Monday, April 21, 2014

1st 5 Pages April Workshop - Im Rev 2

Name: Christina Im
Genre: Young Adult Steampunk
Title: On the Midnight Streets

The envelope in my hand has corners sharp enough to cut me, and for a long moment, I trick myself into thinking it will if I hold it for too long. The clock on our wall ticks one, two, twenty-two times, calmly enough that I can let it time my inhales. My eyes wouldn’t trick me - the messenger who passed it to me through a chink in our doorframe was dressed in livery finer than anyone in these parts has seen in decades. But stranger still was his expression, so guardedly incredulous that the memory of it makes me afraid of the letter he’s brought me.

Strained light coming through the boardinghouse window just barely lets me notice the creamy sheen of the parchment and Mother’s name, printed primly on one side in a hand I don’t recognize. That is what catches me, the unfamiliarity of the writing. For years I’ve been taking Mother’s post in the mornings, but never this early, and never from anyone I haven’t known all my life. My heart shrinks as I stare at the address, undeniably ours, right down to the boardinghouse room. All that’s keeping my fingers from prying it open is bone-deep foreboding.

It’s a letter, Chantilly. The worst it can do is nick your fingers.

It’s far too smooth to be anything less than Upper City material, so thick that it sets me on edge. I turn it over to break the seal when I see it: the emblem of the king and crown, Clarabel’s dagger overrun by thistles. My breath grows stale in my mouth - the crown’s crest is a rare sight here in the Middle City. This knife, these flowers, belong on the other side of the looming stone wall that keeps us away from the wealthy.

My first thought is that plainly the world has gone mad, but as I open up the flap, the greeting that jumps out at me - Salutations to Miss Diane Rosewater - is too sure of itself. Doubt pierces my mind. Did I remember to hand in the rent to our landlady the week before last? Have I forgotten to pay our monthly tithes to the royal coffers? No, no - I do all that out of my own pocket, and I remember scarcely bypassing the paperwork. The king should have no quarrel with us, and a debtors’ warning wouldn’t bear his symbol.

The floor sags behind me with a creak, and I nearly spring out of my skin. Mother steps into the room, groggy.

“Tense, aren’t you?” she says, smiling. “I would say good morning, but you look as if you’ve been up a while.” Her eyes amble over to the letter, still clutched in my hand, and gradually become more alert.

“Oh.” I force my limbs to loosen and wave the paper in her direction. “The post came for you.” She sidles to me expectantly, and together we skim over a block of the letter.

In language too garbled even for a scholar, it declares that our “esteemed relative”, a duke of somewhere or other, is dead, and extends an invitation for a service in his memory. I don’t try to fight the grin that rises onto my face. This can’t be anything but a mistake.

When we arrive at the end of the passage, Mother lets out a soft, dry laugh, like rustling papers. “They’ve certainly gone to a fine bit of trouble,” she muses. “Is there any more?” I clear my throat to go over the rest of the page, and her brow furrows before smoothing itself out again. I pay more attention this time to each word.

As His Grace’s nearest surviving relations, you and any family members have inherited and lawfully acquired the duchy of Fellonsley, its corresponding Henlow House, all affiliated staff members and household appurtenances, and the full and uncorrupted contents of the duchy coffers, totaling to a monetary sum of approximately fifty million arors. Due to the utmost necessity of the presence of an estate head and peer whenever possible, a carriage is planned to arrive at this place at ten o’clock tomorrow morning in order to convey you, your family, and the sum of your possessions to your new domicile in the Upper City.

I don’t notice how badly I’m shaking until the letter lands on the floor. I glance down at my hand, fluttering like a leaf in a gale. All around me, splinters hold me down: half-finished mending, worn fabric and old promises, draped over our only table; the rush of air that leaves me as I collapse into a chair; Mother’s wide, wide eyes that I’m sure must mirror my own. Fifty million arors - a prince’s ransom, enough to buy all of the Lower City and then some. Certainly enough to provide for Mother, my sisters, myself for as long as we live.

