Monday, February 10, 2014

1st 5 Pages February Workshop - Schuren Revision 1

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

The girls never get a choice. This has always been our way, for as long as I've been alive and longer. My father chose my mother, as he so often reminds us. Tonight, it is my turn to be chosen, and though the very thought of it turns my insides liquid, it is more from anticipation than fear.

I have a secret.

My mother perches beside me on one of the low benches the men have dragged out into the desert. Tonight—and tonight only—we are allowed outside the high walls of Psolemnity.

She holds out a plate piled with sticky rice, a roast leg of lamb, and a crumbling chunk of bread. “You need to eat something.” She has to raise her voice to be heard above the fluty sound of Yanni that is being piped from big speakers into the open air of the evening.

The smell churns my stomach, and I push it away.

“I saw Ruth over by the food station.” She points through the crowd, toward the fire in the distance.

My stomach lurches again as I follow her finger, catching sight of the opening in the rock wall behind us where the ceremony will take place.

I’ve never been inside. Like most of our rituals, the men are free to attend. The women go only once, on their wedding night. Afterward, they are forbidden to speak of it. My own father is the only man I know well enough to ask about it, and his answer is always a vague mumble of forgetfulness. I doubt this is true, but I cannot think why he would lie. I can only imagine the experience is either too sacred to speak of, or too profane. Or perhaps men do not attach the same importance to these things.

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

“Surely you can tell me something,” I say, watching my mother’s headscarf twist in the cool night breeze. “The time is nearly upon us. What will it matter now?”

She shifts her gaze away from mine. "It's better if you don't know." she says. "The unexpected should feel like a gift, not an obligation."

“What is one more obligation?”

She must hear the bitterness in my voice, because she sighs and lays a hand on my arm. “Please. Not tonight, Miriam.”

I pull my hand away. “I need to talk to Ruth,” I say, jumping from my seat and spilling the plate she has balanced between us. “Sorry.”

“Go.” She waves me off and kneels in the sand to clean up my mess.

I hesitate only for a moment. I should help her, but the urge to get away is too strong. I pull up my skirt and begin to jog, scanning the faces of the girls for my best friend, though it is a half-hearted gesture. I have someone else on my mind tonight.

I skirt the crowd, stepping behind the groups of chattering women and around the booths and tables where they are serving food. I walk away from the warmth of the fire, from the familiar sounds and smells, until I am far enough into the darkness to see the stars. They decorate the sky like thousands of candles, while back near the celebration, the smoke from our bonfire climbs toward Heaven like an offering to God.

I stop only when I have no choice, when the patrolling guards come into view.

We are free for this one evening every year, but freedom requires protection. The rest of the country—the rest of the world—do not live as we do. It is only inside the walls of our communal society that we are safe. Outside, people do unspeakable things to one another.

It is my greatest shame that I have tried to imagine these things.

But all I can picture is the vast Mojave Desert, stretching out beyond me forever; faceless people hovering at the perimeter doing God only knows what. This life is all I’ve ever known. I was born here, and tonight I will marry someone who was born here, too. We are the Second Generation of Psolemnity. It is a title that carries its own obligations.

I walk back towards the party. In going round, I have managed to come out near the boy’s side. From the shadows, I seek out Boaz. His eyes are bright in the firelight, his skin bronze against the white of his shirt. His voice is warm and strong, and my skin tingles at the sound of his laughter.

These boys sound just like us.

We are not allowed to speak in the presence of men, and because we are separated whenever possible, they rarely speak in ours. The only time we are together for any length of time is Sunday, at Chapel. And at Chapel there is no speaking. That is a rule that even I have never broken.

His eyes are drawn to mine, like magnets, even in the darkness. There is a heat between us far greater than the desert sun. He smiles, the corner of his mouth curving like the crook of a finger. It is an invitation. I have felt this tether between us before, but never as strong as this. Tonight, it sends shivers of excitement down my body.

Ruth is fearful of what tonight will bring. She does not know who will choose her, whose wife she will become. But I don’t share her fear because I am sure of our connection. Boaz will choose me, and I will finally know what it is like to speak to him. Touch him. Be touched by him.

There is a shift in the energy, a signal that I am too far away to catch. He turns—our connection momentarily broken—and they all leave the fire, moving toward the cave.

I must get back. I have been waiting for this night my whole life. If I am late . . . I don’t actually know what will happen if I am late, but it will not be pleasant. There is no time for keeping to the shadows. I break into a flat-out run, sand dragging my stride and chafing inside my leather sandals.

I don’t see Aaron until it is too late. I barrel into him, sending him flying backwards. My body quivers from the impact, and I flounder to stay on my feet.

