Sunday, May 8, 2016

1st 5 Pages May Workshop - Alexander

Name: Sarah Alexander
Genre: YA Mystery/ Suspense
Title: Clueless Academy

Deep in the mountains of Maryland stood one of the country’s most secure preparatory high schools. The children of the nation’s highest ranking politicians, elite military operators, foreign dignitaries, and celebrities started competing for admission as early as Kindergarten. But, if you were accepted, every Ivy League University opened its door for you.
 Clueless Academy was a massive mansion that seemed to have been carved into the side of a mountain, overlooking a giant field. The only way into the school was through a large military grade gate that was guarded by no less than three armed ex-army rangers at any given moment. There were security cameras everywhere that were monitored around the clock by experts. So then how did one of the new teachers die without a trace?
Among the elite students were six special students. Why were they so special? At least one of their parents had already been accused of murder at an infamous dinner party. On top of this, social media posts reveal that they were all present at the party that was broken up by the victim, Miss Waddington, late last night. Upon further investigation, there were six pieces of evidence found that tied them all to the crime. 
All six of these students were brought into the detention room early Saturday morning. The headmaster, Rawling Pratt, stood in front of the room trying to figure out what to do with Indigo Plum, Ivory White, Hunter Green, Magenta Scarlett, Jasper Mustard, and Sapphire Peacock. 
It was around five in the morning, on a dreary Saturday, when Indigo Plum was awoken from a deep sleep. She had been at a party her exboyfriend’s dorms until she sauntered on home around one am. Indigo stood up and realized that there was a very good chance she was still drunk. Since it was one of the security guards waking her, she figured it would be a good idea to play up being tired and hope he mistakes her inability to walk in a straight line for drowsiness instead of inebriation.
Indigo stretched her arms and grabbed for some more appropriate clothes. She was still in her tight black dress from the night before. However, the guard was not giving her any privacy to change. 
“Um, hello! Can I get a minute? I need to get dressed,” She whined when the guard did not appear to be leaving. 
“Miss Plum, I have strict orders to stay with you until we get to the detention room.” He said looking straight ahead at the wall above her bed. This was not an appropriate response. Indigo was used to getting what she wanted. She flipped her long chestnut hair and looked up at him with her bright blue eyes. Then she extended her arm and placed it gently on his chest. 
“I know you have orders, but I would really like a minute to freshen up. I cross my heart that I will go with you once I have changed. You won’t make me go meet with the headmaster looking like this, right?” She asked raising the pitch of her voice and fluttering her eyelashes at him. Indigo had long ago figured out how to get men to do what she wanted. He looked back at her and blushed a minute. 
“Well, seeing as you are on the third floor, and there is only one door, I guess I could step outside for a minute and give you a little privacy.” He looked at her slowly up and down. Indigo nodded he head at him and bit her lip. The guard backed away from her and stepped outside. Indigo rolled her eyes at his back. 
“That was too easy!” She looked around her bedroom. Her father, Professor Plum, was one of the lead professors at the school and he had ensured that her suite was one of the larger bedrooms in the mansion. It boasted mahogany crown molding wrapped around the ceiling and dangling chandeliers. The walls were painted in her favorite shade of violet and all of the flat surfaces were covered in marble. Well, at least they were underneath the piles, upon piles, of clothes draped over anything that stood still.
Indigo grabbed a pair of jeans from the piled she considered to be clean. She then pulled on a merlot colored blouse that fell just above her belly button and her piercing shined. Normally, this would have been a dress code violation as it was against the rules to show midriff. But, since it was aSunday, technically it was not against the rules. Besides, the rules really did not apply to her.
Remnants of last night’s make-up were still on her face so she looked in the mirror and touched it up. Then Indio pulled her hair into a low ponytail and grabbed a pair of black flats. It was probably a bad idea to wear heels when she was already uneasy on her feet. Indigo slipped her Chanel purse onto her shoulder and opened the door.
“Ok, I am ready now.” Indigo started walking towards the detention room. Her father had kept her indiscretions out of her permanent record but he could not keep her out of this room.
“Finally, Miss Plum, nice of you to join us.” Headmaster Pratt said as she picked a desk near the back of the room. It was her usual desk because there was a great view of the football field. The team liked to practice shirtless and Indigo liked to watch. But, there would be no practice today so she had nothing to distract her from whatever was going on. 
“Sorry,” she murmured and looked around noticing the five other students. Indigo rolled her eyes and swore under her breath. Why the hell was Magenta here? Before she could figure this out, the headmaster began speaking again. 
“I am not sure how much you all know, but last night there was a horrible crime. At some point, Miss Waddington was murdered. They are still trying to determine cause of death and there is evidence that her body was moved. You have all been gathered here today because some piece of the evidence leads to each of you. With your parents’ histories, it must not be hard to determine why you are all being detained.” He stopped for a moment and let that sink it.
“Wait a minute!” Ivory spoke up before he could continue. “Are you honestly suggesting that one of us is capable of murder?” Ivory asked in shock.
Indigo rolled her eyes trying to ignore her Ivory as she was not Indigo’s favorite person. She was always raising her hand in class and she was a scholarship kid. Everyone knew that she and her mother lived in the employee section since her mother was one of the maids.
But, worse than that, she had hooked up with Indigo’s ex-boyfriend, Hunter last night at the party. That probably had more to do with why Indigo didn’t like Ivory than anything else. To tell the truth, Indigo had no idea how Ivory ended up at the party in the first place. It’s not like she was in their circle of friends. 
“You are going to stay in this room until we can figure out what happened. This guard is going to go around and collect your phones so you cannot contact anyone outside of this room.” It was in that moment, Indigo realized she was in trouble.