Try as I might, I can’t begin to fathom the weight of an estate on Mother’s hands, or mine. Who would Chantilly Rosewater be without a rent to pay, without work to pay it? I ought to be glad, I know, of something to ease our stretched-tight expenses, but all I can find inside myself is a clammy feeling of loss. A servant to dress me? A house wide enough to swallow me up? No, no - I would only break, like a cog placed in the wrong part of an automaton. I’ve spoken to Upper City girls twice before, and even that’s enough for a lifetime.

After a moment, a finger of almost-sunlight creeps through the window. Sunlight? My mind drags itself into order.

“Oh, stars.” I groan, and Mother gasps as she realizes the time.

We flurry into motion, tossing a loaf of hard bread and a small mountain of odds and ends into my satchel without even a word to spare. I get dressed and straighten out my sleeves like clockwork, even as my mind asks why I’m bothering.

Mother shoos me out the door a little too quickly, and my mind won’t let me ask about the letter. “This,” she says with a condemning sigh, “is the latest you’ve ever been in your life.”

It’s a foolish thought, but she looks as if she knows something.

I nod, pull the door open with a rough yank to steady myself. Questions shuffle back and forth in my head, tumbling over one another to be the first out of my mouth, but instead I blurt, “Make sure you get Chamomile and Velvet up.” Mother blinks in understanding; in the mornings, my younger sisters are harder to move than mountains.

I half-run down the stairs of the boardinghouse, not bothering to soften my steps. Clouds are gathering outside, a formation that could be thunder in a few hours. Peralton’s clouds sweep together too suddenly to keep track of. Turning the doorknob and striding out is one thoughtless, mechanical gesture, and then there’s rain, rain, rain, clawing at me from all sides.

This early in the day, mist tends to make visibility poor, so the Middle City is gaslit. Thick sheets of rain pound the cobblestones, and the air breathes chill with fog. The streetlamps glow a dull orange above the people, and above those, the occasional airship drifts lazily across the sky, smearing black smoke onto a patchwork of clouds. Their balloons look almost ludicrous. I let my steps slow; no matter how late I am, it won’t matter tomorrow.


  1. I like your new beginning, very well done. I especially enjoy how you related what the letter contains and its impact on the MC and her mother, rather than recite the letter like in your previous versions.

    I only have a few suggestions:

    You could tighten some of your sentences, i.e., All that’s keeping my fingers from prying it open is bone-deep foreboding is essentially telling. Instead, it could be: Only bone-deep foreboding keeps my fingers from prying it open. And: Clouds are gathering could be: Clouds gather.

    Since this is steampunk, I wonder if you could find a way to include a little more of your world in your first five pages. Perhaps the clock, or the crown’s crest might be areas you could explore. Otherwise it comes across as historical, and I think you need to ground the reader as soon as possible. We don’t get a taste of it until you mention automaton.

    Maybe a little more explanation about why she’s grinning when she reads someone has died. I assume because she’s decided the letter has come in error, but it’s not clear and it felt odd to me that she grinned.

    Consider taking out the filter of: I glance down at my hand. All you need is: My hand flutters like a leaf in a gale. It’s assumed she sees it but when you say she’s seeing it, you’re filtering her action through you, the author.

    Also consider taking out one of the “my mind” in the paragraphs when she’s heading out the door, only because the repetition jars.

    All the best with this. It’s been great seeing your progress here.

  2. I LOVE what you've done this week. Love, love, love. I mean, some of these lines are just *ungh*:

    Like this line—> “But stranger still was his expression, so guardedly incredulous that the memory of it makes me afraid of the letter he’s brought me.”

    So good!!

    My only issue is that I do think you can still tighten some of the prose and actions, but that's a matter of combing through each sentence. I think some of the foreboding/worry gets emphasized a bit too much (to the point where it reduces some of its impact), so you might want to cut a few of her more "freaking out" lines.

