Monday, April 14, 2014

1st 5 Pages April Workshop - Im Revision 1

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

Twenty-two ticks of a clock - the closest I’ve ever come to being daring, and yet still a little too far from it.

The envelope waiting on the table has corners sharp enough to cut me. I hesitate and let my heart shrink in my chest as I stare at it. Strained light coming through the boardinghouse window just barely lets me notice the creamy sheen of the parchment.

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

I reach for it before I have a chance to talk myself out of anything. 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 stills and 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.

And when the crest comes to a family like mine, the news is never good.

My first thought is that this must be some colossal prank, but as I open up the flap, the words that jump out at me are too sure of themselves, too crisp. A needle of doubt pierces its way into 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. Our records, if a little dusty, aren’t stained in the slightest. The king should have no quarrel with us.

The floor sags behind me with a creak, and I nearly spring out of my skin. Mother steps into the room, disheveled and 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.” And as the page unfurls before me, its greeting really is addressed, albeit stiffly, to Mother:

Salutations to Miss Diane Rosewater -

We truly regret to inform you on this most unfortunate day that your esteemed relative, His Grace the Duke of Fellonsley, Reginald Harneld, has passed away due to a severe bout of consumption. We will, of course, be quick in our numerous assurances that Lord Fellonsley took leave of this world peacefully and painlessly. On behalf of His Majesty, our illustrious King Alastair, we would like to extend our sincere condolences for this most dreadful loss, as well as a congenial invitation to attend a solemn service in His Grace’s highly honored and cherished memory on the first day of the coming month, at precisely three hours past noontime, on the hallowed Harneld plot of Peralton’s finest Upper City burial grounds.

When I read the passage out loud, 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.

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.


His Majesty’s Residential Council

I don’t notice how badly I’m shaking until the letter lands helplessly on the floor and I glance down at my hand, fluttering like a leaf in a gale. My vision bleeds into itself. 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.

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. My pulse is slowing, I note dimly, but it’s not been a moment before it ratchets up again, like a faulty cog in an automaton.

After a moment, I become vaguely aware of a finger of almost-sunlight creeping through the window. Sunlight? My mind drags itself into order. Then what time...?

“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.

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.”

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. 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.

What little light there is has been thrown to the ground in desperate pockets. As I expected, people are already roaming the streets. Some walk with a clear destination, like me, while others meander, with an arm sometimes raised as a makeshift umbrella. I shiver and gaze up at the sky. It’s a stubborn whitish-gray, and I’ll wager that won’t change until the sun goes down this evening.

It’s all so beautiful.


  1. Hi Christina,

    I do love the tone and voice of this story. There’s something very engaging and readable about your writing style, and that shines through in this version as well. However, I feel like it’s lost a bit of the sparkle from the original. I think it’s likely just a matter of time—you added pieces in a short time frame to pages I’m sure you’ve been honing for a while. The new elements need the same massaging and tweaking to fit as seamlessly and meld with the tone of what you have. For example, the beginning still could use some reworking; the paragraph about the colossal prank doesn’t work well for me, and the way the reaction to the letter is done has the pieces you need, but I think you need to work on the language a bit more. It feels a bit too forced right now. I’m confident you can work on all this. Here’s a bit more detail:

    Why didn't think the way you started your first draft of this worked, and I did want you to start with the ticking of the clock, I'm not sure the way you change this works as well as I'd hoped. The first line about coming close to being daring is a bit clunky. I had to reread it a couple of times to understand. That's never ideal anywhere but especially not in the very first line.

    It also strikes me as strange that she is so worried about the letter before she reaches for it which means it's before she feels the material to know it's from upper city and before she sees the seal on the back which lets her know it's from the king. If she doesn't know these things why is she so hesitant and worried when she just sees a letter on the table? And she sees the letter but who is it addressed to if she doesn’t realize it is addressed to her mom until she reads it? I wonder if you should take that element of her being hesitant out and have her nonchalantly see the letter and pick it up and then let her freeze when she feels the material and sees the emblem. Or even start with the letter in her hand and she’s debating whether or not to open it. The clock keeps ticking and she knows she shouldn’t open it as it’s addressed to her mother but she’s so curious and/or scared she can’t wait for her mom to wake up.

  2. I would cut the line about when the crest comes to family like mine the news is never good. It interrupts the flow and is a bit too much telling. We can understand from her reaction to the letter that this is unusual and potentially has bad news inside or that whatever this letter brings will change things.

