Sunday, November 30, 2014

First 5 Pages December Workshop - Chou

Name: Jenny Chou
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Title: The Jewel Thieves
At a café in downtown Rome I sat beneath an ivy-covered trellis pretending to read while my eyes drifted back and forth from the worn pages of Sense and Sensibility to the no-parking zone in front of the bank next door. My brother Raj lounged in his chair across from me and appeared to be doing nothing more than scrolling through the news on his iPhone.
“Signora’s limo just pulled up,” I said softly in French, which we usually spoke to each other even though it was not the first language for either of us. 
Very subtly, Raj lifted his eyes from his phone. “Not a minute late,” he whispered.
Signora D’Agnelli visited the bank every Wednesday at precisely 8:45 am, fifteen minutes before it opened.
From beneath my eyelashes I tracked her burly chauffeur as he marched around to the sidewalk, nodded to the security guard and opened the back door of the limousine. Placing her cane on the pavement, Signora emerged slowly and took the chauffeur’s arm. Her long silver-grey hair had been pulled into an elegant chignon and her maid had added a spray of small white flowers. The diamond choker around Signora’s neck caught the sunlight and sparkled.
The two American girls at the table next to us paused in their conversation and when they spoke again it was in hushed whispers. We could all see the radiant girl Signora D’Agnelli had been at eighteen when she’d married an Italian movie star in a fairy-tale wedding. I’d watched the video on YouTube a million times. Signora’s father had been a Spanish prince and an aura of old-fashioned glamour surrounded her. Together she and her husband had travelled the world, partying with Hollywood royalty and dining with presidents. Signora had known all the most fashionable designers and had dressed in clothes considered very risqué for her time. Also a famous collector of jewelry and art, her two Monet’s and an early Andy Warhol were worth a fortune.
“She’s still so lovely,” I said with a sigh. The bank’s security guard tipped his hat as he held open one of the intricately carved iron doors. Signora disappeared inside the building. “So heartbreaking about her husband.” Signor D’Agnelli had died two years earlier.
“Sasha,” Raj said very evenly, fixing his dark eyes on me.
“What?” I put my sunglasses on. “I’m completely detached.”
Of course I hadn’t told Raj about the YouTube video. Or the copy of Life Magazine with Signora’s wedding photograph on the cover I’d bought at a used bookshop in Paris.
“Sure you are.” He snorted and stole my chocolate biscotti.
The wind picked up, carrying the scent of brewing coffee through the unusually warm November air and blowing my shoulder length hair around my face. Yesterday I’d dyed it from a blond the color of buttermilk to brown. Not a striking copper or a deep chestnut, but a brown that could only be described as brown. Grey contact lenses toned down the cornflower-blue eyes I’d inherited from my father. In my silk blouse and pencil skirt I hoped to be mistaken for an executive assistant or the receptionist at a law firm.
Certainly I wouldn’t strike anyone as a seventeen-year-old veteran jewel thief.
Continuing to ignore the playful looks the Americans had been throwing at him for the past half hour, Raj clicked onto his favorite financial site on his phone. I’d managed to tame his unruly black curls into a straight ponytail. His oxford shirt masked the tattoo between his shoulder blades of the Chinese characters for genius and he’d removed all his earrings. Grudgingly, he wore the conservative tie I’d chosen but he’d also put on his battered old running shoes. So much for blending seamlessly into the business district. Maybe he’d pass for a quirky advertising copywriter.
Raj updated me on a couple of his favorite stocks but I barely heard him. My stomach fluttered as I thought about Signora opening her safety deposit box inside the bank. Before I finally closed my book I’d read the same sentence about the dashing Mr. Willoughby at least twelve times.
Glancing around for a distraction, I caught sight of a two college-age boys walking past the café carrying lacrosse sticks. They stopped on the corner to wait for the light to change, arguing in a mixture of English and Italian about a game. One guy had artfully tousled hair and dark, slim jeans. Recklessly handsome just like my brother and just as destined to break hearts all over Europe. 
My gaze wandered over to his friend. Tall and thin, his button-down shirt half untucked from his wrinkled khakis, he also lugged a backpack so crammed with books he couldn’t get the zipper to close. He wore glasses with vintage metal frames and swoon-worthy golden red hair fell into his eyes. Even better, he spoke with a delicious Scottish accent. For a moment I allowed myself a daydream about a backpack of my own and a class on Nineteenth Century British fiction in an ivy-covered lecture hall. And an adorable Scottish boyfriend to meet for coffee.
Though we’d taken a lot of classes online, neither Raj nor I had ever gone to any kind of formal school. Dad had taught us about language and art and history as we’d trailed behind him, crisscrossing Europe and Asia and sometimes the Atlantic in search of the next big heist. Everything I knew about high school I’d learned from reading American novels. And to be honest, the ins and outs of high school sounded far more terrifying than the thought of breaking into a villa owned by Spanish royalty and stealing millions of euros worth of diamonds. But college would be different. A chance to start over. To reinvent myself as anyone I wanted to be.
The Scottish guy noticed me checking him out. He took off his glasses and winked before turning to cross the street. Feeling my cheeks turn all kinds of red, I quickly picked up my cappuccino.
With a nod, Raj drew my attention towards the bank. “Remind me why we’re in Italy?” He shot me an evil grin.
I kicked his ankle with the pointed toe of my high-heeled shoe.
While I’d been scoping out hot college guys, the bank’s security guard had stepped outside again, accompanied by a second guard. The chauffeur brushed past them and opened the door to the limousine. Dressed in a navy-blue suit and a tie very similar to Raj’s, the bank manager himself appeared next holding Signora D’Agnelli’s arm.
All traces of humor vanished from Raj’s face.
In her right hand Signora carried a red leather box the size of a hardcover book. I felt a tingle race up and down my spine.
A necklace made from two hundred glittering carats of oval, pear, marquise and round brilliant white diamonds rested inside that box. Long ago Signora D’Agnelli had worn the diamonds to the Oscars, outshining all the American actresses. According to the flurry of emails Raj had been monitoring between Signora, her younger sister in Barcelona and her niece Giana in Milan, the necklace would be presented as a gift to Giana at the rehearsal dinner on the eve of her wedding, to be worn at the ceremony the next day.
I sighed. Hopefully Giana had a back-up plan.
“I’d say this is a done deal,” Raj said, his eyes flashing with excitement as he unbuttoned the top button of his shirt and loosened his tie.


