Sunday, July 5, 2015

First 5 Pages July Workshop - Joesephson

Name: Kalyn Josephson
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: The Underground

            In situations like this, the best thing Ross could do was stand as still as possible and filter out every single word her father spoke. Unfortunately, she’d never been very good at it. She made it all of ten seconds before seizing an empty beer bottle from the kitchen counter and chucking it at his head. Ericen ducked with all the grace of a dancing hippo, which was more than Ross expected considering he could barely stand upright.

            The bottle shattered against the far wall, joining a growing collection of dust and hair on the floor. “I swear to God.” Ross’s voice was more of a growl than anything. “If you say one more word about mom, I’m going to kill you.” It wasn’t the first time she’d threatened her father’s life, but each time she felt more and more like she meant it.

            Ericen collapsed back against the wall, his normally pale cheeks full of color. He’d been a handsome man once, before his wife had been kidnapped and he’d tripped and fell into an unending pool of liquor. Now Ross loathed their resemblance, the amber eyes and brown hair alight with red.

            “I’m not saying it was her fault!” he snapped. Six beers in and he still didn’t slur. Considering drunk was his natural state, it wasn’t surprising. “I’m just saying she shouldn’t have left that night! She knew the people following us were close by.”

            Ross had read once that if you focused on your breathing, you could control your anger. Too bad she couldn’t calm down enough to try it. “She left to meet with your contact!” She slammed her hands down and rose from her seat at the counter. “You should have been with her. And now she’s trapped in Haven, and we’re out here doing nothing.”

            Every muscle in Ericen’s face went rigid, his hands curling into fists. “Trapped?” he demanded, staggering off the wall. “You think she’s trapped, Ross? Your mother’s been gone for two months! She isn’t trapped. She’s dead.”

            “No!” Ross swept her hand across the counter, sending a week’s worth of dishes clattering across the floor. There was a reason she’d traded out the ceramic set for plastic. “You’re wrong. I know you’re wrong, and I’m going to prove it.”

            Ericen’s voice followed her through the arch to hallway. “You can’t go to Haven, Ross! They’ll kill you!”

            “Like you give a shit!” If there was a door there, she would have slammed it. Instead she trudged up the stairs with the heaviest footfalls she could manage, only stopping when she approached the orange tabby sitting on the top step. He eyed her with a flat gaze, his tail flicking from side to side.

            “Oh, don’t look at me like that.” Ross slipped past him onto the landing. “I can’t stay here another minute.” 

            “I wouldn't ask you to.” The cat’s voice floated through her head.

            Ross stopped, turning back to look at him. Tom had been the only thing keeping her sane since her mother’s disappearance, and if he thought leaving was a good idea, there was no way in hell she was sticking around.

            “Will you come with me?” she asked. For her entire life, Ross and her family had been running from the same people. She wasn’t too keen on facing them alone, especially on their territory. Haven City was a safe place for supernatural creatures, and while Ross had never been there, she knew quite a lot about it. Still, having a native of the place along for the ride couldn’t hurt. And although she wouldn’t admit it, the idea of leaving Tom behind made her chest ache.

            “Already packed.

            Ross grinned and slipped into her room. It was so empty and plain it looked uninhabited, but she’d gotten tired of packing everything up long ago. It was much easier to move on a moment’s notice when everything you owned fit into one bag.

            The first thing she grabbed were her knives. As much as they reminded her of her father, who’d given them to her on her twelfth birthday, they were the only set she had. So she strapped the sheathes on her forearms and tried to pretend they had nothing to do with him. It was easier than thinking about all the time they’d spent together training with them.

            After stuffing some of the essentials into a shoulder bag, Ross dug up her hidden stash of money from under her mattress. It wasn’t long ago that she’d caught her dad trying to pilfer it for a liquor run. She pulled the stack of bills out, setting aside the American dollars and Russian rubles but pocketing the Euros. Not that they would do her any good once she was in Haven. Despite the fact that the city was in Ireland, it had a currency all its own.

            Tom waited for her at the door, trailing after her as she jogged down the stairs. The sound of the television filtered in from the living room and Ross made a point of walking right past it. Ericen’s armchair let out a creak as he fought to his feet, calling after her as she opened the front door. 


            She froze with her hand on the doorknob. No one besides her mother called her by her full name. Coming from him it was like a slap in the face. She turned slowly to look over her shoulder at him. “Don’t ever call me that again,” she said, and slammed the door behind her.

