Monday, March 3, 2014

1st 5 Pages March Workshop - Ziegler

Name: Allison Ziegler
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: Aeternium

The afternoon sun barely cuts through the coal-smoke sky above Allegheny City. All is bathed in a yellow, gaslight glow. Spidery Crawlers whistle with white steam as they drag trundling carriages down city streets on eight clink-clanking legs. They carry the city’s elite—cinch-waist ladies and coat-tail gentlemen who can afford such luxuries as travel by Crawler-drawn carriage. The trolley squeals by, full to the brim with less fortunate commuters, their arms and faces sprouting from the windows of the cable-bound car. On the sidewalk, newsboys shout in short trousers and low hats. Men laugh, women chatter, people argue and shout.

Hazel Congelier darts through a liquid mass of people. She sneaks a glance at her pocket watch—three forty-six. You’re late! the delicate hands whisper. She quickens her tap-tap-tapping feet just a little, woolen skirt swinging around her booted ankles. She isn’t terribly concerned about her lateness, but her master will be. An inky-black cat of delicate proportions weaves between rushing legs. He matches Hazel’s pace.

Hazel ducks into a gateway at the center of the busy block, pushing her way past a gaggle of well-dressed working girls and into the relative calm of the alleyway. Three doors down, three doors down. Knock three times, use the spell. One, two, three. Hazel stops at a white door in chip-paint disrepair, nestled in a vestibule safe from prying eyes. It is one of many secret doors. They are scattered across the city, but they all lead to the same place. Magic has little regard for geography.

Hazel’s diminutive feline shadow watches her as she roots through her shoulder bag. She produces a rumpled sheet of paper with a single word written on the page—“open.”

At least, it would look like a single word to most people. To Hazel, there are swirls of visible energy woven into ink and paper, a framework for a spell. Her fingers run over the page, and sparks fly from her fingertips to her wrists, tracing golden pathways over her freckled hands. It’s a passive reaction, born of the crackling magic that a spell caster ignites in the spells that are so ready to magnify it. This single-page spell is a tiny, flimsy thing, nothing like the massive, ancient tome that her master uses. This is a toy for a silly girl not yet empowered with a book of her own, a toy that she didn’t even make herself. Hazel knows the Church wouldn’t find it so insignificant if they caught her using it. She glances over her puff-sleeve shoulder, half expecting a hulking police officer or red-face priest to stare at her from the entrance of the alleyway.

There is no one. Hazel is safe.

The cat watches her expectantly. His name is Soren, and he is Hazel’s familiar. Their illicit partnership is the reason Hazel can do magic, the reason sparks fly from her fingertips, the reason she will be able to go through this white door. All of the energy needed for casting spells buzzes between them. It makes her a target. It also makes her powerful, or at least potentially so. Hazel has never felt particularly powerful, not in the way that makes Sunday morning church-goers quake in fear.

Hurry, Soren says. We’re late.

Soren hates to be late. Hazel is almost never on time. It’s a point of friction between them.

She grabs at the magic that hovers over her bond with Soren, and the letters on the page glow yellow, casting opaque light into the sooty shadows of the afternoon alleyway. Hazel raps the door three times and takes three…deep…breaths.

“Open,” she says. The world goes black for a split second, and Hazel wills the spell to take shape. In an instant, it’s over. The door opens, and Hazel steps through.

She finds herself on the other side of reality, faced with an indoor bazaar, a hidden city in miniature for the fantastic and wonderful and magical things that the outside world has declared undeniably and wholly evil. Dozens of tents and makeshift structures line the walls and make cramped alleyways, stacked three high in the empty warehouse. Each one is a shop or a residence or a simple meeting place. Dancing, self-suspended fireballs cast merry light across the wooden walkways and colorful awnings and hodgepodge ladders that fill the space. The air here is clean, and the magic users and familiars that roam its creaky corners breathe deeply and speak freely.

