Sunday, March 6, 2016

1st 5 Pages March Workshop - Schunemann

Name: Lisa Schunemann
Genre: YA fantasy

“This one’s bad tempered.”

Strong fingers bit into the flesh of her chin, squeezing with a sadistic bite of pain. Those fingers forced Drei’s face to each side and back.

“She tried to take a chunk out of Darnul when we first shackled her,” said the skin runner. “Had to shut her up.”

It took more than a little effort for her to quell the snicker at those words. The gag, roughly rolled cotton, spread her mouth into a grimace, but it helped disguise her smile. Her cheekbone throbbed from the last smack, but instead of stoking her anger higher, the welcomed veil of calm tumbled over her mind.

Remembering she had a job to do brought her focus back.

The captain spat a wad of chew at her bare feet, his gaze shrewdly calculating. He seemed disappointed when she didn’t flinch or cry when the glob slid down her leg. But Drei knew what he saw – her bloody feet, torn pants and stained shirt showing a bony shoulder.

“I’m not about to ruin my reputation with the buyers, tossing ‘em slaves with rotted stumps in their mouths.”

“Well, I sure ain’t removing that gag to check her teeth.” The skin runner cradled the log book and poised the ink point above the paper. “You do it. I need my fingers.” He winced, shrinking back when the captain raised a fist.

“You’ll do whatever I tell you.” His yell caused a ripple of fresh tears and cowers amongst the row of chained bodies. “This is my ship. You filth should be grateful I let you hide your merchandise in my hold.”

Creaks and groans from treated boards and pillars mingled amidst the soft crying. A single oil lamp swayed from the low-hung ceiling, but the scant light was better than the pit the hull where the rest of the human cargo was stashed.

How much time did she have? Two days had passed since she’d stashed herself on the merchant chartered ship, inserted for an inside job. It should have only been one day, tops, but a nasty squall had hit soon after entering Faulto Passage. They’d been forced to anchor the brig for a day and wait it out.

Stuck below in the smuggler hold, she’d been crammed against bodies stinking of sweat, vomit and fear while the storm raged outside. But if this was what it took to make money on the job… she’d gone through worse.

“Sorry, Captain, but you should see the chunk of skin she took out of his arm. Makes me a bit leery getting so close.”

He snorted, but gingerly tugged on the cloth strip cutting into her lips. Testing for the tightness of it for good measure.

“Shut your mouth and log her down. Sloppy records when we pull into Ceissames will reduce my cut.” His hand moved to her chin again, but he pulled it away to fist both on his hips. “Girl, young. Mark her as sixteen, it’s the best number. Five and a half feet.” He moved in a slow circle. “Skinny as a birch rod. But pretty.”

“Earmark her for the brothels?”

“Lotus likes the darker-skinned ones on her roster. But that bruise better fade by the time we pull into shore,” the captain growled. “And who chopped her hair off? Nobody wants a girl with hair like a boy.”

“I didn’t do it.”

No, it hadn’t been any of them. She liked her hair short, trimmed close to her head. Made it easier to clean the blood and mess out of, at the end of the day. The only problem was that it didn’t hide her eyes, or shield her face. For this to work, playing the mole, she couldn’t let her anger, her contempt show in her face or eyes.

Slaves bartered and shuffled across the Skettion Sea didn’t resemble anything but beaten baggage; no emotions, other than fear, would work.

Drei forced her lips to quiver, gave a breathy squeak at the rough hands roaming over her hips and chest. It was inside, down in her soul that she raged in the cold places. But like a good little slave, she stood still.

“Well, if any of them don’t want her, she’ll do housework. A firm household can beat the fight out of her—eh!” The captain hauled her hands to eye level and glared. “Damaged goods. Her little finger is clean chopped off.”

She forced her muscles to go limp. The finger and a small portion of flesh from her right hand were missing, a fierce webbing of scars marring her skin. Lighter than her burnt brown coloring, they stood out even in the bad lighting in the hull.

He spat again, this time hitting her shoulder.

The runner leaned closer and scrunched his nose. “No good for the brothels, then. No customer wants to pay for that hand to touch him.”

“You’d be surprised,” the captain said, squeezing the bones of Drei’s hand painfully hard. She met his leering eyes with a deadened face. “I know of men who’d pay. They desire the ugly, don’t have to care if they damage them even more.”