  1. I like the idea of this story, but I think the mechanics need some work. I would suggest you focus on three things to start:
    1) The story really doesn't start until, "It was around five in the morning..." Everything before this is an info dump and needs to be weaved into the story as you go. Some people will tell you to never start a story with a character waking up. I will leave that up to you. I think it can be done if absolutely necessary (I'm not sure it is here).
    2) The voice feels very middle grade to me. I'm not sure if it's the third person or the way you're telling the story. I would suggest you focus on retelling this scene from Indigo's POV. Some people suggest writing first person in draft and then changing to third.
    3) There are some areas where the verb tense is incorrect or when you're slowing down the pace by not using contractions. I would highly suggest you attempt to use them whenever possibly, especially in YA.

    Good luck!

  2. The first two paragraphs read more like the query/back book cover than the beginning of the book, and I am not sure what the arc of the story is until further down.

    The part with the Headmaster feels like bullying to me, in present day society (if this is set 15-25 years ago, then it might work but this kind of pressure is no longer allowed). Administration would not be permitted to discuss the histories of students’ parents in front of other students regardless of how well known the information may be to the public. Also, murder is not a school governed issue like cheating, and in a murder investigation, especially when involving minors, a police detective would be present during this discussion and leading the questioning, which would happen individually with each student only once their parents have arrived. Because they are minors without their parents present, and without the police leading this discussion, the last paragraph dips a toe into the False Imprisonment pool.

    I like your balance of narrative, action, and dialogue so far, and I like the pacing. I am not yet rooting for the main character but I like the bits of personality infused into the first 1250 words. There isn’t anything sympathetic about her and if she is the villain in the story, I like that I already don’t like her very much. Is there more that you can offer about her though, such as showing the reader how she is feeling (is she nervous because there are holes in her memory of last night, shown by her biting her nails or lip)? I also don’t know what her motives are, which I might like to know more of by the end of this submission.

    I would definitely keep reading! I like where this is going, Sarah. Good start!

    Side note: There have been two series already based off of the board game Clue that you might want to check out: Clue Mysteries and Clue (neither for YA though) and other books featuring this premise, for example And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. I offer this information for you to make sure you are standing out among what is already on the market.

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  4. Hi Sarah,

    This is a great concept — I love the idea of a highly selective, hard-to-get-into boarding school for children of the elite and rich. It reeks of privilege and I can already imagine the spoiled lot of kids that go there, and the hijinks they get into it. It already reminds me of like Gossip Girl, and this is most definitely a world that I want to guiltily indulge in.

    With that said, the first four paragraphs of your opening feels like a summary, a lot of backstory, which all is obviously important, I just wonder if there is a way you can work that information in while grounding the reader *in* the scene. So maybe you open the story with a catchy line (“When Indigo Plum woke up with a screaming hangover, she thought a cotton-ball mouth and pounding headache would be her biggest worries of the day. How very wrong she was.” Or something like that, obviously with better construction, alluding to the murder), and then jump immediately into the scene where Indigo is pulled from her room into the office to be questioned. While you move through the actions of the scene, you can introduce the setting, introduce the school, etc., rather than beginning with a summary of it.

