Monday, May 5, 2014

1st 5 Pages May Workshop - Becker

Name: Jessica Becker
Genre: YA Paranormal
Title: The Body Thief

I never should have left the house. I debated this even as I sat shivering on one of the stone-cold benches planted along the perimeter of the fair. I ticked off the reasons in my head. Summer project for school. Babysitting my cousin Hazel. The dead girls that kept showing up on new moon nights.

Needless to say, this last fact changed the very atmosphere of the fair itself. The truth though: no one knew why teenaged girls tended to die on this night. It could happen at home or while waiting for coffee at The Shack. But whenever you heard a story about eleven girls dying in your town, you tended to think about it. And I did. A lot. I mean, who wouldn’t?

It was the last weekend of July and too cold to be considered summer. The fair emerged within the large parking lot in front of Ojai Valley high school. Trees separated us from the main road, but I still had a clear view of the bell tower on the other side. Rows of white tents lined one side of the rectangle with food trucks parked opposite. The middle filled with rides that spun in crazy circles and ones I had to crane my neck to see the top of. I loved the fair. I loved the food on sticks and games no one ever really won, and the way people raced from one ride to the next. I loved the smell of barbecue and spun sugar intermingled with the sticky sweetness of everything fried.

My best friend, Jai Bennet, glanced in my direction with a smirk. He wasn’t fazed by the new moon stories. Jai, who jumped out of an airplane once for fun, and who chased creepy stories to thrill some weird fascination. He liked to be scared.

“You okay, Callie?” He asked in his too-concerned voice as he sorted our ride tickets.

I nodded.

“Then stop looking like that,” he said.

I snagged a piece of funnel cake I held balanced on my knees. “Like what?”

“Like you’re going to puke. Like the whole world is about to explode.”

“I’m not.” I fiddled with the ring around my thumb, and watched the reflection of the strung lights flicker in the puddles on the street. Food wrappers littered the ground. Neon colored flyers plastered the walls and scattered the ground reminding us of those who had died. The posters had become commonplace—black and white pictures plastered on the walls throughout Ojai. The girls on them always looked sad. Almost like they knew what was to become of them.

“You’re sitting there like a lump. I thought you said this was your favorite weekend?”

“Shut up. I’m fine.” I glanced at the clock. The minutes pressed forward.

My ten-year-old cousin cozied into my shoulder, watching me closely. She probably sensed my restlessness. Hazel wasn’t like other ten year olds. She carried this seriousness within her and rarely spoke. She used big words and read books I could never finish. And she often stared at me like one of her books, like I was some story she was meant to discover.

“Think we’ll know her?” I asked Jai. I didn’t look at him. I didn’t want to see the worry in his eyes confirming what I already felt.

“It’s not even going to happen.”

“Don’t tell me you’re like every other person that thinks it’s a coincidence.” I said coincidence like it tasted sour in my mouth.

The sides of his lips tugged down and his brown eyes studied the crowd. His voice dropped to a whisper. I almost couldn’t hear him over the screams from the nearby rollercoaster. “It won’t be you.” He sounded as if he were trying to convince himself as much as me. “And if it is, go out with a bang. At least have some fun first.”

I smirked.

He nudged me in the side.

Maybe he was right. Maybe I worried for nothing. But it would happen somewhere. And how could it be stopped if no one ever saw it coming?

A girl with dark hair and skin the color of paper sidled up next to Jai. I turned away as she touched his shoulder in a familiar way. Jai laughed and said something into her ear. It could be her.

Hell, it could be me. Well, it could if my skin lightened a couple of shades. And my eyes would have to change color. Most of the girls had blue eyes and mine were decidedly mixed. One brown and one blue. Still.

“Oh, you were Raven’s sister, right?” Were. Past tense. As in no longer. Now I was just sister-less. The word pinged inside my head like an annoying reminder. The girl paid no attention. It was just a word after all. Raven’s sister. Even dead, she was my identifying feature.

