Monday, January 20, 2014

1st 5 Pages Jan. Workshop Rev 2: Rose

Name: April C. Rose
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Title: Winter on Brimstone Hill

I roll over to check if the milk is frozen. It is. It’s going to be a bad day.

Maybe, just maybe, I’m hallucinating. If I pretend to fall back asleep
and go through the whole process of waking again, then perhaps
there’ll be a fine icy film over the milk and nothing more.  It’s
worth a try.

Convincing myself it’s going to work is almost easy, but when the
sleeping bag comes down, the day looks pretty bleak.  The milk, neatly
stacked in three crates of glass bottles, appears solid.

I could pray that the bottles won’t break as the room warms with
daylight. I could pray, but I won’t. In any case, there’s no use
wasting energy over frozen bottles.  If it’s going to get cold, it’s
going to get cold, and all things—milk among them—freeze. There’s a
life lesson for you.

I pull the folded clothes from my nightstand into the warmth of the
sleeping bag.  I am the salamander that used to live in the cellar.
Joseph and I used to amuse ourselves by enticing it with earth- or
mealworms.  It shot from under the stone long enough to bite down on
the morsel before retreating.  The salamander couldn’t guess we
weren’t going to hurt it. It didn’t need to move fast, but I do.
Otherwise, my body heat will escape.  The chill will never leave me

At least my bedroom isn’t as damp as our cellar. That’s something.

I also manage to get my underwear on right on the first try. That’s
also something. You’d think I’d be a pro at dressing within the
sleeping bag’s confines by now, but it’s so worth it. I stay warmish
and avoid more “Did you see Sarah’s wrinkly shirt?” episodes. Score.

My hand gropes for the Big Man aviator frames I call glasses. They
hearken back to Tom Cruise and the 1980’s, but without the cool
factor. And hey, they work.  Why someone would beg her parents to
spend twenty dollars extra to buy girl’s frames when she can have her
peers make fun of her for wearing gigantic frames is beyond me. I
mean, what’s not to love?

The clock reads five a.m.  My glasses let me see that.

Only sixteen more hours left in the day.

Grace will sleep a while longer, being too young for chores and
school, and it’s another hour before Joseph wakes to tend the
chickens. He’s lucky; throw some scratch down and refresh their water
and they’re fine. I don’t have to be in the kitchen to know my father
sits at the head of the table with a coffee cup in one hand, and Mom
sits to his right with a deck of cards in hers.

I climb from bed to examine the bottles. The wooden floorboards,
painted grey to hide two hundred years, creak under my weight.

The milk sloshes inside the bottles as if it were on the top shelf of
a too-cold refrigerator. Oh, good. It’s not completely solid.

Just to be sure, I check an apple from the box at the foot of my
bed—even better. And the potatoes—nice. Maybe all will be well. I
don’t want to lose our farm’s entire winter store barely into
November. Last year it was almost March before that happened.

Fifteen hours and fifty-eight minutes more.

I turn off the old lamp Mom gifted to me when the storeroom became my
bedroom. They were my sixteenth birthday presents. It was the best
gift anyone could ever give me—my own space. Well, sort of. I have to
share a room with perishables, but so what? I only have to worry about
that during the winter. The summer’s a-whole-nother story.

In the kitchen, it’s exactly as I anticipated. My parents listen to AM
radio, the steady tick tick tick of the electrical fence interrupting
the morning show with DJ Dan. The only other noise is the burble of
the coffee pot on the wood stove and Mom’s cards flicking onto the

I press my feet into my muck boots and shrug into Mom’s oversized wool jacket.

I’m turning the doorknob when my father speaks. “Not going to say
‘morning,’ are you?”

“Good morning,” I say, chastising myself for the slip.

“It doesn’t mean anything now that I had to tell you to say it.”

“I’m sorry.”  My voice is soft, little.  It’s not my real voice; it
doesn’t belong to me. He inspires this voice; it belongs to him.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he says.

