Sunday, January 3, 2016

1st 5 Pages January Workshop - Ho

Name: Melanie Ho
Genre: Young Adult speculative
Title: The Recruits

As Lily hugged her parents goodbye, she couldn’t help but feel a little peeved: shouldn’t they be more upset about the fact that they would never see her again? She pretended to brush a strand of hair off her face, suspecting the gesture wasn’t quite smooth enough to mask its true purpose of derailing her tears. Shouldn’t one of her parents hand her a tissue? Or, better yet, a sleeve they would happily toss into the wash later if it meant the chance to comfort their daughter this one last time?

But then, in the next instant, Lily remembered her training in the virtues of empathy. According to The Corporate Application Guidebook, “A good recruit predicts the needs and perspectives of others. This skill is essential to knowing what products customers want and what advertising will appeal to them.” Lily realized it was ironic that she had forgotten this lesson, since it was precisely her high score in the empathy category that had clinched her spot as a First Corporation recruit.

Taking a deep breath, she chided herself for not considering the situation from her mom and dad’s point of view. They had always known their only daughter would be recruited into a company—and therefore leave home—at age sixteen. Lily reminded herself that her parents had invested more than they could afford to send her to a private Learning Center, instead of taking advantage of the free education she could have received from their work. Not to mention so much of their own free time spent drilling her endlessly, and foregoing outings with co-workers or easier family activities like movie nights or simulation games. How many times had they lectured her on what they had given up for their daughter? All to ensure her success in the Corporate Application Process—and, ultimately, her acceptance into First Corporation, unrivaled as the highest-ranked and most profitable company in the nation. Lily Chen was living every teenager’s dream.

Sixteen years preparing for this very moment. Parents weren’t supposed to be upset on their child’s Commencement Day.

If anything, Lily realized, her parents in particular were supposed to be ecstatic. Mino and Camsui Chen were employees of Twelfth Corporation, and it was considered the greatest honor for offspring to be placed at a higher-ranked company than their parents’. When Lily got into First Corporation, the Chens had an uncharacteristically extravagant celebration with all her favorite foods: strawberry-and-peach ice cream, bacon mashed potatoes, shrimp fried rice. Her parents even made a big to-do of having her acceptance email printed on non-digital parchment, placed in a mahogany frame that Lily’s father treated to a generous wood polishing each evening. The hands of any guests who picked up the rarity gleamed with lemon-scented oil for hours after.

Sure, Lily’s acceptance into First Corporation meant they would never see their daughter again, since the United Corporations of America (U.C.A.) Constitution stated that once you were recruited to a company, you would work there for the rest of your life—and you were forbidden from socializing with all other companies’ employees, including family members. This was arguably one of the U.C.A.’s most important rules, one of a handful of laws punishable by banishment to the Outer Planets if disobeyed.

Lily shuddered at the thought of the Outer Planets, but she knew she didn’t have anything to worry about. None of the Chens were rule-breakers. Anyway, they had known for a long time that this day would come. They’d been getting used to the idea that Lily would likely gain acceptance to a “Top Three” corporation since she was five years old, when her first Learning Center assessment reported that she had “uniquely high potential.” It was then—even back then—when she still played with dolls and thought ghosts whispered under her bed at night—that Mino started reading Lily the official U.C.A. Corporate Application Guidebook instead of bedtime stories, and downloaded titles like How to Get into a Top Corporation and Which Company Is Right for Me?—books that children didn’t usually start reading until they were at least ten—onto her pink tablet computer.

So when Lily’s dad interrupted her thoughts and said, “I’m so proud of my girl,” she knew that he meant it.

Meanwhile, her mom seemed distracted by Lily’s suitcase, a purple metallic rectangle about the size of a twin-bed pillow, with First Corporation’s logo—a star with the outline of an eagle in the center—embossed in gold on one side. The suitcase seemed out of place on their gray concrete driveway, where the Chens waited for the car that would arrive to take her away.

