Sunday, November 30, 2014

First 5 Pages December Workshop - Manning

Name: Katharine Manning
Genre: Middle grade contemporary fantasy

Chapter 1

It began with the fireflies, as magic often does. Jenny was in the field behind her grandparents’ house with her younger brother, chasing fireflies. She spied a good one, low-flying and lackadaisical, and followed it past the shed and into the darkening woods.

“Jen-ny!” Billy’s voice echoed through the trees. Jenny laughed, but left him behind. She left them all behind – her grumpy grandparents and their stuffy old house, her parents a million miles away in Evanston. Her eyes were on that flashing yellow light and her ponytail sailed behind her like a flaming banner. It was Maine in early July and the day had been humid and heavy. It felt so good to run in the cool night air, the ground soft under her feet.

The light flashed to her left. She lifted her jar and leapt toward it, but missed. She was past the tree line now, scanning the forest. She pursed her lips, her special blue jar clasped tight in both hands. Had she lost it? She took a few more steps. It flared beyond a low bush a few feet away. She grinned and crept closer. She was so close, she almost had it.

With a sharp inhale, Jenny launched herself over the bush. She came down with a yelp and a thud, missing the firefly and tearing her skirt. Darn. It was her favorite skirt, long and soft, purple with silver thread running through it. Her mom said it was too ratty and needed to be thrown out, but Jenny didn’t mind that it was a little threadbare. Well, maybe Gran would stitch it up for her.

Jenny brushed herself off and got to her feet, tucking the jar in her skirt pocket. She was farther into the woods than she’d thought. She’d have to get back or she’d be in trouble. Gran told her and Billy the woods were off-limits the day they’d arrived.

It sure was pretty in there, though. The sun was going down and it made the green leaves look almost yellow. They waved like butterflies in the light evening breeze. Jenny inhaled the forest smell, pine needles and honeysuckle, and tried to hold it inside. Maybe she could stay for a minute longer.

The woods here were different from the ones back home. They seemed older somehow. The trees were gray and knotted. As she walked, the light seemed to turn gray, too, as the leaves got thicker overhead. Purple star flowers nestled in the roots of a tree that split in two and grew over itself like crossed fingers. Jenny bent to get a better look, but heard a rustling in the bramble to her right. She looked over, expecting a squirrel, maybe, or a chipmunk. To her shock, there was a person, where no one had been before. She was small, maybe the size of a kindergartener. A firefly flashed near her face, though, and it was that of an old woman, deeply lined and craggy. She had messy gray hair that fell in thick ropes past her shoulders and clothes that blended with the branches and leaves around her.

Jenny goggled at her, mouth open. The woman spoke in a low and croaky voice. “Ah, ye came. Knew you would, knew you would. Best go now, can’t wait.”

Jenny straightened, looking down on the little woman. Jenny wasn’t tall – she was the second shortest in her sixth grade class – but this woman was really short. Some people were like that, she knew. There were illnesses that could make people small. Maybe she was even a child. Wasn’t there some disease that made kids look old? She thought her mom had seen someone like that at the hospital once.

Jenny fingered her horseshoe necklace as she thought, and bit her lip. “Who are you?”

“Name’s Magda,” she said. “I’m a Keeper. Elf, you call it. Must come now, ‘e’s hurt.”

An elf, did she say? Jenny thought small people were called dwarves, but maybe she had that wrong. And someone was hurt? She should probably get Gran. Jenny glanced back at the house – the boring old house where nothing ever happened and no one did anything.

“He needs you, no time to wait,” the woman said, and her dark eyes shone with determination.

Jenny dropped her necklace. She’d go. Just to see, just for a minute. Someone needed her help. She wouldn’t go far, and then she’d come right back. Billy wouldn’t even miss her. She gave her necklace a quick kiss for luck and ran after.

She was fast, this small one. She glided over tree trunks and through bushes. Jenny stumbled along, trying to keep up. Branches caught her face and she felt a sharp sting on her cheek. She didn’t pause, though, or even slow down. She couldn’t, Magda urged her on so insistently. “Come, now! Almost there, almost there.”

“Where are we going?” Jenny called out to her, panting.

“Going to Kharoun,” she answered. “Old nag. Never stays where he’s supposed to. Got ‘imself caught.”

“Who?” Jenny’s voice came out higher than usual.

“You’ll see, you’ll see. Move along. Got sap in your legs, eh?” She made a sound like a car engine sputtering that Jenny realized after a moment must be laughter.

It was getting dark, the outlines of the leaves harder to see. Jenny slowed. She was going too far. Billy must have noticed she was gone by now, and maybe he’d even told Gran and Grandpa. She was going to be in such trouble. Jenny’s stomach hurt at the thought of it. She had to go back. This little woman and whatever help she needed – well, she’d have to figure it out on her own.

