Saturday, September 5, 2015

1st 5 Pages September Workshop - French

Name: Christa French
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: Union

When I wake, the wagon is ablaze.

It's already spread beyond saving anything but my own skin. Crockery jars explode at the far end. The canvas cover is in tatters, burning to bright ash, revealing the night sky beyond. Outside, people have started to scream.

I'm in bed, choking on smoke. I pull my blanket tight around me and launch over the side of the wagon to the ground. There are more screams, and the sound of running feet, and I'm rolled over and over inside my cover. I struggle out, coughing and disoriented. Then I scramble up and lurch back toward the wagon in panic. Mama hasn’t been able to walk by herself for a year. I have to get her out.

Hands clutch at me. “Cate! No!”

“I have to get Mama!”

“Cate!” It’s Nerissa. My best friend plants herself in front of me, palms digging into my shoulders. Her dark hair rises behind her like flame, caught in the updraft. “Stop it! She’s not in there! Catey! Look at me!”

I look at her. Blink. Try to wake up.

My mother is not in the wagon, I remember, because she is already dead.

I stumble backward, look around. The rest of the caravan has moved a safe distance from the flames, contortionists, fortune tellers, animal trainers, and musicians all staring at the blaze that used to be my wagon. Behind them, just visible in the pre-dawn light, rise the great stone faces of what we on the island call the Gathering of the Gods: Old Stephen. Alanna. Saraya. The Deep God. A host of other faces, some well-preserved and some mysterious with age. And the veiled face of the Lady of Mist, goddess of the dead, at whose feet I personally vomited last night.

Nerissa says, "Are you all right?”

I am not all right. I’m still wearing my green dress, still slightly drunk on the wine of my mother’s funeral. I have burns I can barely feel. And everything I had left of my mother is burning to cinders.

Because of the magic.

I burned it.

Someone tugs at the hem of my skirt, and I look down. It's Boggle, the goblin who rides with our caravan. The top of his head only comes up to my knee, but I can see his knobby black body plainly in the light of the burning wagon. He butts his head against my legs and winds himself around them, humming and hopping a cheerful dance.

At least someone likes my magic.


In the morning I sit a fair distance from the cook fire, wrapped in one of Nerissa’s blankets, and let her brew raspberry tea for both of us. I’ve had too much of fire, myself.

Boggle sits close by, eyeing Nerissa’s proceedings and smacking his lips. A flash of black fur in the corner of my eye tells me the trainers are running the weirlings through their act, though my mother’s pack of tamed wildcats performed perfectly last night, as if in tribute to her. The other members of the caravan tiptoe around us. They’re avoiding me. Everyone has been worried that I’d lose control of my magic with my mother gone, and it turns out they were right.

Minor fire magic is normal. I’ve met a fair few people who could heat a pot or kindle a cookfire, and our sword-swallower lines his blades with magic flame for his act. But the only wild magician I ever knew was my mother; and by the time my own wild magic showed up, she was too sick to train me. So I’m dangerous to be around. I understand this.

But the others’ avoiding me still hurts.

At least they’ve done all the cleaning up. The detritus of last night’s funeral celebration has been cleared away, though my mother’s pyre still stands not far from the charred skeleton of our wagon. My known world has, quite literally, gone up in flames.  The world is a tinderbox, and I am the spark.

No, I remind myself. Mama’s death wasn’t my fault. She was sick long before magic happened to me.

My friend Carolaine stumbles over, bleary eyed, and heaves down next to us. She's not used to the caravan's famous white liquor. Nerissa has been at the stuff since she was ten, and she's sipping more of it from a hip flask right now. I’d join her, but I can’t afford anything that might make me lose control.

Though Carolaine is rumpled like an old sheet, I'm willing to bet she's still lethal. She's only a year older than Nerissa and me at eighteen, but she's from Kern, which means she's been trained as a fighter practically since birth. Nerissa and I are just caravan girls, which means we've been trained to tell fortunes and dance and entertain, and when danger comes, to run the other way.

"So," Carolaine says, "it's getting worse. Your magic."

Carolaine doesn’t pull punches. That’s more fun sometimes than others, and this one lands hard. "It’s never happened in my sleep before."

"She was upset last night," Nerissa says, and scoots closer to me. She glares at Carolaine. This is like a starling glaring at a hawk. "It was her mother's funeral. That doesn't happen all the time."

"No," I say. "Carolaine's right. It's getting worse."

Nerissa bites her lip. After a moment, she offers Carolaine some tea, but the bigger girl waves it away. Nerissa gives a little cup to Boggle and drinks the rest herself, adding a generous splash from her flask.

Carolaine asks, "What are you going to do?"

