Sunday, March 6, 2016

1st 5 Pages March Workshop - Viner-Daniels

Name: Sarah Viner-Daniels
Genre: Young adult, dystopia
Title: Landfall

Sunday 19.00 Federal Standard Time

Gentle-moderate westerly wind


Expect small wavelets

I went to see the new soldiers leave the ship this afternoon. Three rows of storm-gray uniforms. Each head buzzed close. Each rifle standing straight. From a distance I couldn't make out their faces, but that didn't stop me being envious. My uniform, if I ever get it, will be peppermint green. I’m glad they won’t shave my head.

Seeing kids my age escape to freedom always twists my stomach in on itself. Envy mingles with anxiety. I’m jealous of their liberty, but what if I'm homesick? Maybe I won’t be able to sleep without the simple rise and fall beneath my bunk. Or maybe I won’t even get into med school and I’ll have to live out my days here. Forced to be content with a view of the shore rather than living there.

A gust lifts the edges of my homework and threatens to blow the sheets over the rail and into the sea. That’s the last thing I need. I don't want to pull an all-nighter, and I definitely don’t want to explain to Harry why I can’t turn in my assignment. I weigh the loose pages down with what remains of my dinner: a pile of teardrop mussel shells that rattle against each other, topped off with a crust of stale bread. Goose flesh puckers the skin on my arms so I shake out the blanket from the back of my chair and wrap it around my shoulders. It itches like it’s crawling with bugs. 

The Lookout is the only place on board that you can go for a cup of coffee or a sit down meal, so it's always packed out. The cafe sits on a wide disc of planks and decking that juts out from the ship, hanging over the water like a balcony. The coffee stinks, it's the view I come for. Every butt-chilling metal chair provides a view of the city. Tonight the sun is slung low behind the skyscrapers, creating a jagged silhouette dotted with hundreds of home fires burning. The government’s eyes, humming white drones sewn onto the sky, keep watch to see that no one swims ashore. My heart flutters against the inside of my ribs. For the millionth time I wonder whether the ant-like figures on the dock would hear me shouting to them.

A ping tells me I have a message waiting. A joyful noise for bad tidings. It’ll be Mum wanting to know my location. A glance at the scuffed plastic comband around my wrist confirms it. Esther, it’s almost dark. Are you in?      

I’ve stayed too long. Again. Sighing (louder than I’d dare if Mum was here), I wipe my buttery fingers on a napkin and tap out a reply: With Alex, home soon. I pull the strap of my medical bag onto my shoulder and stuff the pages of homework inside. Mum will be moaning the second I walk through the door, saying I need to be more careful. Wear quieter clothes. Cover my hair, lower my eyes. And never stay out once it gets dark. I want to tell her that I already button my waxed jacket up under my chin, and that I never wear my hair loose. I've never even touched a lipstick. She still worries that one of the Neath gangs will drag me down into the belly of the ship. Like they’d care if you were wearing lipstick or not.

I weave a path between the sticky plastic covered table tops, heading for the exit. There’s a yell from the walkway on the next level so I look up, just in time to see a pale hand clutching a small white rectangle. The rectangle swings through the air, shattering into a hundred sheets of paper that drift out and down towards the Lookout. The sheets catch the last dregs of the day’s light as they fall, making them glow. 

Hands are already grabbing at the white leaves before their arcs meet the ground. Paper litters the floor and tabletops, a black and white snowdrift lined with text. 

I anchor my feet to the deck. I should leave now. I shouldn’t even think about reading the message. Getting busted for possession of propaganda would blow any chance I have of getting into med school. But then, all the other customers are taking the chance. A quick glance can’t do any harm.

I bend at the knees and snatch a leaflet that’s laying against the toe of my boot. My hand trembles. I face the sea and hunch my shoulders, shielding the forbidden rectangle of paper from the view of anyone aboard. With a tremble in my fingers I uncurl the leaflet and flatten it down. It’s a photocopy of a newspaper report. There’s a blurred photo of a cruise ship underneath words in blocks of black: OASIS OF THE SEA CLEARED.

“Coalies!” someone shouts behind me. 

My heart leaps into my throat and drums out a warning. The leaflet I’m clutching could be a cinder straight from the stove, I drop it as fast. 

A whimper rises from the cafe’s patrons. People let leaflets fall from their hands. Steel chairs screech against the metal deck. Still steaming drinks are abandoned. Half eaten sandwiches are left to the yellow-eyed gulls. A crowd bottlenecks at the exit, people push each other back in their need to get away from the reams of evidence strewn over the cafe. No one wants to be caught near all that. 

I make it to the stern exit in the midst of the crowd, as a team of Coalies hustles through the entrance at the port end of the Lookout. Since the Coalescent Bill was passed last month the Coalies have spread their unwelcome reach into every part of ship life. Politicians from the Federated States wax lyrical about the heroic effort by law enforcement to ‘clean things up’ on the Arcadia. But as far as I can tell it’s no safer to live here. If anything, the black-clad Coalies have put our collective consciousness to the rack. People are jittery. Whispered rumours tell of arrests for non-crimes. You don’t want to meet a unit of Coalies down an underlit stretch of deck any more than you’d want to meet a gang of Neaths.   

