Sunday, April 3, 2016

1st 5 Pages April Workshop - Wooten

Name: Jeff Wooten
Genre: Young Adult Science-Fiction
Title: Jake Tenkiller and the Widow’s Lament

Emily watched the traffic through the bars of her window, trying to imagine she didn’t exist. The hospital parking lot was filling up, and the interstate was thick with morning commuters. People she would never know were going places she would never see…and that was fine, the way it was supposed to be.

The door opened behind her, pulling her back from her daydream, but she didn’t look. People moved out of sight, busy at some task; a hinge squeaked and something locked into place, wheels rolled on linoleum, feet and papers shuffled. The sounds of retreating steps and the shutting of the door told her someone had left. The squeak of an office chair told her someone had stayed.

“Emily Gardner?”

She flinched at the sound of her name but resisted the urge to turn.

“Emily, would you come sit with me?” The voice was male and rang with authority. A small impatient silence followed when Emily didn’t move. “You can come by your own free will,” the man said, “or I can drag you over.”

Emily turned, somehow managing to keep her face a mask. A handsome man sat behind a small folding table. His eyes, a remarkable blue, might have been chunks of ice for all the warmth they held. A smile split his face, and Emily knew at once she didn’t like him.

The man motioned to the other side of the table. “And bring your chair when you come.” He began to riffle through a neat stack of documents on the tabletop. Emily watched him for a few seconds longer, wondering if he would actually put his hands on her. Thinking of his eyes, she knew he would. She stood, taking her time, her movements slow and deliberate.

She walked behind her chair, picked it up, and walked to the table. The man didn’t look up from his papers as Emily placed her chair across from him. The documents appeared to be demanding all his attention. Emily knew the game: Who would talk first? The table and papers were odd though. Who used paper these days? Was it a distraction of some sort? Did it have any purpose at all? Was it working?

Emily took a small breath. It didn’t matter.

She circled in front of her chair and sat. Several minutes passed before the man found the page he wanted. He pulled it from the stack, and read it to himself as Emily waited. A few strands of black hair fell from the man’s brow. Emily guessed him to be about forty, as old as her dad. He wore a white lab coat like all the doctors did, and wore glasses too. Thick black rimmed glasses. Her dad wore glasses like that.

Had, she corrected herself, had worn
The man eyed the paper in his hand. “It says that you were the lone survivor in a plane crash. Is that correct?” Warmth spread over Emily’s cheeks as the man looked at her. “Did I say something wrong?” he asked. A ghost of a smile crossed his face. “Your father Bruce was the pilot, your mother Nancy was with you and one more.” He went back to the stack, flipped through the documents until he found something that he stabbed with a finger. His eyes lifted again. “Yes, a brother, a younger brother, Thomas. What did you call him? Thomas, Tom, Tommy?”

Emily shifted in her chair and regretted it as the man’s eyes registered her discomfort. Something hot flashed inside her, and she wanted to throw something. Why won’t they just leave me alone? Her rising emotions made her uncomfortable, and she forced the anger down.

“You turn fourteen in ten days and have been here for six months. That’s a long time not to speak, don’t you think?”

He was trying to get some sort of response, that much was clear. Emily worked hard to keep her expression neutral, determined not to let him win. The man thumbed through the documents again, pulling one page out. He examined it for a second or two, turned it around and placed it on the table. He slid the paper over to Emily. “Do you remember taking this test?”

Emily gritted her teeth but looked anyway. It was the front page only of what had been a packet, and she did remember, even though it had been months since she’d taken the test. It was a weird exam, not like any she’d taken before, and that’s what made her remember. She’d skipped questions she didn’t feel like thinking about, and answered only the ones she’d wanted too. She’d been surprised by how many she answered. The questions about shapes and how they fit together were the best, questions with hidden pictures inside random squiggles. Brain teasers were what her dad called them. She’d thought of her dad, working the puzzles out. Maybe that’s why she’d cooperated and taken the test in the first place. It had made her remember…or forget. It was hard to tell sometimes which made her the least sad. She looked up from the paper, into the man’s blue eyes, and said nothing.

“It’s rare someone scores as high as you. Did you know that?” He waited for just a second then continued. “You haven’t said a word since the crash; the airplane crash in which three people perished. Your mother Nancy, father Bruce and brother Thomas all died. Is that correct?” Again he paused. “Did you know traumatic events--physical or emotional--can sometimes alter brain chemistry? Change the way the human brain functions altogether? Cortisol reaction, serotonin and norepinephrine alterations. Most times these changes are…undesirable. Sometimes they aren’t. Were you injured in the plane crash?”

