Monday, April 7, 2014

1st 5 Pages April Workshop - Im

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

When things like stars or kingdoms or fates collide, even the worst novels give their heroines prophetic dreams for a week in advance - at the very

If I were the heroine in a novel, I’d feel something coming. It would be as clear to me as if there were grim, thunder-laden clouds clustering around my head, and I would know it, better than anything I ever have. I would get a stirring in my chest, maybe, or a choice sentence or two of foreshadowing.

But I’m standing in my family’s boardinghouse room, not in a book, and it’s quite plain that the blood running through my veins is the common red rubbish and not ink off of a printing press. And it's even plainer that I don’t know what's in the wax-sealed letter on the table any more than I know what I'll look like thirty years from now.

The clock on the wall ticks twenty-two times while I decide to make a move. The waiting envelope has corners sharp enough to cut me. I hesitate and let my heart shrink in my chest as I stare at it.

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.

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 worms its way into my mind. Our records, if a little dusty, aren’t stained in the slightest.

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 dart to the letter, still clutched in my hand.

“Oh.” I force my limbs to loosen and wave the paper in her direction. “The post came for you.” And as I start to scan the page, I see that its greeting really is addressed, albeit stiffly, to Mother:

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 see her brow furrow 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.

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

“Oh, stars.” I groan, and Mother starts as if she’s never heard my voice before. She shakes her head, frowning, and then gasps in realization.

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. Thanks for participating in the workshop!

    Let me begin by saying that your pages are in terrific shape. The voice is solid, the world building is happening slow enough to not overwhelm and not too fast that the reader is lost, itching to be grounded. These are extremely hard things to do, so kudos!

    My biggest concern is the imagery you are using to begin. I am not being pulled in by your first three paragraphs. In fact, I find them a bit confusing. I had to re-read to ensure I was understanding your analogy, and anything that has the potential to make a reader re-read must be looked at again. You don’t want to risk turning a reader off, especially at the very start of your novel. The first line and paragraph is key. I don’t love the idea of starting a novel by having your MC be talking about being a character in a novel. There’s something inherently off putting about it and it makes me realize I am reading a story rather than living a story.

    My suggestion to you is to start with “The clock on the wall ticks twenty-two times while I decide to make a move.” This grabs me immediately. I get more of your MC’s voice and personality here than I do in all that comes before it. You can lop off everything that comes before and the scene is still understandable—that’s a sign that what comes before is not necessary. That’s a key thing to consider in every scene but especially on page one.

    I assume some of the formatting and italics have dropped out, but if not, make sure you make “It’s a letter, Chantilly….” italics as it’s internal thought and ditto for the letter.

    Small line edit (as it makes it confusing), you don’t need the comma after “these flowers”. Otherwise, this whole paragraph does a nice job of setting the stage in a concise manner.

    I’m unsure what this line means “Our records, if a little dusty, aren’t stained in the slightest.” I’m also confused by what words jump out at her as she opens the flap if she hasn’t read the letter yet?

    Would it be “to” in a formal letter like this?

    The reveal in the letter—that they are inheriting a house and, presumably a lot of money (would be great if you can ground us in that and let us know it is a lot; compare the sum to something?)---is fantastic. Many times stories do not start where they should—the moment something happens to change the MC’s life. This absolutely does. Great!

    However, I feel you are missing an opportunity to have the MC reflect on this huge event. Yes, she falls into a chair but we need a line or two—either internal or with her mother—where she acknowledges this event and that their life will change dramatically. Then you can have her not have time to deal with it because she is late. Would almost be great to know if the inheritance will make it so whatever she's late for won't matter anymore (a job?...or maybe this wouldn't register so fast...or maybe she will be afraid she's late then realizes she can quit? But don't miss the chance to elaborate and let us see your character react to the inheritance--don’t skip over this huge thing. We need to know if she’s shocked. Did they know they had a relative this high up? Did they know him at all? Not sad that he’s dead it seems as the mother doesn’t comment at all. This is another opportunity that I think you can get in there with a line or two. Doesn’t have to be a lot but a little will go a long way.

    Overall, this is a terrific start and can’t wait to read your revision!


  2. I think this sounds like a fun story, and I’d love to see where you take it, what happens when they collect their inheritance.

