Monday, June 13, 2016

1st 5 Pages June Workshop - Devine Rev 1

Name: Jessie Devine
Genre: YA fantasy
Title: The Sweet Dark

Heat gripped the cherry swamp in its putrid claws, even in the dead of night. The air sweated in that place, and the cherries rotted ripe and sickly sweet. The temperature (or good sense) must’ve kept everyone in. The place was deserted.

The moon reflected orange across murky water, its round face broken by cattails and swamp grass. I shifted my weight between my feet. I was supposed to go north, but the swamp had swallowed the path. Trees twisted up out of the water, but I couldn’t tell how deep it was. Some fish or something that could probably eat me made a splash somewhere off in the dark. You’d think I would’ve read the signs: don’t do this, idiot. 

Water soaked through my shoes. It squelched between my toes and rose up my shins as I trudged into the mud. I was looking for a white tree. Would it still look white at night? Would I miss it? Had I already missed it? I hesitated, my foot stalling to find a foothold. It slipped deeper into the mud and I grimaced. I was soaked through all the way up to my crotch now. There were probably leeches involved. 

A cloud drifted over the moon, and it suddenly got a lot darker. I wasn’t even afraid of the dark, but this was not exactly ideal. I took another step, and another, breath hitching, the mud sucking on my shoes until one finally came off. Lost forever. I kicked off the other because I needed symmetry. Shifting silt floated all around my feet, soft in a gross way. The way I imagine puke would feel if you stepped in it. I shuddered. Eyes trained on the opposite bank, I forced myself to press on. Finally the water started to recede, and I climbed up onto dry ground.

The path continued all innocent-like, like it hadn’t just made me take a dip in the sewer. It was barely visible now. Probably people didn’t come this way much anymore. I took a step and all the fine little hairs on my body stood on end. They should’ve been slicked down with sweat and swamp, but electricity lit me up. A pang of intensity ran down my spine, and I swallowed. This direction, then. 

It was quieter on this side of the water. The bugs were quiet, even. My footsteps seemed muffled too, my bare feet light on the cracked dirt.

When I turned the corner, I broke into a run. The tree was indeed white, shimmery, silver white like old snow. “Finally,” I whispered. This was it. This big, dead tree would change my life. My hands hovered a second before I laid them against the bark.

The evocation I’d practiced 7000 times came out of my mouth automatically, and energy surged through my body. All my muscles cramped, and my jaw locked shut. My arms started to shake. Pain shot through my neck and seized the thin muscles on the back of my skull. My calves had knives in them. Fractures bit into my spine all the way. All my bones were snapping. But I had to keep holding on, had to. Agony exploded behind my eyes, lights flickering at the edge of my vision. A trickle of something hot ran from my ear—not blood, please not blood. Still, I couldn’t let go, I had to—I ripped my hands off the tree.

I sank to the ground, panting. No one had mentioned this in their stories. Had I said something wrong? I was so sure I had everything memorized. The evocation was like a nursery rhyme, a thing adults said at night to scare children into behaving. Of course I knew it. It was a myth; everyone knew it.

I waited, staring at the powdery bark, willing something to rise out of it. If I hiked out here in the middle of the night and got submerged in filth, covered in leeches, and accosted by a tree for nothing . . .

My face started to burn. It was kind of embarrassing that I’d done all this, actually. Were all the stories really just . . . stories? Or had I done something wrong? It was the right place, at the right time, during the seventh full moon and everything. I’d followed the wives’ tales to the goddamn letter.

And it was really possible to summon a sugar shade; I’d seen one with my own eyes. Once. A long time ago. Okay, I’d been like ten and it might’ve been a dream. But.

I pushed myself to my feet. I was hot and sticky and aching, and now what? All those plans I had, everything I wanted for the crew back home? It was all over. I turned away and

Screamed. There was a shade, standing silent and stone-faced in the middle of the clearing. Its face was entirely expressionless, which was more intimidating than even rage could have been. It watched me.

I swallowed and stepped closer. No telling how old this thing was. It looked the same age as me, but that was the point I guess, to appeal to the bargainer. It was taller than me and as white as the tree. Its—hair? Was it hair? It looked like hair, only it was bright violet and fell in thick spikes around the creature’s face. Its face. Oh lord, its face. It had a jawline like the razor’s edge and cheekbones to match. Its eyes were wide and the color of hematite. It said nothing, but I could feel it, pressing against my mind.

I cleared my throat. “What’s your—” The word floated across my consciousness before I could finish my sentence. “Say-el? Is that your name?” I asked, trying out the word on my tongue.

“Sael.” The creature spoke barely above a whisper.

My heart fluttered like a dying bird. This was becoming rapidly more real by the moment. I wanted to scream and run and hide and jump for joy all at the same time.

I took a breath. I knew how this went. If I didn’t want to end up a scorch mark on the dirt, I had to be calm, and I had to be polite. I put on my most charming smile to go with my most charming voice. “Sael, what is your pronoun preference?”

“My preference is yours,” it said, its eyes glittering.

