Saturday, September 5, 2015

1st 5 Pages September Workshop - Archer

Name: Chelsea Archer
Genre: Young Adult
Title: An Ugly Beauty

Dean Westford sat in the small diner, his feet tapping against the table legs. The local newspaper lay open before him, the headline practically screaming: “Another Hiker Missing in the Northwest Woods.” His eyes scanned the meager details. A single female hiker missing since Thursday afternoon; moderately skilled in outdoor survival; the authorities are hopeful. He sat back and ran his fingers through his hair, thinking of Kali. She would be all over this.

A steaming cup of coffee and a high-rise of pancakes plopped onto his table.

“You looked in desperate need of your usual, love,” Marjorie said.

Dean smiled despite his mood. “Perfect timing as always.” Marjorie was his favorite waitress at the Briar Rabbit, had been since he’d starting coming here when he was five.

She glanced at the paper, now half hidden by Dean’s breakfast. “Best to leave the worrying to the professionals, eh?” She smiled and turned to another table.

She was right, as usual, but he knew Kali would never leave this one alone. He thought back to all the other hikers who had gone missing over the past several years, all the ones that were never found, or worse, the ones whose bodies eventually showed up. Twelve deaths and seventeen missing hikers over the past ten years. Odds were that they were accidental, at least that’s what the park rangers and police said. Dean believed them, if not entirely, at least enough to let it go, but not Kali.

He leaned in, savoring the buttery aroma of fresh pancakes. He took a big bite of the fluffy wonder followed by a sip of coffee, then looked up as the bell over the door jingled. Kali walked towards him, today’s paper clutched in her hand.

“It’s a girl this time,” Kali said, and slapped the paper on the table.

“So I saw.”

“Well, what are you waiting for? The forest service is mounting up a search party and we’re going to be late.”

Since her brother Eric had died four years before, all Kali had thought about was finding the truth. Each missing hiker was a clue, a link to the brother who’d disappeared for six weeks before his body had been found. Cause of death a supposed heart attack, dead less than twenty-four hours–where had he been all that time? A mystery for sure, but Kali just couldn’t let it go, couldn’t move on with her life until justice had been served—or at least as much justice that could be had for a dead man.

Dean pushed his breakfast to the side, giving her room to sit down.

She sat, but she did not relax. He took the paper from her and turned it over so the headline was hidden, and did the same with his. He took in her disheveled blonde hair, the dark circles rimming her green eyes, her frayed sweatshirt resting loosely on thin shoulders. He worried she hadn’t been taking care of herself.

“Seriously, Dean. Let’s go, Lucas is already down there.”

Dean swallowed, his throat clicking. “I thought he was working today.” Lucas was her boyfriend, though Dean couldn’t understand what she saw in him.

“He took time off.” Kali hesitated. “Please Dean.”

He pulled his plate back and took another bite of his pancakes, his eyes never leaving her. “I have to work today.”

“Isn’t the search for a missing girl more important than doing inventory at the dive shop?”

Dean leaned back, putting distance between them. He resisted the urge to shake his head at her blatant ignorance, knowing it would only start a fight.

“I work for a living, Kali. I need this money if I’m ever going to get a shot at going to college, you know this. We can’t just put our lives on hold every time some stupid college kid gets lost in the woods. They’re not Eric.”
Kali’s face flushed. “You think I don’t know that? Of course they’re not Eric, but they’re still missing and they still need our help.”

"Help?” Dean looked down and leaned forward, bringing his eyes up to meet hers. “Let’s be honest here. You’re not going out into those woods to help these people, you’re going out there to find answers that you’re never going to find. It’s been four years, Kali. Four years of me watching you kill yourself and I can’t do it anymore.”

“Then don’t,” Kali said. She slide her chair back and stood. “But I won’t abandon my brother.”

As she turned to go, Dean stood and gripped her arm, stopping her retreat. “He’s dead, Kali, dead. There’s nothing left to abandon.”

She inhaled sharply and wrenched her arm out of Dean’s grasp. Her eyes glistened. “Screw you, Dean.”
He watched the door swing closed behind her, then sunk slowly back down into his seat. He knew people were staring, but at that moment he couldn’t care less. Everything about that girl drove him crazy. But why did I have say those things? He questioned, mentally berating himself. He closed his eyes trying to picture Kali’s smiling face, but was met with only that last look of hurt and betrayal.

I’ll go outside, he thought, and if she’s out there, I’ll apologize and help her with this asinine mission, but if she’s gone, I’m going to let her go. He felt some small comfort in this thought. It was only when he reached for his wallet that he realized his hands were shaking.

He exited the building half hoping Kali would still be there and half hoping she’d left to continue her little crusade without him. She was leaning against the bumper of his SUV, arms crossed, head bowed. He walked up to her, and placed the toes of his boots against the toes of her shoes.

“I hate you,” she said, her voice thick.

Dean sighed. “I know.” He opened his arms.

Kali let out a strangled sob and launched herself at him.

He held her, cheek pressed against her soft hair, until she stopped shaking. And still he held her. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled.

