Sunday, September 13, 2015

1st 5 Pages September Workshop - Pohl Revision 1

Name: Laura Pohl
Genre: Young-Adult Fantasy

The smell of blood always reminds me of my dreams.
It stung my nostrils, pungent and feverish, invading all other senses.
That's what the cabin smelled like -- I didn't need to open the door to know I was in the right place.
I ignored the creaking door and the breeze that followed me inside, making my bones cringe. There was no avoiding what came next -- there never was. It had been like this since the day I was born.
The body lay on the wooden floor. It was a woman and she had been stabbed multiple times. I tiptoed my way around the room, avoiding where the blood had touched. After all this years, I had learned not to stain my clothes. I held my breath as I faced her, only a pale reflection of what she once had been. Her life was slipping away, as she struggled on the floor, the knife plunged into her chest.
I did not know this woman's name.
But she knew mine.
"Tatiana Koscheiovna" she said, with her last will. Her final words.Daughter of bones, daughter of blood, daughter of death. "Have you come for me?"
There was no relief on her voice, like there isn't in any of the others when they see me. She knew she was as good as dead. Her body lay violated and broken in her own house, having suffered the most violent of deaths. My appearance only confirmed what she already knew.
"Yes" I answered. "I have come for you."
I stood outside with the knife in hand, my braid slashing in the wind like a coiling whip. The smell of death had vanished as the woman's soul had passed to the Other Realm, and for a moment, I had almost forgotten that I was awake the entire time. It wasn't often that mortals saw the spirit of violent death in person before they passed from this world.
It wasn't often that I was awake during the whole process. At least, when I was asleep, I could pretend all of it had been a nightmare. That none of those people were real and that none of them were really dead. That every time one of them died like this, I had to ferry them into the next world. At least by now I'd gotten used to it, and their features weren't more than a blur in my head.
Mt hands slided back into my fur coat, one of them still gripping the bloodied knife while I waited. I wished my godmother would hurry herself.
"Did you find it?" Morena's voice echoed in the clearing, as if my thoughts had summoned her.
In a moment, the raven materialized into shadows and then into the goddess of nightmares. Her appearance never failed to take my breath away and a chill climbed up my spine, as if my nightmares had come alive. She stood with her dark clothes and dark skin against the bleak setting of the dying woods, a vision among mortals. Her crow pendant hung from her neck, bright silver, the only thing that gave her any color.
She walked forward and I handed her the bloodied dagger, still wet from the body that wasn't so cold inside the cabin. An anonymous cadaver. Morena caught it, turning it in her hands and evaluated it. Her eyes turned to appraise me, dark and mysterious, a pitch of endless black.
"How did it happen?"
Morena knew very well, but still she wanted to evaluate me. Test my knowledge.
"Multiple stabs" I answered, my voice barely a whisper. The blood didn't stain my fingers, but if I looked close enough, it was almost like they were tinged with red. "By a man. He missed the first strike and went for the second, which hit close. The third was only to make sure she died."
Morena didn't question me any further. By touching the dagger, she could probably tell this and much more from the victim. The dead woman who knew my name like every child in Russia feared it. The last face anyone who died violently would ever see before they really left this world.
My father tells me it's a noble duty. My sisters tell me I am lucky to have such an important task.
None of them ever sees the bodies.
I stood in the middle of the clearing, shifting my weight as Morena took the dagger and slid it inside her cloak.
"Walk with me" Morena ordered, turning around to walk in the woods. I followed her, having to take double steps for every single she took. She's several feet taller than me, her eyes and cheekbones set perfectly in her aristocratic face. She's a true goddess, while I'm the shadowy copy of what to be one.  "Tatiana." The way she said my name sent shivers through my spine, as if she could break through all of my fears and nightmares and expose them until I had lost my mind to darkness. "Do you ever wonder why I train you like this?"
I wondered which part of the training she meant. Crossing the borders to the Mortal Realm or teaching me to see someone's death by simply looking at the blood. She had taught me spells and how to read the bones of a man when he falls, or how to listen to the whisper of the wind when death was knocking at your door. She had taught me how to use my magic and when not to use it, how to wield my sword and any weapons, and how to survive the coldest of winter snows without food. I knew what shadows and nightmares looked like and how to walk in a way that would make a man's spine stretch and what patterns crows would fly if a man's death was near. I knew how to look at a man's face and tell what his death was, and whether it was bound to his bones. I had still two years left of my training, but not one one single time had she mentioned why she did it.
So I tried my next best guess.
"So I can't run from my destiny?"
Her voice was firm when she answered, "So you can fulfill it. No one escapes destiny, Tatiana."
My destiny -- the one no one ever talked about, and still everyone seemed to be conscious of it, that started when the Zoryas had come down from the Heavens in the Other Realm and made the prophecies by my crib. To my sisters, they promised lightness and gold and bright futures. To me, they had promised darkness and death.
"Yes" I answered through gritted teeth, unwilling to go further into the subject that seemed to shape my life and upbringing. "I know, godmother."
If she felt my uneasiness, she chose not to contradict me. With a swift move of her hand, she reached inside her coat and produced a letter. It was tied with a beautiful silver ribbon, and for a moment I was taken back to my father's palace, to Yelena's quick fingers scolding my clumsy ones for stealing one of her laces. She used to smile down at me, and it felt so long ago that for a minute I forgot what my sister's smile used to look like.
"This arrived for you."
I unfolded the parchment, not wanting to admit how hungry I was for news of the outside. I was faster than Yelena now -- she was beauty and elegance, while I was unyielding steel, tempered in blood.
Her letter was simple. Impersonal, like a letter to a foreign dignitary. A letter to a stranger. It had been six years since I saw her, and the time was marked on her intricate and curved handwriting.