            The walk down the dirt road into town was long, but the adrenaline running through Ross’s veins made the overgrown grass and ancient trees pass quickly. Tom said nothing as they walked, knowing better than to try and calm her down. By the time they reached the bus stop, she’d cooled to her usual degree of just above room temperature. 

            It was later in the evening, and the bus was empty except for an old man asleep in the back. They took a seat in the middle so they could talk without being heard.

            “How far is Haven from here?” Tom asked.

            Ross slumped down in the seat and folded her arms across her stomach. “Not far. Like an hour maybe.”

            “And what exactly is the plan when we get there

            “Please stop being practical.” She closed her eyes. Now that she’d stopped moving, the last remnants of her adrenaline had begun to fade. In its place were her father’s words on repeat: she’s not trapped, she’s dead.

            Tom climbed into her lap and sat down facing her. She cracked open an eye to see if he was indeed staring at her as hard as it felt like he was. Letting out an exasperated sigh, she unfolded her arms and turned sideways on the bench so her legs dangled out in the aisle. Tom balanced on her chest with ease.

            “Look, all I know is the people who took my mom are big supporters of Haven’s slave trade, and my parents did something to screw with them.” She spoke quietly so not to be overheard. “If they’ve already killed my mom, there’s no reason for my dad to come back. I think they’re keeping her alive hoping he’ll come save her.”

            What they didn’t know was that both of her parents had made the other one promise never to come after them if one of them was taken. 


  1. The title might be too generic. A quick amazon search revealed a lot of novels with the title the Underground. It might make it hard to stand out.

    I love, love, love the first paragraph. I love Ross and will be willing to follow her through 300+ pages. I like the dancing hippo reference. I imagined it in my mind.
    The reference to Ericen once being a handsome man before the liquor seems like the mother has been gone for much longer than she has been.

    I don’t trust Ericen when he blames the mother for being kidnapped.
    She was meeting his contact. Drugs? Spys? I would like a hint to what.

    I would like to know more about Haven. Just having it thrown out there without any context makes me wonder. I know you go into details later but I am hoping it would be sooner.

    I am so intrigued on why they will kill Ross if she goes to Haven.
    The cat’s voice floats in her head. Is she imagining it? Can she read his mind? Does he speak?
    I’m assuming Tom is the cat and he is the native of The Haven? What does a cat have to pack?

    I like the part about the knives. It makes me think Ross is a Bad Ass.

    Why is it okay for her mother to call her by her proper name but not her father? Has she always disliked her father or only for the short time the mom has been missing. It seemed like they got along when he was training her with the knife.

    If Tom a native of The Haven why is he asking Ross how far away is it if she has never been there?

    I really like this. I am so intrigued by the ending of the first five pages I want to read on to see what is going to happen.

  2. Interesting start! I'm intrigued.

    I’d cut the “Unfortunately, she’d never been very good at it” line. We see that Ross isn’t successful in ignoring her father in the next line, so we don’t need to be told that she’s not good at it.

    A little wordy throughout—I’d go through and see where you can condense. i.e.: “In situations like this, the best thing Ross could do was stand as still as possible and filter out every single word her father spoke” could be something like “In situations like this, Ross’s best option was to stand stock-still and filter out her father’s words.” Also, “Ross’s voice was more of a growl than anything” could be “Ross growled.”

    I like the hippo line.

    The line about threatening her father’s life and the bit about him being handsome before falling into a pool of liquor (nice line btw) definitely makes it sound like this happened way more than two months ago.

    Totally opinion: I didn’t really like Ross, probably because my first impression of her was throwing glass bottles at her drunk father. While I felt bad that she had to deal with him inebriated, he wasn’t attacking her or anything—he was just saying stuff she didn’t agree with while wasted and she was escalating the situation by making it violent (and she later pushes plates on the ground, which reinforced this impression). This immediately put me off and made it harder for me to connect with her in the excerpt.

    I’d like more hints about what happened to her mother. What kind of contact? What is her family involved in? Who are they running from and why? And what’s Haven?

    Interesting about the telepathic cat.

    I don’t understand why this moment sets Ross off to go find her mother. From the excerpt, it sounds like her father has been getting drunk and saying disagreeable things about her mother for two months—what about this interaction is different? Why run now and not two months ago when her mother first disappeared?

    Why does she pocket the Euros if she can’t use them because the city has its own currency? Does she have the right currency? It sounds like she goes out without the currency she needs to actually buy stuff in the city.

    Who is “they” in the final line? The people who abducted her mother? Ross and the cat? If the latter, then I don’t think the readers should know either, as it’s not something Ross knows, who is our protagonist and POV character.

