Sunday, November 30, 2014

First 5 Pages December Workshop - Ungleich

Name: Amanda Ungleich
Genre: YA Fantasy
Title: Unwritten

“Elsi, wake up.”  

Warm hands grip my shoulders and startle me from sleep. Nadu stands over me, her grey hair barely visible in the dark room. I rise up on my elbows and glance out the window. Darkness presses through the glass. There’s no telling how late it is.

“The Council needs you,” Nadu says.

Well of course they do. Tossing back the covers, I stand and thrust my legs into the pants Nadu hands me. I throw my nightgown on my bed and pull on my tunic. Nadu doesn’t have to tell me to hurry like she does the others. I glance down the length of the room where all ten of the female heralds room together. The rest are all still sleeping. There are eleven boys in the room across the hall. Twenty other people they could send, but instead this is my third interrupted night of sleep in the past few weeks.

I tiptoe past the other beds and grab my cloak. The braid I sleep in hangs loose and messy over my shoulder. It will have to wait. I follow Nadu to the door of the house.

“I’ll spare you the lecture on how to act.” Nadu flashes a cheeky grin as she hands me the lantern.

The newer heralds have to be reminded of our protocol and how to act when called by the Council. You can hardly blame them. Everything is new when we come here, pulled from our families and lives as soon as our fate is known. I smile at Nadu. “I think I remember.”

I have been here for five years. Not the oldest herald, but I’ve been called to the Council more often than all the others put together. I bend down, kissing Nadu’s cheek. Her skin is old and wrinkled, and has been as long as I’ve known her. What was Nadu like before she was old? I can’t imagine her as anything but weathered. She holds the door open, and I step out into the darkness.

The woods are quiet, and I relish the stillness. Fires dance here and there - some have died down throughout the night, but others have been tended. Spring has finally found us here in Ilan. The air outside is chilly, and I’m thankful I had the sense to grab my cloak. I forgot it the on the last errand I was sent on, which was to Riffhaden in the dead of winter.

I make it to the Council building quickly and walk in without knocking. If the Council summons, it means they do not want to waste time with politeness. Inside, the center of the room glows in candlelight where the Council gathers around their table. The rest of the room lies bathed in darkness. Soft murmurs bounce off the walls. The room has the feelings of secrets.  

“Elsi Aker,” a voice says.

I step forward into the light. “Yes.”   

“A story awaits in Galvanour.”  The voice has a face now. Rynn Lannard. There are twelve on the Council. He is not the oldest, but is usually the voice of the Council. “Can you find your way?”

I’ve never been there. But I can find it. “Yes.”

“Your Seeker has been summoned. She will meet you at the gate.”  

I nod, ever the obedient herald, then turn and leave.


Nadu has given me Marion to take with me. She is young, just thirteen. Nadu wouldn’t let us put our pinky fingers through a portal before she has trained us for a solid year. Marion is capable, of course. It is a brutal, but thorough training that we heralds receive. We are ready for everything. Nadu sees to that. But heralds always start by going with someone more experienced. And as I’ve passed through about as many portals as I have actual doorways in the past couple of years, Nadu uses me to train the others rather frequently.

Marion is eager, her dark hair pulled back into a messy braid. I move and stand behind her, undoing the braid and doing it again, neater, just as I did my own earlier. Marion fidgets, a bundle of energy. I smile down at her dark head bobbing in front of me. She hasn’t traveled to another world yet, and her excitement practically reverberates off of her skin. I wonder when I lost that excitement, if I ever had it. All I’ve ever felt is anxious, and intent on my task. I finish the braid and drop Marion’s hair right as she nudges me.

“A Seeker,” she says in a hushed voice.

I look up to see our Seeker coming towards us. She is tall - taller than me and I am not short. Her hair is a mass of thick red waves that cascade down her shoulders, and her creamy face is dotted with freckles. On some freckles look goofy, but on her, they are beautiful. She’s so pretty you would want to befriend her just for that reason, but her green eyes are so intense that I think she intimidates most that she comes into contact with. She walks with an air and confidence that some would say is cocky. If she is cocky, it is deserved. Seekers have a gift, the rarest and most coveted. They find stories.