    Another thing, re: your descriptions. For me, the school is by far the most interesting concept, but you gloss over the details. I would spend less of your words describing Indigo’s outfit, and more describing the school as she moves through the scene. Maybe she looks out the window, and sees something that you wouldn’t expect at a boarding school. Guards doing military exercises on an enormous field, or something like that. But Indigo is just like yawn, it’s just the guards doing drills with their ak-47s again, I wish it was the shirtless football team. That way we know, through her bored reaction to something amazing, that amazing is run-of-the-mill at this academy. Also, you say the school “seemed” to have been carved into the side of a mountain — what does that mean? How can a mansion be carved into a mountain? Is it, or isn’t it? Is it perched? The “seemed” throws me off. Be more specific so that I can create the image of it in my mind.

    One last thing, about the conversation in the office with Headmaster Pratt. I think that if I were accused of murder, or told that a teacher had been murdered, I probably wouldn’t be sulking about a girl hooking up with my ex-boyfriend as my first reaction. Indigo should be shocked — shouldn’t she? If I was told a teacher had been murdered at my school, I would have a ton of emotions and thoughts, even if it was a teacher I didn’t know, care about, or hated. Murder is serious business! I want to know what Indigo thinks about Mrs. Waddington, I want to know whether she’s surprised or not by the murder. If you think the bit about her relationship with Magenta is important, then I would I would have her sulking first, when they first enter the room and don’t know anything yet about why they’re there. *Then* have them be accused of murder. Maybe Indigo thinks they’re all there to get in trouble about the party, she sulks about Magenta, and then boom, the hammer is dropped about Mrs. Waddington’s murder, shaking them all out of their teenage apathy. Right now, no one is reacting to the murder. I want something to chew on, I want to see the characters really react to this astonishing news. I’m really excited to see your revisions for next week and to learn more about Clueless Academy!

  5. Hi Sarah,
    My first reaction after reading the entire excerpt was that 'Indigo rolls her eyes a lot!' That seems to be her only physical reaction to every situation. So maybe you could introduce some variety here.

    Secondly, if I were to start the story, I'd begin with - Six students were brought into the detention room early Saturday morning. The headmaster, Rawling Pratt, stood in front of the room trying to figure out what to do with Indigo Plum, Ivory White, Hunter Green, Magenta Scarlett, Jasper Mustard, and Sapphire Peacock - this is because it immediately perks up interest with six characters with intriguing names being summoned to the detention hall. And it raises several questions that could be addressed in the later paragraphs. Starting with a back-story in this context seems a bit flat as a reader.

    Talking of the back-story, the one word descriptions like 'massive mansion', 'giant field' etc don't do much. I'd add some more character to the mansion since it is a unique institution as well as the crime scene. Also, I am a bit confused about the murder - if a parent is the murderer, why are the kids being held? You could add some flesh to this aspect too.

    Is there a reason why you've given more footage to Indigo's story? When you started with her, I thought the same treatment would be meted out to the other five as well - i.e giving the reader a peek into what each of them was doing when he/she was summoned to the detention room.

    Also, the way the murder of a teacher is announced lacks drama. It is let out in a rather matter-of-fact manner that fails to perk the interest of the six students (seemingly, since there is no reaction from the other five characters) as well as the reader.

    The last line is a great hook. It leaves me guessing about how the rest of the story will unfold and what part Indigo plays in the entire scheme of things. And the title of the book is intriguing too. I can't wait to find out why its called the 'clueless' academy!

    All the best with your revision

  6. Hi Sarah,

    I was intrigued by your title. I thought it was a nickname given by the students to the place. I'm not sure you're going in that direction but it might be something to consider. The main character, Indigo, comes off as irreverent so it might be in keeping with her character.

    The opening two paragraphs of your work are descriptive and provide a clear visual of your setting. However, I'm left asking myself whether it's a school or a prison. Armed ex-Army Rangers? Military grade gates? Why would someone want to send their kids here? Then, when you reveal the problem (murder), I'm confused how you can "die without a trace" which contradicts the later comment about evidence.

    The third paragraph had me confused. How are elite and special different? What do their parents have to do with it? Did the evidence tie the parents or students to the crime? Too many questions up front slows the reader down.

    Your character names sound like they were taken from a Clue game. I would worry that originality suffers in that regard. If you intent to pay homage to Christy be sure your idea is 100% authentic. Also, having two characters with "I" names, sometimes confuses the reader.