    I think this is a cool start. It does leave me with a lot of questions that I do think should at least be hinted at or tweaked to be addressed, but I like the world that you've started building here with the first couple pages. :)

  3. Hi, Kayln.

    Overall your writing is strong. It has a smooth, easy flow to it. I think there’s a nice mix of action, description, and dialogue.

    Just a couple of nitpicky things:

    In the paragraph about her knives, your sentence should say, “The first thing she grabbed was her knives…,” not were. And she strapped the sheathes to her forearms, not on.

    When she says, “Don’t ever call me that again,” take out the “she said.” Just say she slammed the door. We know who is talking and saying “she said” interrupts the tension.

    The sentence that states Ericen “fought to his feet” sounds a little awkward to me. What about he fought to stand or he staggered to his feet, something like that.

    I agree with the other comments there are some places that could use clarification.
    Why is she suddenly so angry at her father? What is Haven? Why was her mother kidnapped? And by whom? Is Ross the only one who can talk to her cat? Why? Is it the cat or does Ross have a special ability? Who is “they” in the last paragraph?

    I’m intrigued. This seems like a very exciting and suspenseful story!

  4. I love fantasy, girls with fighting skills, and I love talking/telepathic animals, so this is up my alley!

    I'm getting a dark, perhaps paranormal vibe/tone to it. If it were a movie, at least in my mind, the set and costumes would have lots of black and dark grays, greens, and blues.

    I like that Ross is strong and determined to seek the truth. She’s strong enough to sustain a long trek to find her mom, or at least answers. She sounds like a fighter/ warrior girl, so I can understand why she has such intense emotions, but I agree with Ava that having her throw a beer bottle at her dad’s head and threatening to kill him makes it harder to root for her, especially at the beginning. My sympathy lies with her dad in the first part. Maybe bring her down a couple notches to make her more sympathetic/easier to root for and save the really big reactions for when she’s fighting a bad guy.

    From these five pages, I’m wondering/expecting the book to contain a huge conflict between some good and bad people from Haven. (It’s in Ireland, so my first instinct is a fairy world possibly? I want to read more to find out.) From your title I’m wondering if there is some sort of underground movement fighting an oppressive government, but my first thought when I heard the title was of the London subway system.

    Loved the dancing hippo line!

    I wondered if Ross is the one with the magical animal ability or if it’s the cat, but I’m sure you get to that at some point. I don’t think it’s necessary to tell us more about that in the first five pages because you could get bogged down with the dreaded backstory dump.

    Maybe stick to said or asked for most dialog tags.

    “…before his wife had been kidnapped” maybe say her mom or Mom. The first time through I thought his wife was a different person from her mother.

    “I’m just saying she shouldn’t have left that night! She knew the people following us were close by.” In this exchange, for example, you could tighten it a bit and backload the end with “close,” which is a more powerful ending word than by. It helps pull the reader to the next paragraph. “But she shouldn’t have left that night. She knew the people following us were close.” (I like that you said “she knew.” I’m thinking you planted it there to suggest mom willingly put herself in danger. I want to read more to find out why.)

    There were several exclamation points in this section. I know it’s a high emotion scene, but maybe reduce the number. They can lose their effect.

    Maybe in the paragraph where Ross storms up the stairs, you could add a line of internalization about why she has to go? Some sort of clue of her internal state and why she makes the decision. Or some back and forth internal debate? What if you also have her storm past something of her dad’s that would be symbolic to Ross of the strong man her father was before her mother was taken. Like a sword. (It could also be a way to show the reader that they aren’t ordinary humans.) That could spark her thinking that he’s never going to snap out of this and that she has to be the one to save her mom?

    “Ross stopped, turning back to look at him.” One way I’ve learned to tighten writing is to leave out actions like a character turning. It’s implied when she looks at the cat.

    I’m not sure about her grinning as she slips into her room. Is she too upset to smile? Maybe she squares her shoulders or takes a long breath.

    Fabulous description of her room. I’m feeling for her and that gives me info about her life.

    I can see a big conflict shaping up and I want to go along for the ride! Great job!

  5. One more thought. :-)

    Love the stuff about her knives. You could play up the emotion even more. Maybe she remembers the smile on his face, the kind that lifted his whole face and made his eyes shine, when he gave them to her or the bright wrapping paper and her dreading that he’d gotten her something silly like a hairdryer and it turned out to be these awesome knives. And he’d hugged her, like he’d never held anything so precious, and they’d laughed, all three of them. Her family, the family that died the night her mother was stolen. (I might be getting melodramatic. I tend to do that when I get emotional.) And in the present she can’t remember what laughing feels like and she can’t remember her father’s smile and she can’t remember the last time they hugged aside from that memory. Then maybe a visceral reaction? Burn of tears in her throat? She had to leave. It might be the only way to save her mom, to save them all.