She stops in front of us. “Are you the herald?”   

“I am Elsi,” I say, dismissing the title. “This is Marion.”  

“I am Aya,” she says.

As if she needs an introduction. I’ve never been on a mission with Aya, but I’ve heard of her. Everyone in Ilan has. As a Seeker, her gifting is practically considered sacred, and she’s good at what she does. But the magic that flows through my veins is the same as hers. It just shows up differently. “Blood is blood,” my father would say. We all live and die the same.

Aya peers down her nose at us both with a look of not quite disdain. A necessary appreciation maybe? Seekers can’t go into other worlds without a herald. It is we heralds who know how to get through portals into other worlds. We rely on our knowledge and senses to find the portals, then use the magic we are taught to harness, and push our way through. Though we are not as desired or respected as Seekers, we are necessary.

“We have a task,” Aya says.

I’m impressed that she says “we” and not “I”. Most Seekers I’ve gone with are snobs. Though rightly so I suppose.

Aya’s green eyes flash at me. “You know our destination?”

I nod. I will know it when I am there.

“Then let’s go,” she says.

She takes the lead, which is ironic, given that I am the herald and am the one who will find our portals. Aya just heads off, assuming that I will find one no matter which direction we travel. I don’t know if she is generous to think this or not.

Regardless of her motives, Aya is not new to this. There are no portals directly in our village, so Aya leads us further into the woods. The path we take barely breaks the continuity of thick trees as it weaves through them, a ribbon of a walkway through the woods of Ilan. Morning sunlight filters down through the branches, making Aya’s hair shimmer like red waves of an ocean. She strides through the woods as if she owns them.


  1. Hi Amanda-

    Your novel has a very intriguing premise. I like the idea of the Seekers needing the Heralds in order travel through portals. This gives Elsi a very important job, yet I can tell she feels secondary to the more important Seekers. Excellent set up for potential conflicts. As a reader, I can’t wait to find out what they see in other worlds and how they blend in.

    The fact that Elsi has been pulled from her family means she will need to stand on her own and fight her own battles. Already I feel sympathy for this character. Her voice comes through well. I can tell she has been well trained for her job and takes it very seriously. I get the feeling she is brave and can be trusted not to bail at the first sign of danger.

    Here are a few thoughts on how to make your beginning stronger:

    I glance down the length of the room where all ten of the female heralds room together. I think that whenever possible it’s best to avoid using a word twice in one sentence- room.

    Is Rynn Lannard going to be an important character in the story or a love interest? If so, I’d like a bit of description and a hint of how Elsi feels about him. Is he arrogant? Kind?

    We are ready for everything. This sentence is telling not showing and the word “everything” is too broad. What, specifically, are they ready for?

    You don’t need to tell us that Marion is eager. Fidgeting and a bundle of energy show that. Think about a way you could show that Elsi is anxious. Maybe her hands shake as she braids Marion’s hair.

    The word “Goofy” struck me as out-of-place. Slang from our world.

    I think she intimidates . . . You can skip “I think” because this is first person so everything is Elsi thinking.

    Morning sunlight filters down through the branches, making Aya’s hair shimmer like red waves of an ocean. This is a bit jarring as ocean waves are blue.

    She strides through the woods as if she owns them. Cliché. What about her movement gives Elsi this impression?

  2. Hi Amanda!

    This is a really great world you're building! Awesome premise and some great possibilities for character and tension already. Good job!

    However, (you knew that was coming) I am concerned that you're starting off too fast. I know that goes against a lot of the advice you've probably heard, but starting too quickly ESPECIALLY in a high fantasy, can be just as distracting as starting off with pages and pages of exposition.

    In fantasy, you're trying to establish a totally new world, with new rules and new social structures and new environments. You're doing a great job of seeding these things into the action, (which is a vital skill, so go you!) but there's still a lot going on here. In the space of the first five pages, we've met four named people, plus the Council, and had a whole bunch of world information thrown at us without a lot of context. This makes it hard for the reader to really make a connection with the main character, not to mention absorbing all the information.