“To milk the goats.”

“How many times have I told you not to mumble?”

Mom stops dealing the cards to the piles on the table.

“Sorry,” I say.  “I was going to milk the goats.”  I put more force
behind my words, but they still come out tight.

“Look at me when you speak to me.”

My eyes dart up to meet his.  I don’t want to stare into the green we
share, but I have to.  I can pretend I’m stronger than he is.  This
time, my words carry.  “I was going to milk the goats.”

He turns back to his coffee, Mom’s cards flick onto the table, and I
escape to the barn.

Fifteen hours and fifty-three minutes.

Chapter Two

“Dodge,” I call. The saanen frisks her way through the pen and greets
me with a nuzzle.

I bat her through the doorway and laugh. “I know what you want, you old nanny.”

Instead of going to the milking stanchion like the other goats do when
it’s their turn, she persists.

One Easter, that’s all it took. Unbelievable.

Her nose presses against my pocket, knocking me against the wall.
“Hey, hey, hey,” I say. “Patience is a virtue.”

Patience lifts her head from her grain.

“Not you, silly.”

As soon as I unwrap the egg and Dodge satisfies her addiction to cheap
chocolate, she jumps on the stanchion like the good little goat she

Thank you, Dodge. I won’t miss the bus today.

My head rests against her belly, soaking in her soft warmth. She may
be annoying and stubborn, but she’s always happy to see me. I guess
I’d be too, if someone came bearing chocolate and relief.

I work the bag balm into Dodge’s swollen teats, at the same time
liberally applying it to my own hands. It doesn’t matter. My hands
chap and my knuckles splinter by the time I finish milking.

My parents aren’t in the kitchen when I set the bucket of milk on the
stovetop and turn on the gas.  I light a match and hold it to the
burner until the flame spits.  Then I stopper the sink.

The heat from the woodstove behind me entices me, summons me, but I
ignore it to skim the hair and dirt from the milk.  The milk’s
temperature rises. Burned hair and animal stink fill the air, and I
fight down my gag reflex. The milk is nearly done.

I remove the steaming milk from the flame and place the bucket in the
sink to cool.  My movement is too quick. The cold water splashes.

I step backwards, but not fast enough. The water runs down my front
and onto the floor.  I inwardly curse my clumsiness and grab a towel
from the formica countertop.

After mopping the spilled water, I turn back to the cooling milk.
This time I curse aloud.



  1. Hi April! I'm not sure I see a great deal of change between this version and the last but here are a few thoughts. 1. "when the sleeping bag comes down" (p. 3) feels a little bit awkward to me--rephrase? 2. What kind of cards does Mom have (for some reason I'm thinking Tarot b/c of ominous feel of outset)--is she playing Solitaire or something? A word or two of detail might really enrich this picture. 3. "Fifteen hours and..." (last line of Ch. 1) makes me wonder UNTIL WHAT? Why does Sarah care that the day will end? Does she want to go back to the cold storeroom? Is something important happening tomorrow?
    In general, I think that in some places the tightening added clarity and in other places another word or two might enrich the text, per the three examples above. Plot-wise, I know you're envisioning this as a literary piece but I still feel like you need to give us some plot clue within the first five pages. Just looked at p. 1 of highly literary fiction SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS by Marisha Pessl. While atmospheric and full of literary allusion, on Page One, narrator tells readers "It had been almost a year since I'd found Hannah dead..." This is a critical plot point nested amidst the gorgeous, complex language and imagery. I suppose I feel like your opening pages would get an agent on the phone to you in short order if they contained a "dead Hannah" moment showing that, in addition to beautiful language, you have command over plot structure and that something BIG is going to happen that will make the agent/editor want to read more asap. Sometimes, when I am writing, my inner voice says things like "boy, is the reader gonna be blown away when I tell them THIS plot point sometime in the NEXT chapter." Then I ask myself, why am I holding back on the reader? Why am I afraid to put this big thing on the page right now--fearlessly--and trust that the story has enough legs for more big things I'll discover later, as I continue to write? The danger in holding back is that the reader will feel the manipulation, lose patience, and not read on until the big reveal. It's a delicate balance--stringing out plot and building character/setting--but I think at the core of this balance is VOICE which is, ultimately, what keeps the reader (agent, editor, book buyer, kid in library) turning the pages. Again, your writing is strong and I, with only two fiction manuscripts sold to publishers, don't consider myself any kind of authority. I would never dare to guess what books will grab agents' attention and what will be passes. I can only tell you my own perception which should be taken with a plentiful grain of salt. :)

