Saturday, February 7, 2015

First 5 Pages February Workshop - Welborn

Name: Abigail Welborn
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: The Fairest One of All

Malena raced her horse along the road to the magician’s keep, afraid of what lay ahead but even more determined not to turn back. Never again would someone be able to hurt her; she would control her own destiny. The thought inflamed her. She galloped along farmland and through the woods at the barony’s edge, stopping only when she broke out of the tree cover onto a rise outside the estate.

For a moment, she just sat, recovering from the ride, and took in the view. It was unlike anything in Scoria—even, it was said, in the whole kingdom. The keep was built entirely of white rock against the cliff by the river, and there were no gardens or plants anywhere within the walls of the courtyard. The look was eerie, which was almost certainly the magician’s intent.

She tied the horse to a tree and made her way down to the wall that surrounded the keep. Good thing I’m twig-skinny, she thought bitterly, as she forced her way between the bars of a side gate. She strained to hear the sounds of insects, animals, people—anything to relieve the feeling of loneliness—and was dismayed when she didn’t hear any. A narrow black path was the only break in the white stone of the courtyard, blinding in the sun. She walked along the path as it wound its way around the keep to the grey front doors.

In the stillness, the clang of the great iron doorknocker startled her, even though she had let it loose herself. The door swung silently open and a footman ushered her inside.

She had never actually been inside the magician’s manor before, having remained in the carriage on the few occasions that she had been here with her father. For a moment, her resolve wavered. What if the magician wouldn’t listen to her? What if she was asking for something impossible? But if he couldn’t help her, no one could.

“What can I do for you, m’lady?” the footman asked coolly, not quite meeting her eyes.

At least her face meant she was always recognized in Scoria, and for the first time in her life, she was grateful. “I wish to speak to Valessir,” she answered. She was trying to sound haughty, but she wasn’t concentrating hard enough and it came out with a lisp.

“Many people do,” said the footman, with the same reserved civility.

“It is a matter of business.” With an extra effort, she pronounced the words crisply.

The footman nodded knowingly—assuming, as she had hoped he would, that it was something for her father—and disappeared down a side hallway. Another footman, so similar to the first that for a moment she thought he was the same, came out and led her down a different hallway to another, smaller room.

This room had only one entrance. Along the walls stood small silver tables inset with jewels, each slightly different, each with a crystal or vial or self-lit talisman resting upon it. Against the wall to her right was a single bench, iron grey with a shiny silver cushion. The footman motioned that she should wait there, then left.

Malena looked around the room awkwardly. She noticed that the liquid in one of the vials was slowly changing from blue to green. The silence pressed in on her. You can’t scare me! she thought back at it.

Just then the wall across from her parted the width of a doorway, and Valessir strode through the opening. Malena was aghast at the staggering waste of magic—just to turn a wall into a door. “My Lady Malena,” he said, bowing slightly to her. Even the magician who’d seen it all let his gaze slip away from her face.

She dipped a small curtsy. “My lord.”

“What brings you to Granite Keep? Word from my lord the Baron?” His tone was guarded and polite.

“No,” she said, “I have business of my own.” He met her eyes again and his expression lightened from a barely perceptible frown to wary curiosity. So far, the conversation was proceeding just as she had rehearsed on the way—now she just had to remember her script. “You must be a masterful magician, or my father would not admire your work as he does.” She wasn’t quite sure if her father admired him that much, but flattery never hurt. “I need an unusual and powerful potion that only a superior magician could produce, and I’m prepared to pay handsomely for it.”

Valessir considered her for a few moments before asking neutrally, “And what should this potion do?”

She squared her shoulders, raised her chin to look at him and said defiantly, “Make me beautiful.”

To his credit, his only reaction was one barely raised eyebrow. “Surely you know that magic to alter the appearance is not sanctioned by the Academy,” he said.

“A magician who cared about which kinds of magic were legal wouldn’t be living in Scoria.”

The corner of his mouth twitched into a smirk. “You must also be aware, then, what a risk it is to apply magic to living things. Even the best of potions can have unexpected side effects.”

Of course she knew that. She crossed her arms over her chest. “And it has to be undetectable.” At that, both his eyebrows arched high. He looked amazed at her audacity, but also hungry, as if it was a challenge he couldn’t resist. Malena decided to press the advantage, in case she had one. “If you’re able to make the potion, I’m prepared to take it.”