On the next deck down I let myself breathe again and by the time I hit Deck 10 my heart has settled into its normal pattern. I break into a jog for the long stretch to the back of the ship and home. My hobnailed boots are too heavy for running, and the muscles in my calves scream in complaint after a few steps. I ignore my legs, and concentrate on the clack-clack of the nail studded boot soles against the deck. Since my great-grandparents dropped anchor here the ship has been expanded outwards and upwards. Only a few stretches survive that are long enough to sprint down, and during the day I’d have to dodge around people, or the animals they let out to sun. I have to take advantage of a clear promenade deck when I can get it. 

Our neighbours have all pulled their smoothed driftwood shutters for the night. Ribbons of light gleam orange between the pieces of scavenged wood, making the windows glow warm. No one will venture out in the dark, so I won’t meet any obstacles.

My footfalls vibrate through the darkness.


  1. A dystopian on a ship! That's new! I like it.

    You've gotten the claustrophobic sense really well here. I can FEEL Esther craving to leave the confines of the ship.

    Speaking of Esther - I don't get a huge sense of her character here. I know she wants to leave, but beyond that...there's not a huge amount. Maybe consider showing more?

    You do say how dangerous the ship is, especially at night, and for a girl, but then Esther doesn't really seem to care about it - is it because she doesn't believe it's dangerous? Or because she's arrogant? Perhaps explain why Esther doesn't seem that bothered about her safety.

    I think you may need some more explanations as to who the Coalies are, too. I know they're police, and arrest people for no reason, but WHO are they? Why are they "Coalescents"? But that may come up later!

    I think the Cruise Ship idea is brilliant. And the way she wants to get off when usually cruise ships are luxury personified is really interesting!

    I liked this! It was a fresh take on dystopian, and I would definitely be interested in reading more.

  2. Hi!

    First off, I went ‘dystopia and ship? Nice’ when I first read it. I automatically got a ‘Last Ship’ vibe and since that’s one of my favorite shows, I went thumbs up!

    I was slightly confused as to the tone of your writing and how your MC is reacting – it seems like it’s a dangerous situation to be a person on this vessel, but Esther is in the open, doing homework? Add in the description of government eyes and drones, and I would think she’d be much more cautious about being seen.

    I also haven’t connected with Esther as of right now. The second paragraph let us know how she’s feeling at the moment but that went straight to more descriptive writing, with Esther telling us instead of showing us.

    “Coalies!” also sent my straightening in my chair, so kudos for that. But the more I read on, the more unclear I was as to their purpose and the whole scene – I’m trying to reconcile in my mind Esther being on a ship, looking to the ‘forbidden’ shore (I’m assuming) with longing, and then some sort of police unit boarding a ship that’s out at sea? Are they a type of morals police? If they are as dangerous as they are made out to be (which is great, it ups the ante and tension), then is Esther really safe from their clutches just by going down a few levels of the ship? Won’t they follow her?

    It’s been a long time since I read a dystopian novel so I’m already thinking of all types of ways how the chapter will continue 


  3. I think the premise of this is so interesting! Why are people forced to be moored on a cruise ship right off shore? How do people (teens only?) escape? Why aren't people allowed to go to shore? Why is the government watching? Why is med school unavailable is she goes to shore? All of these questions definitely make me want to read more!

    I agree with some other comments that I don't have a clear sense of who Esther is or what she wants. She is jealous of others kids escaping to "freedom" but she hesitates b/c freedom seems to mean she can't go to med school. This passage was intriguing, but I also noted that she must feel very committed to her studies and that "freedom" would require sacrifice. I'd love to know more about what she wants and what her personal stakes are right now (as in, at the time the story opens).

    Just a note: I got the impression she was onboard a ship only containing teens sine she mentioned kids her age escaping. But when she got the text from her mom, I wondered if parents were there too. Might not be totally necessary to let reader know, but it distracted me a little.

    I also thought the Neaths sounded utterly terrifying, but I didn't get an initial impression that this ship was anything other than very well regulated. She felt safe enough to work on her homework at the cafe alone. She also seemed to want the exercise and time to herself when she jogged through the empty corridor. I think a relatively easy fix is to let the reader know how Ester feels about it. Is it a risk she's just used to? Has she never had a personal run-in with the Neaths (who at this point sound worse than the Coalies)? Is she more reckless than she appears?

    Finally, the contraband pamphlets that were distributed distracted me a little bit. I wondered how anyone could reasonably throw those down without everyone seeing who did it. It seems it was a huge risk to even look at them, much less distribute them. This is small, but I also wondered how a rule breaker (propaganda distributor) would have access to that much paper and a xerox machine aboard a boat. Of course, this might well be explained in the pages ahead. Very intriguing over all!