Jai glanced in my direction with a worried frown. He looked almost as if she struck him. The mention of Raven’s name would forever haunt him no matter how much time passed. He didn’t need to hear her name to remember, he had his silver hooked scar on his cheek for that. It faded to almost nothing in the last year. Almost.

I bit my lip and tried not to think of her. Funny thing though: as soon as you tried not to think of something, then it stuck around for an uncomfortably long time. So, I did what I did best—I avoided eye contact and looked up. I swallowed the knot in my throat and I counted.

The girl prattled on and on, and it wasn’t until she said goodbye that I realized I hadn’t heard a word.

“Hey, Callie?” I could tell he had been saying my name for a while by the way his eyebrows pinched together. He pulled a handful of change from his pocket and shook it in his hand like dice. “Want to go on a ride or something? Or get some more food?” He turned towards the row of food trucks lining the street. Terriyaki beef sticks, corn dogs, brisket sandwiches, fried onion blossoms, chocolate covered bacon…

Hazel leaned forward. Her sandy hair fell over her shoulder, matching her hazel eyes completely. She was tanned like a bottle of honey and dotted with freckles across her nose. “I should take Hazel back to my aunt.”

“Do you want me to come with?” He asked. “Winnie said she’d give me a reading for five bucks.”

“It’s okay. I just saw someone go into her tent. You should eat or whatever.”

Winnie’s chosen profession involved reading palms and tarot cards to the tourists. Sometimes she’d delve deeper into séances and talking to the dead. She’d get all glassy eeyed and her lips would pinch together like she tasted something sour. Then she’d speak in a voice much deeper than her own. I didn’t doubt her abilities or anything, but my aunt Winnie had a flair for theatrics.

“You want to meet over there when you’re done?” I asked.

“Sure.” Jai smiled and in this light, the scar on his face bloomed silver. He spun on his heel, an almost graceful move considering his height. Jai was freakishly tall. Between that and his aquamarine t-shirt, he made it easy to spot him in the crowds.

Out of the silence, Hazel asked, “Do you see anything?” She pressed her chubby hand into mine and gave a gentle squeeze.


  1. I must say, this sample ends at a very intriguing point which really makes me want to read more. I only noticed a few things that stood out to me and they may not be big issue items.

    On my first read-through, I interpreted the first paragraph to mean that the MC had left the house and left all of the things she mentioned there, such as babysitting her cousin Hazel. However, it appears that the MC, Callie, is at the fair with the cousin she's supposed to be babysitting. It tripped me up the first time given I was expecting her to be elsewhere. But I think I understood better the second read-through.

    "skin the color of paper" - I note this mainly because paper can be pretty much any color. It may help to ensure the reader makes the correct assumption by noting a differentiation, such as plain printer paper or maybe the blank page of a book.

    “Oh, you were Raven’s sister, right?” Were. Past tense. - When this is said, the reader is aware of the new person on the seen, but it's not a guaranteed assumption that this was said by this girl or someone else that walked up. To help keep the reader flowing with the read, it may help to add a dialog tag.

    In the paragraph where Callie is breaking down things about Winnie, it may help to name her as aunt Winnie from the beginning. The first time I read through the sample, I was pondering if Winnie was the girl that had just left, which pulled me from focusing on enjoying the read.

    Overall, I enjoyed this sample.

  2. Jessica, thanks for letting us take a peek at your opening pages!

    Your opening is really tight and well-written. Lots of great sensory details, which is perfect for a fair. I almost smelled the deep fried food. Only thing I'd add as far as details would be sound. Metal against metal of a coaster on tracks? Loud music from the merry-go-round? Stuff like that would be great.

    When the other girl asks about Raven, it seems to come out of nowhere. Maybe have her to some sort of action first. Like, "She faced me and raised her eyebrows in recognition. 'You're Raven's sister, right?'" Something like that might make it more clear.