    I don’t think the prank paragraph works as is. It seems unrealistic that she would run through her head things like if she’s paid the rent. Would the king really write to a lowly individual for not paying their rent anyway? I’m not sure how much this adds and wonder if what you are conveying here is necessary.

    Careful about filter words and phrases: for example: “My hand flutters like a leaf in a gale and the letter lands helplessly on the floor.” Could replace what you have and be more concise, clear, and efficient. And place us more in the moment, in the scene. You are in first person, take advantage of it. For example:

    Me? With an estate? Who would Chantilly Rosewater be without rent to pay? Without the need to work? What do my mother or I know about running an estate? Ordering around servants? They’ll know us for the frauds we are in an instant. This letter tells of all we are gaining and yet all I feel is loss. This is my home.

    — Even better if there’s a reason she would hate being rich—a past experience or something she doesn’t want to be like.

    And again, right now the running out to work just doesn’t seem to fit. We need to know why she has to go. If this is true about the letter, even if she isn’t happy about it, being late shouldn’t be a big deal. Will she get hurt, will her best friend be fired for having to cover for her—give us something.

    Your writing is great. Just make sure the motivations all work for the scene and you’ll be there. Good luck!

  3. Like Lori, I still wonder why she’s so hesitant to touch the letter. She doesn’t see the seal until she picks it up, so it can’t be for that reason. Why wouldn’t she just lift it? Maybe give us a thought why, because you set the scene with her hovering of the letter, so it’s implied she’s in the room to open it.

    Why, once she’s seen it’s addressed to her mother, does she read it rather than hand it over? It made me wonder if her mother couldn’t read.

    I don’t understand why she feels the clammy feeling of loss after she’s read the letter. Maybe a tiny thought after this line to explain. Is it fear of change or the unknown? Does she like her work?

    And finally, I know we keep harping on it, but if she sees sunlight and rushes from the house, where does the sun go? You imply it’s early in the day, so early the streets are gaslit, and rain is falling, fog, etc., so there’s no sun. If it’s to wake her and make her realize she’s late, a clock could chime, or something could stir her from her thoughts just as easily.

    I think you could easily take out the line: “Then what time . . .?” to save the repetition of her mother gasping when she realizes the time.

    But, overall, I love the visual world you’ve created here. All the best with it.

  4. The world Chantilly is in is becoming clearer to me. You have clarified a number of things about the setting and added some nice details. I would like even more. Maybe ask yourself, what are the main things about her world that are different from ours that a reader should understand right off the bat? Make sure they are all clear. Some examples:
    • the gas lights - does that mean no electricity? Maybe mention candles in the room?
    • the air ships - what are these exactly? I am imagining hot air balloons for some reason. Or are they more like in the Jetsons? Could you add a small detail to clarify?
    I think by the end of the chapter (I know this might not be the end of your chapter) the reader should feel grounded enough in time and space to feel comfortable reading on. If they are too confused, they might give up. I have never read steam punk but I think it is a bit like fantasy where there needs to be a certain amount of world building. It takes a lot of carefully placed details and you are on your way there. In fact, I’m pretty sure you know exactly what this place looks like. Just make sure the reader does too.

    I see you decided to start at the ticking clock. The first line is not clear to me. What is daring about her waiting for the clock to tick 22 times? Is this what makes her late? I would have thought opening the letter might be daring, but she isn’t doing that yet.

    Now that I have had more time to think about this scene than an average reader, I have a number of questions. How did the letter get onto the table? If the MC put it there, then wouldn’t she already know how it feels and that there is a royal seal before she picks it up? Did it come this morning? It seems really early in the morning for mail to come. Maybe the opening should be her accepting the letter at the door from a royal messenger or something of the sort. Maybe I’m over-analyzing. Just thinking logistics here.

    Also, when she opens the letter she says “the words that jump out at me are too sure of themselves, too crisp.” This made me think she is reading the words but she isn’t yet. This could be easily clarified by referring to the “font” or “letterhead” to show she is not reading the actual text of the letter yet. The rest of this paragraph, where she wonders about the rent, is great. They tell us a bit about Chantilly’s personality, her situation and social status and the society. Well done!

    In the last section, I love the line, “the air breathes chill with fog”! I think you are missing an opportunity to use the tension created by her being so late. I would like to see her hustling a little bit. I feel like she is just walking down the street observing things. Could she be running or rushing and somehow mention key things as she bumps into them or when they impede her movement. That way we are more engaged – will she make it on time to work or wherever she is going? Are there consequences to being late?

