Sunday, January 4, 2015

First 5 Pages January Workshop - Cortazar

Name: Shannon Cortazar
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: Silhouette

Tiny bells. I hear them echo through the cold still air. It’s a sparrow returning to us, a warning that death’s reach is imminent. I know it’s only a matter of time before the Throne comes. They’ll breach our border to find the remaining survivors of their onslaught. My skin prickles at the thought. Its young girls they seek.

It makes me wish I was already too old or too dead to matter.

I tuck my hair inside my mother’s long wool coat and kick the frozen ground with my boots. The hooded coat keeps the chill away, but my insides are trembling. Shoving my hands inside the rough fabric pocket, I make my way toward the salt wall.

The wall surrounds the perimeter of our village, known as the Fray. The courtyard serves as our marketplace and our small shacks are built against an old salt mine we found. The mountain behind us and the wall in front are our only protection from the Throne’s legion. Winter has arrived early here, which means the impending snowfall will hinder our resources, making us vulnerable. I imagine the Throne will find us soon and mark those they capture. Their mark allows mortals to go on living, though I wouldn’t call it that. What happens to the marked ones is something unnatural, something other than living.

The captured will either accept a mark of allegiance, or be left to starve, some will be slaughtered, others, like me, will be taken. No doubt some will try to escape, but they won’t make it too far.

I think our new ruling power believes we’ll come begging for salvation. But I’ve never been a begging kind of girl. They will have to try and take me, I dare them.

I watch a shadow of a raven gliding above me, hidden behind the ever present fog. It’s itching to find prey outside our barrier. The ground around me is littered with their ink stained feathers, our only triumph against the the Throne. My eyes follow the trail of plumage across the pocked earth and I hear a break in the air above me.


An arrow hits the foul creature and it falls at my feet.

“Another one down.” I say to myself. “Thousands to go.”

They’re the watchers for the Throne. They seek out anyone whose will has reached its limit. Nothing is right since the day they arrived. They possess a power that controls everything in their grasp, even the animals.

I turn and see an archer high in the watchtower, lowering his bow, seeing him brings out my smile. The grin on his face is enough to lighten my mood. Finn, my friend since we all settled here, it’s his watch and the reason I stand so close to the edge of safety. It’s my sixteenth birthday and he left a note on my door to meet him in the village circle. I already know what it’s about, he’s giving me a trinket, the only hope I have comes once a year, Finns gift. It’s not the gift so much as how he acquires it, he travels past the salt wall, and that in itself is enough to pique my curiosity.

“How many is that today O’Leary?” I yell up to the tower.

“I’ve lost count.” He says in his scratchy voice. “Another year Noelle Frost, long may you run!”

I shake my head. He’s been saying that ever since the day we met. We were five or six when I snagged a rabbit with a slingshot I found hidden in a fallen tree, it was Finn’s, and he chased me when it was discovered that I was the culprit who took it. He didn’t catch me, I used to run, fast. The next day he found the sling on his doorstep, I had returned it later that night. My mother was overjoyed about the rabbit, that I had taken the slingshot, not so much. Ever since then, he’s been a good friend, a rare gift nowadays.

“I’ll be down soon, you should eat.” He says gesturing toward the line for rations. “Before there’s nothing left.”

Food and water are scarce, controlled by the powers that be. Without a mark from the Throne, there is no purchasing of goods, no water, no anything. It’s the wild and ingenuity that keeps us alive. Most of the fruit bushes and springs have depleted over the years. Water is scarce, but can be found after a hard rain. Food is a different story, most game has been killed off and we’re running out of options.

“See you in a while.” I say, making my way back toward the line for food.

I can go days without eating. I’ve given up on trying to sate the growl in my stomach. The little portion doled out to us doesn’t curb anyone’s hunger. My mother took sick a while back and she needs it more than I do. The smell of the days’ broth hints there will be some flavor, Raven.

The bells I hear near the small armory we have remind me that the sparrow would have brought us a message, if any was to be sent. So I make my way to the weapons area and see Cornelius Thatch, our resident jack of all trades.

“Is there any news?” I ask.

“Sorry Noelle, nothing. The last few times I've sent the sparrow out, hes returned as he left. No messages since the last one a few months back. But we’ll keep trying.” he adds.

