Sunday, February 22, 2015

First 5 Pages February Workshop - Welborn Rev 2

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


Malena, the disfigured daughter of a small-time baron, has very modest hopes for her future. Then her parents disinherit her, and the boy who promised to marry her dumps her instead. Blaming it all on her ugly face, Malena buys a beauty potion from a magician who doesn't care that such magic is illegal.

Her newfound beauty ends up catching the attention of the widowed King Henry, who makes her a proposal she would be foolish to refuse. Accepting it also makes her the stepmother to beautiful, spoiled Princess Alaine, who acts like the kingdom is already hers.

Vaulting to the position of Queen ought to make any woman feel secure, but jealousy is a subtle infection. When Alaine is given a magic mirror that declares, perhaps truthfully, that she is the most beautiful woman in the land, the proclamation haunts Malena. As Alaine commands more of Henry’s and the Court’s attention, Malena resorts to increasingly desperate measures to preserve her relevance. Can she come back from the brink of murder? Or will one of them die trying to be The Fairest One of All?


Malena stood in front of the massive doors to the magician’s manor, her hand poised over the great iron doorknocker.

In all the many times she had pictured her sixteenth birthday, she had never expected to find herself here. This should have been the day she and Quentin could make their betrothal official. Instead, her parents had surprised her by taking away her title — her entire inheritance — and with it went the engagement.

Well, if they were so ashamed of how she looked, she would do something about it. She seized the doorknocker and let it loose. Its clang was so loud that she jumped, then quickly looked around, hoping no one had noticed. Of course not — there wasn’t a living thing in sight. There were no gardens or plants, no birds or animals, not even an insect that she could see anywhere within the walls of the magician’s keep. Perhaps it was his way of reminding you that he wasn’t subject to the usual natural laws. She was depending on that.

She heard footsteps inside, then the click of the latch. As the door swung inward, Malena steeled herself. The first time meeting someone was always the worst. She looked off to the side of the doorway, admiring the floral bas relief carved into its white rock.

The footman who had opened the door caught sight of her and recoiled. He gaped at her for a second too long before remembering his professional manners. “What can I do for you, m’lady?” he asked, his voice a tiny bit stifled.

He wouldn’t quite meet her eyes, but 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. Lifting her chin to appear imperious, she said, “I wish to speak to Valessir,” but she wasn’t concentrating and ruined the effect with a lisp. With an extra effort, she said crisply, “It’s a matter of business.”

The footman nodded — he seemed to assume, as she had hoped he would, that it was something for her father. He ushered her inside, then led her down a white marble hallway. Malena had never actually been inside the magician’s manor, though she’d sat outside in the carriage when her father had had business there. It looked just as stark inside.

They stopped in a small room off the hall to her right. 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. Among the tables to her right was a single bench. The footman motioned that she should wait there, then left.

Malena sat down, keeping her back straight, 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. She tried to distract herself by picturing how she would look without the deformities on her face. Her imagination got carried away, further transforming her brown hair from limp to curly, her figure from rail-thin to voluptuous, her posture from hunched to regal…

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. It was so distracting that she forgot to look away. He had unusual self-control, or perhaps the footman had warned him, because his only reaction was a sharp intake of breath and a flicker of disgust, before he smoothed his face into an oily smile.

“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 until that day, and dipped a small curtsy. “My lord.” Up close, he looked much younger than she’d been expecting. From her father’s stories, she knew that he and Valessir were nearly the same age, but only a few grey strands in the magician’s sleek 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.” His gaze snapped to meet her eyes, his smile gone. Her heart began to race — she didn’t want him to shut her down before she could even ask! 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 narrowed his eyes. “And what should this potion do?”

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

He didn’t respond at first, but studied her face intently. A blush crept up her cheeks; apparently she wasn’t used to maintaining eye contact any more than those who wouldn’t look at her. She dreaded hearing him say that her request was impossible.

At least he didn’t laugh. “Surely you know that magic to alter the appearance is not sanctioned by the Royal Academy,” he said at last.