The familiar feeling of guilt, remorse and other stranger emotions washed over Emily but never quite touched her. She wasn’t that girl anymore. That girl had a family, that girl had love, that girl had a future. That girl was dead.

Boris’ fingers on the tabletop began to drum a steady beat. Thump-thump-thump-thump. “In all the multiverse there are only a few brains like yours Emily.” Thump-thump-thump-thump. “The genetic material must be present, of course,” thump-thump-thump-thump, “but even then few score so high. My name is Boris. Boris Halt.” Thump-thump-thump-thump. “I have come a long way to see you at the behest of the Emperor.”

He’s crazy, Emily realized, and she stared at him trying to see the madness that had to be there. All she saw was cold calculation, and it dawned on her that she’d never been alone with just one person before. Was he a patient like her? An escapee roaming the halls with the clothes of the doctor he’d killed? She pushed herself back from the table, moving slow, a shiver running through her.

“My question is,” Boris continued ignoring her discomfort, “is there still enough of you in there, or are you too far gone to be salvaged?”

The words stung, and Emily didn’t keep all of the anger off her face.

“Yes, there you are,” Boris said. “A thing of anger and fear, but there you are.” He raised his hand and snapped his fingers. Two men entered the room as if they’d been waiting just behind the door. They carried something limp between them. Emily’s eyes widened in horror, and she stood, knocking her chair over. Boris watched her, a self-satisfied grin on his lips.


  1. WHATTT?? What were they carrying??!?? You can't leave it like that!

    Well, clearly you have me hooked, so first off, good job! This is really pretty strong. I don't have much in the way of critique other than you say Boris's name in the narrative before he introduces himself to the protagonist. (Just a sentence or two before, but it still threw me.)

    The only thing I'd like to see is this conversation drawn out a little more. I want to get to know more about Emily, hear her voice a bit more, before we dive into the action. I haven't fully connected with her yet by the time they're dragging in something (WHAT IS IT OMG), which feels to me like it would be the inciting incident for the story. So I'd expand Emily's thoughts before and during the conversation with Boris. The part where you compare Boris to her dad, the "had worn" part specifically, is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. Maybe a similar reaction when Boris brings up Thomas or her mother would be nice. Maybe seeing a little more of the setting outside her window would be nice, too, to give us a grounding sense of place. A few names wouldn't go amiss, if Emily knows them. And if she doesn't, maybe her thinking about how strange it feels to not know where she is would give us a good grounding-alternative.

    But really other than that, this is very strong. I particularly loved the "Yes, there you are...A thing of anger and fear, but there you are." line. Sooo good. Definitely keep that if at all possible.

    1. Thanks so much for the reply. It's funny how you can read something a thousand times and miss something like that. Boris...sheesh. Thanks for that! And for the other comments, very helpful.

    2. In an earlier draft I had Emily pondering things more. I cut a lot of it. Per your notes, I'll go back and look at earlier drafts and try and see what she was thinking back then. Some more internal dialogue maybe? I defiantly have some things to ponder.

      Also, my italics got eaten in translation. I'll do better on formatting the next draft.

    3. "definitely" that is...

  2. Hi Jeff! I really liked your entry.
    I was pulled out of the story on the paragraph that starts with "Boris" ...I kept thinking, who is that? (So kudos on keeping me with you until then). It's POV slip if she doesn't know his name.

    But then I felt like the story took a different direction...a very intense "thumping" paragraph (which I liked very much) and then a almost seemed like I was reading a different story.

    So I wonder, do you want to consider starting at the "thumping" paragraph? Or where he says "it's rare that.."

    At any rate, just some minor tweaks / thoughts to ponder.

    Cheers, Lana

    1. Thank you too for noticing the POV slip up. I honestly can't tell you how many times I've read over that. Thank you so much for all your comments.

  3. I feel like the strongest thing about your pages is the tension. It’s very clear right from the start that something’s up with Emily, and it becomes more concrete when the man walks in. This tension is great for pulling the reader in. Nice job!