“I can make it.” His tone left no doubt. Malena shifted her weight slightly. Her knees protested against standing stiffly for so long. “But such power comes at a price,” Valessir added.

For that response, Malena was well prepared. She pulled out a bag full of coins and trinkets that she’d gathered from the barony’s collection. “How much?”

“Give me what you think the potion is worth.” He smiled like a cat who had cornered a mouse.

Her pounding heart began to slow down to normal again. She knew he was only trying to see how much he could get out of her, since she wouldn’t dare give too little, but it was still worth that much to her. She handed him the entire bag. “We have a bargain.”

“I’ll send for you,” he said, and swept out of the room the way he had come. Didn’t he even want to check what she had given him? Had he known she was so desperate that she wouldn’t try to defraud him? Or, presumably, he would check later, where he wouldn’t appear so greedy as to be weighing her gold in front of her, and simply hold her potion for ransom if he found the amount too low.

The tension that had kept her standing melted from her limbs, and she could barely follow the new footman back out to the front door. As she walked down the black path again, she felt like her knees might give out any second. When she finally got back through the outer gate, she sat down against the wall and rested her head on her knees, trying to calm down. It hadn’t even been an hour since she’d left home.


  1. Abigail,

    Great opening! You have a fantastic knack for seamlessly doling out just enough world-building and backstory to keep readers wanting to know more. I'm particularly intrigued by the idea that magic is something that can be "wasted" and that Scoria is a haven for less-than-lawless magicians.

    I love the introspection and the looks we get at Malena and Valessir's personalities. I loved their dialogue. Some of the banter could almost read flirty ... and it made me wonder: are the two of them similar in age? I don't think there was a description of the magician's appearance, and usually I would hear "magician's keep" and think old wizard, but something about their interaction made him seem younger.

    In terms of critiques, there were just a few things that stood out to me. I kept on tripping over the third sentence in the first paragraph: "The thought inflamed me." To me this reads as if the thought is making her red-hot mad. But then if we look back, the thought she has immediately prior to this is "she would control her own destiny." ... which is not something that I would think would make her mad. Maybe a word change? Or a hint at whatever incident got her all riled up?

    There's perhaps a touch more setting the scene than is really needed here, especially when she pauses and looks down at the magician's keep, and then continues to describe it while squeezing through the gate. I think that those passages could afford to be shortened and tightened.

    The only other thing I'd say is that as I was reading I felt the teeniest bit let down when Malena asks for a potion to make herself more beautiful. Certainly a desire to be more beautiful is something a lot of us can relate to, and of course it makes perfect sense for what I assume (by your title) is a sort of prequel to Snow White from the perspective of the queen (awesome!). But, and this is definitely just personal opinion, I'd actually love a little MORE backstory, and perhaps another scene before getting to this point. Something concrete to earn our sympathy. Malena hints at feeling hurt, but what WAS it that she was fleeing from? Who hurt her? How? I'd love a little more so I'm not left feeling that she's just being selfish.

    1. Thanks for your comments! Re: setting. Ahh yes, how hard it is to kill your darlings. This scene was originally later (or rather I should say I cut out some unnecessary precursors), so the description of a place I really like didn't hang up the flow so much. But I agree, right at the beginning you want to make sure you keep readers going.

  2. Hi Abigail –

    I love a good fairy-tale retold… Gregory McGuire is one of my favorites, so this will be right up my ally! I can tell this is a book I will enjoy!

    I hadn’t thought about it while I was reading, but when I saw Carissa’s comment about starting a little earlier and letting us know more about the character, I agreed this was a great idea! She makes a good point that these days people don’t want girls focused on how beautiful they are (not that it stops them) so to understand who she is and why she feels that way would be really interesting.

    The only point on which I differed with Carissa was that I didn’t get a flirty sense between characters (just in case you were wondering if that was a common interpretation). I just thought he seemed sketchy, greedy and immoral.

    While I agree that another earlier scene would be great, I did LOVE the way you introduced that point about her: “Even the magician who’d seen it all let his gaze slip away from her face.” – LOVE THIS. I’d assumed she was beautiful, but then I wondered why he’d look away? “She squared her shoulders, raised her chin to look at him and said defiantly, “Make me beautiful.”” – AND THERE IT IS. Awesome.

    Great first paragraph!!! But “The thought inflamed her” interrupts otherwise fast paced thought and actions… is it necessary?

