Monday, February 3, 2014

1st 5 Pages February Workshop - Schuren

Name: Shannon Schuren
Genre: YA Contemporary
Title: Children of Psolemnity


The girls never get a choice. This has always been the way in Psolemnity, for as long as I've been alive and longer. My father chose my mother, and though I have known this my whole life, tonight the words become real. It was on a night just like this, sixteen years ago, that our family began.

I have a thousand questions, and though she has never answered before, tonight is different. I am sixteen—a woman in the eyes of our community—and tonight is my Selection. I open my mouth to ask: What will I do? How will I feel? What will happen next? But my mother shakes her head, her dark hair rustling beneath her headscarf.

"It's better if you don't know, Miriam." she says. "The unexpected should feel like a gift, not an obligation."

I have been to past Selections. Not the actual ceremony, just the celebration leading up to it, which is our biggest all year. It goes on for days, out in the open desert, beyond the high concrete walls of our intentional community. There is singing, and dancing, and feasting. The stars decorate the sky like thousands of candles, and the smoke from our fires climbs into the vast darkness like an offering to God.

Tonight is it my turn, and I am giddy with anticipation. Too anxious to sit still, even if that is what is expected of me. I twirl, with my skirt held wide and my face turned to the sky. The night breeze is a soft caress, carrying the comforting smell of burning wood and roasting meat in its wake.

I stop when I feel his gaze on me. Boaz is standing on the other side of the fire—the boy's side. His eyes are bright in the firelight, his skin bronze against the white of his shirt. And I dare to hope that maybe, just maybe, he has practiced whispering my name. But there is no way to know for sure. Our whole lives we have been kept separate, except for Sundays at Chapel. And at Chapel there is no speaking. That is a rule that even I have never broken.

So I don’t know if he is nervous. Or excited? Does he practice his Selection, or is that just a story we girls have invented to make us feel better? Surely he must have some feelings about this day? After all, he is the one who must . . .

But then, no girl knows what happens during the Selection. We've all imagined it, or at least I have, but there is no way to know if my fantasies are accurate. My own father is the only man I know well enough to ask, and he says he cannot remember. And maybe that is true. Perhaps the experience is too overwhelming. Or perhaps men do not attach the same importance to these things.

After tonight, I will be able to ask my husband.

He is watching me again. I glance at him over my shoulder. His blonde hair has been cut and wet down, though a single curl springs loose against his forehead. His is strong, with shoulders made for carrying, arms for lifting, hands for crafting. I have heard whispers that he has been chosen to work in the cavern tonight and I wonder what use they have for his strength down there.

He smiles, the corner of his mouth curving up like the crook of a finger. It is an invitation. There is a connection between us, a tether that sends shivers of excitement down into my belly. He will choose me, and I will finally know what it is like to speak to him. Touch him. Be touched by him.

There must have been some sort of signal, though I missed it, because the crowd has thinned. Parents and young children have gone back through the gates to the city to their homes. The music has stopped. Voices have lowered.

An electric thrill of excitement runs through the crowd, which is suddenly made up entirely of my sisters and their mothers.

And Aaron.

The gangly boy trips between us and sprawls in the sand at Susanna’s feet. Even in the dark I can tell his face is crimson. Shame rolls off him like a thundercloud, as Susanna stares down at him with disdain.

If our society followed the feudal system, there is little doubt Susanna would be our queen. Her beauty is a tangible thing, and she wears it like a crown. Watching her sneer at the errant boy in our midst, for the first time I wonder if beauty can be a burden. Whoever chooses first tonight is bound to choose Susanna. Why wouldn't he? Even Aaron has a look of wonder on his face, despite the sand that she has kicked in it.

The rest of the girls have formed a tight circle around the strange tableau. We are all equally fascinated and horrified. Still, no one speaks. We are not allowed, not with a boy in our presence. Even this boy, who was not born among us but joined us as an Outsider.

A dim orange glow emanates from the cave’s opening in the sand wall beyond us. The fire flares up from deep within and then recedes.

"It has begun."

The voice is older, familiar. I scan the women's faces but I cannot tell who has spoken. Perhaps she didn't mean to say it, the words just spilling out, slippery and silver off her tongue like a fish, before she can catch them back.

It is a sensation I know all too well.

Some girls break from the group and move toward it, but their mothers press them back. Aaron's presence is holding up the proceeding. Maybe he knows this too, but he seems frozen in place. I move into the circle, pushing the others away with my shoulders, and squat in the sand beside him.

"Are you all right?" I ask, ignoring the shocked gasps of my sisters and letting my mother’s silent disapproval wash over me. “Did you hurt yourself?”