She wiped tears against his chest. “Does that mean you’re coming along?”

“Yeah, but you owe me.”

“Two cases of beer and a pizza coming up.”

“Make it three.” It was an old joke, and Dean felt relieved to see the ghost of a smile cross her face.

“Thank you,” she said, leaning up and placing a chaste kiss on his cheek. She pulled away and crossed the lot to her car.

He watched her pull a hiking pack out of the back, all the while his cheek burning like fire. He’d known Kali practically all his life, felt more comfortable with her than anyone else in the world. Once, it seemed that nothing could come between them but things had changed since Eric’s death. She had withdrawn, pulled into herself and focused on nothing more than figuring out what had happened to him. Dean had been patient, had helped her in any way he could, but when she finally seemed to come back, to find herself again, Lucas had stepped into the picture and everything had fallen apart.

“You’re driving,” she said, walking toward Dean’s black Chevy Tahoe.

He climbed nimbly into the SUV and slammed the door.


  1. Hi Chelsea,

    You’ve begun to set up an intriguing mystery, but as I read I felt that I really want to know more about Kali and Dean. He seems to be in love with her, and she’s obsessed with finding missing hikers in the wake of her brother’s death. But I’d really like to know more about them as people. I don’t get enough of a sense of who these people are.

    How old is Dean? If it weren’t for the mention of needing money for college, I would guess he’s a fully-grown man—he’s in a diner alone, reading the paper. His thoughts are not very teenage-boy sounding in subject or tone. If he is a young guy, I think he needs a few more teenage details of dress and speech! Overall the set-up here feels very adult mystery. If you’re aiming YA, I think you need some more teen-world building along with the mystery set-up.
    I’m also not sure Dean reading the paper is your strongest hook. The first lines should really grab your reader. Maybe a flashback to what happened with Eric: a sensory image with a visceral punch. Maybe Dean found the body?

    Be sure your point of view stays consistent. You’re using third person narration, but Dean’s thoughts are in first person, “But why did I have say those things?”

    The tension between Lucas and Dean sounds promising. Maybe rather than having Dean explain that he's the boyfriend, Lucas could actually show up at the diner and we can pick up on what’s going on for ourselves—may pack more of a punch that way!

  2. Hi Chelsea,
    Oh, I love a good murder mystery. Cool premise!
    I think your starting sentence could begin with “Another Hiker Missing in the Northwest Woods.” That would grab me right away!
    I also really enjoy the dynamic between Kali and Dean. Perhaps use their dialogue more to build and reveal what happened to her brother, instead of telling us through Dean’s thoughts.
    I feel like I know Kali’s personality very well from the way you fleshed out her character with her speech and movements, but Dean is more of a mystery. Which is great, I just thought he was much older for some reason, until I read “I work for a living, Kali. I need this money if I’m ever going to get a shot at going to college, you know this.” Something about the way he interacts with the waitress and then Kali threw me a bit.
    What are the stakes if Dean doesn’t go investigate with Kali? Lucas is her boyfriend, but Dean clearly has feelings for her. Will he lose her friendship? His chance at winning her love?
    Can’t wait to see what happens!

  3. I'm a big fan of mysteries, so this set-up intrigues and excites me. That said, I'm not sure about your opening PP because it's not clear to me, as reader, why we are in Dean's POV. Kali, with the dead brother and the drive to solve the crime, feels like more of a protagonist while Dean feels more vague and sort of outside. Per one of the comments above, I got an older, late 20s/early 30s vibe from Dean until the line about college. The fact that he works, he has a "usual" big (pricey?) breakfast at the diner and a favorite waitress all feels very mature. Then Kali comes in and it's not clear whether the relationship is somewhat paternal--even when we find out at the end that Dean has lost out to Lucas, we still don't know how/why they first met and the very specific nature of their friendship pre-brother's death. Were they classmates, neighbors, childhood friends? I guess, in sum, I love the plot set-up but this feels like you're still kind of writing into the storing, working on character development, and the strongest FIRST FIVE pages are yet to come. I'd try being a bit more subtle on the "missing point" and grab us with character. Do we even need to meet Marjorie or know Dean likes pancakes at this point? Maybe the start of the story is Kali entering the diner brandishing the paper. Maybe Dean doesn't even know about the new crime until she enters. That might give you some good space for dialogue (argument about whether he's going to help with search) in which you can divulge some of the Eric stuff, etc., instead of what feels right now rather expositional. Finally, while I love how boldly you launch your mystery onto these pages, I think it might almost be too much for readers in one swift go. Maybe hold back on a few details--maybe don't bring up the Lucas jealousy until Lucas actually turns up in a scene and we see tension between him and Dean? Good luck with your revision. I think this opening has fantastic potential.

  4. I really got into your opening and felt like I was there with Dean. The one thing I didn't understand was his relationship to Kali. I thought they were Detectives, partners.

    I liked the details about the pancakes so much they made me hungry!

    I really got into this story until the part where he says he's about to go to college. And in the same paragraph he says stupid college kids in reference to the missing ones. This sounded off that he's about to go to college when I pictured him much older, and that he would call other college kids stupid when he's about to be one.