My whole body shuddered. This wasn’t anything like the stories. They said I should never do this, that I would be made powerless at the hands of an ancient evil. Instead, those soft whispers made me feel like the most powerful being in existence.

I reassessed the shade. I’d never chosen a pronoun for someone before. It seemed like a weird thing to do. How the fuck did I know what words would suit Sael? But then, we’re talking about a primordial, cosmic terror. Maybe these things didn’t have gender.

My friend once told me they identified only with the night sky and the spinning universe, and that friend preferred xe and xir. I swallowed hard, praying this wasn’t some kind of test. “Does ‘xe’ work for you?”

Sael nodded. There, I’d already chosen xir pronoun, and we hadn’t even made a deal. Honestly, this is the moment I should’ve seen how this was going to end, but I was too occupied with the possibilities.


  1. Hi Jessie!

    First, there are a couple of things I really need to commend you on with this revision: You made the pronoun conversation fit so much more naturally into the scene; you should be really proud of that, as it reads quite nicely now!!! Also, you cut away the backstory at the beginning and now it feels like you start us in the right place!

    This has already come such a long way, but I do have a couple of suggestions for further polishing :)

    One would be to watch out for little instances of telling. IE: "I was looking for a white tree" and "It watched me." Super nitpicky, but if you can take out little moments of telling, these pages will shine all the more.

    Another thing I still wanted (I'm sorry for being repetitive here!) is more of that high fantasy feel. It's *definitely* better in this version, as you've removed a lot of the more contemporary-sounding terms. But I feel like you could push it a little further, and one way I see to perhaps do that is actually by incorporating a bit more information about the evocation--which ties in my final note, that I felt I needed just a touch more about the world/magic in this opening. Is everyone in this world a magic user? Or is your MC a witch/does xe have a special ability for doing evocations? These were the things I wondered when I got to the part about practicing the evocation so many times. I was also wondering what your MC wanted from the tree spirit/sugar shade. I get withholding that information to a certain extent for intrigue, but at the same time, I wanted to know a little more about the motive (even this early in the story).

    Hope my thoughts are helpful! This truly is looking GREAT!

    Can't wait to see the next revision,
    First 5 Pages Mentor

    1. Thank you! This is really helpful. I'm trying to figure out how to clarify the world a bit in these first pages. The world doesn't have a prevalence of magic at all. Sugar shades are mostly a myth, and Glory is only out there because of desperation. The evocation is something specific to only the shades; there aren't a bunch of evocations for different things.

      Hmmm I will think on this more.

    2. I did get a slight vibe that the sugar shades were the stuff of legend, but I think you could push that concept a bit further/clarify it a bit more in these first pages :) I also like the low-magic aspect!

    3. Awesome, thank you! I don't really like the paragraph with the evocation as it is anyway--I think that's the spot with potential for development in this area.

  2. Great revision! I feel that you have a great way of describing the world for us without making me feel bogged down in world-building. Your prose has a great sense of movement.

    I found this to be a really interesting read in technical terms, because even though I was in favor of changing your starting point, I found that on this read I was lacking motivation for your MC. In the first draft xe goes into the swamp for for xir gang, to help them all out and make them great. Here we don't actually know what xir motivations are. And you're so good at describing how disgusting the whole thing is, I really want to know what would drive someone to go there.

    I would also like a bit more in magical terms. Maybe to hear the invocation? I also find the term 'sugar shade' really fascinating.

    From the way you describe the scene and the thoughts of your MC I get the sense that this would be a dark, fun fantasy. I'm looking forward to seeing the next revision!

    1. I agree, the character motivation left with the exposition. I'm going to work on this in the next revision. Thank you for your thoughts!

  3. I still feel like this is missing the emotion and motivation. Why is she trying to summon a sugar shade and what does she have to lose if she fails? The tension in this scene has as much to do with this as it does with what's happening around her. Right now, it's still feeling too, "Oh well, it didn't work..."

    I don't know your story, but if meeting Sael is your inciting incident, then you're starting too far into the story. Even if it's not, I think you need to spend more time introducing your character here.

    Good luck!

  4. I love the swampy descriptions throughout this story. They really put me into this world and I'm right there, trudging along with the narrator. I do agree that the motivation for the quest has been a bit buried; there is one mention of "Will I have gone through all this for nothing?" and an aside about the people who are depending on a successful outcome, but I think it's been trimmed away a little bit too much. Without a compelling reason to underscore that xe is a afraid to go on this journey, it feels a bit like xe is simply going on an adventure. Driven by curiosity more than need, as it were.

    I agree that revealing the evocation on the page will give the story a more concrete feeling and also clue the reader a bit more into what kind of world this actually is. I also suggest that you might want to invoke the Rule of Three--have the narrator attempt the evocation three times and get it wrong the first two--with consequences (fierce wind knocking the narrator over, quick-sand-like sucking swamp dragging the narrator down, etc.) Then, when the shade finally does appear, the idea that this creature brings with it an aura of danger and menace is dialed in.

    I'm excited about your non binary approach to the characters and eager to see what you do with them next. Good work!