At first, when everyone scattered to escape the Throne, a network of communication was set up. People would send out sparrows, like a mail system. Sharing news and warnings. That was the only way we knew about the girls being taken and the mark the Throne branded on the living. Since then, the messages have dwindled to nothing. My fear is that there’s no one left to warn us, that they’ve all been taken. It looks like we’re the last, which means they’ll be coming.

We’re cursed, I believe it in my bones. The last recorded birth was years ago, I was seven then, the miracle of life ended after the Throne arrived. There’s little hope that we will be able to fight them off, from what we know, the legion they send to find humans is---unnatural. So we do the only thing we can, we leave. Already some have started to pack up enough to carry and move out, but there’s only so far we can go, they rule everything, everywhere. We’re trapped, being herded-- like sheep to the slaughter.

The line for food spans around the courtyard in town, by my count there’s about a hundred of us here. Since last year I notice there’s less people to feed. Winter last year was long, and some gave in to the Throne. Those that had are now living far from here in the keep. Able to purchase any goods they might need, within limits. They were our neighbors, friends to some, now they’re the enemy, and wouldn’t hesitate to hand over anyone they had once shared bread with. Once you’re marked, you’re different, tainted.

“You’re daydreaming again.” Finn whispers over my shoulder. “Anyone special?” his eyes are a tell tale sign that he hasn’t slept in a few days, always watching out for us.

“Yeah-- Alexandra Crow.” I say. She’s the woman at the Throne’s helm. “I’m plotting her death.” 


  1. Hi! I always love a good YA fantasy! :D You've done a good job establishing the world and I love your names, they're different enough, but not so difficult that I trip all over myself trying to decipher them.
    I feel the hopelessness of the situation, which is good. I think maybe a little better taste of what's right in her world (like Finn) or the contrast of the time before the Throne would help give that distinction more prominence. It doesn't have to be a lot to work.
    I think you could go farther with some of the description. Not saying overdo it, but give us more smells and sense of touch, since you have some wonderful weather to work with. What's the market and ration line look like. What about the people in it. Do they appear despondent? In what way? Is there even a hint or legend that provides any hope?
    The opening line confused me slightly. How does the sparrow's arrival warn of death's arrival? I get that it's like a homing pigeon, as explained later, but doesn't she want to hear from others? Doesn't she have even the slightest hope of good news? Maybe not!
    I'm looking forward to your revision.

  2. Hi Shannon, I enjoyed these first few pages of your Dystopian novel. You've done a good job of "building the world" of your novel and of introducing the two characters of Noelle and Finn, although I would like to have a bit more physical description of the two, so I can really "see" them. Overall, I feel there is way too much telling in these pages and not enough action. From the very beginning, have Noelle jump into the story with action, let us see right away what kind of personality she has and what her inner and outer conflicts are. As it stands now, Noelle, seems to be quite a passive character that is simply relaying information to the reader. I actually think you should begin the story with the word "Thwack!" and a strong scene in which Noelle watches Finn shoot the bird and then they have their discussion about lack of food etc. and getting into the food line. Through their discussion, you can show the reader how they feel about each other. Then while she is standing in line, have Noelle describe her village clearly through her eyes. Something should happen, perhaps to one of the other villagers, while Noelle is in line which will force Noelle to react. This way we get a good glimpse of her character, personality, etc... Set up conflicts early on. But this is a good beginning, just needs a bit of tweaking. Virginia

  3. Your stakes are very strong right from the start. They are coming for the survivors, and it's young girls they seek. This certainly puts us squarely on your MC's side, and against the Throne. I liked her character.

    Hunger Games popped into my head a couple times as I was reading this. In addition to a strong female character in a dystopian world, I think naming the village "The Fray" and the phrase "Long may you run" just have a similar feel to The Seam and "may the odds be ever in your favor" that doesn't help you set yourself apart.

    Other than that, I only have nitpiks. I didn't entirely understand the Tiny bells. Are they tied onto the sparrows to signal their return? Later, who are the powers that distribute food? It's not the Throne since the Throne hasn't found them yet. With only 100 people in the village it seems like the powers could be a name or "the elders" or something more specifiic.