She let out the breath she hadn’t noticed she was holding and allowed herself to 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. “Then you must also be aware 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 also knew he was protecting himself in case something went wrong. Not that she could bring a case against him when the potion was illegal to begin with. She crossed her arms, daring him to oppose her last requirement. “And the magic has to be undetectable.”

Both his eyebrows arched high. He shouldn’t have been so surprised; if his potion worked, how could anyone who had known her before not suspect magic? She needn’t bother with a beauty potion to get her title back if the magic would keep her away from Court afterward. Valessir’s expression slowly relaxed, and his eyes got a faraway look that Malena recognized. He was already calculating whether it could be done. She decided to press her 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 golden 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.

He was clearly just trying to see how much gold he could get out of her, since she wouldn’t dare give him too little. It was still worth that much to her. She handed him the entire bag.

Valessir opened it, looked at a few pieces, held up the bag 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.


  1. I will definitely look forward to your feedback about whether the opening is working better. :) Now that you've read the query, does it jive with your expectations from reading the opening?

    The difficulty of making the backstory for a villain is that you often end up either making an unsympathetic character (Anakin Skywalker in the prequels, anyone?) or changing the story so that the villain doesn't (mean to) do the bad things (e.g., WICKED). Or else the "villain" isn't doing such bad things after all (MEGAMIND, DESPICABLE ME). I am really happy with the way I've figured out Malena's story (not that it couldn't use polishing, of course), but I'm not sure anyone wants to stick with a character whom they were made to love (or at least sympathize with) as she descends into villainy. So I guess the question is, do you think the interest of seeing how it plays out and the possibility of her redemption would carry you through the portion of the novel where she's, well, the evil queen? Obviously you haven't read the whole thing, but like, is the idea off-putting or intriguing? If the idea is at least intriguing, then I think it would be up to the execution to make it work. And you won't hurt my feelings if you say, "Eh, I probably wouldn't want to be that close to the bad guy." :)

    1. Hey Abigail - I'm going to do my feedback later (suffice to say for now, I'm REALLY enjoying your pages - better and better!).

      But to this question I'd just like to assure you that I definitely want to read your book. I love getting "the other side of the story." And I can't think of a retelling I haven't enjoyed. Whatever the critics said, I loved Maleficent. I think the interesting thing about these "fairy tale retellings" is that you do get to sympathise with the villain. It isn't black and white, good vs. evil. Everyone can be sympathetic. There's a reason people act as they do (and as Wicked shows, sometimes the perception of right and wrong is just a question of PR - lessons for our world).

      I would think that if you keep Malena's motivations very real and relatable (fear of losing what she's worked so hard to gain; frustration with Alaine - esp. if she is an obnoxious "mean girl" rather than the traditional sweetheart), then it raises interesting questions for the reader who feels satisfied by her villainy.

      While I loved Gone Girl, it was a hard read for me because the bad guy gets away with it. But if you can make me feel for Malena and understand why she does what she does (even if I don't agree with her decisions), I think you've got yourself an amazing book. I'd certainly want to read it!

    2. Thanks, Meghan! Yeah, Gone Girl was interesting. I don't know if the author meant it as a statement on our times (speaking of PR :) ) but that's how I felt about it.

  2. This is great! The opening is much easier entry, and I am immediately invested, waiting to see if she will get her potion.

    Well done!


  3. Abigail- wonderful! What a great revision. I liked the way you explained how she looked or didn't look. It was done well. I look forward to reading the entire story. The beginning paragraph pulls you in immediately and the ending paragraph definitely leaves the reader wanting more. Congrats!!

  4. Wow! Your query is killer, girl! I LOVE it!! I would totally pick this up if I saw it in a bookstore. I just had a couple of query nits, and then I’ll get into your final revision:

    Be wary of stating absolutes in a query. For example: “Vaulting to the position of Queen ought to make any woman feel secure.” I think there are enough women out there who would feel very nervous vaulting to that position. But if you tweaked it to “ought to make Malena feel secure,” I think you could avoid that.

