Sunday, February 15, 2015

First 5 Pages February Workshop - Welborn Rev 1

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, spurred on by her outrage. How dare they take away her title! Her parents should know better than anyone that she couldn’t help the way she looked. 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 keep.

For a moment, she just 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. No gardens or plants grew anywhere within its walls, perhaps the magician’s way of reminding you that he wasn’t subject to the usual natural laws. She was depending on that.

She tied her horse to a tree and patted him—was she trying to reassure him or herself?--then made her way down to the wall that surrounded the keep. Once she’d squeezed herself between the bars of the gate, all sound ceased except the blood pounding in her ears. The glare off the white stones of the courtyard was blinding in the sun, broken only by a narrow black path, which she followed to the massive grey front doors.

Malena had never actually been inside the magician’s manor, having remained in the carriage the few times she’d been there with her father. For a moment, her resolve wavered. What if the magician wouldn’t listen to her? What if what she wanted was actually impossible? But if she did nothing, she would just be allowing them to take away her future. Losing Scoria was bad enough, but losing Quentin — she couldn’t let that happen.

In the stillness, the clang of the great iron doorknocker startled her, even though she had let it loose herself.

A footman opened the door and looked at her thoughtlessly, as he probably looked at everyone who came to this door, and started. She looked away for a moment to allow him to recover his professional impassivity.

 “What can I do for you, m’lady?” the footman asked, his voice a tiny bit stifled. He wouldn’t quite meet her eyes.

Well, she was used to that, and at least her face meant she was always recognized in Scoria. 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. “It’s a matter of business.” With an extra effort, she pronounced the words crisply.

The footman nodded knowingly—she had hoped he would assume that it was something for her father—and led her down a hallway to a small room. Along the walls of the room stood a variety of small silver tables, each with a crystal or vial or self-lit talisman resting on it. In amongst the tables to her right was a single bench. The footman motioned that she should wait there, then left.

Malena sat down and stared at the door. She noticed that the liquid in one of the vials was slowly changing from blue to green. If Valessir was trying to intimidate his visitors by brandishing his magic at them, it was working. As in the courtyard, the silence was complete, but now her heart was pounding from anxiety instead of exertion.

Just then the wall across from Malena parted the width of a doorway, and Valessir strode through the opening. She 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.

Of course he couldn’t yet know that she wasn’t “my lady” anymore. She savored the sound of it, the title that she’d taken for granted before that day, and dipped a small curtsy. “My lord.” He wasn’t technically a lord, but he commanded respect. Up close, he looked much younger than she’d been expecting. From her father’s stories, she knew they were nearly the same age, but only a few grey strands in his black hair betrayed it.

“What brings you to Granite Keep? Word from my lord the Baron?” His tone was guarded but polite as he looked at her left shoulder.

“No,” she said, “I have business of my own.” He met her eyes again and his expression grew wary. She felt light-headed. Was he going to refuse her? What would he do to someone who had wasted his time? She struggled to remember her script. Start with flattery. “I need an unusual and powerful potion that only an exceptional magician could produce, and I’m prepared to pay handsomely for it.”

Valessir considered her for a few moments before asking, “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 Royal Academy,” he said.

She let herself sound a little sardonic. “A magician who cared about which kinds of magic the King approves of wouldn’t be living in Scoria.”

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

“Of course I know that.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “And it has to be undetectable.” At that, both his eyebrows arched high. In a moment, though, his expression grew hungry, the anticipation of a challenge she had often seen on her father’s face. Malena decided to press the advantage, in case she had one. “If you can make it, I’m not afraid to take it.”

“I can make it.” His tone brooked no doubt. “But such power comes at a price,” he added.

She untied a bag of coins and trinkets from around her waist. “How much?”

“Give me what you think the potion is worth.” Valessir 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. At least she’d had the foresight to pick pieces from the barony’s collection that no one was likely to miss. She handed him the entire bag.

Valessir opened the bag, dumped a few pieces into his hand, held up the bag with the rest as if weighing it, and then nodded in satisfaction. “Give my regards to the Baron,” he said, and he swept out of the room the way he had come.