  1. The opening of this still needs some work. The first sentence is in present tense which then switches to past in the next sentences. (This happens again later with "My father tells me" which is present tense). Also, I'm a little confused about the dream thing. Are you saying that blood reminds her of her dreams which means the cabin reminds her of her dreams? If so, is this a bad thing? If you said nightmares, I'd think it was but dreams doesn't really tell me. Pungent definitely seems negative though. I guess I just don't see the connection to her dreams.

    For the dead woman, I can't seem to figure out if she's dead or almost dead. You call her "good as dead" and let her speak so I'm thinking she's not quite dead, but then you refer to her death and call her a body which makes me think she is dead. I think you need to clarify this. If she's dead but in some kind of afterlife where the MC can speak to her, we need to know this.

    The rest is an improvement from before, but is still a little heavy on the telling.

    Oh, and one small thing, there's a typo where is says, "Mt hands slided back". Also, you should never give the action to the body part and need to keep this in past which means it should be, "I slid my hands back..."


  2. Hi Laura,

    This is such a cool story and I continue to be excited about the world. On your next revision, try to focus on being extremely clear. You're awesome at figurative language and tone; but unfortunately that's getting in the way of the reader really getting what you're talking about without having to re-read. You have more challenges than most because you're introducing a complicated fantasy world and mythology - but you can totally do it!

    Not for sure, but something to consider: I wonder if it would be worthwhile writing the whole thing in past tense? It's a little jarring going back and forth between present and past, and the present tense seems to clue us in about some of the potential futures which might be more of a surprise otherwise (eg, if it's all in the past it's possible that any of the characters could die; but if you refer to them present-tense, we know they're still alive).

    I was startled by the language that indicates Tatiana had to do her goddess job since she was born, and puzzled as to how that worked when she was an infant. Is that maybe not what you meant? Or if it is, I think perhaps save that information for later, because it requires a level of explanation you don't have time for in the first few paragraphs.

    I really like that you now tell us what Tatiana does for the victims. Consider clarifying your language. “Ferry them into the next world” gives the impression that she goes with them; when in this scene she has stayed in the human world the whole time.

    It seems like the dream/waking distinction is very important, so let's be sure to make it absolutely crystal clear to the reader (we're not there yet in this draft), even if you have to use very plain language. Maybe try a deep dive into Tatiana's POV instead of exposition/backstory - have her sort of mentally explore the difference in how it feels, via specific details, as she figures out whether she is asleep/awake.

    An example of where tightening language is critically important to our understanding of Tatiana: “the shadowy copy of what to be one” – what WILL be one? What SHOULD be one? What WILL NEVER be one? Please clarify! I really want to know what her goddess status is!

    I love the new part about Tatiana’s training.

    What we’re getting really close to but not quite arriving at is Tatiana’s problem. Does she not want to be this goddess, and yearns for a different life? I think so, but you don't quite say. What's her goal, what does she want? This will give us a hint of where the story is going, make us empathize with our character more, and make us want to read on even more than we do now!

    Looking forward to your revisions!