  4. I like the idea of a dystopian on a ship, but I think this might be going a little fast. I read this twice and I still don't have a good sense of the setting. How large is this ship? Is it the only one in this "world"? How big is the world off the ship and why does she want to go there? Will she be able to come back? Your first five pages are meant to establish both the setting and the character's "before state" and I think we're getting some of that, but we could use more. I'd also suggest you focus on either the Coalies or the Neaths. This is not enough text to introduce both new groups properly.

    Good luck with the revisions!

  5. There's a lot here to intrigue, but I agree with concerns that you might be trying to cram too much into this first five, and therefore you aren't able to do any of it justice right now. We're barely oriented to where she is and who she is, and we've also got to bear in mind new recruits headed out somewhere, mysterious propaganda, Neaths, and Coalies.

    I totally sense your enthusiasm and passion about this fascinating world you've created--I know that feeling so well!--but I think you'll have more success if you pull back and force yourself not to toss everything at us right from the start. I suggest cutting the breadth and focusing on depth, which means you must make some choices.

    What's most important here? Esther, I would say. She's our guide in this world, but we need to know her, too, and get a (initial) sense of what she wants and the barriers between her and her goal. If you either spend a bit more time with the contrast between her and the recruits (does she know any of them? Does she recognize one in the crowd, now stripped of her/his individuality and headed off into danger? Is there anything personal about this? Can you make it more intimate and therefore intense?) OR cut out the recruits entirely for now and focus on Esther, her surroundings, her desire to do her homework thoroughly and well (or not), and then the propaganda and risk of being caught with it, then I think you'll have opportunities to deepen readers' understanding of Esther and the world and therefore our desire to spend more time investing.

    Looking forward to finding out what you decide!

  6. Wow. Okay, first off, I'm a sucker for any kind of ocean thing, and the dystopia aspects as well as the ship makes for a very cool setting. :)

    But, like the others, I think there's too much here. We need a bit more grounding. It's okay, worldbuilding in the first beginning can get tricky! Here is what I suggest. (Obviously, your milage may vary.)

    1. Start out with some solid sensory details. For example the paragraph that starts "A gust lifts the edges of my homework" could work as a beginning one with a little tweaking. It's a great grounding moment, and doesn't need a lot of context, the way the description of the soldiers might. We need to be there physically with Esther, on that ship, so that we can follow you into the story.

    2. Focus on one small starting conflict that can ease us into the world. The leaflets could definitely work for that, as well as her being out later than her mom thinks she should. Right now, you have a lot of other conflict too, like her envy of the soldiers and the explanation of the dystopian stuff. And that's great! But the beginning needs to be a bit less overloaded so you don't overwhelm your reader. Keep it simple. She's working to get off the ship and go to medical school, she's late to come home, leaflets fall, threatening both those things.

    3. Be wary of too many names and too much explanation in the beginning. This is such a common struggle for writers, I can't even tell you. Worldbuilding can be very difficult for speculative fiction, because readers need context. In real world stories where everything works as it should, the context is built in. We already know enough about the world to fill in the blanks. In fantasy and sci-fi, especially alternate world stories, YOU have to build the context yourself. And to do that, you have to move a bit more slowly and simply than you're currently doing so the reader can keep up.

    The nice thing about this type of story is that the reader is usually willing to wait for explanations. If you just mention the gangs, for example, or the drones, the reader will put that on a hook labeled "learn about later" You don't have to explain everything right there.

    In the paragraph that starts "I make it to the stern exit in the midst of the crowd", pretty much none of that information is really necessary for the scene. And the reason I'm singling that particular bit out is because one of the reasons that information isn't necessary is that it's already there.

    You've built a great scene, and that scene tells us everything we need to know right now. We see that people are afraid of the Coolies, that their presence causes anxiety, that they have a large amount of authority on the ship. The idea that she can be punished for possessing propaganda, the fact that someone is spreading things that the authorities don't want, all that rich implication is already in the scene. You don't need to explain backstory right now, because we have everything we need to start building a picture of the world.

    In short, you're already doing a lot of what you need to be doing. What you need to do now is simplify, trust your own writing and trust the reader to follow you further into the story.

    Can't wait to read the next revision!

  7. I agree that the paragraph beginning with "A gust lifts the edges of my homework and threatens to blow the sheets over the rail and into the sea." seems like a great place to open the story.

    I'd like to get to know Esther better, such as more of her feelings, what's up with her life right now, rather than learning quite as much about the society surrounding her. Knowing more about the setting would also help the reader.

    I enjoy the images that pop into my mind from your details. Details such as "I anchor my feet to the deck." and "sticky plastic covered table top" and "Half eaten sandwiches are left to the yellow-eyed gulls." (I especially like seeing those gulls descend on the sandwiches.)

    There's lots of intrigue here in these few pages. Finding out what develops next should be fun.


  8. Thanks for the comments everyone. Some of the things you mentioned were already niggling at me, others I couldn't see until they were pointed out (wood for the trees, huh?). Working to strengthen the pages and resubmit.