Sunday, October 4, 2015

1st 5 Pages October Workshop - Tardiff

Name: Anthony Tardiff
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: Willow and Eagle

“It looks like a haunted house, doesn’t it?”

Petunia had to crane her neck back to see the whole school. It did look a little like a haunted house; not the rickety, falling-down kind, but the rambling, gothic kind, the kind with ornate staircases and faded wallpaper and corners shadowy with history.

She looked at her memo book. Item number three on her list read, “It’s a school like any other.” She hoped that were true. But her uniform felt strange, the blouse starchy and stiff, the skirt brushing unfamiliarly against her legs. And the windows of the school reflected the gray sky.

“Did you know this building is over a hundred years old?” Laura said. “It's an old estate house that the school board was lucky enough to get at a real bargain twenty years ago. Mrs. Gilner told me all about it. You’ll do great here. It’s a chance for a new start. Just what you need.” Laura was new, and Petunia could tell she was a little nervous, unsure of what she was supposed to be doing, and so she talked to fill the space and reassure herself. Petunia’s old social worker had been disengaged for years by the time she retired a couple months ago. Petunia couldn’t blame her; she’d had a pretty difficult job, at least where Petunia was concerned. That had been Petunia’s fault, unfortunately. But Laura was young, enthusiastic, still trying to make a difference. When she had asked Petunia her life goals, and Petunia had told her, Laura had immediately set about trying to get Petunia on that path. She had moved heaven and earth to get her into Canfield Mountain School, the best college prep school in the county.

Now, as that school’s central tower loomed above, flanked by sharp gables and sprawling wings, Petunia told herself she was grateful. This was what she wanted.

The ornate double doors were unlocked, and Laura pushed them open, a little hesitantly. Petunia followed. The foyer was a marvel of brass and marble. Two staircases rose on either side of the room and joined on a balcony that stretched around the second floor. Petunia could look up past the second floor and see a tarnished, unlit chandelier hanging in the dim interior of the dome. She tried not to feel belittled by it all.

“Welcome!” said a voice, and a woman came out of a door to the right. Bustling noise and voices escaped behind her and were stilled when the door swung shut again. “Petunia, right?” She was a plump woman with a cheerful face, and her hand when she shook Petunia’s was warm. “I’m Mrs. Gilner, the Dean of Students. We’re so glad you can join us.”

Oh good, Petunia thought. She’s the motherly type, not the business-y type. 

“Pretty neat, isn’t it?” Mrs. Gilner said, seeing that Petunia’s eyes were still drawn to the opulence around her. “We’ve tried to keep the foyer as close to its original state as we can. Impresses the parents.” She winked. “The rest of the school’s not so fancy, I’m afraid.”

“Thanks again for this,” Laura told Mrs. Gilner.

“Oh, we’re glad, so glad to help. I’m sure Petunia will be a welcome member of the Canfield family.”

That would be a first, Petunia thought.

“Petunia, your first class starts in ten minutes,” Laura said. “You have your schedule?”

Petunia nodded.

“Then off you go,” Laura said.

“Right through that door, first classroom on your left,” said Mrs. Gilner.

Off I go so the adults can talk, Petunia thought, but she put her head down and walked to the door Mrs. Gilner had come out of. She pushed it open, and paused.

She was looking down a wide hallway. The floor was linoleum, and lockers lined the walls, but some of the mansion’s old opulence remained in the decorative wainscoting and large, rounded windows. The hall was filled with students, digging into lockers, talking and roughhousing. They all wore the Canfield Mountain School uniform — skirt and blouse for the girls, slacks and dress shirt for the boys, each with the Canfield crest embroidered on the breast pocket — but it seemed that everyone had augmented it in some way. Bright socks flashed in the sea of feet. Long keychains swung from hips, and miniature toys dangled from backpacks. Petunia, in her unadorned uniform, felt suddenly underdressed.