    Honestly, this is something I struggled with a lot in my own fantasy writing. This kind of immediate pacing could work great in something like an urban fantasy or a contemporary mystery story. But the reason it works there is because we already know the world the story is set in. We know how the physics work and how people get around and relate and organize themselves, so when exceptions come up (like vampires or something) they stick out. In a high fantasy like this, you can't rely on the reader's experience to fill in those gaps right away. You need to ground them quickly so they're willing to follow you through the story, learning about the world as they go.

    Some things I'd suggest.

    1. Slow down. (somewhere, my editor is laughing at me, because this is her number one piece of feedback on my books.) Draw out the action. Perhaps Elsi has a run in with the Seeker on her way to the Council. Perhaps she has to go do something to prepare before she accepts the assignment, or she stops to warm herself at a fire and clear her head before going in. It's good--very good--to immediately have some kind of tension or conflict at the start of your story, but it can be a smaller one: a personal conflict, or a minor problem that has to be solved. This conflict can then feed into the larger one, or provide an indication of things to come, but whatever you use it for, the idea is to ease us into this amazing world a little, so we can get our bearings.

    2. Concrete, sensory details: I have no idea what this world looks like, other than vaguely medievalish maybe? There are woods and fires for some reason and it's coldish and almost spring. That's not enough to grab a reader. What kind of woods? What kind of buildings? Why the fires? (this is a great place to drop in something more about the world without derailing the action) We need a bit more sensory stuff too, I think. Touch and smell especially are powerful things that can really put your reader inside your character's head. Also how does she feel inside her body? Think about how it feels when someone wakes you in the middle of the night. Is she awake instantly, adrenaline pumping through her, or is she sleepy, with sticky eyelids and fumbling fingers?

    I know this feedback is kind of long, but I hope it made sense. Basically, slow down and get specific. There's a lot of really great stuff here, and I'm excited to see what you can do with it.

    Good luck!

  3. Fantasy is my favorite genre and I'm so intrigued with your story! Seekers, heralds, a council - all a mystery I can't wait to read more about. I think I agree with slowing down - I want more about Elsi and her thoughts.

    "A story awaits" - I just have to know what this means! I don't think you have to explain it in these first pages, but soon. It was such a surprise. I'd expected many things for the council to call on her for, but not a search for a story.

    Your writing is beautiful and polished. Great job!

    And BTW - I love Marion. Already she has oodles of personality.

  4. I'm going to ditto everything already commented. This is bordering on wonderful. With High Fantasy you've really tossed the reader into the deep end, so it's not so much you need to stop the action as pause long enough for the reader to get their bearings. You want us to float, not drown. Of course, with that said, you can't info dump or anything. There's always a fine line that you need to find for each book.

    The only note I wrote down while reading this was the cliched beginning: being woken up. Also starting with a line of dialogue...someone sleeping isn't necessarily fully aware of what the person waking them is doing and saying. This ties in well with the comment about slowing down and starting elsewhere before moving into the Council call.

    There were a couple of lines without contractions that might be able to be contracted, but you'd have to read each line out loud and figure out if using a contraction there is the voice you're looking for.

    For instance: “I am Elsi,” I say, dismissing the title. “This is Marion.”

    “I am Aya,” she says.

    They are speaking REALLY formally here. Is that what you're going for? Do you want the repetition? Repeating words (as already mentioned in a comment) is one of fiction writing's biggest no-nos...with that said, of course, those rules can be broken. In my recent novel I break pretty much all the rules of fiction writing, replacing them mostly with some of the rules of writing poetry. So I ended up with run-on sentences with multiple words repeated multiple times followed by sentence fragments, for instance. As I said, rules are meant to be broken but you need to be breaking them for a purpose.

    Otherwise, I love this, great characterization in Elsi and others. Great story potential. Just show the reader more of this world so we can fall in love with it as much as you love it.

  5. I love YA fantasy too and this one looks like a good read. I agree to slow it down a bit, build the world for us before we're thrust into it. Starting with dialogue isn't good because we, as readers, have no idea who these people are and haven't a chance to care about them yet. I like the formal language and see why you use it for a fantasy, I do the same with mine. Change the beginning, slow it down and you've got it!