He pushed her down with a harsh shove. The iron shackles jerked against her wrists and ankles as she hit the bench. Squeezed between two other slaves, there wasn’t enough room to breathe. The dampness of the wood seeped into her thighs, through the threadbare pants. Her eyes remained downcast, fixed on the slimy hull floor beneath her toes. Worn down by the feet of hundreds, probably thousands, of others like her, even the runners slipped on the surface in their boots. They caught themselves against the barrels, boxes, and stacks cluttering the sides of the hull.

The captain, his greasy hair and fair skin burned from the Skettion sun, threaded the chain through the shackles. His dirty shirt gaped near the waist and the handle of a knife peeked out for a moment. Drei’s fingers twitched in response at the sight of the polished wood. Nice piece.

He roughly locked her in place and moved on. He pulled the next captive, a young boy, to his feet. The process would continue down the long bench row. Inspected, catalogued, priced, guarded closely. Just like they were the same as the lifeless items crowding the hull. Then group would be forced back down to the dark pit of the bilge and the remaining human cargo brought up.

Smuggler ships needed to be fast and light, with enough space in the hull for storing wares of legitimate jobs while hiding the illegal ones below. Many brigs, like the one now churning through the island waters, were heavily modified. Fast and small, the lowest bilge areas were turned into hidden storage units. The rest of the human cargo sat in the disgusting darkness below the wood under her heels. In the cargo hold containing the spices, cloth, food, and equipment, small portholes helped to bring in enough light for the runners to continue their ‘cataloguing.’

There would have been ample more sun had the crew bothered to pull open the metal screen of the cargo hatch. An eight by twelve foot hinged gate of sorts, the checkerboard wood had been closed up tight because of the last storm. Little fresh air circulated as a result and the smell was horrifying.

Drei tried to breathe through the gag, choosing stilted breaths instead of scenting the nauseating smells of man, slave, and sea life.


  1. Hi Lisa,
    I really like your opening! This is a great start to the story, and to be honest, I'm hooked already (if you want a beta reader let me know). I get the feeling that Drei is going to be an awesome character.

    One thing I thought was that the ship's crew seem to have the idea that Drei is feisty, so she's been fighting back. But then she thinks it over and decides that there's only one way for her to behave (i.e. with timidity). She seems to be quite certain in her role, so why did she fight back if she knew it might give her away? Was it a slip? I like the idea of uncontrollable anger as a character trait, but if she made a slip it probably needs to be a bit clearer.

    I have a couple of comments about the text. It is generally very clear, but in places might need tightening up a little bit. The paragraph that starts "Creaks and groans..." there is something confusing about the second sentence. Maybe just an extra word.

    She uses the word "tops". I found it a little jarring as I was thinking old timber galleon and this is quite a modern thing to say (obviously that might all be cleared up in the subsequent pages).

    Finally, you use a few names of seas/places. It's not overbearing, but I could use some more description or info about these to set them straight in my mind.

    Oh, and, those crewmen - hideous, your writing succeeded in putting me on edge.

    Looking forward to reading more. Sarah

    1. Hi Sarah,

      Definitely will work on tightening up descriptions/cutting names and making sure my dialogue isn't too modern.

      Thank you :)

  2. This was really good! Such a great opening scene - had me clamouring to know more. I liked how you were straight into the action.

    Although all the different place names mentioned were a little confusing. I have no idea what these places are and how they relate to one another or the main character. Maybe a little background is needed?

    I loved Drei. Lady mercenaries are the best, especially really competent ones - however, related to that: she thinks to herself that she has to be meek, like a normal slave...but the opening, and other characters, say that she attacked some slavers. There's a disconnect there. Maybe say if it was a deliberate attack, or if it was accidental, something to say WHY it happened.

    The slavers were awful, great job of making them so!

    Is the threat of sexual assault necessary? It could be that that's explained later on (perhaps that's the job, or something), and if so, disregard this, but if not, I'm not sure it needs to be there - slavery is bad enough (and rape is also implied with if anyway), I think, that it could be gratuitous.

    I got a big feel of Throne of Glass from this opening.

    I liked it a lot! Definitely something I'd want to read more of.

    1. Hi Kellie. For you to say TOG, I can't think of a higher compliment!

      I will definitely take your comments to heart (slavers/assault, etc) for the revision. Thank you :)

  3. Lisa, welcome to the workshop! Thanks for letting us take a look at your manuscript.

    You are a very talented writer. This is clean and reads nicely. Excellent word choices and sentence structure. I don't really have anything to add about that.