    Even pickier don't need remaining with survivors. Its should be it's. And in the paragraph "They're watchers for the throne." The following "they"'s are confusing. It initially is the ravens, but it sounds like it changes to the Throne in the middle.

    I like your ending quote. It shows a lot about your character.

    Looking forward to reading again next week. I hope these help.


  4. Hi Shannon,

    I really enjoyed this. In particular, I thought the last sentence of your first paragraph did a great job of drawing in the reader, making clear the stakes, and putting us squarely behind Noelle. That's not an easy thing to do!

    I also like your one-line second paragraph, although as I read on, I started to feel that it didn't ring true, and wondered if she was lying to herself, or to the reader. Because I think she's a fighter with big plans (last line of the submission, for example) -- not someone who really wishes she was "too old or too dead to matter." Maybe:

    "It almost makes me wish I was too old or too dead to matter. Almost." ??

    I also think Virginia has a good idea in starting with the action of shooting the raven and working the rest of this in.

    I like your details -- the rough pockets, the hooded coat, the salt wall. I found myself wondering how long they'd been in that location.

    Paragraph 4 -- Last line: you already told us it was something other than living, so maybe change to something like:

    "What happens to the marked ones is something else entirely. Something unnatural." ??

    I'm having hard time understanding what happens to the captured. Why wouldn't everyone be marked, even those taken, and even those left to starve?

    The bird references interest me. I'd like to know more about what you mean when you say that "they possess a power that controls everything in their grasp, even the animals." Do you mean the Throne (controlling the ravens)? Or the ravens? (I initially read it that way, and if so, would like examples.)

    I like Finn a lot from what we are told of him. I'd like a stronger introduction to him, and the gift, and how he travels to get it. This is a great detail and makes him such an interesting character!

    I agree with Rebecca about maybe "village elders" (or something) instead of "powers that be"? The rest is picky, but maybe add "our own" in front of ingenuity? And maybe a period between "story" and "Most game"?

    I thought the paragraph about going days without eating was very good, and I loved the paragraphs on the sparrow communication system and the last recorded birth. These details were all fascinating! It may be a little tell-y, but I was so interested by then that it didn't stop me.

    Finally, I love the part about Finn not sleeping, watching out for them (capitalize the "H" in "His eyes"), and I thought your last line was a great place to break - great insight into your character there, and a nice contrast to Finn's question.

    Great concept and likable characters -- I'd definitely read on!

  5. Ooo, this is very cool! I like your set up.

    I do think there's quite a bit of info dumped in the first few pages. You've got some woven nicely into the action, like Finn's backstory and the food line, but some of it's just sort of there. My advice for the first round would be to slow down. We need a good sense of your main character and her surroundings before all the backstory comes in. Then see how you can weave more of this info into the action, or into dialogue with others. Some of it might have to wait until later and that's okay. One of the wonderful things about fantasy/speculative fiction readers is that they're willing to follow the author even when things are mentioned that they don't quite have all the pieces for. So you can mention tiny bells and sparrows and people packing without having to stop and expalin everything right up front.

    Hope this makes sense! I really like your story.

  6. You are a lovely writer and these 5 pages have lots of intriguing set-up for this new world and nicely written lines. I can tell that you’ve created a lush, and dangerous world, but many of the specifics get lost and I was confused You don’t want the reader to feel confused about this world, or too hazy about its rules and past history.