    1. 1.) On your comment #3, do you feel these are questions that need to be answered right away? I know sometimes questions are of the sort: if you don't answer them right now, then I'll stop reading; and sometimes they are of the sort: I'm curious to know what the answer to these questions are, so I'll keep reading.
      2.) I apologize for the lack of changes in this revision. The last thing I want is for you--or anyone--to feel like you're wasting your time. Have you read the other piece it was recommended I post last week? We weren't sure if it was breaking workshop rules--so I'll definitely remove it, if need be--but we talked about changing the opening to a different place, which is partly why this revision shows so little change. I focused on that instead.

  2. Hi, April.

    I read your other pages in the previous post as well as this update. I think the decision as to how to edit is up to you. You have two options: edit this scene to provide more plot points and momentum, or switch to another scene. The alternate scene you posted is interesting, in part because of the new character's strong personality, but the scene focuses a great deal on the new character, not your MC. Typically, you do not want an opening scene that focuses too much on another character when you are in first person POV. You want to provide a scene that helps your readers connect with your character right off the bat.

    Again, this morning scene COULD be that kind of connection, but we need you to show your cards to a much greater degree. Conflict comes from understanding a character's POV, and then witnessing how it collides with the situation they are in. I do not find much reason to read about your MC at this point because I don't find her interesting. I need to see the world through her voice and hear her fears--not just that she is fearful, but WHAT she is fearful of. I need to know her. The morning scene hints at our character's soul, but I feel she is keeping me at arm's distance. She's not really telling me why she's afraid, of who or what, why there's a countdown, etc. I understand that you may be trying to build suspense, but hiding the ball like this just keeps us removed from the character.

    Again, I recommend you look at the opening chapters of published works, not for the writing, but for the content and truth on those pages. I think you'll find that most blatantly state what is going on in the character's lives. The characters need to let us in right away--that is the privilege of being a reader. That is what hooks us.

  3. Hi April,
    I have to say, I'm a little torn. I loved the other bit you posted last week--that scene was really strong and vivid. We had a little more of Sarah's personality shown to us, especially when we contrasted her with Bonnie. I thought it was great. It throws us right into the story. When I was in my MA program, we were told over and over again to start the story from the point of no return. The moment when your character's life changes forever, whether they realize it at that moment or not. From what you've said, the scene when Bonnie sits down next to Sarah is that moment.

    But that doesn't mean you HAVE to start there. Rules are broken all of the time. I think if you want to start earlier that day, you can, but you're going to have to give us something else. From these pages up above, I still don't know much about Sarah or what she wants or what stands in her way. What does she dream about while milking the goat and skimming the milk? Is there a test at school later that day that she's worried about passing? Is she worried about applying to college? Maybe her immediate want isn't what she wants over the rest of the book. Maybe it's just a want that leads her to what she wants over the rest of the book. Does that make sense? I think that if you're going to start here, you need to give your readers something to go off of. You're going to need to give us a reason to root for Sarah.