    As for the story, I'll mention a couple of things that caught my attention:

    Starting your story with dialog usually isn't a good idea. If this dialog was perfect for the opening, I'd say keep it. But truly, that opening line doesn't work for me. We don't know who is speaking, or who they're speaking about. My advice would be to ground the reader in the story first, then add dialog. You could even begin with "Strong fingers bit..." and then weave the dialog in after we're in the story.

    I'd be interested in more of Drei's inner thoughts while she's being discussed. I had a hard time figuring out what's going on. Is she there by choice? I got the impression she was under cover. She wants to snicker when they speak, so that made me feel less sorry for her. I'm not sure if that's your intention or not.

    My other bit of advice would be to add sensory details. It smells horrible, but like what? Urine? Unwashed bodies?

    I also had a bit of a hard time determining what time we're in. It had a swashbuckler feeling to it, but I'm not sure if it's present day, future, or past. I see that it's fantasy in the description, but grounding us in time would be a good idea as well.

    Overall it's a wonderfully written piece. Very clean, good pacing, intriguing teasers. Nicely done!

    1. Julie,

      I did waffle a lot on the first line, so now I have great direction on how to change it, thank you!

      The story is set in the 'piracy' age of sea life, but do you have advice on how to clearly give an impression on the overall time period (the book is influenced by a specific era from world history, but it's straight fantasy)? Come straight out and say it in the opening paragraphs?

      Thank you :)

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  5. I think your entry is great! It really made me want to read more, which is success:) Drei seems like an intriguing character, and I would love to know what she's *really* doing there, how she makes money, and why she stashed herself on board. This seems like the beginning of a wonderful tale!

    I echo some of the other comments in that the time period of the story wasn't completely apparent for me. I thought your descriptions of a slave smuggling ship seemed historical, as did the dress and weapons, etc, but I think because the story is classified as "fantasy," I didn't know if this was potentially time travel, etc. Maybe you could do something as simple as write a place and date before your first line? That would clear up all confusion on setting.

    I also agree that the story opens with the slaver being annoyed at Drei for fighting--violently--with her captors. I think it would help the reader know if she was mad at herself for her outburst when she's supposed to be under cover.

    You said she stows away on this ship. Is she caught and then shackled? Or is she pretending to be a slave? You make it clear the slavers keep detailed records...wouldn't they notice an "extra" slave down there? She described it as a merchant ship. Was she surprised to find it also held slaves?

    Drei and her captors speak the same language. Does that imply specialized knowledge on her part? Would the slavers have noticed that? Or is she from an English-speaking (or same language speaking) place? Will that ability hurt her cover?

    This is small, but if Drei is African, would short hair have been so unusual before arriving in the West?

    I think setting info (date, place) would clear a lot of it up. None of this is a criticism though. I had to work hard to come up with any comments other than "this is great!"

    Finally, I thought the slaver talking about what he might do with her once they got on land was terrifying, and it reminded me that the stakes were very high for all of these people on the ship. (Aka, I was okay with the sexual assault threat, but I understand why other people wouldn't be.)I thought describing stale vomit in the cargo hold was plenty for me (!) but it might help reinforce the disgust by saying it again at the end.

  6. Overall, I think this is quite a strong opening. The descriptions were relatively clear and evocative, and Drei is set up to be an intriguing and powerful character. It's fun to know that she's not that intimidated by this scary stuff happening around her.

    My suggestions--
    --I agree that it's a good idea to avoid starting with dialog. Because we don't know who is speaking or what it means, it's easy to immediately forget what was said!

    --Look for opportunities to tighten. I am the *queen* of saying things twice, especially in early drafts, so I'm totally sympathetic. But just as an example, that early sentence about fingers biting into her chin? Telling us about the "sadistic bite of pain" is unnecessary, because you've already used such evocative language in the first half of the sentence! Trust yourself (and your reader), and look for opportunities to trim.

    --there were a few points where I didn't know who was talking, the captain or the skin runner. Both are male, and so the masculine pronouns didn't distinguish. Look for subtle ways of clarifying so we don't get pulled out of the story to figure it out.