Jenny turned. The forest, though, was indecipherable. They weren’t on a trail, and all Jenny could see were trees and more trees. She didn’t even have a flashlight. What was she thinking following a stranger into the woods?

She turned back toward Magda. It took a second to find her picking her way through a honeysuckle bush, and then Jenny’s attention was drawn beyond Magda. There was a light shining. A clearing, maybe. The moon must be up. Was that it? Were they there? Jenny stepped warily closer.

She neared the edge of the clearing. There was light from the moon above, but also, strangely, from the ground. There seemed to be something on the ground. Magda halted by a fallen tree, but Jenny kept moving, curious, toward the light. As she passed the tree, she saw it clearly - a horse. A beautiful white horse was lying on its side with its back to her. It was radiant in the moonlight. Just as Jenny was forming the thought - how pretty, a horse - the creature lifted its head to look back at her. And Jenny saw, in that moment, that it was not a horse. A long, spiraled horn rose tall and majestic from its shining white mane, and Jenny saw, for the first time in her life, a unicorn.

With a sharp intake of breath, Jenny stumbled. Her vision went momentarily dark as her brain struggled to make sense of what she was seeing. She grabbed the fallen tree to steady herself, grateful for its solidity, the rough and familiar feel of it.

Magda scampered onto the trunk to Jenny’s right. “That’s him, Kharoun,” she said. She tugged Jenny’s hand, then hopped down and scurried to the unicorn.


  1. Hi Katharine! Loved that opening line - it immediately drew me in! Here's what stood out to me.

    I was unsure of your MC's age until she said she was in the sixth grade. Even then, I wasn't so sure. Sixth grade would put her at 11 or 12. This read slightly younger to me. She had some good thoughts that put her older (like when she sees Magda and thinks she must be a dwarf or have a medical condition) but then she never questioned or scoffed when Magda called herself an Elf, which seemed odd to me that someone as old as 11 or 12 wouldn't think "ok, now here's someone who's off their rocker" :)

    I never got a good sense of Jenny and her voice. A lot of this, to me, read more like rote descriptions and generic thoughts. Easily fixed by fleshing out more of who Jenny is. Example, when she's thinking that she needs to get back of "she'd be in trouble"-- you can flesh that out more. IE when she thinks she should get Gran if someone is hurt, does she snarkily think "Yeah right. Gran wouldn't help anyone" or is it more "Gran never did anything. Jenny could barely count on her to take care of her and Billy, more less a stranger." or whatever thought Jenny would have. We see her actions and reactions here, but not a ton of the emotions or thoughts inside of her. I think if you weaved those in, your reader would attach to her and be invested in your story.

    Good luck!

  2. I love the fireflies and how they lure Jenny away from safety. The elf is fun and a hurt unicorn - heck yeah! You've got a good start. I would suggest working on Jenny's "voice". Sometimes she acts younger than sixth grade and sometimes more adult. When you describe things, really think about what a girl her age would notice. Also this feels omniscient and I think the story would be better told from a closer POV. It feels like a narrator telling the story as opposed to being in Jenny's POV. Little things like - instead of saying "her mom said" use - "Mom said". And give us Jenny's inner thoughts like we're in her head. She has to be freaking out a little to be following an Elf! It's a cute idea that I think will appeal to middle grade readers. Bringing it in to Jenny's POV will make it come alive. Good luck with revisions!

  3. I agree that the voice sounds too young at times. I like the elf idea too but MG is hard to capture voice and the best way to do that is to read a ton of MG. I also agree it needs to be in Jenny's POV. Good luck!

  4. There are some really strong elements here, which is vital in MG Fantasy: the setting and the unicorn and the elf and the fireflies. All of that is wonderful. But without a powerhouse voice a story like this will get lost in the mass of MG. Jenny needs to be vibrant and irresistible to keep the MG reader's interest. Usually that's done via humor, which is why I could never write MG. You need to 100% be in Jenny's POV for all of this. Every detail needs to be seen through her eyes. Her reactions. Her thoughts. Everything.

    As this is purely a characterization problem, my immediate solution would be to rewrite the entire novel using First Person. (That's not as monumental task as it seems, trust me. I've had to do this, including on the manuscript I'm working on now where I rewrote every scene with one particular character into First Person and then back to Third to make the character richer and deeper. Handy tip: 1st: change all the pronouns etc, which is easy. All the 'her' 'she' etc to 'I' or 'me' or whatever works. 2nd: read it over, cleaning up all the pronouns so that it's all in Third Person. 3rd: read it over again, this time adding those thoughts and emotions and everything that First Person POV allows you to do. 4th: reverse step 1. 5th: read it over again, cleaning it up and removing a lot of what you added in step 3, sad but true, which should leave you with a much richer understanding of your character which will shine through your manuscript. You can also do this with just a chapter or two, enough to give you a grasp of your character.)