    In general, the story is slow to ramp up. The pacing is slow, perhaps because the first five paragraphs are general and expository, in nature. But the big reveal of the murder inquiry also lacks punch. This is a mystery so you'll want to build tension from the beginning. Consider starting at the point where Indigo finds out she's being accused of murder. It seems she's used to being called down to detention so that would be the hook.

    Indigo is shaping up to be an interesting character. She is full of attitude and I'm not sure if I like her or hate her.

    An important note on mechanics. Proofread your work well for typos, omissions, verb tense and antecedent issues. Pronouns should always relate to the noun closest to them. Watch capitalization. kindergarten. Army Ranger. Ivy League university.

    Best of luck with revisions.

  7. Hi Sarah,

    There is much to like in these opening pages! You have certainly drawn me in and made me want to keep reading, which is fabulous! It feels a bit like a mystery version of Breakfast Club to me – and I think that is fresh and intriguing, and there is much you can do with it. And Indigo is an interesting character.

    I do agree there is too much summary at the start of the book. I think you could shorten it quite a bit – tell us in a sentence or two about the high security academy catering to the elite (I’d cut the line about ivy schools – I think your point is that the school is so secure to prevent kidnapping, etc., so this only diminishes that) and then add your line about the teacher being dead, which is when you hooked me. Always best to get the hook as close to the beginning as possible!

    I also had trouble with the tense. It read like they were brought to the detention room, but then the guard was waking her, which I found confusing. I think Holly has a good point about telling the story from Indigo’s point of view. I agree with her, starting with waking up from a dream is risky – most agents say it is too cliché – so I’d suggest starting with her walking to the detention room or sizing up the guard. If you start with the latter – you could use that as an opportunity for her to complain to herself about the amount of guards, security, etc. at the academy, letting us know where she is.

    I also agree that the headmaster would never mention the parents’ histories. Indigo could say it though, angrily to him. Also – with her father being a professor, that is also “help” as Ivory’s mother is, and I would guess the snooty kids would look down on her for that, too.

    Careful with adjectives too, often they do little to add to the description. Instead of telling us it’s a massive mansion describe what it is made of. Is the back part of the cliff? Free standing? Are there narrow stone steps leading to the field?

    Lastly, as you revise, I’d suggest reading it out loud for flow and tense. It’s amazing how much your ear catches that your eye doesn’t! I look forward to reading next week!

  8. Dear Sarah,

    You’ve got a humorous and clever premise here with lots of potential! That Clueless Academy is based on the old CLUE or Cluedo board game is great fun. Assuming your reader is familiar with Clue, at least part of the world building is all taken care of. Brilliant. We have a good idea of what we’re in for, too, i.e. the promise you’re making to the reader. This will be spoofy fun and games! Plus we know what’s at stake (jail! Maybe more murder!) and what all the characters want. To find the killer and/or to exonerate themselves.

    The fact that the characters are (so far) YA adds great energy. Bad girl Indigo Plum is not only hung over but may still be drunk and decides not to wear high heels for this reason. This made me laugh out loud. You use all the colors of the character’s names plus a few of your own beautifully (Violet walls. Indigo’s Merlot blouse!) And if you have half as much fun with the other characters as you have with Indigo, this mystery promises to be a rollicking romp. The idea of a high security school with misbehaving teens and dress codes against showing one’s midriff juxtaposes wonderfully against the board game and the stuffy old characters and mansion therein.

    Here are my questions:

    -Do you need to set up and explain things for the first four paragraphs? What if you just have Indigo waking up at Clueless Academy by the guard informing her that she has to go to Headmaster Pratt’s detention room? We’ll figure it all out pretty quickly, but your action already pulls us in, and readers LIKE to figure things out. This is a mystery after all. Anything important (like geographical location) you can break into small bits and sprinkle in later.

    -Do you need to tell me that Ivory was not Indigo’s favorite person? You’ve shown me just fine. I know how Indigo feels about Magenta. You do a great job of showing us what these characters are like by their dialogue and actions—Indigo sits where she can watch the shirtless football team practice! Perfect! Check any places where you tell the reader how a character feels (I think mostly only with Ivory). Trust that you’ve shown us.

    -Is Hunter already in the detention room? Is he going to be important in the rest of the story? Do he and Indigo see each other or exchange communication of any kind?

    Continue having as much fun with this as you are, and we will, too! Good luck!