    I’d like a little internal dialogue initially about why the MC is standing over an envelope early in the morning, wishing to open it, knowing she shouldn’t. I wasn’t sure if she hesitated because the envelope was addressed to her and she wasn’t supposed to see it, or if there was something forbidden about opening it in general. The implication of the envelope cutting her reinforced this. In a world with implied magic, maybe it actually can.

    When the mother enters, I almost expect her to be angry with Chantilly for opening the envelope; perhaps I was led to believe this because she’s so hesitant to open the envelope, it’s not addressed to her, and her mother sneaks up on her, commenting about her startled reaction.

    You create lovely imagery. I particularly enjoyed: I nearly spring out of my skin, and Mother lets out a soft, dry laugh, like rustling papers. Well done.

    Consider tightening a few sections. When you say the MC sees something, it’s filtering, and pulls the reader from the story. Sometimes it works well to just state what’s seen rather than telling us she sees it first, since it’s assumed if the action is described.

    The transition from finishing the letter and collapsing in the chair to the sunlight puzzled me. I even wondered if she’d dreamed the entire sequence. They leap up and get ready for the day, like it never happened. Maybe a little reinforcement that it’s all real would help.

    All the best with it!

  3. First, nice job! You're off to a great start. Like Lori, I also found the beginning confusing. (Coming from the author who is currently struggling with where to start her WIP - I have 5 versions!) I was trying to figure out what she was saying, and not feeling swept up in the story. I agree with Lori again - start with the clock on the wall. . . but I'd add somewhere in that first paragraph that she lives in a boarding house - this lets the reader know that she is not wealthy. The imagery and language are lovely! I really feel the suspense, and know that life changing stuff is coming before she even opens the letter - so great job!

    I did find the issue of who the letter is written to confusing. If she swiped if from her mom, let us know more clearly - and add more reaction when her mom catches her. Also, I think more is needed about this huge revelation - their life is changing! Both need more of a reaction. And I'd like to know a little bit more about the life they are leaving - will she be happy to leave the beautiful city? Sad? Is she taking everyone she loves with her or leaving someone behind? I don't think you need pages and pages, but a little bit more than what you have here. Is your MC eager for this new adventure? Happy to not have to worry about money? Just a little more to set the stage would be great!

    Good luck - looking forward to reading more!

  4. You're off to a great start with this!

    You've nailed the voice. It's great and grabs me throughout the passage.

    Like the above readers, the first few paragraphs were confusing. When I first read it, I was wondering if it were the query. I had to reread them several times to figure out what they were saying. But once I got past them, I sailed through the rest.

    The letter was shocking! For a peasant family to inherit a house and money is a huge event. It seems like you move right on from that to her running out of the house. I want to know more about that and what the deal is. It's a great opportunity to expand the story and let us know what's going on.

    There's a lot of great stuff here, though. It's huge that you nailed the voice. That in and of itself made me want to keep reading.

  5. I know everyone has vetoed the first line, but I kind of like the gravity of it. It sets an interesting tone. I did need to read the first paragraphs over a few times to understand this part: “even the worst novels give their heroines prophetic dreams for a week in advance - at the very least.” Initially I thought reading the novel gives the heroine the dreams… perhaps you could rephrase to: “even in the worst novels the heroines have prophetic dreams…” or something.

    In my opinion, the second paragraph is not needed. But if you clarified the first line and then jumped to the boarding house and linked straight to the letter, I think it could still work.

    I would like to know why she is so stressed out about the letter before she knows what it is. Could there be some hint of the dangers a letter might hold? In that case maybe there has been foreshadowing ; )

    The transition after the letter was confusing to me. At first I thought she and her mother were packing up to get out of there before the carriage arrives (like seeing the sunlight means it is almost 10 o’clock). But the letter says “tomorrow”, so that is not right. I also found it confusing that she sees the sunlight but when she gets out she walks into “rain, rain, rain” and street lamps.

    Finally, I am not so familiar with steampunk as a genre (ok, so I had to look up the definition) so that might be one of the reasons that I am craving more information about the setting. So far I know there are two cities, gas lamps and steam ships in the air and the umbrella does not appear to have been invented yet (joke). I know we are only on page 5, but a couple well-placed clues about the setting would really help a newbie reader like me. For example, would it be possible to put a date on the letter? That would give some sense of time in a natural way. Is there anything in the boarding house that could help set the stage? Are the references to the letter’s sharpness meant to suggest magic as a previous commenter suggested? If so, maybe make that more clear. Is magic part of steampunk?