    --I agree with the feedback about inserting just a tad more (but just a tad!) inner thoughts to show that Drei WAS fighting before, and that she realizes it was a mistake. You show her getting her focus back, and that's good, but a brief clarification will resolve the seeming inconsistency of her being gagged for biting and her thinking that she has to look all meek and dead-eyed. Also, wouldn't the captain be pleased that she's *not* fighting anymore, since the runner claimed she might? Or make fun of the runner for being a coward, since she's clearly not a threat? Or would the runner suspect she's faking her fear, since he'd just told the captain she was ill tempered?

    --I'm going to toss a tiny bit of dissent into this feedback now ... I don't think you need to immediately set time and place in a concrete or formal way. This is fantasy, and your reader will know that and be prepared to discover more with each page. If you feel too much pressure to set time and place in the opening paragraphs, you risk inserting stilted references and dialog or forcing things. I'm not saying it's not important to orient the reader--it is. But I would suggest instead focusing on details that help give the reader a feel for the time (there are already some there, so I don't think you need to do much more). Just paint the picture. The questions being raised are excellent--but you don't necessarily have to address all in the opener.

    Your first five pages--that's half of your first chapter. Your job is to intrigue your readers and make them want to read on. If you maintain a confident hand and don't overwhelm with information, you're much more likely to be successful. Keeping your focus on Drei--making her consistent, giving us one or two more glimpses at her inner thoughts-- and steadily allowing the scope to widen to the world is my recommendation. I had no problem with the few mentions of unknown place names, because again, this is fantasy, and you're initiating the reader into the world.

    A strong beginning!

    1. Thank you Sarah, that is going to help me so much! -L

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  8. Hi Lisa, welcome to the workshop! I really enjoyed reading this opening. You have some really great advice from the other readers. I'm on board with everyone about starting off with dialogue. We need to be grounded in the point of view to connect to the character. I disagree about starting with the strong fingers biting into her chin. I think you should start with a beat before this to ground us in the setting since it's a fantasy. Something that shows us where she is first.

    The first paragraph really needs a great hook. Because this is a fantasy and the pitch/blurb may tell us the time, I don't think you need it. If you feel you do, maybe there's an old newspaper on the floor that she notices or a wanted poster on the wall and she can think "1874? The wanted poster was ten years old. Good luck finding him. Captain Hook didn't look like that anymore." Something like that and it's a horrible example. Ha!

    Definitely add more sensory details and inner thoughts from your character to give us a Deeper POV.

    Be careful about telling us how things look and feel. Show us instead. In this paragraph for instance...

    "There would have been ample more sun had the crew bothered to pull open the metal screen of the cargo hatch. An eight by twelve foot hinged gate of sorts, the checkerboard wood had been closed up tight because of the last storm. Little fresh air circulated as a result and the smell was horrifying."

    You're telling us what could have been if they pulled open the screen instead of showing us what it is like without the screen open. And you tell us the smell is horrifying without telling us what that smell is. Something like this ...

    "The metal screen of the cargo hatch was locked tight. An eight by twelve foot hinged gate of sorts, it didn't let in enough air for the rats to breathe let alone rows of chained up prisoners. Little fresh air circulated as a result and it smelled like rotting flesh and feces. Drei wiped the sweat dripping from her nose with her shackled arm."

    Of course, that's a poor example, but I think it shows you what I mean. I really like this story so far and can't wait to see the revision. I hope my notes helped a bit. There wasn't much to add to what the others have given you already. Great job!

  9. Lisa, You have a really great opening. Drei’s a strong character right off and I want to know lots more about her. I think her adventures will be fun to follow, assuming she survives this voyage.

    You did such a nice job, I couldn’t find more than a couple minor items to comment on.

    The smuggler and captain are disgusting and we despise them as intended. I’d like to see you spice up their dialogue a bit. These guys could talk more like sailors or even pirates. For example, I don’t think the smuggler would say, “Sorry, Captain.” I like your use of phrases like “clean chopped off” and “you filth.” Those are perfect. Sprinkle in more language like that.

    I wasn’t sure in what time the story takes place, though you give the reader one clue with the mention of an oil lamp. Maybe a reference to a place name such as a destination or the port where the ship sailed from would ground us in a time period. If she is on a mission you could drop the name of a historical ruler or person who sent her. Or maybe a one or two word reference to the type of ship (sailing, steamer) they’re on would help do the job.

    I very much admire your work. Your story will be fun to read.