"I don't know,” I say, and that is the truest sentiment I’ve uttered in weeks. I’ve been trying to be strong and sometimes succeeding, but right now I just feel lost. I close my eyes again, trying to clear them. They burn from the smoke. “Mama was so sure she could teach me to control it, but at the end . . . well, Nerissa knows. At the end she couldn't remember my name."

Carolaine frowns. She half-rises, then shakes her head and sits back down again. It looks as though she wants to comfort me, but she doesn't know how. I smile at her, putting my caravan-girl charm to good effect. Carolaine calls this “lying with your face,” but right now I don’t care. I can’t handle her sympathy on top of everything else.

"It's okay. I said goodbye to Mama before last night." At least that much is true. My mother was a shadow for the last year, a mumbling skeleton who had to be protected from herself. I’m glad, for her sake, that she’s gone to the Other Land. But for myself . . . I could use a little help.

"Cate’s mama remembered lots of things, though," says Nerissa. "Only it was things from a long time ago. People she knew when she was little. She called me -" she laughs a little, shrugging. "She kept calling me Irina."

"Irina was her best friend when she was a girl," I tell Carolaine. "The only other person from her village who survived." I speak the next part softly. No need to remind everyone. “She had wild magic, too.”


  1. Hi Christa,
    I really enjoyed your hook! I like that we’re in medias res and my interest was piqued right away. I’m also enjoying the old-fashioned carnival details mixed in with the fantasy world you’re building.

    The present tense works well here, and I don’t see any tense shifts, but present can be difficult to sustain over the course of a full novel. I’m curious if we’re going to go “back” into the world of Cate’s mother and Irina? (if not it may be worth noting that at least this reader is anticipating that to happen!) At any rate in that case perhaps you are using past tense in those sections.

    The notion of wild magic that Cate has recently inherited but can’t control is an engaging one. You did lose me in this chunk of text:

    “I am not all right. I’m still wearing my green dress, still slightly drunk on the wine of my mother’s funeral. I have burns I can barely feel. And everything I had left of my mother is burning to cinders.

    Because of the magic.

    I burned it.”

    I felt I understood once I’d read on a bit, but in the first five pages, of course, you don’t want to lose your reader even for a moment! I’d suggest reworking this bit so that it’s clear that Cate has burned the wagon accidentally.

    I was also briefly stopped by, “Though Carolaine is rumpled like an old sheet, I'm willing to bet she's still lethal. She's only a year older than Nerissa and me at eighteen…” The simile had me picturing a very old woman, and that’s clearly not your intent. Also, the rest of this paragraph goes a bit exposition-overload for me, with Carolaine’s origin and the meaning of “caravan girls” all coming at the reader at a fast clip. You do a really great job overall with the exposition feeling natural and not forced. These pages really seem to be very tight already. It is possible though that you could tighten up that section just a bit more.

    I’d also like to know just a bit more about Cate—beyond her magic who is she?
    Fire-magic aside, is she an impulsive person or a careful one? The idea of the caravan girls who are taught to be pleasing and to lie is interesting—how much of the Cate we see here is a lie? How does she feel about being a caravan girl? Is she sarcastic or sincere? A bit more dialogue in addition to the internal monologue could give us a clearer feel for Cate earlier on. I can’t wait to find out more about her…and see what she set on fire next!

  2. Hi Christa,
    Your story grabbed me right away!
    The immediacy of the fire, Cate searching for her mother, Nerissa snapping her back to reality. All excellent choices to introduce storyline and character with action.
    You do a nice job with characters. I’d like to know why a trained fighter (Carolaine) is traveling with the circus. Is she part of the show? Is there something in this world that’s after the performers? Is this world dangerous by nature?
    “Behind them, just visible in the pre-dawn light, rise the great stone faces of what we on the island call the Gathering of the Gods: Old Stephen. Alanna. Saraya. The Deep God.” I’d love more details about the island, its traditions, where the performers travel, where they are not welcome, etc.
    Also, does Cate suffer injuries from her wild magic? I know she has burns from the previous night’s fire, but could she have lived through it?
    Great start with an interesting character! I want to keep reading!

  3. Christa, I really enjoyed reading your submission. I love the magic, the hints of performers, and the caravan. It gives your story the feel of the old circus days. I love the voice of your MC.

    I'm curious why no one else reacted to the burning wagon. It seems something like this would draw everyone's attention and warrant some sort of help. And yet not only does she deal with the fire on her own, but she's being given the glares the next day. It gives me the sensation that her troupe is rather calloused and cold. It this is what you're aiming for, you've done it well.