    I do like that you are using language that I think ties into the genre. I particularly like “…the blood running through my veins is the common red rubbish and not ink off of a printing press,” and, “I get dressed and straighten out my sleeves like clockwork.” These references to old technology root me in the genre (as far as someone who has never read any of this genre can feel rooted, anyways)

    Overall I see a lot of promise in this story. Looking forward to the next version.

  6. I love how lyrical your voice is! The line "the waiting envelope has corners sharp enough to cut me" is fantastic as is her response to herself. And "what little light is thrown to the ground in desperate pockets"- great description of the desperation I assume Chantilly feels herself.
    I'm not sure how I feel about the meta-ness

    1. (Not a word, but you know what I mean!) of your opening lines

    2. Sorry! Not sure what's going on but it keeps freezing on me.
      The first sentence-and the ones after- are especially load-bearing in tone. They sound like darling first lines but if they don't match the tone of the rest of your ms, you may need to murder them.
      The sentence, "our records..." I think could be clearer if you simply added "Our family records..." Because I had to read it a few times before I got what was meant.
      "A needle of doubt worms..." I'm trying to picture a needle worming... Perhaps just "Doubt worms..."
      The mother

    3. Argh!
      Is disheveled and groggy but her eyes dart?
      There needs to be a transition sentence between her reading the letter and her hand shaking so bad the letter falls to the floor.
      I'm very intrigued about where Chantilly is headed because if she can just turn off the emotional and physical impact of that letter, then it must be very important.
      I've just recently begun reading steampunk and I can't wait to read more of your ms!

    4. Oh and one last thing. The clock striking 22. Nicely 1984-ish but I'm picturing a grandfather clock or something like that and that jars with the image that they're poor.

  7. Hi Christina! I really LOVE the voice in this piece, and I can tell you've got a good handle on your prose.

    I have only two comments--one is more of a general point about your writing and the other is a bit more major (and very much MY idea--so something that may not resonate with you at all).

    First, I think you should work on tightening your prose. Overall, it's really strong, but things get a bit bogged down by too many phrases, too many steps. One of my own personal rules is to use as few action tags as possible to convey a mood/reaction. So for example, you have: "Mother starts as if she’s never heard my voice before. She shakes her head, frowning, and then gasps in realization."

    Rather than have 4 actions that all wind up conveying Mother's surprise, we really only need one, maybe two tags. Am I right to assume you want to show Mother being jolted out of her thoughts and realizing how late Chantilly is? If so, then all you really need is one gasp or one startle. Maybe, "Mother starts at the sound of my voice--and we flurry into motion." or "Mother gasps as she realizes the time." The key is to be as concise and clear as possible and then move to the next critical action.

    Does that make sense?

    My other concern is that you're starting too early. Do we need to see the letter? Do we need to see her read the letter aloud and react with her mother? Could you possibly start AFTER that fact instead? I have to admit that the pacing and my interest really picked up once Chantilly actually got moving and left the house.

    So just as a very, VERY rough example, you could open with your heroine already in motion (note: I'm sure you can do way better, and I have NO DOUBT I've gotten many critical details wrong. But maybe you can see the point I'm making?):

    "I half-run down the stairs of the boardinghouse, not bothering to soften my steps. I'm late--*really* late. But turning the doorknob and striding out is an easy mechanical gesture--as is running down the rain-soaked cobblestones with only the mist and the dull orange glow of streetlamps to keep me company.

    I take this route to work everyday, and I always let my thoughts swirl as they please. Today, they inevitably fly to the letter in my family's rented room. The letter that just upended everything by saying we have to move right away.

    Moving! Ha! And all because some duke I've never heard of has died and we've inherited his place--and with no warning at all, I might add.

    At least when things like stars or kingdoms or fates collide in a novel, the heroines always have prophetic dreams a week in advance. All I got was a headache this morning and then a surprise letter in the mailbox."

    Again, that is JUST an idea (and I don't want you to think I'm stepping on your lovely mss's toes--I just want you to see what I mean about opening with the forward movement). Overall I think you've got a really strong start here! I can't wait to read what you have for us next week. :)