The gangly boy lies on the ground, eerily still.

“Are you all right? Do you need me to get help?” I ask, kneeling beside him and touching his shoulder.


I recognize the voice, sharp and imperious, even with only three short syllables to convey her superiority. Of all the people to witness this, why did it have to be Susanna? Her willowy beauty, though the envy of us all, masks the heart of a viper.

“Did you just touch him?” The words come out in a hiss, as if by whispering she will manage to avoid the punishment I am certain to receive.

Aaron scrambles to his feet, though I am not sure if it is my breach or Susanna’s reaction that shocks him into mobility.

“He’s going to pay for that,” she says, as he runs from us without a backwards glance.

I don’t think it’s right to punish him. The accident was my fault. But here in Psolemnity, my opinion does not matter.


  1. What is Boaz doing? Is he just standing by the fire? I'd like to understand some more of why the MC is so confident of him and why she feels anticipation over fear. I think more on him would help me understand that -- that is her secret, right? -- and right now it sort of seems like it's physical, though you tell us that they've spoken before. He sees her over the fire (I assume no one else notices because he and Miriam are connected/he knows her, but perhaps more detail there/what the boys are doing - she has been isolated from them, so why isn't she curious about what they're doing while they wait? - to explain why no one else sees her there) and smiles. He's not talking to friends, but he doesn't try to sneak over to where she is before the ceremony (as she has done). Is it one-sided?

    "But here in Psolemnity, my opinion does not matter." -- If Miriam's opinion doesn't matter, why should Susanna's? I assume she'd tell someone what happened, but if it's just the two of them and they're viewed as lesser because they're women...? That line caught me because I wasn't entirely sure why Susanna disliked him so much (assuming I don't have that knowledge from your first submission) / why her opinion wouldn't matter.

    I like what you've done with your revision! I particularly like what you did to clarify the contemporary elements vs. dystopian feel and set the scene. I can see this reaching a huge crowd.

  2. This beginning is so much stronger. I really get that it's contemporary now (bravo!) and some of the little things you did gave me more of a connection to your character right from the start (for example, the "I have a secret" line--this immediately puts me in her head and on her side). A few picky comments:

    I'd still like to know even sooner where we are specifically, like when you first mention "the desert," I wondered, "which desert?" Later on, it's the Mojave Desert, so maybe you could just swap those two instances?

    The conversation with her mother is so much more insightful about the MC now. We know she has a secret, she's bitter, she's curious, and she has a close friend in Ruth.

    This here was a great line to give us more insight into this society and the MC's opinion of it: "The rest of the country—the rest of the world—do not live as we do. It is only inside the walls of our communal society that we are safe. Outside, people do unspeakable things to one another."

    With this line: "near the boy’s side" did you mean "near the boys' side"? I assume so, but it tripped me up.

    Love the romantic tension with Boaz, and I love that her expectations--and her secret--are spelled out so clearly at this point. And I love the stakes connected with her collision with Aaron. Wow! Great cliffhanger! I would definitely read on!

  3. Wow. It's clear you really worked through the feedback and owned this revision. Great work. I get a much stronger sense of the environment (climate, geography) and the way Psolemnity is situated in the larger world. I think this aspect of the story still needs a bit of refinement. (e.g., A roast leg of lamb is huge--maybe you mean, some roasted lamb or slices or something? Also, lamb feels instantly biblical to me, food-wise, not sure if that's intentional?; Yanni music may not be a relatable reference to teen readers and dates the book--maybe music from a wooden flute or something like that--you'll do better!) And (I know this seems picky but I am being picky because so much of your work is nice and strong) I can't quite envision the "hole in the rock wall" -- does this lead back into the walled village or am I misunderstanding and, if it does lead back, why are they outside the wall just to celebrate by going back in? Has metaphorical resonance you might want to explore.
    Moving on...I love the introduction of Ruth and development of Susanna. I think, generally, the way you've presented us with more characters and shown us Miriam's relationships with them is great. That said, Ruth is never met, just described (a bit of telling v. showing) and maybe it'd be better to have Miriam actually FIND Ruth and exchange the thoughts Miriam ascribes to her in dialogue as you do, later, with Susanna. One sentence that doesn't quite work for me: "The boys sound just like us." I vaguely get it but it feels disconnected from the flow of the page otherwise. Also, a quick brush stroke to show Boaz's relationship to the other boys--is he popular? seeking out only Miriam? do you (author) know if his intentions toward Miriam are the ones she assumes and can you show the reader a bit more of his attitude--even if Miriam misperceives it? Love the ending moment--so many questions w/r/t whether and how Miriam and Aaron will be punished for their accidental collision. I would SO turn the page.

