Sunday, January 17, 2016

1st 5 Pages January Workshop - Ho Rev 2

Name:  Melanie Ho
Genre: YA Speculative


Lily Chen is living every teenager’s dream.  After surviving a childhood of grueling exams and constant drilling by her “Tiger” parents, she has landed a coveted position at First Corporation, top-ranked company in the nation.  She’ll spend her first four years at the Work Home (think combination office/college dorm), where she’ll reunite with childhood best friend, Acker Rodriguez.

Soon after her arrival, Lily is quickly disappointed to find that Acker is now troublemaker #1.  Even worse, he tries to convince Lily to join him in investigating why several fellow recruits have allegedly gone missing.   Very much a “good girl” who doesn’t like to make waves, Lily refuses to believe him.  Instead, she focuses on her studies and the Work Home’s robust social scene, even making it into the top society (think Greek system).

But what if Acker’s right?  When one of Lily’s friends disappears, she begins investigating the missing recruits – and learns that whenever large projects need to be completed quickly, First Corporation gives recruits performance-enhancing drugs until they’re left brain-damaged.  With Acker next on the treatment list, she must now find a way to save him – even if it means sacrificing everything she’s worked her entire life to achieve.


I wasn’t supposed to be upset on Commencement Day. That’s what I told myself as I hugged my mom for the final time, her arms stiff at her sides while I inhaled her strawberry shampoo, praying I would remember the scent later.   As I stepped back, she stared intently at the ground while I gazed at the few strands of gray hair falling across her forehead.  The only betrayal of emotion was that she had been biting her nails all morning, something she always admonished me not to do.

Was there a way to burn my mother’s image in my mind?  I thought about our annual Christmas photos, how more of her hair lightened from its natural jet black color each passing year.  My breath felt short.  I’d never find out what my mom looked like with any more gray in her hair than this.  Never be photographed with my parents underneath our artificial wreath in matching red and green striped sweaters again.

As if I were a United Corporations of America official, rather than his sixteen-year-old daughter, my dad extended his right hand to shake mine.  “There’s no greater honor than to have a child placed at a higher-ranked company than her parents,” he said, with a firm grip and three shakes up and down.  Then, he added more softly, “I’m proud of my girl.”

His eyes moved to the fireplace mantle, where he had printed my First Corporation acceptance email on non-digital parchment, proudly displayed in a confident mahogany frame.  Every evening without fail, my dad treated the dark wood to a generous polishing with lemon-scented spray.  For a brief moment, I forgot the heaviness in my chest as I laughed inwardly at how the hands of any guests who picked up the rarity smelled of artificial citrus and gleamed with oil for hours after.

How many times had I read the bold letters at the top of the parchment over and again to convince myself they were real?   LILY CHEN, FIRST CORPORATION RECRUIT.  Every time I looked at those words, I felt myself stand a little taller.

I waited for my mom’s predictable lecture on how much they had sacrificed to ensure my acceptance into the highest-ranked and most profitable company in the nation. The wall behind my dad once boasted a ceiling-to-floor 3D television, before they sold it to pay my last year of tuition. They had invested more than we could afford at a private Learning Center, instead of relying on the free education I could have received from their employer, Twelfth Corporation.

And now I would never see them again.   The limo would be here in the next five minutes.  I’d eagerly awaited that limo for the last few weeks, wondering what color it would be, whether I’d be allowed to pop my head out the sunroof.   Now I prayed that it had run into traffic so we’d have even a little bit longer.

“I wish they allowed you to bring more than this.”  My mom picked up my suitcase, a purple metallic rectangle about the size of a twin-bed pillow, with First Corporation’s logo embossed on one side.  Ever since I was five-years-old and started to train for the Corporate Application Process, that logo, a star with the outline of an eagle in the center, had represented the ultimate dream.

Unlatching the handle, my mom inspected the contents before pulling out the small pink memory box.

Inside, I’d placed a note from the tooth fairy she had left under my pillow when I was five-years-old, so that I could remember her handwriting.   A collar belonging to my terrier Spaetzle, so that I could remember the sound of the little bell as he greeted me at the front door when I came home from the Learning Center each day.  Printed versions of the last sixteen years of Christmas cards, since we weren’t allowed to bring any electronic devices with us.

“Are you sure you want to take up room in your suitcase with all these?” my mom asked.  “What about pajamas?  Don’t you need pajamas?”

“She’s going to First Corporation,” my dad tilted his head as he replied. “They have enough money to supply their recruits with hundreds of pairs of pajamas each. Probably in the finest silk.”

Then he turned to me, “I know you’ll have an amazing time, Lily.  We loved the Work Home.  Best four years of our lives.”

I knew what was coming next.  “You know, Lily,” he added, “the Work Home is where your mother and I met. I spotted her across the room on our first day at the spirit rally where we learned Twelfth Corporation’s official hymn for the first time. Remember that, Cam? You had that blue barrette in your hair.”

“You’ll probably meet your future husband there, too,” my mom added, with a glint in her eyes that was reserved for a very small number of topics.  Beneath the sly look, I wondered if I caught a more subversive emotion: sadness, maybe, or wistfulness. I might meet the boy of my dreams at the Work Home, but my parents wouldn’t be allowed to attend the wedding.  They’d at least be allowed the receipt of a form email: Congratulations, your daughter is to be married at First Corporation next month.

As he always did when my mom had a distant look, my dad elbowed my mom and laughed. “Well, we know who Lily’s future husband is—he’s already been at First Corporation for the past year.”

