Sunday, March 8, 2015

First 5 Pages March Workshop - Mayorska

Name: Lyudmyla Mayorska
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

The beheadings took place, as usual, at full moon. The doomed souls rattled on the floor of the cage cart in accord with the heavy rain past the main arch of the Justice Temple in the direction of the execution field. I sure was glad I wasn’t a boy, as I watched them from the basement window disappear behind the street corner. I kissed the fingertips of my right hand, wishing the two men quick death, then tiptoed across the stone floor back to my bed.

Naked, I slipped under the straw blanket and blew out a candle half melted inside the old skull. I decorated it almost ten years ago. It was the first human skull I painted for our shop. I brushed it with gold and dragged a single black stripe across the forehead. I loved it so much, I asked for my Father’s help to scribe my name on the back with a stylus, like the great artists of the temples did marking their artwork.

“I don’t think we should sell it, Palenke. Keep the skull for your own candles,” he said when were done.

I closed my eyes and dug myself deeper under the blanket, allowing sweet smelling Vi curl up on my neck one last time. The monkey’s tail tickled my cheek, while my mind wondered. I knew the criminals deserved their fate, or they wouldn’t be on their way to meet the executioner’s axe - my mother’s axe – still, I couldn’t help but to feel pity for their misery. There would be no Priestess there, no prayers. Their feet would be buried outside the city under the statue of the wicked Nott, forever barring their entrance into the Black. Their ribs would end up on the shelves of our shop next to the jars stuffed with finger-bone necklaces, parrots’ skulls, and teeth garlands ever so popular during the harvest holidays.

Our Bone Shop, filled with decorations and trinkets, was supplied mostly through my mother’s gruesome job. I knew I would miss these walls. The pet sleeping under my chin and the smell of the crushed paint powder would soon become my past; the walls of the Temples of Tetlan – my very near future.

I whispered my prayers, ending the requests with, “This I deserve,” kissed my fingertips, careful not to disturb Vi, and fell asleep, but only until the door slammed and my mother returned. All the familiar sounds of her shuffling through our shop into the kitchen, and setting a pot to boil, a chair shifting across the floor, the water pouring into the cup - put a rock in my throat and kept me awake. And even after the bed creaked under the weight of her body, and our home returned to silence, I spent the night nibbling on dried plums and listening to the rain.

At the first sign of morning, I was up with my most plain tunic on and the black heavy heap of the floor-length hair loose and unbraided. Wiping a stubborn tear, I pressed my lips between Vi’s ears, taking in her scent one last time and setting her back down onto my pillow. Fifteen years I spent sleeping in this house, smelling corn breads and green snake soup, setting tiles into the bone masks and painting ribs. Even if I trusted my reasons for leaving, I still kneaded my knuckles and bit the inside of my cheek to keep from bursting into sobs when I snuck downstairs to bid my respects and say goodbyes to my father.

He was the only inhabitant of the ancestry room built under the kitchen floor of our house.  His body, wrapped in blue cloth and layered with salt and spices, was there for me to talk to, when my mother’s silence and harshness drove me to madness. I imagined his voice telling me stories of Tai-Tai, “people made of clay”, and I straightened out the dried bouquets of herbs and garlands of clay beads hanging on the walls above him. I was sure he’d watch my upcoming trials form the Black.

He was the second son. Naturally, he was never offered to the temples, but his life wasn’t long either way. I cherished the handful of memories the old bearded man with pale eyes and freckle spots left me.  A stomach infection did him in, and not even Kalarai, the most respected shaman in Bilda City, could save him. She shook her bony finger in his face, frowning, and promising him nothing but death, so when he grew cold, it didn’t come as a surprise.  “She-Demons do not favor men,” she reminded me as she rubbed the spot between my shoulder blades. After the prayers were sung, but before the tears have dried, Kalarai returned to the temple steps, to continue collecting She-Demon’s grace and passing it along to the young girls as blessings.

