her and the classic fairy tale character. Within a scene, I probably can establish her routine as well. While cooking or serving breakfast for instance, Cinderella may review all the other chores she has to do for the day or be given chores by Auntie and her cousins. I’ll give it some thought, but I’m not sure I can come up with something by the Sunday night deadline. I have the start of an idea of Cinderella serving breakfast, so it’s the start of the day and maybe Auntie and her cousins can give her chores to do and the subject of the dragon Flamethrower not appearing as the tenth year of his last return passes can come up.

  7. Maybe try a prince who is somewhat cocky and does not sound wise beyond his age. Perfection is only in the eyes of the beholder. Maybe Cinderella thinks he is perfect because she 'worships' him. Think of teenager girls looking at actors and screaming when they appear, Cinder could be that way too and really sound like a teen.
    She must have a big crush on the prince. Imagine modern teens and princes. Remember Diana and how she end up marrying a prince and totally be disappointed because really you don't marry an idol, but a person with all his flaws.
    Also, mentioning the dragon tidbit would help. I think what's the most attractive in your story so far is Cinder the dragon slayer. By the way, why not call her Ashley (as in Ash-ley)?
    The breakfast scene would definitely help the characterization and remove some of the telling parts. Make us feel how trapped Cinder is. She has nowhere to go. She must accept her position in the house because she has no other choice, but she is dying to get out of here. She could even dream about marrying the prince like "all" teens dream of marrying a celebrity.

    Good luck on the rewriting :)

  8. It makes it a different type of story if Cinderella goes after someone she thinks is perfect but isn't. It's not about the perfect person vs. the perfect love. It becomes a story of the person one thinks is perfect but is really not vs. the one who is perfect for that person. This is a very common storytelling trope. It's probably the most common romantic plot.

    The closest comparison I can think of for what I am trying to do is the romance between Rick and Ilsa in the old back and white movie CASABLANCA. Rick certainly has the deeper love for IIsa (who also has a deeper love for Rick), but IIsa is married to Victor Lazlo, a resistance leader against the Nazis. Lazlo isn't portrayed as a bad guy. He's handsome and noble. And Rick puts himself at great risk to help IIsa and Lazlo get out of Casablanca so Lazlo won't be arrested by the Nazis and can continue his resistance work.

    I'm not trying to write another Casablanca, but I like the idea of working with a similar sort of love triangle. Arthur and Lancelot might also be another candidate. There's no great flaw in Arthur but Lancelot and Guinevere are meant for each other.

    In DRAGON SLAYER, it's not that Cinderella realizes that Prince Perfect is the wrong guy, but that the person who loved her perfectly died to save her and her perfect prince.

    The quest is different and not so noble if the Prince is a jerk, and George would point out (even if Cinderella refuses to listen). It also would be nice if George had to sacrifice himself--even if it was because of Cinderella--for someone who was worth it.

    Thanks again. I'm just trying to clarify the type of story I wish to tell.

  9. The only thing I am trying to get through and did not so far is that YA is all about the voice. Never mind what the story is about.
    If your character sounds like a 100 year old, then he cannot pass for a teenager.
    Teens have flaws and that should reflect in your writing.
    Teen readers cannot identify with your characters if they do not sound teen. That's the hard part of writing for kids: the voice.
    Besides, being a little Cocky does not mean being a jerk and Rick was a little cocky by the way.

  10. Hi Paco,
    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!