    But honestly, overall this passage is *really strong* now and has come so far, GREAT JOB. Seriously.

  3. Hi Christina,

    You've done an amazing job combining everyone's suggestions and still keeping your voice true. I ttok notes as I read your first five and then read Martha's comment. Yup. Same stuff.

    1. *and that's supposed to be took but of course when I went back to fix it, it froze.
      I also noticed you used the word "long" twice in your very first sentence. Agree with the "my mind".

      I absolutely love the last two sentences of the second to last paragraph. Your world-building is really kicking in and it makes me eager to read and discover more.

      I'll be looking for this on a shelf one day. Great work!

  4. This has improved so much over the last two revisions. Great job! You have really nailed the voice and the central conflict has come to the forefront. You do a great job building your world even just in these few pages. As some of the others said above, I would work on tightening some of your sentences. You're really close to nailing it. Great job!

  5. I am impressed with how smoothly this reads now. The situation and setting are very clear, as is her reaction to the letter. I agree that some of your sentences could be simplified, but I think you have to decide where and how much, since some of that is your style.
    My only suggestion is to see if you can drop in a few more details about Chantilly so we care more for her right away. I like the details that she pays the bills and worries about her sisters, but I am getting a bit of a Katniss Everdeen vibe (Hunger Games), so maybe just something to make her seem unique or different or even a weakness - something we can relate to. Her age would help too. Could be that all this is coming on page six...
    Overall, a very strong opening!

  6. Hi Christina,

    As always your writing is lovely and I think you have done a terrific job of integrating the feedback and comments. I really can’t wait to see where this goes.

    With the very first paragraph, I’m feeling like it might be a bit too much information that makes the reader work a bit too hard to understand what’s going on. As first paragraphs are so key, I’m harping on it more than I normally would. But I want to make sure you stand out and get the attention your writing deserves. I had to read your first two sentence a couple of times to get it. The ticking clock was confusing me. And I am having a bit of a hard time thinking someone would stand in tone place for that long. I almost also think this paragraph is essentially saying the same thing twice---that she’s afraid of the letter. The first two sentences say it one way and the last two another. But essentially it’s the same thing. Maybe one or the other but not both?

    I’m wondering if you should start with the line about nicking her finger. I really love it and it makes me pay attention immediately. It is full of voice and says a whole heck of a lot in a short space.

    “It’s a letter, Chantilly. The worst it can do is nick your fingers.

    And still I’m wary of the envelope in my hand, with its sharp corners and creamy, thick parchment.

    The messenger, dressed in livery…., who passed it through the chink in our doorframe practically thrust the letter into my hand.”

    Better, obviously, but just another way into the scene. This might also cut down on the next paragraph that almost over-explains why she has the letter that belongs to her mother. I know you are addressing the collective feedback but this feels a bit too forced. If she just happens to be the one passing when the messenger approaches we don’t need as much justification for why she has it.

    Overall, I think if you continue to tighten where you can and to vary your sentence structure, you will be in a terrific place.

    One thing I will caution you about is making sure the steampunk elements of this are essential to the story (they might very well be). But if they aren’t, consider if it can’t be a straight historical. I say this because the general feeling from agents and authors I know is that steampunk is an extremely hard sell right now. If it’s integral to your story, do not let me dissuade you. But if it’s just an aspect that can be dropped (there was more in the original and I don’t think you lose anything here without it) it might be something to think about and even research before you being querying. I’d love for you to keep me updated. I’m at @loriagoldstein on twitter.

    Best of luck!

  7. This is a wonderful revision! The writing is lovely, the tension high - and we know life for Chantilly is about to change dramatically. I did feel that the letter was a bit long, perhaps you could edit it - just read snippits broken down with . . . - don't waste such precious first page space on words you don't need. And I agree with Lori - if it is steampunk, give us more of a sense of that in these pages. It can be small things woven in, but I don't sense any fantasy elements at this point.

    Overall, fantastic revision, and good luck!!