    I also feel like Emily has a nice, solid backbone, which makes me want to root for her. But I want to be pulled in a little more to what’s going on with her and her frame of mind. There are a couple places where I wanted to go deeper. For instance: “ trying to imagine she didn’t exist.” What would the world look like if she didn’t exist? I wondered if this would be stronger if you made it more concrete. Naming someone, some particular person she knows, and what their reaction would be if she never came back from the hospital. Or is there no one she cares about now that her closest family is gone? Just knowing that, that she doesn’t care because the only people that loved are gone, would make it easier to identify with her and root for her in the conflict that she will soon be facing. The other place I’d like more is where you say: “somehow managing to keep her face a mask.” What is her mask? Coldness? Aloofness? Craziness? It would be even better if you could convey this with how she’s trying to hold her mouth or her eyes.

    A lot about Emily comes across in these pages, which is great, but here it felt a little telly. “You turn fourteen in ten days and have been here for six months. That’s a long time not to speak, don’t you think?” What if he asked her if not speaking for 6 months was a little childish for a 14 yo? Or something else to give him more reason for mentioning her age so it doesn’t seem shoved in?

    “Emily worked hard to keep her expression neutral, determined not to let him win.” This is really interesting. Why does she think he wins if she reacts? Why is she trying so hard to wear the mask?

    I like your pages and am interested to see where they go next week.


    1. It seems a common theme that people want to know more about what's going on in Emily's head. Wheels-turning. Thank you. Good stuff.

    2. You know, reading the other comments, I was thinking about something that I don't think I was really clear about. You spend a bunch of time talking about the people she wouldn't meet and the places she wouldn't go and and that she was trying to hide something in her face. And I like that, I just think that if you flipped those around to be more concrete...who would miss her and why, or why there wasn't anyone who would miss her and how she felt about that. What emotion she was hiding from Boris and why, I think you would get more out of the same number of words. Does that make sense? I'm still not sure I'm saying it clearly. Ugh!

    3. Yes, it does make sense, and thank you. It's nice to know I'm not the only one reading these entries and their attached comments more than once. I got one I need to clarify too, I think.

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  5. Ha ha! Yeah, I'm not great at figuring out fixes on the first read of comments, except for the really easy stuff. I need to give them a couple passes.

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  7. Hi Jeff. I agree with everyone that the tension you have building is well done. Pulls you right in and keeps you reading. Great job!

    You have some really great lines. I love the lines “she wasn’t that girl anymore. That girl had a family, that girl had love, that girl had a future. That girl was dead.” Very powerful insight into Emily’s self. Also, “Had, she corrected herself, had worn.” Great insight on where she is emotionally with what has happened.

    My thoughts are mostly on setting. I immediately found myself wondering where she was. With the bars on the windows, I initially thought jail which gave me the expectation that she was either a troublemaker or wrongly accused. After reading more, I thought she was in a hospital of some sorts which led me to think she was either hurt or troubled. At any rate, it took me out of the action. I feel with some simple setting descriptions, you can manage reader expectations and have the added bonus of creating more dimension for your character. I would have read the dialogue between her and Boris differently if I thought she was in jail or if she was just hurt and in the hospital.

    Another part I stumbled on was in the first line, “trying to imagine she didn’t exist.” I want to know more. Does she wish she didn’t exist? Does she feel she doesn’t exist?

    I caught the Boris introduction as well.

    I enjoyed reading your piece and look forward to what’s next.


    1. Setting descriptions, yes. That is something I have a plan for. Thank you.

      Others who have read that first line liked it. Two people here didn't. It's funny how that works. I have some thinking to do. I want that first line to punch.


  8. Hi Jeff!

    I was really impressed with this snippet. You manage to show Emily's personality while dropping us right into the action, and made me very curious to know what happens next. You even found a way to provide the necessary exposition without info dumping or wordy, unrealistic dialogue (one of my personal pet peeves). Most of the suggestions I have are very minor niggles.

    I second Linda's comment about the first line: I didn't know why she was imagining she didn't exist, or what that had to do with the traffic outside the window. It was confusing.

    "It was hard to tell sometimes which made her the least sad." This was another sentence that tripped me up a little. It's almost a double negative but not quite. I think you're saying something like she can't decide if remembering or forgetting would be sadder, but it's not clear.

    There were also a couple of POV slips I noticed: "Emily turned, somehow managing to keep her face a mask." She's not looking at her face, so how does she know she succeeded? Also "The words stung, and Emily didn’t keep all of the anger off her face." Since she's not seeing herself, I would focus on how her anger feels, not how it looks. You have Boris's statement to tell us she looks mad.