    I'm interested to know Nerissa's and Carolaine's contribution further in the story. Will they be around in following chapters? How will they help Cate on her journey? This isn't something that needs to be addressed in the first five pages, but keep in mind that since you're introducing them early on, we'll hope to see more of them later.

    There are some minor editing issues throughout this piece. Words like still, started to, had. There's a few places you have echo words. "Look at me!” I look at her. Look can be gaze, stare, glance. There's not too many, but it's worth another go around just to clean it up. I use Kelly Harvey's blog to clean my MS. Take a look at it when you have a chance and see if there are things you can cut.

    You've done a great job developing the world, establishing character's voice, and there's a very real problem (her inability to control her fire magic and having no one to teach her). Overall, I do love the story and this would be something I definitely pick up and read more of. Good luck!

    1. Thanks Wendy! Just FYI for all of you amazing helpful commenters: Carolaine and Nerissa are important characters throughout the book, so I'm planning to keep them here in rewrites.

  4. I think you've got a great story idea here, carnival mixed with magic. There are a few times in the beginning where I got lost, though. And some parts that seemed not realistic even for fantasy. I'll just give a few examples rather than do each one.

    This didn't seem realistic: Her wagon is on fire and from the description, it's been really blazing, but yet she isn't coughing much or suffering any effects of the heat like eyes burning so you can't even open them. In such a small space, seems like she would be having a harder time. also, when the pottery explodes, she isn't hit with any shards. There is a lot of "telling" in that opening bit, but not a lot of "showing." I need to feel the effects with her, not just tell me she is choking on the smoke.

    One part where I got lost was when you talked about the stone faces. I had no idea what was going on with that.

    Another part that didn't make sense was that Boggle only came up to her knees. I pictured this MC as a teen girl, normal height. That would put her knees at about 18 inches off the ground. Sure, Boggle is a goblin, but is he really that small? And it took me out of the story to suddenly have a goblin there.

    My overall impression is that you have so much going on so quickly that I never got grounded in the scene. I felt like I was thrown into something that I couldn't picture or understand at all. I don't mean to slow down the action, but perhaps more showing than telling would help me connect better, and give more details of the action rather than jumping so fast through it.

    It seemed like the wagon was on fire and she got out of it right away with no danger at all because there weren't enough details to make me feel her danger. her hair or clothes weren't on fire, she didn't cough, her eyes didn't burn. She just saw the wagon on fire and jumped out.

    I hope this helps.

  5. Hi Christa,

    Great opening! You hooked me right away.

    I like that you’ve blended real world with fantasy elements. It gives the reader better footing as they dive into your new world.

    The biggest issue I have with this current draft is the introducing of so many elements right away. There’s a fire, the MC’s mother has just died, the MC has fire magic, there are different God’s here (with names listed), the MC is part of a carnival, her mother was only one of two survivors from her village, plus the introduction of six characters by name. All of this is important information, but it’s crammed into 1250 words. Perhaps try and stretch this information out more; make the reader work for this information.

    Awesome start and I look forward to reading your revisions.

  6. Hi Christa!

    You’ve done a fabulous job with these opening pages! You have high stakes, an interesting dilemma, and your MC has a great voice. I also love the circus feel, the caravan and the magic. You’ve hooked me! You’ve also done a terrific job with descriptive language. I love the rumpled old sheet, and a starling glaring at a hawk. Just great!

    A couple of things. I’d like to know a little bit more about Cate, and what makes her tick. This can be shown in interior thought, dialogue, and action. Remember, once the reader connects with the MC, he/she will overlook other issues and keep reading. She’s just a caravan girl – trained to tell fortunes and dance and entertain – how does she feel about that? Does it bother her? Does she feel like she’s more than that?

    Lastly, although I can tell you’ve revised already, and the story is tight, read it again outloud and mercilessly cut any repetitive words.

    Great job – I can’t wait to read next week!

  7. Hi Christa,
    I loved your opening and your worldbuilding got me hooked right away - although the character waking up isn't something really new we see. It took me a few moments to get into the story and I was very curious about Cate and her mother, and as the beginning is so abrupt, I was wondering, why not start at her mother's funeral instead? Here in this chapter we barely glaze through Cate's feelings, and her friends are introduced in a bit of a tumult, so it's hard for the reader to distinguish who's who.
    I love what you've done to the world, it's a very beautiful and well done description, and as far as beginnings go, I'd love to keep reading to see where her story is going. I'm very anxious as well for Cate's magic.
    There's the last part that feels a little like telling to me, especially when she explains about her mother's friend. It's obvious that Irina is going to play a bigger part in the story later, so is it possible to not make it maybe more subtle?
    Anyway, awesome premise and a good start. Good work!