  4. Such improvement! I got a much better sense of a real-world setting. Mentioning the Mojave Desert really helped. I could still use more to distinguish it from the spate of dystopian works out there though, and I think this would help it stand out to agents. I’m not sure how to do this, though. Perhaps reading things like “Running Out of Time” for examples and “The Giver” for counterexamples?

    I liked the description of outside high walls -- very nice -- although I wanted more description of the compound, even a few more sentences. As it was, I pictured Israel in the movie “World War Z” (walled off from rest of world). Just a handful more details could make this much more real to me.

    The high walls did help me imagine a walled-off compound inside a heartland state somewhere. But then I got confused when you mentioned the opening in the rock wall where the ceremony will take place. Is that back within the high-walled compound? Or a smaller walled-off area outside the compound?

    I hesitated at the start, having a hard time believing that she’s experiencing more anticipation than fear -- fear seems more natural, doesn't it? The stuff with Boaz further on helps -- maybe you could mention something to that effect up front (she already knows who’s going to pick her, so why should she be scared)?

    The scene with Miriam and Susanna is confusing (as to who’s speaking). A dialogue tag on “Miriam?” could help that.

    Finally, beautiful last paragraph, the final sentence in particular. Totally hooks me to reading more by setting up a coming (undeserved) punishment for Aaron. The last sentence did make me wonder again whether we’re back in dystopian future or not, but hopefully you can clarify that more up front.

    Nice job!

  5. Shannon,
    You’ve really improved the beginning. “I have a secret” immediately creates suspense. Plus a good job of setting the scene. I have a few more notes:
    Contradiction? “My father chose my mother, as he so often reminds us.” “My own father is the only man I know well enough to ask about it, and his answer is always a vague mumble of forgetfulness.” Perhaps a line explaining?
    Miriam tells her mother she’d going to look for Ruth, but doesn’t. Perhaps let the reader know this? Otherwise, the reader is left wondering.
    When Miriam sneaks away and appears on the boy’s side, shouldn’t she be super nervous? Shouldn’t Boaz be shocked to see her? Clearly she’s breaking the rules.
    Speaking of breaking rules, when she speaks to Aaron it sounds as if she’s familiar with him and has spoken to him before. Explain?
    Can you tell us a little more about Susanna? Is she also getting a husband tonight? Is she older? Why does she say Aaron will be punished if it was Miriam who touched Aaron and not the other way around?
    The good news is that these are all very small and easily-fixed issues. You’ve really done a terrific job of revising and setting up this story with tension and suspense, leaving readers eager to find out what happens next.

  6. Hi Shannon,

    Beautiful revision! The opening is wonderful, dark and ominous. I LOVE the “I have a secret” addition, it really ups the tension right off.

    I admit, I giggled when you mentioned Yanni. I don’t know if this was your intention. I get the feeling this is some sort of cult, a compound out in the desert and Yanni seemed really out of context. There also seems to be some religious undertones, (headscarves for women, separation of genders, chapel,) and Yanni for me is New Age.

    From my reading of this I see Utah. Desert, caves, plenty of room to have a compound out in the middle of nowhere. I’d like a hint or two more about the landscape, weather perhaps?

    The new scene with Susanna is great. What a Nellie Olsen. There always has to be one. Which is great, we know her immediately.

    I don’t have that much to add. I think this is pretty solid. I would definitely keep reading as this is a world that is new to me and I’m captivated. Great job!

  7. Okay, I absolutely love the changes you've made in the opening! Your message to your readers is much clearer. You've also created intrigue from the moment you mention she has a secret. You definitely took heed with last week's suggestions. The brief conversation - both in words and body language - between your MC and her mother is just enough to fill the reader with empathy for this girl. Nicely done!

    I only have a couple of observations: When you mention that her father is vague about the ceremony when she asks, maybe it's because he's not suppose to say anything. You make other excuses, but from what I read I gather this is a hush-hush issue. (But maybe the men can talk about it and only the women are forbidden.) Just clear that up a little. It won't take more than a sentence.

    When you say "The boys sound like us." Specify who 'us' is. It's been a little while since you mentioned the other girls.

    There was only one other place where I was a bit confused. It was just after she and Boaz make eye contact, where she decides she must get back. I'm not sure why, but you lost me for a minute. Because all of a sudden she's mentioning Ruth and then crashes into Aaron and then Susanna says something. (Wish I could be more help here. It just feels like you left out a sentence or two.)

    I love the ending you've created with Susanna. Great stuff!