Sunday, August 9, 2015

1st 5 Pages August Workshop - Shorrock Revision 1

Subject: Shorrocks Revision 1

YA Gothic

Yorkshire in winter can be a savage place, the moors particularly so. There's no buffer to the wind that howls straight off the frozen rock, flinging snow and sleet at anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves outdoors, it will leave you fighting for breath in a matter of seconds. Only the adventurous or the stupid ever wandered outside at that time of year. I didn't consider myself to be either. I just needed to get lost in that whiteness, to feel numbed once and for all.

The path that ran beside the river was deserted, my boot prints in the snow the only evidence of life as I made my way up to the churchyard cemetery. I checked the windows of the old Vicarage, but the curtains were safely closed. As the new girl in town, it wouldn't do my reputation a lot of good to be found haunting the graves of long dead locals in my free time.

My ritual was simple. I picked up a bunch of cheap flowers from a local supermarket, found my favourite grave, and left them there to be utterly crushed by the weight of winter.

The stone angel stoically faced the wrath of the moor, having endured centuries of whatever the weather chose to throw at her. Her features had been erased over the years, as had the details of whoever she watched over. I dropped the roses I had bought and ran my hands over the icy stone, as if its texture might give me some hint as to who was buried there.

The scent of my mother's perfume was the only hint that she had followed me. The woman had always been uncannily silent,.

"Lil," Her voice was wary, "What are you doing here?"

She had committed a litany of low acts in the past few weeks, but for some reason her intrusion on my gravesite visit seemed the most despicable.

"I'm grieving Ali." She flinched slightly at my sudden use of her Christian name but showed no other sign of emotion. "I think you'll find that's what normal people do when someone they love dies.  It would be preferable if this was dad's grave, but since you decided to move us here I have to make do with what I can get."

"We all grieve differently, Lilith."

"Running is not grieving."

"I'm not running."

It was a terrible lie and we both knew it. When the police arrived on the afternoon of my seventeenth birthday to tell us the helicopter had crashed on the way back from dad's archaelogical dig our little world imploded. Ali couldn't stand the pain of being around anything that reminded her of him and I couldn't bear to let him go.

She took a tentative step towards me.  "I think you should come home."

"I don't have a home anymore. You sold it." I turned away and headed back toward the river.

It had been twenty-one days since we buried my father back in Oxford, three days since we came to Ilkley, and less than twenty-four hours since the crows had started arriving.

Three of the birds were perched on top of the old gable above the front door when I stumbled up the drive. They watched me approach, staying silent but constantly shifting, as uneasy in my company as I was in theirs. A faint light seeped out between the curtains giving the only soft touch to the heavy Victorian stone. These houses had been built to keep wind weather and superstition out, and the living safely in. For the first time since our arrival I was glad of their pure bulk. I gave the crows one last look and went inside, the wind slamming the door behind me.

The kitchen was the one room in the house Ali and I had managed to stake out as our own so far. Gourmet cooking magazines and fashion catalogues were strewn across the bench next to her half empty glass of wine and my school timetable. A framed photo of the three of us taken a couple of years back was propped against one of the cupboard doors and I wondered if that was what had triggered her to come looking for me. I dumped by coat and gloves on one of the chairs and headed for the sanctuary of my room.

The bedroom balcony railing was where the first of the crows had arrived, just on dusk the night before. In the silence of the fog the commotion of wings had startled me. There was barely enough light to make out the bird's black form and the way it perched on the railing, one dark eye trained on my room and the other on the moor. I went downstairs and dug an old torch out from under the sink in the kitchen, but despite my regular checks during the night it never moved or showed any signs that it knew it was being watched. When I woke in the morning the sun was just rising and the crow was gone.

I breathed on the glass until I melted a small patch of frost on the outside, just enough to see through and was met by the same black eye staring straight at me from the railing. The skin at the back of my neck crept slowly in response. The night crow was back and it seemed to be waiting for something.


  1. Hi Helen, I like the new dialogue between the mother and daughter. It shows the anger and sense of betrayal the daughter feels. The way the mother comes outside in this version feels as if she is intruding on her daughter's space and need for privacy more than it did originally, so the conflict is sensed more I think. You've kept the nice description of the harshness of winter which is helpful to people like me who live in Savannah, GA. :) I look forward to reading the feedback you receive from the mentors this week. They were amazing last week in really getting to the nuts and bolts of what would make the stories stronger! Good work!

  2. Thanks Melissa - you are very kind. I am not happy with this revision at all - it is disjointed and lacking a decent flow. Unfortunately I have been a bit unwell this week and was desperate just to get something in on time incorporating everyone's suggestions. Next revision should be better!

  3. I think this is a big improvement from last week's submission, so excellent work there. To me, it flowed nicely overall, but there were just a few places that pulled me out of the world.

    The first is a small but significant bit during the conversation with her mother -- the paragraph that starts, "I'm grieving Ali." (First of all, you need a comma after grieving, or else your reader assumes she's grieving for a person named Ali.) I think this paragraph is better suited just as narration since it's working to inform the reader of backstory rather than communicate something the mother doesn't already know. As dialogue, it sounds a little unnatural. The rest of what they say are little snippets of sentences, so I say keep it short and sweet here as much as possible.