    I wondered if someone would actually think of themselves as “twig-skinny”? A narrator might describe someone that way, but would I think, “good thing I’m twig-skinny”?

    While your descriptions are vivid, there may be some places to tighten them up easily. Some examples:

    “She strained to hear insects, animals, people…

    “The corner of his mouth twitched into a smirk.” Just leave it at twitched?

    The scene with the footmen…

    Be aware of my great flaw – telling, not showing: The magicians eyebrows arched (good – showing)… “He looked amazed…” (telling)

    As I suggested in another critique, I’ve been reading “Self-Editing For Fiction Writers” and am finding it enormously helpful. Can’t recommend it enough (even though I’m now going to have to do a huge edit of my MS!).

    I really love how your imagination has developed this story and I can’t wait to read more! Well done!!

  3. There are some things I really like about this opening. We are immediately pulled into an atmospheric setting with Malena and her horse charging through the countryside. Definitely has that fairy tale big screen feel. I like how you contrast the white walls of the kingdom with the black path. I'm hoping this symbolizes the pureness of where she's been and the evil/sinister of where she's headed (or something similar). I agree that the first few para's should be tightened. I really got sucked in when the dialogue began between Malena and the magician. You have some great lines in there and we get to "hear" from Malena for the first time which gives us her voice. When you say she "rehearsed her lines" on the ride over, I'd like to See (SHOW) that in the opening lines. Doesn't need to be more than a line, but it will give us a sense of Malena and how she sees herself right away. Although this is fantasy and 3rd person, the writing felt a little stiff/formal to me. Look for ways to make the magician's and Malena's voices distinct. I like the hint at the lisp, but they still spoke very similarly (good point on the age difference, it's not clear, and we should get a sense of their age from how they speak to one another). Small details, but would it be "the horse" or her horse?--is she attached to this horse at all? Things like this distance me from the character instead of allowing me inside her head. Is something physically wrong with her knees? They're mentioned a few times toward the end. I like where this story is headed! Good luck.

  4. Hi Abigail. Wow! What a compelling opening. I LOVE the premise of a story from the point of view of the wicked queen from Snow White, if that's where this is going. I think you’ve laid some really great groundwork, and my suggestions are going to be on the small side. I do love the commenters' suggestions of a prior scene where we see Malena being treated badly for her looks—however, I think you could also show that kind of scene in a flashback after this one, and simply show some stronger reactions to her appearance here. For example, I think the footman could have a stronger reaction to her face than looking at her coolly and not quite meeting her gaze. I’m guessing that people try to hide their revulsion because her father is the baron, but I think that might actually be taking away from showing the reader how desperate she is. If she’s considered to be hideous, but nobody actually shows revulsion toward her, would she be going to see the magician now? I think if people reacted more strongly to her looks here, *in spite of* the fact that she’s the baron’s daughter, we might get a better idea of her distress.

    Also, I found myself wanting Malena to make some kind of sacrifice in order to gain her beauty. Maybe that’s to come—in fact, maybe that’s why the magician doesn’t bother to look at her offering of coins. But within the first five pages, it didn’t seem like she was risking much to gain what she wanted, and I wished she had. I think it would really raise the stakes if Malena had to choose between remaining unattractive or . . . something. And I didn’t fully buy that the magician wouldn’t count the money in front of her because he didn’t want to seem greedy. They’re making a business transaction, and it’s perfectly acceptable to find out how much a person is offering before you accept. Add to this the hints about the magician not being entirely ethical, and I just didn’t fully believe that Malena would feel so at ease with his behavior. If it is building toward something—if the magician is going to turn around and demand her firstborn or something—I’m curious as to why that’s being kept from us at this point. I do understand if you want the reader to suspect that something isn’t quite right, but I think you’d build more tension by just telling us flat-out what the magician wants.

    Beyond that, I thought this was really lovely. You do great work balancing the world building, dialogue and pacing. I especially loved the line about the magician wasting magic for his arrival—I think it really helps to articulate that Malena is not frivolous, which gives some weight to her request to be beautiful.

    All in all, I found Malena to be a very compelling protagonist. I understood where she was coming from, and found myself rooting for her—while at the same time worrying about the consequences of doing business with the magician. The tension you’ve established is great. It’s clear that the side effects of her bargain are going to be dangerous, and I would absolutely read on to find out what happened next. I also think you’ve really balanced the other-worldly feel of the story while keeping it relatable on a human level. Really fantastic!