A large wooden sign, hanging on the nearest second-story platform, reads “A SANCTUARY FOR FAMILIARED CITIZENS.” Hazel grins broadly and takes a moment to absorb this place, called simply “Sanctuary” by those in the know. She’s been here before, on a visit to the city. That was four years ago. Four schools ago, four homes ago, four lifetimes ago. Or is it five? The various lives and identities of Hazel Congelier blend a little at the edges lately. She’s beginning to believe all those lives add up to one life, all those Hazels add up to one Hazel. All of the transitions and changes are just punctuation in her story. Maybe. She’s not sure.

We’re late, Soren reminds Hazel. This is no time for sightseeing or philosophy.

Hazel bites back her irritation. He’s right, of course, but that doesn’t mean she has to like his rushing—or his prying into her thoughts. He has a bad habit of occupying the corridors of her mind when she would rather he stayed firmly in his own skull. Especially since Hazel has great trouble poking around his mind at all. He is a mystery and she is an open book—Hazel finds she gets the poor end of the juxtaposition.

Still, Hazel brushes past a hook-nose crone with a saleswoman smile and her hawk familiar with a talon full of talismans. A group of pinstripe-suit men wave wands and pull scarves out of hats, and she ignores them, too. A pair of identical, salt-and-pepper women with identical small-white-dogs stand at mirror image stalls, one labeled “Magical Remedies,” and the second labeled “Magical Maladies.” Hazel sweeps by them, despite her curiosity, despite her tendency to stop and watch and linger. She’s late, after all, and Soren has just become annoying enough for her to care about punctuality.

So Hazel picks her way to the back of Sanctuary’s ground floor, all the way to the largest structure in this warehouse city. There, a bricked and fully roofed building stands beside all the slap-dash civilization that surrounds it. On its front is a massive mural, painted in blinding-bright colors. In it, a dragon waltzes in a rumple-front ball gown with a monocled turtle, each holding massive mugs of frothy beer. The top reads thusly:


I forgot how garish it was, Soren says. He bristles as they walk through the door. He doesn’t trust whimsy.


  1. Hi,
    I love the notion of the doors all over the city leading to the bazaar (take a look at Daughter of Smoke & Bone if you haven't already) and of her cat as her familiar to give her access to magic. I wonder if you might consider starting the scene further down. The opening felt a bit over-written - lots and lots of adjectives and scene descriptors, and not much tension - just that she's late. It felt as though the scene got more interesting further along. I might open the book with her already at the door, getting us to the important action quicker.

  2. I love the steampunk details, it sets the scene, but I think they can be trimmed. It feels like a bit too much to get to the action. I want to be with Hazel from the first. I love the line "Magic has little regard for geography." It made me think of the door portals in Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but what you find on the other side of them is very different. It actually reminded me a bit of the fairy market in Stardust. Again, you had lots and lots of lovely details about the Sanctuary, but I think it needs trimming. I felt like I was getting a little lost in all the adjectives. What drew me in were the details about Hazel's relationship with Soren, the church's demonization of magic, and the magic itself. I love the feeling you create--great start.

  3. I think there are some great moments of characterization in this. Not everything has to start off with a bang, but it does have to start off with SOMEthing. I'm not a fan, personally, of the omniscient "fade-in" paragraph that sets the city for me. I'd rather see the Crawlers and newsboys and elite as Hazel elbows her way through the shouting, chaos, and bustle.

    I think overall, these pages suffer from telling, rather than showing. What I just said is an example of that. There are several spots where you tell me something (when you may have already shown me!) when you can easily show.

    Here's an example: "There is no one. Hazel is safe." <<You paint the scene nicely; she's standing at the door, and she checks to make sure no one else is watching. You SHOW ME all this, then you TELL ME too by saying, "Hazel is safe." We don't need to be told that when you've already shown us.

    And here's an example of you telling me something I think we'd benefit more by seeing: "Soren hates to be late. Hazel is almost never on time. It’s a point of friction between them." <<You just telling me it's a point of friction between them isn't very exciting, and I don't get a sense of either of their characters. I'd rather be SHOWN Soren's impatience and annoyance at her tardiness, and then her irritation at HIS irritation! (You do this later on, which might just be an example of showing me AND telling me!)