When I finished the prayer in my dead father’s honor, I climbed the stairs back up and walked into my mother’s bedroom. I wasn’t worried about waking her up. She slept like stone – still and somber. She wore the white-leather mask even in her sleep. They called her Faceless. Even I called her Faceless on occasion. Only once did I see her without her mask. She was sick and took it off to rub a pale pink ointment on the bridge of her nose. I remember gasping at the sight of the ripped scars that tore through each of her cheeks and pulled at the corners of her eyes - part of the commitment ceremony when she received her assignment from the temple. She described to me the entire ordeal in great detail - the blade, the stinging, the smell of the burnt flesh. I was about to wretch my meal on her feet, when she made me swear I would never enter the temples. Ever.

At five years old I promised, gladly.

Turned out - I lied.

I couldn’t help it. I wiped the water from my eyes with the heel of my palm and left her room, forcing a deep breath and a smile, resolved not to think of my mother, at the very least not for the following three days. She and Vi would have to manage without me from now on. I crossed the dusty floor of our shop in four paces, and the door slammed behind me, leaving the slanted shelves of our shop to be tended by someone other than myself, for a change. Someone else would carve the shoulder bones into whistles, someone else would string the ribs into ornate belts, someone else would tile the sternums into amulets. I would never attend the Scribe Academy to become a record keeper, as my parents wished on me for as long as I could remember myself. I had more important things to attend to. I

Barefoot, I leaped over the puddles, passed the perfectly shaped round chasm in the center of the square, approaching my near destination and reminding myself that my offering was worth the risk. Abandoning my mother, never feeding Vi slices of papaya, risking my throat sliced over the Well of Gii, or my heart ripped out to the sound of four-barrel clay flutes - was worth it.

The first row of skulls at the base of the She-Demon Arch lit up with the morning gold just as I approached. A line of about twenty girls already stood at the start of the sacred path.


  1. Lyudmyla,
    Wow, your work on this is evident. It's such a smooth read, very nicely balanced between action and description. I feel very easily a sense of the world in which our narrator lives, but as I'm writing this I can't think of her name off the top of my head. Hang on…ok I found it. Palenke. It's only mentioned once, and it didn't stick with me even though other details were wonderfully familiar yet strange. I'm not saying you have to change her name, but I remember her mother's name easily and the monkey. But not the main character.
    Other than that, I feel like your world building is off to an excellent start.
    One other part that slowed me a little was how she conversed with her father in the beginning of this section, but then visits her father in the ancestry later in this section. Is he dead both times? Alive at the earlier part and dead later? I am fine with her conversing with a dead father both times, I just think it needs to be clarified in your simple but elegant way with words.

  2. Hi! Thank you for sharing your work. Your talent for writing is clear. :D Your world building is great, which is something I often struggle with. So, yay! The biggest thing I had trouble with was the character. I was unclear on her motivation for leaving her mother and joining the temples. It seemed as if she could easily blame them at first for her mother being the way she is. And in return, she seems to indicate her mother is harsh and mean at times, and at others she seems very attached and dedicated. I want her inner thoughts to be clear to the reader. I want to know why she's making this difficult choice right now. It doesn't have to be a lot, just a hint might even do.

    This paragraph tripped me up: Our Bone Shop, filled with decorations and trinkets, was supplied mostly through my mother’s gruesome job. I knew I would miss these walls. The pet sleeping under my chin and the smell of the crushed paint powder would soon become my past; the walls of the Temples of Tetlan – my very near future.

    It jumps from talking about her mother's job supplying the shop to the first mention of her leaving! Maybe she can have a thought at the beginning when watching out the window about being in the temple before they're executed or something that makes more sense in terms of your story.

    Otherwise, like I said, beautiful writing and interesting, female dominated world. :D Cant' wait to read the revision!

  3. Hi Lyudmylam!

    Great first sentence – it really drew me in. While I like the details in the second and third paragraph, it’s backstory that isn’t necessary at the moment. I would prefer to see this later and get more to what’s going on at the moment.