That was it? How long would it take? Would he send her the potion or was she supposed to come back? She opened her mouth to ask, but the wall was already sliding closed. Annoyance flared in her chest. He was powerful; he didn’t need to be rude.

But she would get her potion. She followed the footman back to the front door. When she finally got back through the gate, she sat down against the wall and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry with relief. Her plan might actually work!


  1. Overall, I really like your changes, and I think you've tightened up the opening nicely, without losing the cinematic feel. Your writing is really lovely to read. Since this is round two, I'll try to get as nitpicky as I can.

    Broadly speaking, I still feel like I want a little more of an element of surprise in the opener. From the title/premise, we'll know that the MC is going to grow up to be the wicked queen from Snow White. So I want to see a side of her I'd never expected to see ... whatever that may be. Her tenderness, creativity etc... And while I love the mention of Quentin (someone she obviously cares about), I want more!

    The dialogue between her and the magician is fun to read. It really carries the opening in my mind.

    There were a few passages that tripped me up a bit:

    Once she’d squeezed herself between the bars of the gate, all sound ceased except the blood pounding in her ears. [[ Maybe re-write to be a bit more active? ]]

    Up close, he looked much younger than she’d been expecting. From her father’s stories, she knew they were nearly the same age, but only a few grey strands in his black hair betrayed it. [[ Who does "they" refer to? Is she trying to say that she is the same age as the magician or that her father is the same age as the magician? ]]

    "Make me beautiful" To his credit, his only reaction was one barely raised eyebrow. [[ I wasn't sure what this meant? ... Wouldn't this be exactly the sort of potion he'd expect her to ask for ]]

    “And it has to be undetectable.” [[ If he's making a potion to make her beautiful, wouldn't it certainly be detectable on her face? ]]

    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. At least she’d had the foresight to pick pieces from the barony’s collection that no one was likely to miss. [[ A little confused on two points here ... the first sentence makes more sense to me if I read it without the word "but" ... Secondly, I am not sure what these "pieces" are. I'd assumed she was paying him coins. But now I'm second guessing that, as whatever they are is part of a collection? Are they pieces of treasure? Why wouldn't they be missed?

    1. Thanks! I was experimenting here with putting backstory in but not any full-scale flashbacks. You say you want more about Quentin -- as you should! ;) Do you want more as in you'd keep reading, or do you want more as in, thanks for this name drop but it doesn't tell me enough and just leaves me confused?

    2. I think the mention of Quentin is great, and I'm not confused or anything, but I think more of him/her thoughts of him in the opener might really help me bond with your MC even more!

  2. All feedback welcome -- I really appreciate the kind of feedback that's like "This line tripped me up" or if something is or isn't working (as Carissa does so nicely above!). The other thing overall is whether even after putting in more threads of backstory, it just feels like the story should start earlier. In a previous comment I mentioned that I used to have it start sooner but it was kind-of dragging, so I cut out a bunch of stuff at the beginning. However, I can always go back to re-examine why the old stuff dragged and start, say, the morning of this event, and show the backstory "live" as it were.

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  6. We’re clearly on the same wavelength – the love interest in my book is also called Quentin… :-) I am really excited about this beginning! I stayed involved and engaged throughout.

    In my opinion, I don’t think it needs to start any earlier… in fact, as I read I thought the perfect start is paragraph 4: “Malena had never actually been inside…” Everything we learn from there is interesting and intriguing, without giving up too much info. It’s nicely paced and offers a lot of great questions. It provides information without too much exposition.

    I’d perhaps suggest a word change on that sentence: “Malena had never actually been inside the magician’s manor, though she had sat outside in the carriage when her father had business there.” (or something like that…)

    And actually, you could solve the problem I had about whether Scoria is a person or place by changing that sentence to, “Losing her title was bad enough…” The next mention of Scoria makes it clear it’s the country.