    And this is the you've-shown-me-and-now-you're-going-to-tell-me-too: "Especially since Hazel has great trouble poking around his mind at all. He is a mystery and she is an open book..." <<You don't need the second sentence. We get that she can't see his thoughts, but he can hear hers. Repeating that he's a mystery and she's an open book is just that: repetition. Too much repetition in a novel makes readers bored.

    I love some of the small details, like "You’re late! the delicate hands whisper." I don't know if the hands are really whispering, but in this world of magic, I imagine they are. (And even if you don't want readers to think that, they still can!)

    Hope this helps!

  4. Hi Allison,

    Great imagination -- I love the idea of Spidery Crawlers drawing the carriages of the elite -- giving a nice mix of futuristic and old-timey. While I like the images conjured, I agree that the excerpt is so jam-packed with description that it slowed the pace. Perhaps cut the excess words where possible, i.e., 'rumpled sheet (of paper)' and '(all of) the energy needed for...'

    Picky point -- I get the idea, but 'liquid mass of people' didn't work for me. I also thought this line could use a trim -- perhaps 'An inky-black...legs(. He), matching(es) Hazel's pace.' ?

    Wonderful line: Magic has little regard for geography.

    Perhaps trim this telling section: 'It's a passive reaction...magnify it.' If this technical information is important, perhaps drip it in later? Also suggest cutting telling portion here: 'She (finds herself on the other side of reality) faces (with) an indoor bazaar...'
    And perhaps simplify this longer sentence: '(Still) Hazel brushes past a...with a saleswoman's smile(and), her hawk familiar...talismans.'

    I loved the phrase 'familiared citizens.'

    This sounds like a fascinating world to enter and I'd read on.

    - Peggy

  5. This feels very unique, Allison. It has a clockwork vibe to it mixed with Victorian London.

    Have you thought about first-person present tense? I feel a little distance from Hazel, like this is all just being told to us instead of Hazel experiencing it. That is my main comment. You do, however, have an assured voice and some nice turns of phrase.

    I will now post this and read what others have said. (I always comment immediately after reading before reading others' opinions.)

  6. Allison,

    I loved the opening image of the mechanical spider legs, told me right away the kind of world I was getting into.

    I also would like to get closer to Hazel earlier and that you have a lot of sometimes repetitive description.

    I do want to know more about Hazel, her familiar, and the world she belongs to. I want to know why she is late, if she is chronically tardy, and WHAT she is late for, and how important the appointment is. What fate does she tempt by being late?

    Very rich world.

    Keep it up.


  7. First off, your writing is fantastic!! You have such a great handle on your prose and the setting is SO vivid. I’m super impressed.

    My only real issue at this point is that the book doesn’t feel YA. It actually reads like MG—and I think has to do with (as some other commenters pointed out) how you use tell vs. show. In YA, we need to be IN the story—experiencing *everything* alongside the MC via a deep 3rd POV or 1st person POV. In MG, on the other hand, you can get away with a lot more telling and omniscient 3rd.

    Since other commenters have given great feedback on how to show instead of tell, I won’t bore you with more of that. :) But I WILL say that I don’t think you should use first person present (as once commenter suggested). Contrary to popular belief, 1st person present can actually be very, very distancing (unless it’s done exceptionally well). 1st person past or deep 3rd are much easier for readers to slip into and writers to maintain control of. Plus, since you’ve already got such beautiful 3rd person prose, I see no reason to change that. Simply weaving in more showing, deeper 3rd POV, and more of Hazel’s voice will help you make these pages feel less distant/MG.

    On a smaller note, I was surprised to discover the book was in third person because the opening paragraph has no mention of the protagonist. So when I hit paragraph 2 and met Hazel, I was totally jolted from the story. I just *assumed* (wrongly!) the book was 1st person since that’s what most YA is these days. As such, I suggest trying mention Hazel in the very first sentence so the reader isn’t surprised come paragraph 2. ;)