  5. LOL! I posted my feedback before reading the others. Interesting that I wrote, "Well done!" about the paragraph that Lori suggested you lose. Shows how subjective writing is. Hope I didn't totally confuse you. Hmmm... now I really want to see your next submission.
    For what it is worth, I read it as she thought it might be someone pranking her with a fake letter from royalty. But then she sees the letterhead and it looks legit.
    Anyways, good luck with it!

  6. Ha. I'm also going to give you feedback that's opposite of what others gave! You should go with a published author over prepublished but here's my two cents

  7. For what it's worth. (Why am I having such a hard time leaving comments??!!)

    I thought your first line was fantastic!! BUT, I did wonder how opening an envelope would be considered daring. I know in our world it's illegal to open up someone's mail, is it a punishable offense here?

    1. I though Sylvia made an excellent point on how did the letter get there?

    2. Good Lord Amighty.

      I think the " let's me notice" phrase could be taken out and replaced with "reflects"

      I loved the line "When a crest comes to a family like mine, the news is never good." So, as mentioned before, it's all subjective. Because I immediately wonder, what's up with her family? What's the news? How is this news going to change her?

      But the next paragraph, I agree with Ms. Lori. If she didn't/couldn't pay the rent, would she really get such an important looking letter? And now I see that records means financial rather than familial?

      How does Chantilly see her mom's brow furrow if she's reading?

      Much better transition between the letter and the leaving (though, assuming from the paragraph that she's heading to work, why is she so worried about being on time is she just inherited an estate and all that money? As asked earlier, what all is at stake here?)

      I also wondered about the sunlight. If there's enough to shine off creamy

    3. *the creamy sheen of the envelope and let her know the time, how is it foggy enough that gaslights are still on. Is Middle City well off enough that they can afford to have gas still burning when it's light enough inside to read a letter by? Is it only Chantilly's family that is so "worn fabric and old promises" (love that, btw)?

      I like that Chantilly defines herself by hard work. And all the mention of mechanical stuff because with the exception of the airships, nothing else really points to steampunk yet. And from what I've read of steampunk, the genre is defined by the details. Small hints that the world is like ours but steam powered rather than electrical.

      I'm looking forward to reading more. I am relatively new to steampunk but everything I've read, makes me want to read more!

  8. The voice is so engaging, and the language so lovely! However, the first line with the clock is confusing to me. I've read it a few times and I don't understand it. I suggest re-working it or cutting it. The mother's reaction to the letter puzzles me still. Is she mad her daughter opened it? I would be! Could Chantilly read it first and then her mother snatch it from her hands? And why isn't Chantilly confronting her mother - what the heck is going on, mom? Why has she worked so hard her entire life if they had money - or a relative with money? This is a huge revelation - even if mom won't talk about it yet and pushes her out the door - questions should explode inside of her head. Beginnings are so, so hard - believe me I know - I'm on my 10th one right now! Re-read the next 20 or so pages in your ms and then go back to this. Again, the voice, the language - gorgeous. You will get there!

  9. Oh my gosh, this is GREAT. I mean--wow! I'm so impressed with how you tightened the actions and tags. Seriously, it flows so much more for me now! And though I know some other commenter(s?) have said they thought this version lacked voice/spark, I don't agree at all. I found this version much more compelling and easy to slip into. I also really liked this paragraph:

    "My first thought is that this must be some colossal prank, but as I open up the flap, the words that jump out at me are too sure of themselves, too crisp. A needle of doubt pierces its way into 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. Our records, if a little dusty, aren’t stained in the slightest. The king should have no quarrel with us."

    I thought it was a great instance of showing us WHO Chantilly is (pays the bills, deals with the paperwork, clearly takes care of the family). So kudos!!

    Honestly, my only comment at this point is that I don't think we need to see the letter written out. I know my editor is always making me cut stuff like that from my own work ("Can't you just summarize this newspaper clip/letter/book passage?" she'll say). Like, is there anyway to only show us the key sentences? Like, certain phrases really pop out to her or make her ears feel like they're shattering--or maybe those phrases echo in her skull (after she's read), so you could share ONLY those key phrases?

    Does that make sense? If not, let me know and I'll try to explain better. :P

    Also, that's just my own personal preference, so if it doesn't resonate with you, then feel free to ignore. :)

    One more thought: She says it's beautiful at the end, doesn't really SOUND all that beautiful. It actually sounds pretty awful/industrial, so it's a bit jarring for me to hear her call it "beautiful". If there's anyway you can tighten the prose a bit more so that your 5 pages cut-off further in the story, I think that might work well.

    Again, though, that's just my opinion. I really think this is SUPER strong now! Great job!!