“I wish they allowed you to bring more than this,” her mom said absently, unlatching and latching the suitcase handle over and again as if she weren’t sure it would remain shut. Then she looked up abruptly, as if she suddenly remembered something she was supposed to do, and added, “Being at the Work Home really is wonderful, Lily.”

Lily nodded. At age sixteen, all corporate recruits moved into their company’s Work Homes, where they lived and trained for four years before receiving their permanent assignment at one of their company’s main locations. Adults often referred to the Work Home as the best years of their lives. Once, her parents hosted a reunion for a few dozen of their Work Home friends, and Lily had never seen a group of adults so jubilant, staying late into the night, drinking more wine than they probably should have, and reminiscing over the photos posted on a Twelfth Corporation intra-company website labeled “Memories from the Class of 2120.”

“You know, Lily,” her dad said, and she knew what was coming next, “the Work Home is where your mother and I met. I spotted Camsui 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.”

Lily felt her shoulders relax just a little at the familiar image: a blue jeweled barrette pinning back her mother’s—well, a younger version of her mother—straight black bangs. Although Lily’s hair, usually in a low ponytail, fell to her waist, and Camsui’s was shoulder length, they both wore their bangs the same way: a little too long, perilously close to completely covering their deep brown eyes. Lily had heard the story so many times she could almost picture the moment as if she had been there. On a million occasions, her dad had described glimpsing his future wife across a crowded auditorium: “I barely heard the company hymn, even though it was blaring across the loudspeakers,” he always said. “I couldn’t stop looking at her.”

The tale was inevitably followed by her parents singing their silly company jingle in unison: “We are emp-loy-ees of Twelfth Corp-or-a-tion. Bring-ing comp-ooooo-ter chips, fi-ber op-tic netttttt-works, and other tech-no-log-eeeees to the world.” The words were boring, but the melody was catchy and usually accompanied by her dad bouncing around in a sporadic dance that Lily suspected wasn’t really part of Twelfth Corporation’s official repertoire.

And then, predictably, her parents launched into their standard reminiscing about their four years at the Twelfth Corporation Work Home: dances, athletic events, spring break vacations, the sheer fun of living with hundreds of other teenagers your age for four years.


  1. Hi Melanie!

    I'm really interested in seeing where this story goes and how Lily breaks the rules. I wonder if we're going to see any of the outer planets, and how Lily's parents will react to her acting so un-Chen-like.

    I thought that there was a lot of information piled into the scene. Lily is doing a lot of thinking as she stands with her parents. Are they just standing by the front door, waiting for her to leave, or is she waiting for someone to come pick her up? It might be because I've experienced nearly this exact situation -- I left my dad and stepmother's house at sixteen, there was a goodbye at the door -- but it doesn't feel authentic to me.

    Maybe if you were to spread the information out and have smaller bits of detail mentioned as Lily is leaving and coming into the Work Home and meeting her new coworkers and being integrated into the system, the reader can get to know Lily and learn about the world as she interacts with it.

    Hope that's helpful. Looking forward to reading more.

  2. Hi Melanie!

    There are a lot of questions loaded into your first paragraph. I feel like it might be more effective to show the readers how stoic Lily's parents are and have them form their own opinion on the normalcy of their behavior. Leading with so many questions makes Lily seem uncertain and weak.

    I agree with Adana that this is a bit of an information dump. You do say they're waiting for a corporation vehicle to come pick her up, but it seems like a long time to be hanging out on the front stoop with her parents, who are very awkwardly not emotional about her departure. I agree that breaking it up between bits of action might make it smoother. It also gets the reader more involved with Lily and her world right away. I feel like the info is important and shouldn't be cut, just rearranged a bit so it doesn't all come at us at once.

    This story sounds right up my alley. Divergent meets The Selection. Looking forward to reading your revisions!

  3. Hi Melanie,

    This seems like it could be a really powerful and gripping opening with some revision. I agree there is a lot of "telling" which doesn't seem necessary given that you do a good job of "showing". For example, the phrase treated to a generous polishing, for me, evoked, a generosity of time and effort and "showed" this was a big deal.