    Second, I'm getting a nice visual of the setting, especially now that it's in the first paragraph. However, when you mention the fashion magazines in the kitchen, it intrigued me. What is she wearing? What's considered fashion in this world? You mention boots and that it's extremely cold, but give me more. Is she wearing a heavy fur coat? An elaborately detailed shawl that was warm enough for Oxford but is now useless in this new climate? Details like that would help flesh her out more, as would some character description. Right now I'm just picturing Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones, so there's a lot of opportunity here to build up her character and make her unique.

    I also like that you used scent to announce Ali's arrival. But what does her perfume smell like? Your descriptions should treat all the senses.

  4. Hey Helen,
    I think you did a pretty good job here ! I wouldn't know that you were unwell (I hope you feel better by the way) by this revision. I have a better understanding of the fathers death and the relationship between Lilith and her mother. There is just one paragraph that is slightly oddly structured to me, and that's the second to last one. I think you should clarify a bit that she is going to bed, and then checking on the crow throughout the night. It kind of seems like you jumped from her getting the torch and then keeping watch over the crow. That's just my opinion. I know there is a word restriction for these submissions, but maybe you could try describing the photo of all three of them mentioned. Were they happy, obvious to what would happen later on, etc. But overall good job :)

  5. I love this revision. I'm thinking more and more: why is this YA? It definitely features a young protagonist, but it also has a certain weight to it that I think might fit as adult fiction.

    Nice revised opening. Perhaps add a period after “outdoors.” Just a thought.

    The first few paragraphs are well done and drop a lot of mysterious hints, which leave me intrigued.

    For some reason I’m wanting to hear Mother and Father, instead of Ali and Dad. It seems as if it would fit this story more so than the casual "Dad."

    As soon as I wrote that I realized you used Father in the next paragraph: "It had been twenty-one days since we buried my father back in Oxford..."

    I really like this a lot, and am curious to see what others have to say. Nice job.

  6. Hi Helen, I too hope you are feeing better. Thanks for working on this even while you were under the weather. I love the commitment of writers!

    While you have clarified some of the confusing parts in terms of the language, I'm wondering if in your effort to do as you say above, to respond to everyone's comments, you've gone a bit too far and lost some of the feel of the original. That had a really nice haunting voice that I'm lacking in this one. I may be in the minority, but I am not the biggest fan of you starting with the weather. For one, it is something that many agents dislike. I am one to break the rules, for sure, but if you are going to do so, it needs to be 100% necessary and I'm not sure it is here. I preferred your other opening.

    It intrigued me more. It was more unique. If you don’t want to start there, I'd consider starting with this line: "It had been twenty-one days since we buried my father back in Oxford, three days since we came to Ilkley, and less than twenty-four hours since the crows had started arriving."

  7. When you begin a novel you want a line that will be unlike anything a reader has seen before and to me, the first line or your original and of this line here do that much more than what you have now. It needs to stand out amid hundreds of queries. In this revision, I actually think you could cut all that comes before that line and not have lost much—it would still make sense. That’s telling that perhaps what comes before isn’t strong enough or serving a purpose. The pop you had at the end with the crows is diluted here and the interaction with the mother feel a bit forced. I know you worked hard on this, so my apologies for not being sold on it! I think there is some good stuff in here and nice clarifications but I’d love to see those built on something closer to what you had before.

    But I will leave you with one thought: any reader, including myself, is one person. Subjective. In taking feedback, often the hardest thing to do is to figure out WHAT feedback to take. You will never please everyone. So as you work on this for next week, take in what resonates for you but don’t feel compelled to follow every suggestion or please every reader. I think in trying to do so, yo might have lost your wonderfully distinct voice a bit.

    Good luck next week and feel better!

  8. Hi Lori, I tend to side with you on this one - this revision doesn't sound like me. It is a maddeningly subjective process and having such polar views on the opening lines makes it even more frustrating. I have a writer friend who is going through a seven month third draft process working with an expert tutor and an editor and whatever one tells him to change the other tells him to leave in. His advice was to take it all on board and then go with my gut - so I guess that's just what I will have to do.

  9. I, like everyone else, hope you are feeling better! I'm incredibly pathetic when I'm ill so kudos to you for cranking this out. I enjoyed the feel of this book. I like how it's more clear why she's putting the flowers on the grave for her father. It felt blatantly obvious and not confusing. I really understood her character in that moment. I like that her mom is Ali but I might suggest distinguishing the parents by calling the mom Mother and the father something more endearing like Dad or something like that. I just kept getting confused with Ali and everything. I think you could still convey the distance between the two with a more formal name.

  10. I, like everyone else, hope you are feeling better! I'm incredibly pathetic when I'm ill so kudos to you for cranking this out. I enjoyed the feel of this book. I like how it's more clear why she's putting the flowers on the grave for her father. It felt blatantly obvious and not confusing. I really understood her character in that moment. I like that her mom is Ali but I might suggest distinguishing the parents by calling the mom Mother and the father something more endearing like Dad or something like that. I just kept getting confused with Ali and everything. I think you could still convey the distance between the two with a more formal name.