    After that, his conversation with Kali took a different turn and Dean came off as harsh. so much so, I didn't care about him anymore. Perhaps if I knew his relationship with Kali better, I would understand that. As it was, he seemed cold.

  5. Chelsea, welcome to the First Five Pages workshop!

    Your opening pages are very, VERY good. I already like Dean and empathize with him, because he longs for a girl who keeps him in the friend zone. I feel for Kali, because she's on a worthy mission. They're both characters who I cared about from the beginning.

    You've done a great job of setting up what seems to be an intriguing mystery/thriller/romance. You gave details, but not too many--like I love that there's an old joke that will likely be revealed later. Very clever. Oh, and I really like the title.

    Overall, I think the opening builds a strong foundation. Here are some things that could use a tweak:

    The pancakes are "plopped" on the table. Perhaps "delivered to" or something along those lines would be more appropriate, since pancakes can't plop on their own.

    My main issue was Eric's death, and why it's connected to news about another missing hiker. Can you sneak in a breadcrumb about why Kali is suspicious about his death, and why it's connected to the missing hikers? To me it seems like a leap, but I know there is something you can add that will connect those two dots. Even if you don't want to do a reveal here, which I understand, Dean can at least wonder why Kali has made a connection.

    I didn't realize who Kali was until the end of these pages. She's the girl he pines for. I'd make a friend zone reference earlier, so we don't wonder if she's his sister, a friend, his girlfriend, or whatever.

    Minor editing things: When Kali says "Please, Dean." Just add that comma.
    When Kali 'slide her chair back and stood' change slide to slid.

    That's it! In my opinion, this is a rock solid opening. This is a book I'd read!

    Good luck on your revision :)

  6. Hi Chelsea,

    Good stuff! I like the premise of Something Happening in the Woods, and Dean’s yearning for Kali, and Kali’s moxie and determination.

    I agree with J.J.’s comments; and with other commenters who noted that Dean seems much older than his intended age.

    I’d spend some particular time on your first sentence. The cool stuff here – the mystery and the love story – both have a lot of potential; can you work one (or both) of those in there? What about starting with “Dean Westford sat back and ran his fingers through his hair, thinking of Kali.” ?

    So far your setting is reasonably generic, which is fine. Two details stood out to me: the Briar Rabbit cafĂ©, and the name Kali. I’m not sure either of these is intentional, but here’s what I’m reading from them: Briar Rabbit references the old Uncle Remus tales and Br’er Rabbit, which makes me think this story is set somewhere in the south, and perhaps issues of race/culture will be playing into it; and Kali is the name of a Hindu goddess whose major appearance in Western media has been as a goddess of death and destruction (my apologies for simplifying a whole lot). So, if these are intentional, cool and well done; if not, maybe consider the signals you’re sending.

    I’m interested to know in what condition the hikers’ bodies have been found, and why that was worse than remaining missing. Typically a family prefers to have a conclusion, I think, and therefore that language prompts me to believe that the hikers’ remains tell a particularly gruesome tale – which doesn’t jibe with their deaths having been ruled accidental. You say that Dean doesn’t entirely believe that story, either. Why not? Relating Dean’s particular take on the subject could give us some good insight into his character.

    I’m a little annoyed at Dean for choosing to call Kali’s insistence that the missing hiker is more important than his work “blatant ignorance.” That’s a pretty harsh criticism for the girl you love. You might get more mileage – and make Dean a more sympathetic character – by expanding that a little. Show us that it hurts his feelings that she never noticed that he needs the money; or that he’s frustrated that she never noticed he’s been there every single time for her at personal expense; etc.

    Right after that, you note that he doesn’t want to pick a fight – and then he goes right ahead and says the missing hiker, about whom she cares deeply, is a “stupid college kid” and “They’re not Eric,” which, of course that’s going to make her angry. I get that he would say that, for sure, out of frustration, and especially out of his frustrated concern for her. But he can’t just be like “slapping her verbally will definitely not pick a fight.”

    I think the rest of their interaction is very realistic, and I like that you get the good emotional conflict in the first scene.

    I’d really like to see at least a small hint of how Dean feels about Lucas as a person.

  7. Hi Chealsea,
    I love your story and the premise you’ve set up. Your first line doesn’t really call a lot of attention, though – maybe the best way would be to start with the headlines of someone missing? It’s a lot better than Dean actual reading it and causes a lot more impact.
    I also like how Kali’s interaction with Dean. Although as it’s been four years since her brother is missing, I feel like Kali would be more like a child when this happened, no? What is the impact it had on her and her family? It’s hard to grasp her feelings beyond desperation and obsession, so she ends up falling a little flat.
    Also it feels like you’ve built a world around older characters – characters who work. I feel like I’ve gotten a 18yo and 19yo vibe instead of the YA you’re aiming for, especially since everyone drives and works, etc.
    The mystery is well set up and right away we understand what kind of story this is going to be, which is very good, but you also have to be aware that the reader can’t guess everything that will happen in the story. Anyway, good work!