Aaron’s eyes are wide in fear and maybe relief. He shakes his head and scrambles to his feet. My own breach, so much worse than his, has shocked him into mobility.

“Good evening.” This voice booms out into the darkness, coming from nowhere and everywhere. This voice we all know, better than our own. It is our leader, Daniel.

"Good evening," we respond, or at least the females do. Aaron scans the crowd like a trapped animal.

"Welcome to our celebration. To your Selection."

A smattering of chatter flows through the crowd and is immediately silenced. For once, I say nothing.

I am waiting for him to speak, to inspire us, to give us words of hope and courage. To tell us how we should feel. It is what he does best. But he, too, is silent, and it is a disconcerting absence in an already confusing night. Why so much secrecy? Why the darkness? Why the silence? Panic flutters in my chest. What will happen to us after tonight?

I search the crowd for my mother’s serene face. When I find it, the tension in my shoulders eases. Life will go on tomorrow, just as it always has. Nothing will change. Nothing and everything. After tonight, I will no longer be only a daughter.

I will be a wife.

10 comments:

  1. This feels like a very strong opening to me. You've introduced our MC, Miriam, a complex (possibly dystopian) world, and a dramatic moment. We know that Miriam is drawn to Boaz, and that she shows strength and compassion by speaking to Aaron. The mystery of the Selection and the secrecy around it is tantalizing. I would definitely turn the page! A few things to think about. P4-"singing, dancing...feasting" feels a bit generic. There's an opportunity here to enrich world-building. P7-I think it would be tighter without the last sentence--and possibly ending previous sentence w/ a period (vs. a question mark). Right now, I feel like we are pulled a little bit away from narrator's POV and the ellipsis feels weak. FAMILY--I feel like we could go a bit deeper into the specifics of her relationships with mother, father and sisters (how many?) with just a few brushstrokes of your lovely, descriptive prose. I suppose I just don't buy that her father says he "doesn't remember" and wonder at her mother's suggestion (I think) that intimacy is better as a surprise (?). A few Psolemnity-specific descriptives might enhance this even further. In sum, your work here is very strong and please consider the above suggestions to be "fine sanding" on a great opening chapter. Congrats!

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  2. RE: your first line about them never getting to choose. How does the MC feel about this? You said that it's always been like this, and now it's real -- well, now that it's real, does she feel okay with that? No other boys have caught her attention because they've been segregated or she just hasn't thought of anyone besides Boaz because he's chosen her since birth or something? How does she know Boaz will choose her? The Susanna/Aaron paragraph made me think that none of the girls knew who had chosen them (the bit about how any boy would choose her -- does she already have one boy who has?).

    Other questions I have: if Aaron's breach is terrible, why do none of the elders/leaders pick him up? Why is the MC the only one to approach him? It seems a bit strange that they would start (It has begun) without removing him forcibly. Especially if he's an Outsider and already shamed -- wouldn't they be okay with shaming him more rather than having him mess with the Selection?

    There are a few places where I think the voice strays into a colloquial tone - not necessarily the questions, but for instance: "So I don’t know if he is nervous." Nitpicky but that "so" and the following sentence Or Excited? caught my eye. Some other places too, but maybe that's just me?

    I agree with what Stasia has written too on the family & intimacy bit. She seems to have a close relationship with her mother - close enough that she looks to her for comfort at the end here - so why would her mother deliberately avoid trying to comfort her with more details about intimacy?

    Anyway, I really, really liked this piece and think you've done a fantastic job keeping me hooked! I would definitely read on. :)

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  3. First of all, beautiful language, it’s poetic at times and has a musicality that carries the prose. You’re world-building is fierce as well. I’m curious about these people, this ritual and setting. I definitely smell something like a religious cult, the signs are clear (to me) without hitting me over the head. Miriam is compelling and I’d like a little more insight into the loquacious nature she mentions, to see if there are any other seeds of rebellion in her. If this society is structured and segregated by gender then I want a couple more narrative gives as to how this affects her. Is she scared or just anxious? I’m not too hungry for more than that at this point. The questions that were raised for me are the kinds of questions that would keep me reading. Well done.

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  4. First off, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this segment. There is a flow to your language which is soothing yet direct. It's a strong beginning. For the rest, I'll just comment as I read.

    In the second paragraph, when you say 'she', I feel as though you need to directly refer to her mother.

    How does your MC feel about having no choice? Is she angry, annoyed, complacent, etc... You could weave a little indication of that early on to give the reader a deeper connection to her from the get-go.