Acker Rodriguez, my best friend from the Learning Center, was seventeen-years-old and had entered the First Corporation Work Home a year ago.  The more I insisted that we were just friends, the more my parents teased me about him.

The truth was that I wasn’t even sure we were still friends. Sure, he was forbidden from contacting me after he left for the Work Home last year. But new recruit lists were public to everyone.  Once I’d received my acceptance letter, he would have been allowed to send at least a hello, congratulations, can’t wait to see you again soon.

Had he completely forgotten about me? As the top-ranked company, First Corporation’s affluence was well known, and supposedly their recruits lived—and partied—in style.  My stomach dropped a little as I tried to picture Acker having such a good time that he forgot about me.  But the mental image wouldn’t come. After all, this was Acker. He only had a few friends when we were at the Learning Center together. It was unlikely that he’d suddenly become a social butterfly.  “I’m counting on you to join me at First Corporation next year,” he had said before leaving.

And yet I’d been accepted to First Corporation three weeks ago, and not a single word.

A white stretch limousine pulled into the driveway, interrupting my thoughts. My eyes moved over the car’s shimmering surface, its tinted windows.

My dad kissed my forehead and ruffled the hair above her ponytail. “We love you. We know you will have a wonderful life.”

My mom hugged me next, this time so tightly that for a moment it was hard to breathe. “Don’t forget, getting into First Corporation is only the first step,” she said. “Once you get there, you must get to the top of the rankings.” The words came with a forcefulness that surprised, then exasperated, me. Rankings? Were those really my mom’s last words to me?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Melanie,

    I was psyched to read your pitch and see where the story is headed. I think you do a good job of summing up the plot but it doesn't grab me. Why should I read this book? How is it different or more interesting than all the others out there?

    Now that I read your pitch I think some of the exposition could be cut down. I think your writing is descriptive enough that I don't need so much text to get a sense of Lily. Also I would feel more drawn in if I had some hint of what was coming. Also, I think there needs to be some action in the beginning rather than just Lily's thoughts and observations.

    I think you do a nice job of "showing" the importance and pride with the picture frame. If you could do more of that I think it would draw me in more. For example, the text about the mom's finger nails, you set up that she wouldn't approve of that. Why not push that idea a little more than have Lily notice the fingernails, rather than telling us it was unusual. Is there a way to show some of the significance of the items in the memory box rather than listing them?

    I felt like there was some significance to Dad nudging mom when she got that distant look in her eyes but I couldn't figure out what it was.

    Thanks for all your feedback. It was really helpful. Good luck with your story.

  3. Hey Melanie,

    When I go back and compare this revision to your first sample, there is no contest. Lily is so much more clear and present in this version, and her situation is perfectly clear, even though there’s way less world-building detail. Really, really good job! I think the first person POV is making all the difference.

    It was also great to see where this story is going in your pitch. I liked the fact that Acker is a troublemaker. A lot! Another great conflict for Lily. I was left with some lingering questions that I thought I’d mention, in case you think they need addressed in either your first pages or your pitch.

    *First, how does it help First Corp to give its recruits drugs until they’re brain damaged? (Or is it an accident?) Maybe this is because I don’t understand what First Corp (or any of the companies) is having all these people do. What IS their work once they’ve graduated the Work Home? Or is their work in the Work Home, since they’re doing these “projects” that are important enough to hurt people over? I had assumed the Work Home was a sort of boot camp/training ground, comparable to the college experience. Is it much more? How this society functions is probably something you address in later pages of the novel (and later is where it should be addressed!), but I wonder if a hint of how this society works should show up in your pitch, to show that your world-building is solid? Since it popped to mind, thought I’d mention it.

    *And second, I had a question about technology that leads to a question about time period. This story seems very futuristic, in that the structure of our society has changed so drastically from what it is now, and yet the details given are very “now,” or not so far from now. The stretch limo with a sunroof, the mention of traffic, the 4D television, Christmas photos, lemon spray furniture polish, the tooth fairy, silk fabric, email, letters. You do, of course, mention “non-digital parchment” and an earlier version mentioned “outer planets,” which means technology has advanced, but much seems to have not. (Does Lily have a phone, or other communication device, that’s she’s leaving behind?) Your story may have perfectly good reasons for this and explain everything in the later pages, but if not, something to think about. And I wonder if clarifying the time period just a little would be important for the pitch? Totally up to you!

    As you proceed, all I have to say is, keep giving us more and more Lily! Make us feel what she feels! You have an excellent start for a novel here. Keep writing, Melanie, and all the best of luck to you!

  4. This is Erin posting for Laura as the blog was giving her trouble!

    PITCH: I would eliminate the first line of the pitch, and instead start with “After surviving a childhood of grueling exams and constant drilling by her “Tiger” parents,Lily Chen has landed a coveted position at First Corporation…” Other than that, this
    pitch is excellent!

    STORY: I am very impressed with these first pages. Without info-dumping, your writing shows how developed and complex this world is, all through this exchange between Lily and her parents! I want to know more about this world, about this society, what it took for Lily to get into First Corporation (and what it means, these
    ranked corporations) and what she has to do to stay there. I’m also curious about the time this story takes place – it feels like modern day with futuristic technology (alternate universe?), but it could also be near future (say 50 years from now). My curiosities are probably going to be answered if I continued reading the manuscript.

    It’s hard to describe the world and the main character (in first person!) for SFF stories. What’s obvious to the protagonist is not obvious to the reader. You’ve managed to explain the world pretty successfully in your opening pages. Now it’s time to see how your character, and the reader, develops throughout the rest of the novel!