She looked at her list. Item number seven read simply, “Mingle.” She looked up again. How? She didn’t know which locker was hers. And the classroom was right there, steps away to her left. Without some purpose she would look foolish wandering down the hallway. So she ducked into the classroom instead, simultaneously glad to have an excuse to put off meeting people, and feeling like a cop-out for taking the excuse so fast.

There was only one other person in the classroom, a dark-haired girl, sitting by the window. Her uniform was neat and strictly to regulation, no bright socks or backpack tchotchkes. Her books were arranged tidily on the desk in front of her, a fresh page open for notes. She stared with unfocused eyes out the window, her face distant and a little haughty. Petunia recognized the expression. It was the one her face wore whenever it could be spotted in the background in class photographs from past schools. She hated that expression. It made her look cold and unapproachable. What it really was was hardly any better: it was the face of a girl who didn’t belong anywhere, and knew it.

Petunia looked at her list. Item number two was, “You are a new person here. So be a new person.” Item number six was, “Identify a quiet girl and be friendly towards her.” She tucked the list back into her skirt pocket and stepped forward. “Pretty bleak weather out there, huh?”

The girl’s head swiveled around and her eyes met Petunia’s, cool and remote. They flicked down her body and up again. After a moment she said in a flat voice, “It’s March.”

Petunia recognized this, too. The girl didn’t mean to be harsh; she had been taken off guard and that was the first reply she could think of. So Petunia kept the smile on her face. “Hi, I’m Petunia,” she said.

The girl’s expression didn’t change. She held Petunia’s eyes without even blinking. After too long of a moment, one of her eyebrows slowly rose and she said, “Good for you.”

Petunia began to suspect she had made a mistake.

“You’re the new girl,” the girl said. It wasn’t a question.

“Yes,” Petunia said, her smile fixed now. She wanted to say something more, something clever, but her mind had blanked.

“Pet,” said the girl.

“Petunia,” Petunia corrected. Not that it was much better.

“Pet,” said the girl, turning away and looking out the window again.

Petunia stood there for a long moment until she realized that the conversation was over. She turned, feeling foolish, and found a desk in the back of the room, just as a wave of student came in, talking and laughing. The room filled. Petunia hoped she wasn’t sitting at anyone’s chosen desk, but if she was, no one said anything. No one said anything to her at all.


  1. Hi Anthony,
    Good job. The backstory comes out naturally, which can be hard to do. I also like the setting--a prep school that feels like a haunted house.
    I've heard to immediately ground your reader, it's better to start with something other than dialogue. In this case, I'm not quite sure who says your opening line until a few paragraphs down and it kinda confused me. I think you could take out the first line and start with "Petunia had to crane her neck back to see the whole school. It looked a little like a haunted house..."
    When you say Laura was new, I was picturing her as being another new student. I think you need to tell us new social worker. I would have Laura say, “Did you know this building is over a hundred years old?” and then explain who she is before any more dialogue to make it clear exactly who she is.
    I'm wondering Petunia's exact age. Is she a freshman or a senior? Or somewhere in between? You could mention it when you talk about how long her old social worked with her or maybe Mrs. Gilner could mention which grade she's in.
    I'm not sure what this word is: tchotchkes
    I liked when she met the other girl--your dialogue is very natural and this girl was very intriguing. I would definitely keep reading.
    Good job!

  2. Thanks for joining this month’s workshop! I like the idea of showing the typical first day of school intro with gothic, haunted house imagery. I think you can push those elements further with showing more vivid details along with more character emotion to set this apart from other first day of school/new kid YA scenarios.

    The overall tone read more middle grade to me than YA. I think adjusting the character emotion and going deeper into your character voice can shift that tone to YA. Right now it reads a bit distant and matter-of-fact; in YA you really want that closer point of view (still possible in third person). Fantasy may be the right genre, though if this is more of a haunted ghost story you might want to label as paranormal.