  6. Hello Amanda –

    You already have a treasure trove of suggestions with which I agree – agree – agree. I am dying to dive deeper into your world and see where this story is going. Love your character names.

    I echo Peter’s concern about the cliché opening “wake up.” You have a sense of urgency in the beginning. Maybe you can play with that as a “grabber.”

    I sense the richness of your world from these pages. You have some gorgeous visuals. I’d like to experience your world more than being “told” about it. How does the world viscerally and emotionally affect your character? Take me there through her sensibilities. Loved: “the room has the feeling of secrets.” I wanted to get inside your MC’s head at that moment. What is her connection with secrets? You can have a blast filling in the details and intricacies of the yummy world you’ve set up.

    I love the moment when she stepped from inside to the outdoors. Nice sensory contrast.

    I’d like to see you lock on to a clear voice. There is formal language mixed with a more casual tone that took me out of the moment here and there, i.e. pinky fingers, goofy. You’ve opened yourself up for the possibility of elegance in your prose, especially with your use of figurative language. You mention braids several times, are they metaphoric for something in the world?

    I was a wee bit confused toward the end in regards to the “destination” and “I will know it when I am there.” I’m not sure what the stakes/purpose of the journey are or the urgency of the task.

    I can’t wait to see your next draft. I am invested! Well done.

  7. I love the ideas above about slowing down and letting us see more of the world. I also definitely agree that opening with both dialogue and waking up is disorienting. We're having to catch up a bit, which is hard to do when we're already trying to get a sense of where we are.

    Your MC is sounding a lot like Katniss, by the way - the waking up, the toughness, the braid, and caring for the younger girl.

    The word "goofy" also struck me. Maybe "silly" would be better?

    A few typos:
    The room has the feeling[] of secrets.
    Aya leads us [farther] into the woods.

    In all, though, I really enjoyed this. Best of luck!

  8. Thanks so much everyone for all the wonderful feedback! I see what you all mean about starting off too fast and not pausing long enough for readers to get their bearings. I never would have seen that on my own, so thanks for pointing that out.

    The formal language and lack of contractions are there on purpose, but I see how the more informal speech can be a little jarring in contrast to that. Will see what I can do about that.

    Ah, sensory details is a weakness of mine! I think I get in such a rush to get to the story that I miss my chances to show things. I'll dig into my brain and see if I can make Ilan come to life a little more here.

    And the opening....I know it's so cliche to start with someone waking up. I went back and forth with other openings, but Elsi being wakened in the middle of the night is central to her role and a key piece to the story that follows, so I kept this one. Hmmm...I'm not sure where to start as I feel that starting after her being wakened is starting too late but showing her before night is unnecessary. You guys have definitely given me a lot to think about!

    1. I think it's more of a cliche to start with waking up in the morning, having your character eat breakfast, pick out an outfit . . . But I also think there can be a sense of urgency plus disorientation and even anger when one is woken in the dead of night. Bring in more emotion and it is a fine place to start. Good luck. Can wait to see what you do with this.

  9. Fantasy is incredible if done right. You're doing it right. I love the heralds and Seekers and the Council already.

    -It's mentioned above, but the word 'goofy' is out of place.
    -Definitely slow down. I have that problem in my own writing, but it's so necessary. While I'm intrigued, I'm confused and that's the last thing I want to be. Don't get bogged down in details, but throw in some stuff, maybe brief histories or tidbits of info that advance the story and clue the reader in.
    -I'm not really sure why, but in your beginning, after Elsi is woken up and says, 'Well of course they do", I feel like the 'well' should be taken out. It distracted me just enough and is bugging me. It takes away some flow and some agitation. Instead, I get a resigned feeling.

    I'm really excited for the end product!

    1. I completely forgot my big point. Seekers and Council are capitalized. Why isn't 'herald'? Is there a purpose to that, because to me it seems like the other two are jobs/occupations/positions of sorts, but so is a herald. Unless there is a reason not to be, I think it should also be capitalized.