    I found the line “Can she come back from the brink of murder?” slightly confusing. If she only goes to the brink, but doesn’t commit murder, does she need to come back from that? And why does she only go to the brink? Also, it felt like jumping from preserving her relevance to murdering Alaine seemed extreme. I imagine in the book it’s more of a gradual slide, but in the query it felt like a bit of a leap. I definitely do enjoy books about someone becoming a villain (or even about someone who isn’t solely “good” or “evil”), but we need to understand Malena’s descent. If Alaine is simply beautiful and spoiled, is that reason enough to kill her? I’d say no. But if Malena is in danger of losing everything (not just her relevance, but her love, her crown, etc) that’s much more of a reason to become desperate. Obviously, this is just an example, but since you asked about our sympathizing with a villain, I wanted to address that.

    Otherwise, I absolutely loved the query. The writing is beautiful but concise, and I was definitely drawn into the story.

    As for the opening itself, I thought this was great! You’ve really taken us right into the heart of the action, and the writing itself was smooth and engaging. Great work!!

    1. Thanks! I'm so glad you liked it! I have SO many drafts of this pitch, I'm glad the revising was worth it. :) In a query every word counts!

  5. I love this! Can't say enough good things about the revision you've done, Abigail... It starts with tension that pulls me in, subtle world building that doesn't overwhelm me and an intriguing dilemma - why would a girl's parents disinherit her on her birthday?!

    I also loved the way you worked in the description of how she looks and how she wants to look - perfect for me!

    A couple tiny suggestions:

    Not sure you need this as I felt like I'd already gotten the info: "She also knew he was protecting himself in case something went wrong. Not that she could bring a case against him when the potion was illegal to begin with."

    And I was a little confused here: "Both his eyebrows arched high. He shouldn’t have been so surprised; if his potion worked, how could anyone who had known her before not suspect magic? She needn’t bother with a beauty potion to get her title back if the magic would keep her away from Court afterward."

    Whose point of view is this? Is Malena thinking he shouldn't have been so surprised? Or is the narrator telling us what the magician is thinking?

    Also, on those sentences - I love that you're addressing the whole "everyone's going to know she's had a potion" issue, but I'm not sure this quite gets there. It's a little confusing to me and I'm not sure how it answers that question. Is she planning on leaving home immediately and expecting the people in her new location will not recognize her because the potion is undetectable?

    Actually, as I write, I'm wondering is it entirely necessary for the plot that the potion is undetectable? If not, perhaps instead, she could insist that the potion's effects are permanent (something like that?). And then you could work in that she's "never going home anyway" - if she's not... If she is going back to her parent's place, I think you really do need to address how she plans to explain her changed appearance.

    That's it though. You know I'm a huge fan, so can't wait to read on!

  6. PS Was just re-reading your query and realized I'd forgot to mention this - "jealousy is a subtle infection" - is wonderful!

    1. Thanks. I admit I was proud of that little darling. ;)

  7. Abigail,

    I also really enjoyed this. Well done. I love the opening two paragraphs. They flow very smoothly and we are right there with her at the door and sense the loss she just endured.

    I have very minor nits. Look at some of your sentence structures. You say "Its clang was so loud..." or you could try "The doorknocker clanged."

    At one point you use a universal "you" that didn't seem quite right with the voice and tone of your MC. Maybe I'm off, but you could try putting in the word kingdom or even a word like 'subjects," although that probably isn't the right word, but you see what I mean.

    I'm not crazy about the sentence "The first time meeting someone was always the worst." It seems telly, and you SHOW us this in the next para. with the footman's reaction to her face. I love the line: "Even the magician who’d seen it all let his gaze slip away from her face." This tells us so much about her appearance!

    Best of luck! Lisa

  8. Wow. This scene just keeps getting better and better! Love it. Plus your query knocked my socks off! So good.

    In answer to your question re: would I read a story about the villian? Absolutely! I loved Wicked, and am about to dive into "Fairest" -- Marissa Meyer's novella (the backstory about her sci-fi version of the Snow White Queen).