  3. There’s some good stuff here. I like the way you’ve tightened up the opening, giving the reader more sensory information to go on. The training information is also a nice touch.

    There are some tense issues here, but they’re a minor issue that you can work out later.

    I’m still looking for more clarification. Is the woman dead or almost dead, are her dreams nightmares or does she enjoy them; do they tell her things about herself, etc. These are just things to explore, and for the first five pages, a lot is happening here. By tightening up the narrative even more and truly focusing on one scene you could give the reader a better sense of who Tatiana is as a person (or goddess). I want to connect with her, but find myself needing to re-read. Pull back on the movement of the plot and focus more on the girl herself.

    Looking forward to the next revision.

  4. I think this is going to be a very cool story but I am getting lost in the figurative wordy language and not really getting a grasp of what is going on. I'm glad you cut out so many "death" words. It reads much more smoothly now. But I am still lost as to the dream vs. awake parts and if the woman is dead or not quite.

    an ethereal tone is great but not to the point of not being clear what is going on. I look forward to the next revision.

  5. Hi Laura,

    Great job on the revisions here. I feel like Tatiana’s story is starting to unfold nicely.
    “I stood outside with the knife in hand, my braid slashing in the wind like a coiling whip.” Excellent figurative description.
    I think that if you rearrange a sentence or two, the dream/wake state will be clarified. For example, the fact that the dying woman sees Tatiana is indicative that Tatiana is awake. Maybe that’s where you can put: “It wasn't often that mortals saw the spirit of violent death in person before they passed from this world.” The woman speaks her name, which could startle Tatiana enough to realize, yes, I am awake, this is not a dream.
    And when she forgets again that she is awake, you might say:
    “The smell of death vanished as the woman's soul passed to the Other Realm, and again, for a moment I forgot that I was awake. It wasn't often that I was awake during the process. At least, when I was asleep, I could pretend all of it had been a nightmare. That none of those people were real and that none of them were really dead.”
    I really enjoyed when Morena tested Tatiana. Especially Tatiana’s inner voice in describing her training: “I knew what shadows and nightmares looked like and how to walk in a way that would make a man's spine stretch and what patterns crows would fly if a man's death was near.” This is creepy in all the right ways.
    I’m also feeling Tatiana’s character more in this draft - her unhappiness with her lot in life.
    Can’t wait to see the next version!

  6. Hi Laura,
    You definitely added some clarity on this pass! My main note here would be: make it concrete.
    First, the opening lines (definitely address the tense shift issue that Holly mentioned!):
    “The smell of blood always reminds me of my dreams.
    It stung my nostrils, pungent and feverish, invading all other senses.”
    These lines have a very poetic sound, but the only thing concrete here is a smell, and it’s not attached to anything that we care about. We don’t care about the woman who died/is dying, because we don’t know her, and neither does Tatiana. For me, these lines sound good, but they don’t reach out and grab the reader. Grab us by connecting that smell to something that you immediately make us care about.

    Also, the long section that starts, “I wondered which part of the training she meant. Crossing the borders to the Mortal Realm or teaching me to see…” really feels like a lot of exposition to me. World-building in fantasy is really tricky. For me too much is piled on here too fast. I want to really understand what Tatiana’s job is, first, before I learn about all the things Morena has shown and taught her. I’m still not one hundred percent clear on Tatiana’s job, and why she is a pale copy of a goddess?

    Can you give her something from her past (or maybe she already has it later in the book!) that will pique our interest and arouse our curiosity? Is she being punished with this really terrible job? :} Is it a curse? (speaking of, I too want to know how she did this as an infant or very young child!) This is still such an intriguing concept—can’t wait to see the next steps!

  7. Hi Laura,

    Great Revision! It is so much clearer, and so I was not pulled out of the story as I was in the previous draft. Nice job!

    I have 3 main issues. As Holly pointed out, the shifting tenses makes it hard to read and follow. I would advise reading it aloud. Secondly, the prose in the beginning is lovely. But it doesn’t hook the reader. I still wonder if perhaps starting at a different point of the story might make more sense. Often writers start to soon. I think if you start with “The body lay on….” you would grab your reader immediately. You can weave in the lyrical prose someplace else.

    Lastly, I still don’t have a great sense of your MC. I would suggest going through again and really tightening it, so that the reader can get to know her more in these first few pages.

    I really love this concept, and I’m sure you’ll be able to make it shine. I look forward to reading next week!