    I also agree there is a lot of thinking without action and the hanging out for so long on the stoop feels contrived. I think breaking up the info as others suggested (without leaving any of it out) would be helpful to make the story more engaging, although it certainly leaves me hungry to learn more in it's current state. For example, why do corporations have constitutions? why can't you see your family after leaving? Those things don't necessarily need to be answered now, I just point them out as things that make me want to learn more.

    The other issue I noticed was what felt like, to me, inconsistency in the timing/knowledge/telling. For example, when Lily thinks about the outer planets it is clear she has thought about this moment for a long time, yet in the earlier paragraphs she is surprised by her parents lack of reaction-eventually figuring it out in paragraph 3. But that is before I learn, in paragraph 7, she has spent tons of time thinking about this.

    My last thought is about description. There seems to be a decent level of detail in most places but a couple of places it seems lacking. For example, a list of her favorite foods seems stilted to me. Maybe even just a flow of starting with course X ...finishing up with some more descriptive image of the ice cream, or maybe even starting with the ice cream or having them all at the same time - something that makes it come more a live a special, beyond a list.

    The other description was the blue barrette. I think a little more description of how her hair was pulled back. My initial though was like pebbles with the bone in her hair and her hair sticking straight up. I think giving more detail here would be a way to also "show" something about the mom - was it pulled back in a severe way, did a few soft strands slip out?

    Overall I really think this could be a strong and powerful first few pages that really grabs people's attention. Im looking forward to the revisions/ Let me know if you have questions.

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  5. Hi Melanie,

    It’s exciting and quite sinister the world you are building, where people’s whole lives are determined by corporations. I also like reading about smart young people who break the rules. So your story is definitely something I would be interested in.

    In my opinion the tone of your writing is a bit too cheery. I can see that to your character this kind of corporation-ruled society is normal, but to your readers it is not. To most people it would be creepy and scary and right there with the 1984 big brother. So I think that, for the reader to be able to relate to the character, you have to make your writing a bit creepy, or at least show that Lily, as a very smart young person, does not see everything as rosy as it sounds.

    I agree with Adana and Gabby’s opinion that the information you give us up front is a bit too much. In order to better hook the reader’s attention, Lily shouldn’t spend the whole 5 pages standing with her parents and thinking about things. I was actually looking forward to seeing this world you’ve created through Lily’s eyes, maybe she can start her journey showing us this world sooner.

    I noticed a couple of cases when you use unnecessarily “she realized” (“She realized it was ironic that she had forgotten this lesson”, “If anything, Lily realized, her parents in particular were supposed to be ecstatic). This only slows down the reading and it’s better to avoid it.

    And just a random thought – I really liked the sentence “Lily Chen was living every teenager’s dream”. It’s an example of what I meant above about “being creepy”, since she’s obviously not living a dream and this whole social system is messed up. Could this be your first sentence?

    Looking forward to reading your revised chapter.

  6. Thanks for sharing your first pages with the workshop. You have a compelling start to what seems like a very rich story. With speculative and fantasy stories, the trick is to gauge how much worldbuilding to introduce in the early pages. It’s a delicate balance, and I think we can get there.

    This to me seemed like your true opening line: “Sixteen years preparing for this very moment. Parents weren’t supposed to be upset on their child’s Commencement Day.”

    That or a version close to it. It’s snappy and highlights an immediate contradiction. The whole first page is built on this idea that her parents should be acting or feeling something that they are not, and Lily’s reaction to that. One thing that I noticed overall is a lot of description and explaining of the world Lily lives in, but not a lot of emotion. The emotion is distanced even with Lily herself. She’s upset that her parents are not conveying the expected emotions in a moment so pivotal as never seeing their child again, though what we get from Lily is also cool and detached. Getting a little more in the character’s head can reduce the distance, so readers are closer to feeling what your character experiences rather than having her feelings explained.