    You did a great job of keeping Jai's scar and the details surrounding it a secret. Just enough to keep us guessing.

    Suggestion for the area where you mention when you're supposed to forget something, that's when you can't stop thinking about it: maybe reference something. Like, when you've vowed not to each chocolate, that's all you can think of. Referring to something familiar might work well there.

    "I counted." I wanted to know what she counted. Stars? Lightbulbs? Counted to 100? Something concrete here would work well.

    Minor things--teriyaki and glassy eyed need to be corrected. Just being picky here.

    The main thing that nagged at me was the fact that she was at the fair when she was so scared of murder. If murders had been happening around town, could it be that there were no lines for the rides? Were less people out than usual? If not, why? Why would she and Jai venture out when there's such worry? If you address that early on, besides wanting to take Hazel out, it would be clearer. You address it in the first paragraph, but I'm wanting something more logical. If she's worried about murder on a new moon night, why not play cards with Hazel at home? Know what I mean?

    Otherwise, this is a really well-written opening.

  3. I really enjoyed reading your first five pages; they’ve intrigued me and I would like to read more.

    You did a good job in bringing your characters to life through your use of description and the tidbits of personality that come through in their physical experience.

    I only noticed a few things and they aren’t significant issues.

    I wonder here:
    “A girl with dark hair and skin the color of paper sidled up next to Jai. I turned away as she touched his shoulder in a familiar way. Jai laughed and said something into her ear. It could be her.

    Hell, it could be me. Well, it could if my skin lightened a couple of shades. And my eyes would have to change color. Most of the girls had blue eyes and mine were decidedly mixed. One brown and one blue. Still.”

    Does the MC have any strong feelings about this random girl. I may be reading too much into this but does she turn away because she doesn’t want to intrude on their closeness or is it because she’s uncomfortable/jealous about it? This may be your intent since as a reader I can’t decide if I “like” this new girl or not.

    “Jai glanced in my direction with a worried frown. He looked almost as if she struck him. The mention of Raven’s name would forever haunt him no matter how much time passed. He didn’t need to hear her name to remember, he had his silver hooked scar on his cheek for that. It faded to almost nothing in the last year. Almost.”

    This may be too specific, but you could make “Raven’s name” into “Raven” so that you don’t repeat the word name again shortly after.

    Finally, why does Callie go to the fair in the first place? You may elaborate on this further in the rest of your manuscript. Does the fair hold some extra significance, does it have anything to do with her sister’s death, and is she someone who likes to court the idea of danger?

    Overall, this was a great intro! Thank you for sharing.

  4. Hey Jessica~

    Lots of intriguing stuff here. Some really strong descriptions and lots of questions to make me want to read and find out more. There were a couple small things that popped out at me though.

    "The dead girls that kept showing up on new moon nights." For some reason this line made me think she was seeing dead bodies--as in spirits or ghosts--not that local girls were dying.

    "I didn’t want to see the worry in his eyes confirming what I already felt." You just said how brave and unworried he was. He seemed cavalier about the whole thing--almost as if he didn't believe it. So this kind of jarred me a little bit. I seemed a bit like Jai was all over the place emotionally. It felt a bit like you weren't exactly sure how to write him. I know that a character can run deep and have a lot of conflict going on inside them, but we just got introduced, so I think it might be easier for the reader if you really look at how you want him to come across in the beginning. And then complicate him over time when we are not sorting out our initial impressions of so many characters and other things.

    I liked a lot of the loose threads involving Jai and Raven, but I have to say I wanted to know if Raven was one of the eleven girls that was killed or if she'd died in some kind of unrelated way. The reason I NEEDED to know was because I think it affects how the rest of the characters would act in this scene. I think different info would result in very different actions on the part of the characters.

    I'm also on the fence about a fair going on while there is a killer on the loose. Perhaps this is cleared up as you go along, but eleven connected, local murders of girls gets a lot of attention and I would imagine caution. I'm not saying you haven't adequately worked this out. I'm just noting that it could be problematic for me in the believability of the story. So keep that in mind.