  1. Hi Jenny,

    Love the concept of a YA jewel thief...very cool! Here are some things that stood out to me.

    I got a little bogged down in the details. Your descriptions are lovely but I felt that this opening dragged just a tiny tad. I think if you went back and cut out details that aren't needed (IE, do we need to know she's sitting under an ivy-covered trellis?) it will help your reader focus on what they need to, which is the lady they are (presumably) going to rob. Then again, others may say they like the detail because it sets the scene, but for me, I felt there were too many descriptions of things I didn't need to know. IE, do we need to know all the cuts of diamonds, or can you just say that the necklace was made from two hundred glittering carats? You have great details in here that help flush out your characters (the description of Raj's tattoo for example)...I'd go through and keep the things that are needed and trim those you can do without, so that your pace doesn't slow down.

    I loved your MC's voice and the idea of her wanting a do-over in life. You've set the stakes up well - jewelry thief, wants out, and I have a feeling that things aren't going to work out so smoothly for her. I'd definitely keep reading!

  2. What a fun concept! I love the idea of the teen jewel thieves, tearing around the beautiful European capitals. I definitely get a good sense of the setting from these opening pages, and what the characters all look like. I particularly like the description of Raj, I feel like I can totally see that guy (and I get a sense of his personality from the physical description).

    I would advise trying to get to the action a little sooner. It's such an exciting idea, but it takes a while to get there, and your opening paragraph sounds somewhat muted for the excitement that is clearly coming. Also, for some reason I got a little thrown by the reference to the signora's wedding appearing on YouTube. I started questioning when the story takes place, and whether it's actually in the future, so that her past with the wedding was the modern era of YouTube. Anyway, maybe it's just me, but the YouTube reference threw me a bit. I was also a bit unsure about the MC's motivation. She seemed reluctant to be a thief, and yearning for college and a normal life, but I didn't see any indication that she was forced into this life. Maybe this becomes more clear in the subsequent pages, but it would be good, I think, to make her feelings about thieving more explicit.

    Overall, great job, and I look forward to reading more.