    An option for showing the emotion more is to bring more action into the scene. Rather than having your character standing and thinking, show us the world she is leaving and the new one she’s encountering. Sensory details can help. What does she notice about hugging her parents? The feel of a familiar coat, her dad’s stubble, or a scent? She can wrestle with what she feels vs. what she knows based on the guidebooks she’s clearly studied. That’s great conflict right away if she’s faced with this big life moment while also rationalizing her feelings based on this corporation she’s joining up with. That right there signals something is amiss with this world and life she’s heading into without explaining to the reader that it’s bad (you already do a great job of not putting a value judgement on the corporation yet).

    Keeping to more action for this first page will keep momentum going. Use narrative only as much as you need to get the plot moving forward. Her goodbye can have some dialogue between she and her parents that reveals more about the differences in where she’s leaving to where she’s going, and then it’s probably best to have her get on her way. I assume she’ll likely meet someone new soon after, which is another way to convey backstory and world-building by having two characters share their experience, or just show Lily experiencing aspects of the corporation for the first time, so readers experience it with her. Imagine the first time Harry Potter boards the train to Hogwarts. We see him try and fail at the platform, and then stare in wonder out the train window. He meets Ron and Hermione and eats the strange candy. All of these are firsts that the reader experiences with Harry, all while the story is moving forward. We don't need to know the history of Hogwarts yet or about the old war between wizards. We only need the train and the trip to Hogwarts and little details in between.

    You have a lot of great information here. When you feed the world building into an active plot in measured doses, then it reads natural to the story. Also, if Lily is expected to act one way on the outside, you can show what she truly feels through narrative that only the reader sees. So she might say a rehearsed line from the guidebook, but her physical actions or internal thoughts say the opposite. That’s another way to show us how she really feels and to keep the conflict going.

    Thanks again for sharing. I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with at the end of the workshop!

  7. Hey Melanie,

    I’m so glad you're sharing your work with us! You’ve gotten some amazingly thoughtful critique already, and I hope all of these comments help propel you forward. Critique has always been so helpful to me. (Especially when I don’t like it. Ha!)

    What I loved about your first pages was your exceptionally clear vision of Lily’s world. It’s obvious that you have really thought this setting out, and that you’ve created a place with loads of opportunity for conflict, both external and internal. That is awesome! Not to mention that leaving your parents forever, especially for a perceived “good thing,” is a huge opening emotional conflict that has tons of potential. In other words, great set-up!

    I do agree with some of the other comments about having too much info too soon, and at the expense of really getting to know Lily as a person. I agree that spacing some of the world information out just a bit would be helpful, and would probably leave the reader even more intrigued. Make us wonder! This is always such a tricky balance to find, and at least for me, always takes quite a bit of revision trial and error.

    I also wonder though, if some of those info dumping problems would be solved naturally by focusing more on your main character. Your POV is third person limited, but I’m not getting a strong sense of Lily’s voice. Have you tried this scene in first person? Even if there’s a huge reason why the story needs to be in third person, putting it in first might be a great exercise to help find and tune Lily’s voice, so that her personality comes across more strongly, even with the natural distance that third person creates. Or maybe you’ll even like it in first person!

    Whichever POV you ultimately go with, one other thing to consider is making Lily’s thought process very natural. If she is thinking of information she’s known since birth (because you really need to inform the reader) then there has to be a big catalyst for that thought. A reason, something that would trigger anyone’s mind and take them to that place, so that the reveal of information doesn’t feel contrived. If you are focusing more on Lily’s voice, personality, and her immediate sensory surroundings (her clothes, the way her house smells, other relationships she’s leaving behind and how that makes her feel inside) and if you’re deliberately parceling out some of her broad world information in more scattered bits, I think the problem of character distance and info dumping will resolve itself nicely.

    Remember, no matter how intriguing the world is, it’s always understanding the character’s relationship with that world, and how they react to it both physically and emotionally, that really creates the story. And if you need me to elaborate on anything I’ve said, please feel free to ask.

    I can’t wait to see what you come up with!