  6. Hi Kalyn,

    First off, I love the concept! Sounds really cool. I especially can’t wait to see what Haven is like. Also, love the talking cat!

    I’m going to echo a couple of previous comments and say that I’m having a tough time liking Ross. Now, that can be an okay thing. Often the main character has flaws, and it takes us a while to really understand what makes them tick. But I was pretty put off when she threw a bottle at her father’s head, when he wasn’t trying to hurt her. In fact, he shows his concern for her, when he begs her not to go.
    She does mention that they spent a lot of time together training with knives, so that means there must’ve been a relationship between them at one time. I’d like to see at least a glimmer that she loved him at one time. I understand she’s angry, but he’s still her dad. Perhaps when she thinks of the knives she could feel a bit bad about reacting so violently toward him?
    In paragraph 5, I think you could cut the first two lines and go straight into the dialogue. Makes it move quicker.
    And Ross’s comment about the plastic dishes seems out of place, in such a rage-filled moment.

    I love Tom, but since he is from Haven, wouldn’t he have some information to give her about it?
    The sentence about her room makes me sad…  Maybe here we could have Ross remember a time when she and her parents had painted her walls together and hung pictures?
    I’m also a bit confused about the currency thing. Unless it’s vital, I’d cut this entirely.
    Ireland is a lovely, mystical place. I’d love to see a bit more atmosphere than “overgrown grass and ancient trees”.
    The paragraph about Tom getting settled in her lap. You could cut that a bit, and perhaps give us a bit of dialogue between them? Maybe here Tom could tell her a bit more about Haven? Perhaps explain more about who it is they’re running from?
    Over all, I think you’ve got a great start!! This is intriguing and it reads fast! The voice is very strong and it flows well!! GREAT JOB!!! Can’t wait to see what you do with it! 

  7. Hi! I like the name Rossalyn and her quick wit and personality! Here's my big issue: If it's been two months what's made her stay this long and decide that this is the tipping point? To me it would make more sense if something like the following had happened -- the father and mother have been gone for a while longer than she expected. The dad comes home drunk and tells her the mother was kidnapped. Then we can see her reaction and she can elude to the fact that her father was a recovering alcoholic until now. Then she can get angrier when she realizes this happened (a week?) ago and decide to go after her mother herself. Then she's more impetuous and there's a reason she's hung around that long. Does that make sense? You don't have to do it that way it's just an example, but I think that would clear up a lot.

    Be sure to stay as close to your portag as possible. Don't stop in the middle of a heated argument to tell us what the dad looks like. You can do something like I turn away. I can't stand looking in his amber eyes because they're too much like my own. Sorry -- first person is automatic for me! LOL But you see what I mean.

    Take the time to ground us in the world. That's very important, especially in high fantasy. It's tricky but do it through bits and pieces that are important to Ross. Describe her home and tell us if her clothes are cumbersome or she likes to dress to fight easily. Is she trained to use the knives? I would think so from the narrative, but I'm not positive.

    Okay I think that's enough for one week! I look forward to reading your revision!!

  8. Hi Kalyn,

    These pages caught my attention and held it. Ross’ anger at her father is evident and her grief for her mother is well written.

    The situation is established: Ericen has become an alcoholic since his wife disappeared. He believes her dead but Ross has not accepted that idea. You bring in the conflict early with her father. Her snarky remarks are appropriate to that situation. You also establish that she is determined that she will find her mother and rescue her even though the place she’s going is very dangerous.

    Why didn’t she change her hiding place if she caught dad trying to steal her money? Idea: She grabbed the Tampax box from the back of her bathroom cabinet. She reached her hand into the almost full box and pulled the stack of bills out.

    I love Tom, the cat. He may become my favorite character. He already has a wonderful voice, supportive of her and practical. He will help her survive the many scrapes that you have planned for her.

    Again, anger with her father is evident as she takes her knives. Are there only two? She might have one always strapped to her calf under her uniform, jeans, etc.

    Describe some of the essentials she would throw into a shoulder bag. What are essentials for an angry and grief stricken young adult? I could see a backpack but shoulder bag is ok.

    The last sentence doesn’t fit here. She will have to find that out on her own in time. And you’re stepping out of her voice and becoming a narrator.