    You might decide the novel works better in First Person. Might not. But no matter what you'll end up with a character strong enough to carry the wonderful premise and writing you've displayed here. Good luck!!!

  5. This seems like a really interesting premise! Magda immediately caught my attention, and I want to know what happens next. I also really enjoy your descriptions, the setting is described beautifully and I can picture it clearly in my mind.

    As others have suggested, as you revise, I would focus on voice. If Jenny is in 6th grade – so around 11ish – the voice seems much older to me, such as here:

    She grabbed the fallen tree to steady herself, grateful for its solidity, the rough and familiar feel of it.

    That sounds more like a 16 or 17 year old, or even an adult. Although the story subject matter is firmly middle grade, the voice doesn’t match it. Also, at the beginning the voice is close third person, but it shifts at times to a narrator’s point of view, so keep an eye out for that. Try reading the pages out loud, and you will pick up the issues. I’d also recommend reading some middle grade fantasies and paying close attention to voice. Personally, I think middle grade voice – especially younger middle grade – is very hard to nail.

    Good luck revising – I’m looking forward to reading next week!

  6. Hi! I love fantasy and especially unicorns, so YAY! I like the idea of chasing the fireflies, like willow the wisps too. But I'm going to jump on the bandwagon and say you need to nail Jenny. I have a sixth grade girl and I was taken aback when her age was mentioned. It did read younger to me. Here's my advice on how to do that though:
    1. I want you to do an exercise and write a page or two in first person. Really get into character and BE Jenny. Say everything from her perspective. Don't worry about the other aspects of the writing, just write whatever's in her head.
    2. Interview Jenny. Ask her about her brother. School. Hobbies. Favorite memory. Etc. You don't have to use the info in the manuscript, but it's good to understand where she's coming from.
    3. When you do go back to revise, even sticking to third person, try to stay "close" to the Jenny you've gotten to know. Don't say anything about the setting or story that Jenny wouldn't think herself. Even if you love the line. Even the first one about the fireflies and magic, which is awesome. See what happens.

    Hope that helps!

  7. Katharine-

    I love your first sentence. First of all it grounds the reader in the genre and secondly, it makes me wonder “What began with fireflies?”. Middle Grade kids certainly love fantasy and anything to do with magic.

    A few thoughts:

    Although I’m sure you could find a Jenny and a Billy in 6th grade today, the names make me think of kids born in the 1960’s to early 70’s. Maybe because I am a Jenny and there are so many of us in our 40’s! That’s fine if your story is set in the late 70’s or early 80’s but otherwise you might want to go with some more updated names.

    “her ponytail sailed behind her like a flaming banner” Be careful of statement like this because Jenny is the POV character and can’t see her own ponytail. It distances the reader from Jenny’s experience.

    “It was Maine . . . It felt so good . . .” Try to vary the way you begin sentences and use strong verbs, avoiding “was” whenever possible – though obviously it’s not always possible.

    Could “Jenny didn’t mind that it was a little threadbare” become “Jenny didn’t mind a few loose threads”? “That” is another word you should take out whenever possible.

    You also start a lot of sentences with “She”. Try something like: “Grinning, she crept closer.”

    Nice line: “They waved like butterflies in the light evening breeze”.

    You might rework the part about medical conditions. An adult might think that way but I doubt a sixth grader would. The size of a kindergartener is a good reference point. Maybe she’s “the size of a kindergartener with the face of an old lady”.

    “They seemed older somehow”. When writing exposition, tell us how things ARE, not how they SEEM. (Except in dialogue because people say “seem” all the time.)

    Even in 3rd person you don’t need to say “Jenny thought” because the whole scene is in her POV. It slows down the action. “Jenny thought small people were called dwarves, but maybe she had that wrong” could turn into “Small people were called dwarves, right? Not elves.”

    “Jenny glanced back at the house – the boring old house where nothing ever happened and no one did anything” – great- she’s torn, but choosing adventure!

    Looking forward to your revisions. This is lots of fun.

  8. I really like this starter! It's cute and interesting!

    -As aforementioned, sometimes Jenny seems too young. She doesn't seem to think the way an eleven-year-old would.
    -If I saw a wrinkled old lady in my bush, I'd have a heart attack. But Jenny just accepts it. I think there needs to be an 'AHHH' moment.
    -This woman tells Jenny she's an Elf, and Jenny just goes with it. She s old enough to go, hmm, this is nuts. But she doesn't. She needs more of a reaction.
    -Jenny decides to leave her home, her family too quickly. Especially since she's now with an old woman she just met. She just decides to go. I think that's a bit unrealistic, even at her age. I know that "Stranger Danger" is ingrained into children, as well, so I'd like to see more of an internal conflict, or even external.

    Very good start; I can't wait to see the end product!