    So she's 'giddy', but why? Is she looking forward to this selection process? Does she have any idea of who will select her. Is there a sense of dread or honor on her part? Then there's the Sunday Chapel idea. Firstly, that's nice world building, but it does raise questions, especially because she mentions that 'even she hasn't broken the rule of no talking' there. Does this mean there's a wild side to her? I think it's be fun to explore that a little. The only element I feel is missing from your MC's voice is fear. I have to think she's somewhat fearful, especially being only sixteen on the verge of taking on a husband. Also, the idea of the Outsider is very intriguing to me. Is that why Susanna shuns him or is it because he's clumsy? Other than these questions, this is nicely written. I really like the ending. I would definitely continue reading.

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  5. First off, you have some beautiful language here, and do a great job setting an ominous tone in this first scene. Right away, you raised good questions in my mind as a reader, so I'm intrigued and want to read on. That having been said, some of your generic word choices (like "Selection") give this a very dystopian feel, and while a current-day cult can definitely have a dystopian feel, you might want to consider giving us some details to ground us in the present so that the reader feels like they picked up the right book with the contemporary label. I guess my main concern is that this kind of situation isn't necessarily unique in a dystopian world, but it sure as heck is in a contemporary one, so that's where you'll really grab attention, and it would be nice to KNOW where and when we are right from the start. I don't think it would take a lot to ground us in the present time and place--really a few simple details would do it.

    Other than that, while I LOVE your MC's save-the-cat moment when she offers Aaron help, I didn't get much more of a sense of her and why she should be the POV character. It sounds like she's having feelings/thoughts similar to the other girls in the same situation, and I kind of wanted more of a sense of what makes her different. Like the above, just a little hint or two more would do it for me.

    This is already really strong, but I'm looking forward to seeing where you go with this!

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  6. Schuren part 1

    Dear Shannon,
    As you will quickly see, I’ve found a lot to question in these first five pages. It may seem daunting, but please take heart. At its core, I think you’ve introduced a very winning story, and one that many female YA readers will be very interested in. That is the most important thing. As you read through my comments (no pain; no gain?) please keep this in mind.
    The one general comment I’d like to make is that I do feel that Miriam is much too distant and unemotional given the immensity of what’s happening to her. This makes it difficult for the reader to engage in the story. Try to imagine how you’d feel and apply those emotions to her? Throw yourself into this character. Imagine you’re an actress acting her part. Give her feelings and emotions. Don’t be timid. This is your story and the reader will trust Miram’s emotions, within reason. Don’t worry for now about being overly dramatic. It’s easier to dial the drama back in later drafts than to expect the reader to imagine drama where none is evident. To make this story work, it needs to be emotionally suspenseful
    Also, would you consider trying to show more and tell less? I’ve pointed out places where this would apply.

    The girls never get a choice. This has always been the way in Psolemnity, for as long as I've been alive and longer. My father chose my mother, and though I have known this my whole life, tonight the words {took me a moment to think, which words? Perhaps put them in quotes?} become real. It was on a night just like this, sixteen years ago, that our family began.

    I have a thousand questions, and though she {who?} has never answered before, tonight is different. I am sixteen—a woman in the eyes of our community—and tonight is my Selection. I open my mouth to ask: What will I do? How will I feel? What will happen next? But my mother shakes her head, her dark hair rustling beneath her headscarf.
    {Where are they? Please give some detail so the reader can imagine the scene. See my notes below}
    "It's better if you don't know, Miriam." she says. "The unexpected should feel like a gift, not an obligation." {Do you mean for this dialogue between mother and daughter to feel formal and pontifical?}
    I have been to past Selections. Not the actual ceremony, just the celebration leading up to it, which is our biggest all year. It goes on for days, out in the open desert, beyond the high concrete walls of our intentional{ww?} community. There is singing, and dancing, and feasting. The stars decorate the sky like thousands of candles, and the smoke from our fires climbs into the vast darkness like an offering to God.

    Tonight is it my turn, and I am giddy with anticipation {and yet there is nothing giddy-sounding in her narration so far}. Too anxious to sit still {show, don’t tell. Perhaps Mom castigates her for fidgeting?

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  7. Schuren part 2

    Something like that}, even if that is what is expected of me. I twirl, with my skirt held wide and my face turned to the sky.{okay, so they’re outside. Make this apparent sooner? Have Mom tell her to stop swirling?} The night breeze is a soft caress, carrying the comforting smell of burning wood and roasting meat in its wake.