    The intro has a ton of potential to use your gothic imagery. Perhaps instead of having Petunia state “It did look like a haunted house,” you simply show the details through her eyes. Show us the outside of the house. How is she feeling when she sees it? Is she fearful, nervous, annoyed at having to switch schools? The word choices you use can convey that as well. If the description shows the school as looming, imposing, dark, etc, then we get the idea she is intimidated without being told “she felt intimidated.” You have a lot to work with here. I suggest looking for opportunities to replace filter words like felt or saw or heard with more visuals and descriptions of those sensations (within reason—if it gets too wordy too often, that can also be distracting.)

    For Laura, it may be a good idea to state she is Petunia’s social worker straight away. At first I read “Laura was new” as she was a fellow new student.

    For her memo book: this is a great device to work in Petunia’s goal or desire. You want to show purpose with your character as early as you can. Can you work in a line about the book, why she has it, and how she feels about it? Small details can tell us these things without going into backstory. For example: She looked in her beloved memo book, the one she carried through every foster home. Something like that would tell us she moved around a lot, and the memo book is a constant for her. She uses the lists as a security blanket of sorts (if that fits your story) all without having to explain it to the reader. You want to go beyond her being new at a new school to why is this new school different, what does that mean to her and to her overall goals and needs? Any little spot you can work in those details (without over explaining or too much info dumping) will strengthen those first pages.

    You have some opportunities to create a more active voice. The section beginning: She was looking down a wide hallway, you could show us the details of the hall and connect with an emotion. An empty, echoed hall creates one vibe, while a crowded, lively hall creates another. If she’s intimidated, you would use verbs and descriptions that are harsh and strong. Again, not that you have to go overkill with every line needing a lot of description, but look for spots to insert Petunia’s point of view as much as possible. The hall was filled with students could be Students filled the halls, which puts the students in action. I love the descriptions of the augmented uniforms. Really good details.

    Another spot to add Petunia’ POV and emotion is about the social worker. She is quite sympathetic about the social worker’s overworked life. Not that teens cannot be observant of these things, but this reads more like adult reasoning. If she’s a teen who’s been shuffled around in the system and here she is facing a gothic creepy school, is she really interested in how her old social worker had a tough job? That can come later. Right now we want to see how Petunia feels about her own situation, her own rotten luck, or whatever is going on in her head. All prime opportunities to get her unique voice in.

    Overall, a great start and I’m intrigued by the premise!

  3. Hi Anthony!

    I think you do an excellent job with the descriptions here. You paint a really vivid picture of the scene right from the beginning - the school, Petunia's clothes, the way the kids try to embellish their uniforms - it puts you right there in the thick of it, which I think is great.

    I really like the first line about the school looking like a haunted house, but it doesn't sound like the opening of a novel to me - it maybe sounds like the second paragraph. I feel like we get a lot more action in the later paragraphs, and I would love to see that at the beginning as well.

    I also like the description of Laura in the the third paragraph, but it might be a little too much of an information dump. You might want to think about reworking that paragraph so it flows a little bit better with the rest of the story.

    I think you've done a good job with Petunia's voice - it's spot-on for MG, and she comes across as sounding authentic. Her voice makes it easy to sympathize with her from the get-go, and you want to know what's going to happen to her at this spooky school.

    Overall, I really like your writing style. I think you nailed the descriptions and the voice. It shows a lot of imagination, which I think is key for MG. Great job!


  4. Hi Anthony,

    First of all, great first line. Immediately I'm drawn in and want to know about this haunted house, or the building that looks like one. Could you tell us who was saying this line? I had to backtrack a bit after learning more about Laura and Petunia.

    Your setting is fantastic. I can see the school, inside and out. And I like your description of her uniform. That gives me an idea it's some sort of private school and that she's uncomfortable being there. It took me a minute to figure out that Laura was older and not a fellow student. For some reason that whole paragraph tripped me up and I had to read it a couple of times to understand that. I wonder if there's some way to let us know sooner that Laura is a social worker, and not a student.