    The first paragraph was a great place to start, but going directly to the main character going to sleep stopped the action for me. While there’s good detail in her thoughts before bed, this is again backstory that could be put later.

    I also don’t know where the story is going by the end of the first five pages. A clearer sense of the conflict to come would be great. Perhaps there’s a different place to start the story that is closer to the main conflict? The world building is great, but maybe there’s a way to intersperse that with more action and more conflict.

    Hope this helps!

  4. Hello Lyudmylam. Cheryl here, a workshop participant.

    Your opening paragraph drew me in and peaked my curiosity. Wondering if the opening would be more effective if you continued from the first paragraph by putting Palenke already at the temple and then explain the circumstances that put her there.

    The bit about her dad is confusing. May need to bring up that the first conversation with him is one that she is remembering from earlier in her life.

    Also thinking you could pair her mother's scars and how she got them with why her parents never wanted her to go to the temple. This might fit in with my comment on the first paragraph.

    Have to saw that human skulls used as candles is interesting to say the least. Waiting to hear more about that if possible.


  5. Thank you so much everyone for taking the time to comment. I'm taking everything to heart. I will definitely find a way to clarify the father situation. I don't want to confuse the reader.

    Also, a couple of you asked about the main conflict, and why exactly she's joining the temples. I recognize it's vague, and have a question: if I have the reasons for Palenke's joining the temple revealed in the last line of the first chapter (couple more pages in), do you think that's too long to wait?

    Thank you!


  6. Hi Lyudylam
    I thought Cheryl's comments above summed up my thoughts. I don't want to seem repetitive :)

    I was confused in the first paragraph. Are only men executed in this land? If yes, Why?

    " I was sure he’d watch my upcoming trials form the Black." [This sentence seems confusing to me]
    In the 9th paragraph - should you possibly be explaining a bit more what a She-demon actually is?


  7. This opening is intriguing and leaves me wanting more, but at the same time it leaves me with too many questions that take me out of the story. I think a lot of what you have here is compelling and dramatic, but we need less backstory and more current action.

    “The doomed souls rattled on the floor of the cage care in accord with the heavy rain past the man arch of the Justice Temple in the direction of the execution field.” This sentence is a bit convoluted. It’s unclear where the narrator is until later in the paragraph when we find out she’s in a basement.

    I would clarify the description here. What is she seeing? Why is she glad that she isn’t a boy? We don’t get anything that explains this.

    The second paragraph is an example where we are given backstory that takes us away from the immediate action. It is also given out of context.

    We don’t find out that the executioner is the narrator’s mother until page two. Why not find this out when she’s looking at the men who will soon be executed. Also, let us find out about characters as Palenke comes upon them. When she sees her mother sleeping with her mask that makes her faceless, then we can find out that she is the executioner.

    In revision I would slow down the action and I would make it clear that she has chosen to leave her life against her mother’s wishes to do exactly what she promised she would never do, go to the temples.

    Let us get her memory about her father when she goes to say goodbye or talk to his body.

    My bigger question is why is she leaving and breaking her promise? Why does she feel she must make this sacrifice? It seems not that this is her choice. I want to know what brings her to this choice.

    I think what is missing here is Palenke’s life before she makes the decision to leave. Whether you use it or not, I think it would be useful for you to write a scene or a few scenes that shows us an ordinary day for Palenke. What does she do in the Bone Shop? Who does she see? What are her interactions with the people who come to the shop? How does she interact with her mother? With her father’s body? With her pet? Keep us in scene and slow the action down. Let us watch Palenke go through the Bone Shop, her home, the only life she’s known, so when the incident happens that makes Palenke decide to leave her world and break the promise she made to her mother, we understand why and what she is giving up.

    You want your reader’s to worry for your characters. Let me worry for Palenke by showing me the dangers she is facing. You give us a little of this with the mother and her face. Give us more. Let us experience with Palenke the moment where she knows she has no choice but sneak out of her home and go to the Temples, risking everything.

    I look forward to reading your revision.

    There is a lot of exciting material here.