    I stop when I feel his gaze on me. Boaz is standing on the other side of the fire—the boy's side. {some sense of size of fire and crowd? Is Boaz alone or in a group? Same with Miriam} His eyes are bright in the firelight, his skin bronze against the white of his shirt. And I dare to hope that maybe, just maybe, he has practiced whispering my name. But there is no way to know for sure. Our whole lives we have been kept separate, except for Sundays at Chapel. And at Chapel there is no speaking. That is a rule that even I have never broken.{good hint at her personality}

    So I don’t know if he is nervous. Or excited? Does he practice his Selection, or is that just a story we girls have invented to make us feel better? Surely he must have some feelings about this day? {AND WHAT ABOUT HER? SHOW HOW SHE IS FEELING ABOUT WHAT’S HAPPENING? AND HOW SHE FEELS ABOUT HIM?} After all, he is the one who must . . .

    But then, no girl knows what happens during the Selection {but above she refers to Boaz practicing it?}. We've all imagined it, or at least I have, but there is no way to know if my fantasies are accurate. {Maybe some samples of her fantasies? I hate to admit this, but I feel a bit lost right now re: Selection} My own father is the only man I know well enough to ask, and he says he cannot remember.{show this as a flashback rather than tell it? Why wouldn’t he remember?} And maybe that is true. Perhaps the experience is too overwhelming. Or perhaps men do not attach the same importance to these things {if it’s marriage, they sure do}.

    After tonight, I will be able to ask my husband.

    He is watching me again {how does she feel about this?}. I glance at him over my shoulder. His blonde hair has been cut and wet down, though a single curl springs loose against his forehead. His is strong, with shoulders made for carrying, arms for lifting, hands for crafting. I have heard whispers that he has been chosen to work in the cavern tonight{isn’t tonight the Selection? Is he going to work right after?} and I wonder what use they have for his strength down there.

    He smiles, the corner of his mouth curving up like the crook of a finger. It is an invitation. There is a connection between us, a tether that sends shivers of excitement down into my belly. He will choose me {How does dhe know? Are there others he could choose??}, and I will finally know what it is like to speak to him. Touch him. Be touched by him.

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  8. Schuren part 3

    {So far I haven’t been pulled into this scene. I suspect the reason might be that so far Miriam is reporting as if she’s an uninterested bystander. We need to feel her excitement, fear, anticipation, friction with Mom? How does Dad feel about this? Is there a friend there she can confide in, as a way of revealing her thoughts and emotions?}


    There must have been some sort of signal, though I missed it, because the crowd has thinned. Parents and young children have gone back through the gates to the city to their homes{I think you need to describe this crowd earlier. We haven’t had a chance to imagine it, and now it’s leaving} . The music has stopped {likewise I didn’t know there’d been any music}. Voices have lowered.

    An electric thrill of excitement runs through the crowd{how does she know? What has she felt? Seen? Heard?}, which is suddenly made up entirely of my sisters and their mothers.

    And Aaron.

    The gangly boy trips {what is he doing there? Why did he trip?} between us and sprawls in the sand at Susanna’s feet{Introduce her sooner? No idea she was there?}. Even in the dark I can tell his face is crimson. Shame rolls off him like a thundercloud,{can’t picture this} as Susanna stares down at him with disdain.

    If our society followed the feudal system, there is little doubt Susanna would be our queen. Her beauty is a tangible thing, and she wears it like a crown.{please show, don’t tell} Watching her sneer at the errant boy in our midst, for the first time I wonder if beauty can be a burden.{why?} Whoever chooses first tonight is bound to choose Susanna. Why wouldn't he? Even Aaron has a look of wonder on his face, despite the sand that she has kicked in it.{literally, figuratively?}
    {Most importantly, how does Miriam feel about Susanna?}

    The rest of the girls have formed a tight circle around the strange tableau{can’t picture this}. We are all equally fascinated and horrified{by what?}. Still, no one speaks. We are not allowed, not with a boy in our presence. Even this boy, who was not born among us but joined us as an Outsider.
    {So what’s happened to Aaron? The last we knew he’d tripped and fallen.}
    A dim orange glow emanates from the cave’s opening in the sand wall beyond us {Set this up much sooner? I had no idea there was a cave or sand wall? What is a sand wall anyway? I thought the walls were concrete}. The fire flares up from deep within and then recedes.

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  9. Schuren part 4


    "It has begun."

    The voice is older, familiar. I scan the women's faces {describe what she sees?} but I cannot tell who has spoken. Perhaps she didn't mean to say it, the words just spilling out, slippery and silver off her tongue like a fish, before she can catch them back.{a lot of description for three words, and I’m not sure what the description implies?}

    It is a sensation I know all too well.