    The interaction between her and the girl in the classroom was great. Already there seems to be an antagonist that I'm eager to learn more about.

    Overall, in the beginning I was a little confused about the two characters and which one was the main character and their ages, but after you led us into the school, it flowed well and I was intrigued and wanted to read more. Great Job!

  5. Hello Anthony.

    This is an excellent start. The writing is crisp and the voice is strong. The setting is intriguing and as a reader I'm taken in with the character of Petunia immediately (and I really like the name.)

    I don't have any major structural suggestions just a few minor ones related to character voice and clarity.

    Laura does not come off as an adult and since we don't know who she is yet, her dialog is a bit confusing. Once we realize who she is, the character makes more sense. Perhaps you could introduce her with a short description or throw out a comment that contrasts her to Petunia's other (less likeable) social workers.

    Mrs. Gilner's introduction is a place where you can give her voice some description as well. "Welcome!" said a ...... "Mrs. Gilner-esque" voice, whatever that may be.

    And while I did like that the girl in the classroom turned out to be a bit mean, calling her 'Pet', it also struck me as being somehow off. I tried to imagine how she would already know of Petunia and bothered to give any though to her, ready with a put-down nick-name. But the thing is, I really like the whole scene, it just makes me questions this girl's motivation...which may be exactly what you want.

    This is well done. Hope my minor comments/questions can be of some help.


  6. Anthony, this is really intriguing! I like the premise a lot, and it flows well. I do have some thoughts though.

    The beginning of this could definitely be more engaging. Looking at it, I'm not sure exactly what about it feels flat, but if I had to take a guess, I'd say it's because there's not quite enough sensory detail. I know that seems weird because you do describe things well and have a lot of detail already, and I'm not exactly suggesting more. Just that the details you have could be punched up or better used. For example:

    "She looked at her memo book. Item number three on her list read, “It’s a school like any other.” She hoped that were true. But her uniform felt strange, the blouse starchy and stiff, the skirt brushing unfamiliarly against her legs. And the windows of the school reflected the gray sky."

    There is some great sensory stuff here, but because of the way this sentence is built, it loses a lot of the impact. I love the idea of her uniform feeling odd and uncomfortable, it grounds us in her body and serves to highlight her situation but I'm not sure I understand how that connects to Petunia hoping it's a school like any other, or the gray sky in the window.

    Similarly, the initial description of the house is great (love the haunted house comparison) but the strongest details are all internal "the kind with ornate staircases, etc." Since we aren't inside the house yet, the impact of those details are lessened. And even though they are outside, we don't get any idea of the weather (wind, rain, etc) until Petunia has her later conversation.

    I hope this makes sense. I really like the flow of your story, I just had a bit of a hard time plugging into it initially, and getting a sense of the character and place. Some details rearranging/reworking might definitely help.

    Good luckl

  7. Hi Anthony,

    I loved the Gothic tone that you set up right at the beginning. The description of the school was good and set the scene great!

    I wasn't sure who Laura was, I thought she was a fellow student until it was clarified. Maybe point out who she is right away so that the reader knows without being told that Petunia . I was also confused about the memo book. is it a list that someone gave her or that she made up? Maybe have her internally remind herself that they are the steps for fitting in or making new friends, or whatever it is that she uses it for.

    I found the writing to be a bit choppy and you tell quite a bit. For example here:

    So she ducked into the classroom instead, simultaneously glad to have an excuse to put off meeting people, and feeling like a cop-out for taking the excuse so fast.

    Instead of telling us that she felt glad, show us how she felt. Relief filled her body and she let out an exhale, or instead of feeling like a cop out, a twinge of guilt stabbed through her at taking the easy way out. This was supposed to be a new start.

    I find that looking for instances of feel or felt and then trying to incorporate sight/sound/taste/etc. really helps ground the reader. Find places where you are telling us what she's feeling and put us into Petunia's head! :)

    Can't wait to see this again!