  3. I love your premise and your writing is beautiful and polished! I love the description of Signora, but I'd take out her history. She seems more mysterious without it. I like that Sasha is feeling sympathetic towards her. Unless the college boys are important to the story later, I'd pare down those descriptions. Love Raj - you've done a great job of setting his personality with a few details. I think a few tweaks and you're there! Good luck!

  4. I agree, brilliant premise here: YA jewel thieves, one with yearnings toward what she thinks of as a 'normal' life, with a TON of potential backstory (growing up the children of a jewel thief).

    With that said, there's definite room for tightening here. For instance, the first sentence runs on far too long. The same problem, taking too much time to get to the point, is where all that delicious detail is working against you some of the time. Too much leaves too little to the reader's imagination. Add that to the formal language (contractions are, usually, your friend) and it serves to slow down the pace to the detriment of the story.

    There's also too much telling of things you should be showing and, to be honest, too much showing of things you should be telling. Quick example: '“Signora’s limo just pulled up,” I said softly in French, which we usually spoke to each other even though it was not the first language for either of us.' It might work better just to stop after the word 'French' and then have her say something else in English and so on to show us she's multi-lingual. Especially if that's important sometime later in the story. Conversely, you show us the two college boys and unless they're important you spend too much time on them. Yes it leads to her possible desire to get out of the thieving life (if that's really where you want us led) but too much shown slows down the pace there.

    Also, you've got a minor typo with 'a two college-age boys' the 'a' isn't needed.

    All in all, love the characters and the premise and what I think is the story you're developing (even if I'm wrong...well, that's even better :D). Strong writing that just needs some critiquing and revising etc.

    Minor quibble, waiting until the 8th paragraph to let us know our MC is named 'Sasha'

    Best of luck!

  5. Yes, YA jewel thieves is great! I agree with comments above. Tighten it, don't over describe and you've got it. I love how they speak French but it isn't their first language. I'm interested to see how you tweak it.

  6. I love the premise of this – the teens with their unconventional upbringing, and her insight that she’d rather break into a villa than try to navigate high school! Great stuff!

    I do feel that the story has two main characters – Sasha and Signora. Unless Signora will be a major character, too much valuable first page real estate is dedicated to her. I’d like to see and hear more of Sasha, and what makes her tick. Her voice isn’t shining through in these pages, too much is her romantic fascination with Signora. And although I enjoyed reading about the cute boys, it took me out of the story, and it made me wonder if she’s a good thief – she seems easily distracted. In short – I don’t really feel like I know Sasha, and as such I can’t identify with her or root for her.

    Voice is the hardest thing to nail (at least for me!). I usually do a character sheet for each character. I answer questions, such as name, age, description, unusual speech or characteristics, biggest fear, biggest secret, best quality, worst quality, flaws… so that I really have a sense of them, and can reveal that in my writing. I think once the reader knows Sasha better, the rest will fall into place. Good luck revising, I’m looking forward to reading next week!

  7. The opening chapter pulls me into the story. I really like that. I feel like I'm sitting there with her, observing. Jewel thieves! Whoa.... Me likey! One thing about the opening: sometimes shorter more jagged sentences can catch a reader and add tension easily. I think you could break up that long sentence there.

    From the onset, you've created this sneaky, mysterious feel between Sasha and Raj. Yup, makes me want to read more. I also like the casual feel between the two. It's very natural. But by the end of the piece, I felt like I wanted more of Sasha - who she is, etc...

    You've used nice details to set the scene as well as move it along, though you could cut some out to quicken the pace. Think about what details are MOST important and show aspects of your characters and world you're creating. Ax the rest - or keep it in a separate file for yourself to refer to. You could also leave out a bit of backstory (such as the part about Dad teaching them), teasing the reader with just nibbles for now and expose more of that later on.

    I really think you have something here and look forward to reading your revision!

  8. Wow, you have an excellent writing style. I like the flow and the word choice. I could feel what you wanted me to. I'm also hooked now. I also really like how Sasha's thoughts tell story. I like learning about her personality, but I want more of that (her personality). But there are too many details. While details are necessary, this many are not. I was very intrigued to find out more with the emotions in the air, the tension, excitement, whatever, but it was cut off by unnecessary details. We need less to give us more. It was mentioned above, but I really like the idea of telling less about Signora; it gives her an air of mystery.
    An incredible first chapter!