    Some girls break from the group and move toward it {fire? Mouth of cave?}, but their mothers press{ww?} them back. Aaron's presence is holding up the proceeding. Maybe he knows this too, but he seems frozen in place {why didn’t he get up? Why stay on the ground?]. I move into the circle {around Aaron? Did the women make a circle around him?}, pushing the others away {how do they react?} with my shoulders, and squat in the sand beside him.
    {I think you might want to move this scene up to where he tripped. Too much other stuff happened in between. We lost Aaron in the interim}
    "Are you all right?" I ask, ignoring the shocked gasps {remind us why they’re shocked} of my sisters and letting my mother’s silent disapproval {would it be more dramatic if her disapproval wasn’t silent?} wash over me. “Did you hurt yourself?”

    Aaron’s eyes are wide in fear {why is he fearful? If he shouldn’t have been there, why was he there?} and maybe relief {why? Maybe some hint of their relationship?}. He shakes his head and scrambles to his feet. My own breach, so much worse than his, has shocked him into mobility.

    “Good evening.” This voice booms out into the darkness, coming from nowhere and everywhere. This voice we all know, better than our own. It is our leader, Daniel.

    "Good evening," we respond, or at least the females do. Aaron scans the crowd like a trapped animal.{so then why does he stay? What keeps him from departing?}

    "Welcome to our celebration. To your Selection."

    A smattering of chatter flows through the crowd and is immediately silenced {how by whom? Show?}. For once, I say nothing.

    I am waiting for him {Daniel?} to speak, to inspire us, to give us words of hope and courage. To tell us how we should feel. It is what he does best. But he, too, is silent, and it is a disconcerting absence in an already confusing night. Why so much secrecy? Why the darkness? Why the silence? Panic flutters in my chest.{Yes! More of this and sooner!} What will happen to us after tonight?
    {Can you give us a better reason why her mother would not have told her anything ahead of time? Why she hasn’t heard anything from a friend? Doesn’t it seem odd that such a huge occasion is shrouded in such secrecy?}
    I search the crowd for my mother’s serene face. When I find it, the tension in my shoulders eases. Life will go on tomorrow, just as it always has. Nothing will change {this is true, but lines like this defeat the purpose of the story, which is to excite and entice the reader into the drama. Build the drama and excitement, don’t diffuse it?} Nothing and everything. After tonight, I will no longer be only a daughter. {I just wonder if a young woman would really feel this way. It seems to me that EVERYTHING is about to change. Shouldn’t she be incredibly anxious? Shouldn’t her mother be anxious for her?}

    I will be a wife.

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  10. Nice setup! There’s so much mystery around arranged marriage, and you’ve taken it one step further by introducing some sort of bizarre ceremony the MC doesn’t even understand. Well done. This seems ripe for crafting into a powerful query.

    The first paragraph in particular does a very nice job of pulling me in. There’s a lot of mystery wrapped up in the line “It was on a night just like this, sixteen years ago, that our family began.” I assume you mean the marriage/Selection gets consummated right away? If so, wow, that’s heavy -- I'd love to see you play it up a lot more!

    I also loved the line “After tonight, I’ll be able to ask my husband.” I like the way you drop that in there as a standalone paragraph. Gives it a lot of power.

    I was (perhaps unfairly) biased during my first read-through. Seeing “YA Contemporary” and then reading about what seems to be a dystopian world with dystopic elements produced dissonance in my head at each paragraph along the way. I assume (from your “contemporary” label) that this a closed, cultish community set somewhere in the real world? If so, I would like a few details that ground me into that idea. Even if you just mention the name of the state or the desert she’s in, that would help.

    There so many details right up front which led me to believe it’s a dystopia, and it feels a little too similar to Divergent and Matched, i.e. odd name “Psolemnity”, head scarf, and especially the Selection with a capital S. I never worked my way out of that mindset. I’d love to see you ground the reader into the “contemporary” label right off the bat, if that’s really what you’re going for.

    Finally, I’d love to get more emotion out of Miriam. It’s the verge of a huge change in her life -- she might get pregnant that night, by her husband who she might be meeting for the first time! -- but she seems awfully stoic, more an observer than a participant. “Panic flutters in my chest” is the type of reaction I would expect from a 16-year old about to be chosen for a wife in a mysterious Selection. Yes, more of that, please! If you’re trying to get across that she’s calm and collected, with an observer’s scientific perspective, I would like to get clarification in that direction. Whichever way, I’d love to get a better sense for her through her reactions.

    Very interesting setup; looking forward to seeing your revision.

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