  5. Hi Abigail,

    First, I want to say that I really enjoyed this. You have a lovely rhythm in this, and a knack for picking out just enough details to keep the reader engaged. I'm curious and would definitely keep reading after this first five pages. All of that is great.

    I would suggest considering starting off with: "The keep was built entirely of white rock against the cliff by the river, and there were no gardens or plants anywhere within the walls of the courtyard. The look was eerie, which was almost certainly the magician’s intent."

    The earlier sentences feel a bit less original and more generic. Consider whether there's a more descriptive word than eerie. It's an evocative and intriguing sentence, but I'd love to have you capitalize on it more by really digging into the magician's intent--does he want to repel? Make people apprehensive? Dissuade them from coming? Make them aware of his power? What?

    If there is something wrong with her face, the opportunity to establish that begins with the footman,so consider immediately making it clearer that this is something heinous and show us her embarrassment, dismay, and self-loathing then--then show us how she rallies -- but consider showing us a surprising reaction as well, so that it sets up an additional surprise when she asks to be made beautiful.

    Overall, you've given us an opening with an interesting framework, but I'd love to see it fleshed out a little with deeper characterization and a deeper pov, with additional slivering of information pertaining to the story question--as mentioned by the others. You're almost there though! Great start!

    1. Quick question if you happen to read more comments. Do you think you would feel let down if I started with the description of the keep, and then that setting turned out not to be important to the rest of the book? (If so, I suppose you could argue I wouldn't need to put in even as much description as there is now, whether or not it's at the beginning.) The magician comes back around (a few times), but as currently written she doesn't go back to the keep.

  6. HI Abigail, That was fun to read! I agree with most of the comments above. You have a place to add what's wrong with her face when you say, At least her face meant she was always recognized in Scoria. Maybe you can add a hint of what is wrong or keep that part covered. Why didn't the footman respect her at the door? Because of the way she looked? I loved your writing and the ending paragraph. But I have to say, I don't like girls reading about how they need to be pretty. Maybe there's a twist in here. Can't wait to read more!

  7. Abigail, I'm just going to add that I'm trusting there's a twist here, or that we discover that there's more to her desire to be beautiful than she wishes to be beautiful and she gets her wish and falls in love with the Magician, who falls in love with her once she is beautiful. That's what I meant when I said additional surprise. : )

    I agree with the others that a story about a girl who measures her worth solely by her beauty is probably not going to be loved by agents and editors, but I do agree that for a lot of girls--enough to sell books--this is an actual concern and something they would find fascinating. A lot of girls--and grown women--believe in the "if only" of being pretty, and I'm trusting that you have more to say on this subject! And that trust is part of what makes me want to keep reading. I want to know about your surprise and how she's going to have to fight to learn that lesson.

  8. Martina (and others): I believe your faith would be rewarded! :) Coincidentally the very next scene was some flashbacks, which I will try to work in or at least hint at earlier in the opening, to reassure (sooner) that it's not just about a girl trying to be pretty. This is why it's so good to get outside feedback! You forget what other people don't know about your work yet.

  9. Hello Abigail,

    Thank you for sharing your work with us!

    I found your selection easy to read, with a good voice for YA fantasy. Your writing is also well varied and paced at a sentence level, which is wonderful to read!

    I would suggest that you look at a few specific items for revision:

    First, YA fantasy relies on strong hooks. We must know very quickly what is different, unique, or unusual about your world. If you look at examples like RED QUEEN or AN EMBER IN THE ASHES, there are very specific world rules that make the stories unique. Ideally, that world rule should be able to be summarized in a single sentence. In RED QUEEN, the concept is that there are red bloods and silver bloods, the silvers being the ones that have magic. That sets the platform for our plot. Make sure that your unique world view is apparent from the outset.

    We could also benefit from a slightly easier entry into your world at the beginning. Your opening sentences raise information questions--what is she racing from? Why does she need to escape control? What is her goal? Information questions can frustrate the reader. I know it's easy to want to hide the ball from your reader, but make sure you are hiding the right ball. We need to know what's going on--maybe not the specifics, but the broad goal. At the opening of GRACELING, we know Katsa is sneaking into a building to kill someone in the very first paragraph. This allows us to wonder if she will succeed or not, which makes us committed to reading further. In your opening, we don't know what she's trying to do, so it is easy to set the chapter aside. Give us a clear question so that we will read on in order to get the answer.

    Best of luck!