    Great job on this so far and I feel confident that you can really make this shine.

  5. Hey Jessica,

    Thanks for sharing your work! I really liked reading your opening pages. Some initial thoughts and impressions will follow but I want to start with the word 'impressions.' There were a couple of instances when first the "impression" turns out to be wrong and it hinders the reader's ability to fully engage because they're still trying to settle into the story while not understanding what's going on. In the first example, it's a simple fix but an important one. Such as:

    I thought she was "seeing dead girls" on full moon nights! I didn't understand at first that girls were actually DYING on full moon nights. So as you can see, I was buckling in for one kind of ride and it turned out to be a different one. Easy fix, though, to clarify for the reader what is actually going on.

    Another instance is the dead sister. Instantly, I want to know if she was one of the girls who's died on the new moon (during a previous fair?) It may be your intention to make us wonder that and so it's not a transgression really, just know that's what I was wondering as a reader and if that's *not* what you want me to wonder, then you might take a look at it.

    You have some lovely phrases "tanned like a bottle of honey" that stand out. Great job at describing the fair, too!

    Consider Jai for just a bit. He's presented as an easy-going thrill-seeker but he's shown as "worried" and concerned much of the time which stands out as a contradiction.

    Also, I was taken out of the story a bit by my wonderings about WHY people are so cavalier and out to have fun at the fair if it's been a historical night of death for young women. I'd think it'd be a fair of nothing but menfolk :) at the very least! I mean, why risk it?? Or, why not change the night of the fair, etc... that's a logic question that many readers will ask, so perhaps find a way to explain it so we can put that question to rest and continue on the ride with you.

    You're off to a great, compelling start! Clarification about the "dead girls" and characterization for Jai were the most urgent fixes aside from the question about the fair. I'm looking forward to seeing how it progresses!

  6. Hey Jessica,

    I'll probably keep this short and sweet because the wonderful people that have already commented have mentioned much of what I wanted to say!

    I really enjoyed the sensory words you used to describe the fair, I really got the impression of how things smelled and tasted. I did miss out on the feeling of sounds, it seemed absent in your descriptions.

    I loved how descriptive you are, I got a very stark impression of Callie's surroundings and there was enough to leave me wondering. I, however, was confused about why she was even in the park with murders going on, especially when you go on to have Callie's thoughts relay that she's worried about being the next victim. I guess she doesn't seem apprehensive or nervous enough.

    The mention of Raven seems to come out of nowhere with no lead in and because of that I made no emotional connection to Callie's feelings about Raven being deceased and potentially one of the murdered girls.

    I really liked the mystery surrounding the dead girls, I just needed a little more clarification about the motive for Callie and her cousin being present in such a public, vulnerable place. There's nothing like a busy atmosphere to spur on disappearances, but that's a bit of a trope. My final comment is on the mention of Winnie, who is later named to be the aunt. I thought the lead into this information was abrupt and confusing, perhaps it requires a little more a tie-in to the thoughts Callie and the actions of Jai. That's my two cents! Thanks for sharing, I really enjoyed reading this.

  7. Great first line. It hooked me in right away.

    Love your sensory details. Great job! That's not easy.

    I think from “It was the last week in July” to “The minutes pressed forward” can be tightened up so we can get to the “You were Raven’s sister” part sooner because that part is especially intriguing. I loved the mention of Jai’s scar and I’m itching to find out the entire story behind that. I too would suggest making it more clear if Raven was one of the girls who died on the new moon or if she died another way. If she died on the new moon, that raises the emotional stakes immensely right away.

    Already mentioned, but I’d sharpen the “skin the color of paper” line and definitely have Callie say Aunt Winnie so the reader is grounded.

    My favorite line: And she often stared at me like one of her books, like I was some story she was meant to discover.