    Another small thing: there were a couple places you used both dialogue and action tags when only one is needed. For instance: "The man eyed the paper in his hand. 'It says that you were the lone survivor in a plane crash. Is that correct?' Warmth spread over Emily’s cheeks as the man looked at her. 'Did I say something wrong?' he asked. A ghost of a smile crossed his face." "he asked" isn't necessary, since the dialogue is surrounded by Boris's actions.

    I really loved the way you used sound to set the scene. The thump-thump-thump section was great, and I also really liked these lines "The sounds of retreating steps and the shutting of the door told her someone had left. The squeak of an office chair told her someone had stayed." I liked seeing Emily draw conclusions based on the evidence of her senses. Very nice. (Although "sounds of . . ." are filter words and could be left off to deepen the POV.)

    Again, really loved this, and I'm burning to see what happens next!


    1. Thanks for the POV slips. I think I can tighten those. The dialogue tag was good too.


  9. Interesting opening pages. They're intriguing and definitely set up the scene for a ton of questions.

    A couple of things that might help: it's clear that she is somewhere dangerous by the end--that the Boris dude is not someone good. We know that the second he says he can force her to turn around. That isn't exactly good bedside manner...BUT the first few couple of lines feel more quiet and resigned. If you intend for that switch, to throw the reader off, great. I'd suggest, though, that you start more ominously. The hospital filling up, the cars going by--they all sound like something someone who is sick or visiting a relative would notice. But the bars throw that off. Maybe play up the bars as the thing that is wrong in that picture, so the tone of the opening is darker and better matches the end.

    I'm also not sure you need to repeat the information about the plane crash and who died in it twice. The repetition doesn't heighten the emotion of that bit of information

    The other piece I noticed was:
    "Something hot flashed inside her, and she wanted to throw something. Why won’t they just leave me alone? Her rising emotions made her uncomfortable, and she forced the anger down."

    You could do a lot more with this to show whether this is a normal reaction for her or one that scares her. "uncomfortable" is such a vague term--is it the emotions themselves? the fact that they flash so quickly? the fact that they seem almost out of the ordinary? (except they seem reasonable considering the dude just told her he'd force her to come sit by him.

    I also wonder about Emily's age-- is she going to age throughout the book? Is this a YA? 13 going on 14 feels young for that. Or maybe it's an adult sci-fi?

    Finally, the thing hanging limp immediately put me in mind of a body, but a body would be a someone-- is it? If so, I don't think you have to use something to keep the suspense going. Someone would do that just as well.


  10. Thanks for all of that! Emily is in a mental hospital following the tragic death of her family. Up until the point Boris walks in, psychiatrists and psychologists have been her bane. I need to clarify that. I did want Boris' threat to be jarring, but I do take your point. I have a few ideas and am excited to revise.

    Emily has been as old as 16 and as young as 13. I go back and forth. She does age in the manuscript, but just by a year.

    I have a few vague descriptions I need to work on as well.

    Thanks again,

  11. Hi Jeff,

    First of all I want to thank you for letting me mentor you. This is not only fun for me, I’m very aware of the necessary bravery on your part. I haven’t read any of the other comments because I prefer to give you my notes clean and free of anyone else’s impressions. Hopefully I won’t contradict anyone else too badly. Meanwhile I’m going to be completely honest with you, cause that’s how I roll.

    I think you’ve got a lot going for you here. You have an interesting, badass protagonist. You have tragedy. You have a mental asylum. These are all the ingredients you need for a great story. So that’s all lovely. I have a couple of questions for you this first round:

    ~Can you comb the pages for any clichés, such as icy blue eyes and gritting teeth? As a person who sifts through the query box at my day job, I know that’s something I look for.

    ~I was taught and believe it to be true that every time you name an emotion it needs to be earned, and most of the time it’s unnecessary. Would you consider trying to replace the mentions of anger, etc, with an action or a metaphor?

    ~I’m wondering why Emily resists the urge to run. What would happen to this scene if she were to be physically non-compliant in addition to being verbally so? There is a lot of sitting (by the window, across the desk). You’ve written a character who seems to have a lot of moxie. After having lost her family and having been confined against her will, if she truly believes this man would hurt her, wouldn’t she go ballistic, bite and scratch? I’m not trying to write it for you. It feels like it’s already there in her personality, though. Just something to think about. It might help hook your reader.

    ~I also wonder what she wants. It might help hook an agent if, by the end of these pages, we know what she is trying to achieve. Escape? Revenge? You’ve written a genius, so her mind would be ticking.

    Thanks again, Jeff!

    My best,