    1. “death’s reach” – how about just “death”. Makes it feel more specific and dangerous.
    2. What do the sparrows do exactly and why do they wear bells?
    3. What is the Throne? Is this a country, a person, a place, an army?
    4. “breach our border” – hasn’t this enemy already breached the border if they’ve killed almost everyone already? If they seek young girls is that mostly who remains alive? And why do they seek young girls? Knowing a little more about this, or the rumors/gossip that your MC has heard/seen would really ratchet up the tension. How old is she? (We learn this on the 2-3rd page, but I think it can come earlier).
    5. I'm thinking your 3rd paragraph might be a better place to begin, right inside your MC’s head. Then go on to her looking up at the sky and seeing/hearing the bells and birds, which twists her gut and makes her hurry—if the enemy is on its way. But we’re not sure . . . Why is she trembling? Can you give us a little more about how Noelle is feeling?
    6. Why is the wall made of salt? Can you describe it just a tiny bit more? I’m having a hard time picturing it.
    7. You mention people being “marked”. What does that mean? A physical mark? Where is it on their bodies? It’s mentioned that marked people have unnatural things happen to them. Give us a little more here so we’re grounded in what this is. It’s much too vague, and doesn’t make me worry like it should.
    8. The ravens: are these trained by the village people to attack the enemy? How do they kill the enemy? And if the enemy is so strong why didn’t they kill everyone they didn’t need and capture the rest of the young girls already?? But then Finn takes down a raven and stands in a watchtower with that express job. So what do the ravens do against the village people?
    9. What is the Throne’s (ravens?) power and how did they get it? You don’t need to explain everything right away, but give the reader hints. This section was confusing.
    10. How do they have rations? How can your MC go several days without eating or drinking?? She’d be famished, weak, losing hope, grouchy, not joking and grinning with Finn. People would be dying of starvation. If they’re taking down so many ravens that Finn has lost count, wouldn’t there be more meat to eat?
    11. It’s mentioned that it’s been a year since the original attack by the Throne. I would think the Throne, if they’re so powerful, would have already demolished the village and taken who they wanted to. Does it need to be a year?
    12. How do Finn’s eyes look when he hasn’t slept in days?
    13. Great last line for these pages. How does Noelle know the ruler's name?

    Finally, you have a tendency to use commas instead of periods. 2 sentences joined together by a comma. They’re easy to fix and rewrite. If you’re unclear about this let me know and I can point out specifics or rewrite a paragraph.

    I agree with Miriam about too much happening too quickly. Start with the most important things first and develop each scene more fully with dialogue and action and then keep working in the rest over the next chapter or two ( explaining this world more fully as I've mentioned above). Every sentence can be filled with little pieces of tension and danger and foreboding.

    Looking forward to your rewrite!

  7. Hi Shannon!

    Sorry if there are repetitive comments. I haven't read the others so I play a proper reader :-)

    For the first paragraph, the thing that stuck out to me was the usage of "Throne." It's such a strong, singular noun that I was confused about the "they'll" immediately after. I'm assuming that "Throne" is the collective name of whatever horde is about to wreck havoc, and that's fine, but you might have some issues in understanding if it's not clearly established as plural.

    Also, have you thought about reversing the paragraph? For some reason, I immediately thought it might have more impact that way.

    "It's the young girls they seek. My skin prickles at the thought, and I know they'll soon breach our border to find any remaining survivors of their onslaught. I know it's only a matter of time before the Throne comes for us again. But there's a warning that death's reach is imminent, a sparrow returning to us. I hear it echo through the cold, still air. Tiny bells."

    The paragraph describing the village reads a little "cold" to me, too dictionary with phrases like, "known as the Fray." Maybe have the narrator walk through and just describe what's going on, as in, "I check to see that the old salt mine still protects small shacks in its shadow, and I pass through the marketplace..."

    I really like the paragraph with the raven. It's evocative and atmospheric with some lovely phrases, but the "thwack" that follows sort of breaks that spell. Maybe that's the intent, but if you segue straight to "an arrow hits the foul creature," it feels more dramatic.

    The next paragraph ("They're the watchers...") confuses me a little. I didn't grasp the "seek out anyone whose will..." on the first read, and the following sentence needs a noun instead of a pronoun. The "they" that arrived is the Throne, not the ravens who are their minions (if I'm reading it right...).

    The next paragraph ("I turn...") has several independent clauses that need punctuation or conjunctions.

    I'm also just a little confused about the mythology. There's a lot to explain in a short time. Can some of it be spread out more?

    Finally, the last line is, I think, meant to be shocking. Instead, it took me out of the story. In all that mythology, it wasn't mentioned that the Throne have a leader, so you could seed that with a few references to an italicized "her" here and there, or some internal monologue about how Noelle has a sharp knife ready to go. Or something. It just needs seeds so we understand how she gets to the point of plotting what amounts to regicide without it feeling like a gimmick.

    Overall, this reads like a mix of Game of Thrones, War of the Worlds, and some of Hunger Games' District 12 stuff, and those are all good things! I want to know where this goes.