    Only thing to stay aware of is on the “show” not “tell” issue. Examples: “spurred on by her outrage…” What does outrage look like on her? “her resolve wavered” What happened– did she fidget? Look back at the horse? “doorknocker startled her…” did she jump? Unconsciously cover her ears? “trying to sound haughty” Does she looked down her nose? Let me infer from how she behaved what she felt…

    A few questions I had: once we know she’s ugly, should we get any description of her? It would be nice to start getting a mental image. I’m dying to know how this potion is going to solve her problem, though that probably doesn’t need to happen in first 5 pages. But Carissa’s point is a good one – whether or not the potion’s detectable, if she looks different, people will know something is up. How will she cope with that?

    I also really liked Carissa’s point about showing the other side of her personality. We have to change our childhood conceptions of the evil queen… We have to care about and root for her. What will make us like her and make her sympathetic? What is her most positive, most relatable trait – can that be worked into these initial pages? Perhaps just a hint of what we will like best about her?

    That said, I really loved this revision! I would argue the hard work is done! Awesome!

    1. Haha, Quentin, what are the odds? :) Thanks for your suggestions.

  7. Sorry for deleted comments - technical difficulties. A smiley face that looked like a frown and a missing word that changed the sentence. Apologies if that was really messy for the blog post!

  8. Hey!! This revision looks really good. You’ve made some great changes regarding the stakes and Malena’s face. Since you mentioned wanting to know which lines tripped us up, I will focus on that here:

    I think you could lose “For a moment, she just took in the view. It was unlike anything in Scoria—even, it was said, in the whole kingdom.” Above, she’s racing along, spurred by her anger, and then suddenly…. She stops to look around. I understand why you’re doing this—you want to give the reader a view of the keep, and your descriptions are lovely. But I think she could look while she’s riding. Also, you have “for a moment” two more times in the paragraphs that follow.

    The mention of Quentin was interesting, but I feel like it creates more questions than it answers. Is Quentin her boyfriend? Her son? Her horse? (Okay, probably not her horse, but I still found myself wanting to know.)

    Like Carissa, the line about the magician’s age tripped me up. In fact, until I read her comment, I was thinking “they” meant Malena and the magician, which confused me, since this is YA. However, if “they” means the magician and the barony, that totally makes sense. A simple tweak would clarify. Something like: From her father’s stories, she knew that he and Valessir were nearly the same age…”

    You've done a great job adding hints about Malena's face, but we still never see what's wrong with it. Perhaps a mirror could be hanging in the magician's keep? Otherwise, it feels a bit like suspense building for a grand reveal...that doesn't come.

    In terms of your question about the story (possibly) starting too late, it’s really hard to say without reading the previous stuff. That said, I don’t think this *scene* starts too late. But I admit to being curious about the previous scene. Part of me really wants to see the scene where her title is stripped away.

    I loved a lot of your lines, especially: “He was powerful; he didn’t need to be rude” and “Valessir smiled like a cat who had cornered a mouse.”

    All in all, this was really good, and I’m really enjoying reading it. Great premise and great execution! ☺

    1. Totally meant "the magician and the Baron" rather than "barony." Doh!

    2. So awesome Chelsea is back too! Why did I think she was only commenting on 1st Rounds? This workshop keeps getting better!

  9. Abigial,

    Your story really sweeps me away to another time and place. That is great! Overall, I would say work on flow. In another comment, an author suggested reading the opening aloud, which is something I need to do as well. Not sure if you've done this here, but try it again and I think it will help with overall flow and ease for the reader.

    A few minor things: In the first para. you use "they" in reference to her parents before you mention them in the next sentence. I would suggest switching the order so parents comes first, and "they" in the next sentence. In the 2nd para., a slight POV issue. Your MC says nothing grew within the white walls of the keep, yet she hasn't entered it yet. How does she know this if she can't yet see inside? The introduction/interaction with the footman is not working for me. It feels clunky. I like that you have him noticing her face now, but the order and phrasing seems awkward. Take another look. As I mentioned in Round 1, I really like the little details about Malena and how she tries to appear tough, despite her lisp. Good job. I also like how she refers to her "script" and opening with flattery. This tells us she has thought about this a lot. These little details give us great insight into her character and how she truly feels. Lastly, small point, but Malena referring to the magician as "my Lord" and then saying he isn't really a Lord, but demands respect confused me a bit. Does it need to stay in there? Keep going! Great job.