    I know this probably isn't very helpful. I think your writing is strong in both places, and you're the only person who can decide where the right place to begin actually is. Good luck. :)

  4. Hello April,

    As the other two have brought up, not much has changed. Even if you choose to keep this beginning, you need to ground us in this world. Paint a picture for us. I read articles all the time and know there are books that will help you, as a literary writer, to use your beautiful writing to show this world by way of your MC and how she sees things or reacts to them. This is why everyone loves the scene with the father, me included, because it shows us who she is. How she fits in her world. She feels small.

    I still don’t know what she wants. This is a problem. If I don’t know what she wants, then why do I care? I agree with the above comments about the time count down. It’s a good trick, the ticking time bomb, I’ve used it myself, but if I don’t know what’s at stake or what she’s waiting for, it loses all its power. I’m sorry if that’s harsh, but beautiful writing will only get you so far. The easiest way to fix this, especially with first person, is to let us in her head and show us this world through her eyes.

    I read something today that said, give a picture to six different people and ask them what stands out. A female sees a beautiful silk dress made by a particular designer. A man barely sees the dress and only notices the curvy body beneath, perhaps, unless he himself is a designer. Do you see what I mean? We all see the world differently. How does your MC see hers? What little details can you give us? I know you have it in you. Try to find five details that you can add to paint a clearer picture. And find a way to show us what she wants or what’s at stake and then we will have something to root for.

  5. Thanks! I read over my very first intro. There were a few things my CPs recommended I cut, but maybe they'll help if I rework them differently.

    What do you guys think about if I gave it a small-ish prologue-ish intro--like a paragraph or two? Nothing long, but something that might introduce the change. ?? I know that many agents hate prologues, but they wouldn't exist if people didn't use them, you know?


    1. I want to be generous and say that it depends on the prologue itself. But I think there's a way to get past it.

      I mean, I agree with the others here. There's not much change in this selection to critique versus last week's version, but the other section you put up feels like an introduction to Bonnie instead of an introduction to your MC.

      But it doesn't have to. I think most of the things in this opening that set your MC up as different and determined can be worked into that section. Your MC in this opening here has a pretty strong internal life, but it isn't as strong in the section on the bus. Why not? Why not open the novel with her on the bus realizing with dismay that she forgot to wash the smelly bag balm off her hands and now the other kids are going to have one more thing to make fun of her for that day, and as Bonnie gets introduced the MC can still be thinking back on her hurried morning, until Bonnie distracts her into the present. Something like that, anyway. Just add a bit more of the MC from the opening into the section on the bus, and I think that's got it.

  6. Hi April,
    Addressing your reply to me plus comments later in the string. After 1st 5 pages, though the writing is lovely, I still don't feel like I could tell a friend what this book is going to be: contemporary, historical or dystopian; mystery or poverty tale or school story. I still feel like you are "writing in." Your first fives are solid world-building. Your alternate opening is a terrific character study of Bonnie. But, the true first paragraphs of this novel? Maybe they feel raw and scary to write but you've got to let 'em hit the page. W/r/t prologues, I get the feeling that agents/editors are wary of prologues because they indicate the author's need to try to explain something instead of just getting on with the story. So, even if ultimately a prologue is warranted, from a submission standpoint it's probably not the best plan. Finally, to address your elevator pitch, I'd cut by half and stick with show-don't-tell. So, sentence 2, & phrases like " believe" and "want to be loved" need reconsidering. Also, I'm still waiting for that: "Bonnie's friendship feels like Sarah's salvation--until Bonnie is arrested/kidnapped/tells a SPECIFIC lie (you mention a lie that might tear them apart but it's not clear what that is)--and Sarah must TAKE A CHALLENGE/TRY SOMETHING to find her friend (or the truth or whatever). Elevator pitch: One set-up sentence. One protag/antag sentence. One plot sentence. Remember, you are not keeping the ending secret from agent/editor. They want to know how your book ends so that, between the set-up of your first five and the synopsis/elevator pitch in your query letter, they have a clear sense of the product you are asking them to sell. Very best of luck with your writing!