  11. HI Helen,

    I hope you're feeling better! And overall, WOW. This is much improved. I know you've said it feels disjointed to you, and it doesn't sound like you, but it still does. Also, you had polished the other piece and added in some of that haunting lyrical language over a period of time. In your mind, you're likely still hearing echoes of that, but there's no reason you can't add more of that phrasing into this version. In truth, it needs more sensory and visual description of the scenes where your MC is acting, actually doing things. A lot of your descriptions and lyricism are reserved for the moments where we're in her head, and we lose immediacy that way. More on this later. : )

    As far as starting with weather, I think that gothic is one place that you can get away from it. The opening line speaks to me of Wuthering Heights and sets the stage, but that paragraph hooks me. There are few writers who would phrase it as nicely, so you're still standing out. Agents are going to give you at least a couple of paragraphs on reading this, and each paragraph leads inevitably to another. That's a writer doing her job.

    Of course, this is YOUR piece, and you have to feel comfortable with it, so ultimately, do what feels good. But I wouldn't give up on this yet. Truly.

    As far as the disjointedness, I think there are some simple fixes.

    In your first paragraph, you end by suggesting she's escaping to get numb. Then several paragraphs later, you suggest a ritual. Those are two conflicting ideas--the first very subtly suggests that this is the first time she's done this, while the ritual suggests she does it all the time.

    As a first step, consider changing the transition sentence into present tense: "Only the adventurous or the stupid ever wander outside at this time of year."

    Also, consider making it clear that she's doing this repeatedly, almost as if she can't help herself. You can mention the ritual here -- and that's an opportunity to get some more of your beautiful phrasing in.

  12. "Once and for all" is a throw-away phrase, and a wasted opportunity. Be more specific. What emotion/wound is she escaping? Grief? Anger? Loss? Pain? A mixture? Give it to us here: "to numb the loss that had clung to me since my father's death." -- or whatever.

    Similarly, "haunting the graves of long dead locals" is more powerful without the "in my free time." -- you come beautifully close to backlogging your paragraphs, but you're frequently letting the air out of the opportunities. Check the rest of these pages, and the rest of your ms, for places like this. Leave readers with your fantastic punchlines to drag them into the next paragraph and strip away anything that weakens that closing sentence.

    Suggest using "the ritual" at the beginning of the next paragraph instead of "my" ritual.

    And that brings me to the ritual itself. Escape suggests running without planning -- and that's what the numbness does as well. A stolen moment where she feels the piece. The buying of flowers and the crush of winter bothered me last time too, but I couldn't put my finger on exactly why. Now I realize it's because there's too much planning involved, and also because crushed by winter suggests that she's seen the results of it -- which pulls us out of the story. You can fix the latter by changing winter to snow, but it's still an odd emotion and image, and because of that, it pulls me out of the story every time. It would require a bit more explanation. Similarly, what if she somehow stole the flowers from Ali? Maybe Ali collects orchids and she's stolen a stem. Or at the very least, grab them from the nearest petrol station or grocer's. The explanation can be as simple as leaving them, even though they'd be crushed by the weight of snow, and a simile between that and her emotions. (Without getting too overwrought, of course : ))

    I think overall, what's confusing here is how she's done this all along without Ali realizing, and that the planning seems at odds with the urge to escape. Does that make sense? Account for those two things, and I think you'll be fine.

    The scene with Ali is great, but it's a bit stark compared to the luxuriousness of your other words. Bring us more into the moment. What does Ali look like? What does seeing her truly make your MC feel? Does Ali look like she's grieving. As I said above, compared to the description of the weather, what I'm really missing are the descriptions that put me into the moment. Show us Alli, make us feel the snow, show us the bleakness of the churchyard and how the flowers feel in her hands. Show us the moment and the poignancy, and make us *feel* the shock and the intrusion when Alli shows up.

  13. Finally, if you are REALLY unhappy with starting with the current paragraph, another option might be to start a little sooner, with her staring out the window and being confined. Right now, your transition back to the house and the crows was a bit perfunctory and I had to reread that section several times to figure out that she'd actually returned to the house. (You have her heading back toward the river, then suddenly we're there.)

    This might be another possible opening line:

    It had been twenty-one days since we buried my father back in Oxford, three days since we came to Ilkley, and less than twenty-four hours since the crows had started arriving.

    It could be that the birds are staring into the house, and that somehow that drives her out and away to the graveyard?? I don't know. It's a stretch, but it starts with that element of the supernatural, and then when you return to the house and you see that there are still crows--or more crows--it helps to create a smoother transition.

    Overall, I'd say that this is super strong, but needs to be fleshed out and balanced. It doesn't feel disjointed as much as polished in places and unfinished and rushed in others.

    Trust yourself. Go with what makes your heart thump as you write it, but make sure YOU are feeling your MC's emotions and knowing what those are. Then work on conveying that to the reader. If you do that, you're fine. : )