    That said, I'm torn, because as much as I love these pages, as I mentioned before, I do think that the story *might* be better served by opening with a different scene. The reason being that this sort of opening is somewhat "expected" ... we already know that the queen is concerned about her appearance. What I'd really love to see right off the bat is the side of her that none of us knew about. To see her immersed in one of her passions/hobbies etc. I know that Wicked started out having us see Elphaba as a baby to gain our immediate compassion. Not saying you should do that, in fact probably shouldn't since Wicked did, but something along those lines to really make the reader go "whoa" this is a girl just like me, and she's interesting and likeable in her own right.

    But this is just a thought, and I absolutely adore these pages as well. Would totally read on!

  9. Dear Ms. Welborn

    I’m not sure you had a strong understanding of what is expected in a query letter. Your query was really just a synopsis. The synopsis was well written and intriguing but it lacked many of the elements that agent’s find useful when evaluating a submission. You should rewrite this as a professional letter than includes; word count, summary, your credentials, and your reason for thinking this agent is a good fit. This is your opportunity to show perspective agents that you understand the business side of writing.

    I found your pages to be well written. You have a strong command over language and the writing flowed nicely. I felt present with Malena and was impressed with your ability to establish setting and voice. As a reader I felt like you missed a prime opportunity by not writing the scene where Malena finds out she is being disinherited and losing her engagement. That’s a big moment and I felt cheated not to get to experience that with Malena. In addition, that is a wonderful moment for the audience to begin to empathize is now missing. As a reader, I was also frustrated about the lack of physical description of Malena. If her physical appearance in such a huge obstacles in her life I want to really see it, every wart and scar, and misshapen body part should be described fully.

    I am very concerned about the plot of this novel. From the query letter, it seems it is about a newly beautiful Malena competing with her stepdaughter to be the most beautiful woman in their world because beauty equals relevance. For me, that is not a plotline that I would feel comfortable advocating. I am not sure if this was a choice you made consciously, as a way to teach teens that beauty is only skin-deep. As the synopsis reads now, it seems as though Malena is both willing to die and kill to be the most beautiful woman and that seems like a very scary role model to be setting for our teens.

    Thanks for sharing your piece with me. It is clear that you have real talent. Best of luck!

    1. Thank you, Shelby! You've given me a lot to think about, both within the story and how it's marketed. Indeed writing a character who does bad things is tricky, and making her sympathetic at the beginning while not condoning her later actions is a fine line to walk.

  10. Hi Abigail,

    First, WOW! What a wonderful revision. I felt like this flowed and we were connected to your MC so much more than in the last version. Very well done!

    Going forward, I would suggest reading it aloud to check for the rhythm and see where there's a bit of a break. There are a few places that could be smoothed out, and that should pick those up.

    As far as the overall story, I think it is intriguing as a retelling type tale, and as I said before, I'm willing to trust that you know where you are going with the "message" -- and that will make an intriguing twist on the Snow White tale, But bear in mind that, because that will be a main concern in terms of marketability and early reviewers, especially gatekeepers, you are going to want to lay that message out in the query. I would also go ahead and own that it is a retelling of Snow White, from the POV of the wicked stepmother--and a redemption tale. Allude to the lesson here.

    And along with the word count and standard portions of the query, go ahead and consider including some retellings that might be good comps for this. It's hard for me to say at this point, because I'm not positive which route you're going to take, but there are certainly plenty to choose from, and a nicely worded "might appeal to readers of X and X" would really help agents to understand where you're going with this.

    FYI, Shelby Samples hit on an excellent point about the intriguing scene. We never got the reference to that scene until the second version and the reference was even more significant in this one, but you would have a great opportunity to show her personality and her past life in a pivotal scene that would immediately get the reader in sympathy with a character who is going to be difficult to love.

    You might try writing that scene and see how you like it. This scene wouldn't need much tweaking to become the follow on to that scene. : )

    Good luck with this. I think you're off to an excellent start and I'll hope to see this announced in PM sometime soon!

    1. Thanks, Martina! All good advice.

      This workshop has been so helpful for me! I hope one day to be in a good position to pay it forward. :)