  10. Abigail, wow! This is really flowing better.I liked the one line wheres she's wondering if she's reassuring her horse or herself!!
    I am again following everyone, but since you've asked for specifics, I have jotted some things down that haven't been mentioned. I enjoyed the beginning and I realised she didn't want to be more beautiful but to change her appearance.
    When she spoke with a lisp, it gave me a clue that she may have an open cleft, helping me picture her face.
    In some of your sentences you use too many prepositions and it slows the rhythm! White stones of the courtyard. could say ( the courtyard white stones) I had the same questions on they and them. And if Quentin is important, I wanted to know a little more- why?
    This rewrite pulled me in and kept me reading. I look forward to more.

    1. Actually open cleft was one of the things I had envisioned her with, so I think it's cool that you picked up on that!

  11. This is working even better now. I still find the opening paragraph jarring--some setting of scene in that opening line would help, rather than starting with action that is so strong and active. I really like the lines about Scoria--that would even be an intriguing opening for me. Like stepping into the shallows instead of diving straight into the deep end.

    Overall, this just needs to be edited for clarity--tell us what's wrong with her face. meaning, you don't have to show us in great detail, but is she referred to by a certain slang term for maimed people? Like in Marie Lu's recent THE YOUNG ELITES, wherein the main character is missing an eye, and is called a malfetto. We know what she is right away, even if we don't know precisely what that means. If this is what's on the character's mind as she's fleeing, I would expect her to think aggressively about that topic, rather than stopping to admire the view.

    Well done!


  12. Hi Abigail,

    Good job pulling this tighter and adding in the details that ground us in the stakes so that we know immediately that her lack of beauty has had unfair and impossible consequences. That definitely gives her motivation that she needs to make it more sympathetic that what she wants most is to be beautiful--we understand now that this isn't what she really wants.

    That said, I think I'd love to see a little more thoughtful reflection on that. While the opening is very cinematic, it feels a bit melodramatic to me, and I don't yet see the complexity of character that would make me instantly pull this out from among a stack of other fantasies--although I see tantalizing hints that make me certain you are going to a place that merits that.

    I strongly suggest starting a little later. Rather than starting with a headlong rush to the magician's keep, show us that she's considered her options and this is the only way that she is going to be able to achieve her goals. Show us how she feels about that--that's fascinating. That beauty is the vehicle to what she wants to achieve, not the endgame. Show us more of the unexpected things that she feels, and you'll have readers lapping this up. Consider how you can show her being brave and smart instead of merely impetuous--and that would require us knowing from the start how much there is about the magician that is to be feared. I actually thought you had a slightly better phrasing of the keep's description in the last round, although the interaction with the magician was definitely better this time around. I think you can beef up his character even a little bit more. Give us a stronger sense of whether or not we should believe the bargain that has been struck is the bargain that she is expecting she made. Should we doubt that? Do you want us to? And if we do doubt it, but your MC doesn't, what does that say about her? How big is your character ARC? Where are you starting with her bravery and intelligence, her cunning and sense of self-preservation, compared to where you will end up?

    Don't be dismayed by my questions. None of this requires more than a few sentences or tweaks in word choice. This early on in the book though, every word has the reader judging the character and first impressions with characters are as fundamental as they are in people. And as hard to alter. Be certain that the impression you are leaving is one you want to convey.

    My general impression is that you are writing a book about a very smart, capable, and politically-cunning girl, but I'm not seeing that entirely consistently yet in this opening. While it's very good, I truly believe you have the capacity to make it great. : )

    1. Thanks for your suggestions and encouragement! I think you are right -- I wanted to see if the problem with the "headlong rush" opening was just a lack of backstory, but when I got rid of that, the whole scene just tightened right up. Another thing I love about this workshop -- that we get to experiment and have a chance to have the work reviewed multiple times. I hope you will really like the third try. :)