    1. Thank you! I agree, I think cutting the exposition in the beginning trashed the character motivation. I'm going to go back and look for ways I can thread it back in.

  5. Jessie,

    I had to delete your comment, but wanted to say that I like the way you reveal the non-traditional gender approach here. I do wonder if you can't give the reader something to anchor to early on in terms of a character description? Nothing to give it away, just a visual and perhaps a name to make the reader feel grounded. Done right, that could actually play with reader expectations and make the reveal more significant.



    1. I don't understand why my comment was deleted. As I explained last week, it's very triggering as a trans author to have my characters misgendered over and over. I would like it to stop happening.

      I actually think the gender of my character will be apparent from the pitch/back cover copy! :) I plan on including it then, which would orient the reader before they even got to the pages. It's not so much a surprise/reveal as non-binary is simply the character's gender and at this point, that gender is irrelevant to the story and doesn't need to be pointed out.

      Thank you for your thoughts!

  6. Hi Jessie,

    Thanks for sharing this re-write with us! I'm really loving this world, and this first scene really fits with your title!

    I really really love the line "the temperature (or good sense) must've kept everyone in". It's such a fantastic line, and it sticks with you even long after you've read the scene. Also "there were probably leeches involved" made me laugh out loud, and really helps establish your MC's voice. "This big, dead tree would change my life," is also great because it makes me want to know why.

    You have such fantastic images in this scene, but be careful of focusing too much on one thing because it can get a tad repetitive; there's a lot of moon imagery in this scene and feet squelching. It becomes too tell-y at a point.

    I really like that there's more suspense while your MC is with the tree - makes us wonder a bit more.

    I'm still a little iffy about how the pronoun thing is introduced at the end, BUT I do like how you've expanded upon it in this revision. It makes more sense when we see your MC grapple with this decision. "they identified only with the night sky and spinning universe" - I really really like this.

    I still REALLY want to hear the invocation because right now it seems like it was just conveniently left out so that it wouldn't have to be described or created. It might help with that world building and high fantasy element Sarah mentioned.

    Also, the genderfluid non-binary approach is so refreshing. I love it.


    1. Hahahaha that's pretty much why the evocation was left out. That and word count. I will make an attempt in my next revision!

      I agree, I need to go back through my descriptions and eliminate some of the repetitive gory details. Glory as a character tends to be emotional and dramatic, and I think that's where it's coming from. :D

      Thank you for your thoughts!

  7. Hey Jessie!

    Good job on this revision! I see that you went with putting your mc right in the action and you cut the entire backstory out which is super interesting! (Bc I was seriously interested in the gang). But what you did here was really amazing: the descriptions are very vivid, the mc has this snarky attitude that I like (reminds me of Percy Jackson a bit), and the world seems very ALIVE.

    Some nit-picky things that I agree with the others:

    1. Putting the evocation in the beginning would really ground your story and add a huge element of fantasy to your piece. It'd also add a cinematic feel, which you have a lot throughout already.

    2. Mentioning quite early that you need to find the tree would really clear up the motivation and give the reader a sense of what they're in for. You have great descriptions and then bam there's a tree. (Does this make sense?)

    3. The genderfluid non-binary thing is worked in really well this time. Good job! But the word "fuck" was such a sudden like woah, because it sounds so contemporary. I think if you added like "shit" or something earlier in the piece, itd give us a sense of the dialect/voice/thinking of the world.

    Looking forward to the next revision!

    1. Ooh, I like the idea of moving the mention of the tree up! Thank you!

      Don't worry; I start the next chapter with those paragraphs about the gang, so they at least get to stay! :)

      Ah yes, Glory curses a lot. I like your idea of introducing a cuss word earlier, but I wonder if more than one in the first five pages would be a turn off?

      Yes, everyone wants the evocation, so I think I'm going to try it. :D

      Thank you for your thoughts!

    2. Maybe adding like a less BAM cuss word would work and still not be so contempoary sounding? Like instead of fuck, it could be shit. So itd still be one cuss word but just not like BAM

    3. Yeah, that's a good idea. Thank you!

  8. Jessie,

    I loved the way you immerse us from the very beginning. Great work with the setting and imagery. I can feel everything the same way the MC is feeling it! I’m curious about the usage of the word “sewer” in paragraph five. Is this swamp located at the drainage of a sewer? Also, I was confused about the electricity lighting up the MC. Is the shock of electricity the way they know they’re going in the right direction?

    You do a great job making us feeling the scene very early on, but I didn’t feel the pain as strongly. Does the MC moan or want to scream, despite their jaw being locked shut? Since they weren’t expecting the pain, I’d find it more realistic if they recoiled the moment they touched the bark and felt pain, you know? Unless the MC expected the pain and was prepared to latch on anyway to have their wish granted.

    This leads me to the next point. I want to get why the MC is withstanding the pain and invoking the sugar shade. If you find a way to incorporate this then I’ll be hooked. I want to care; give a reason earlier on.

    I love it when you say,

    “My face started to burn.”

    We can feel the disappointment there. It’s simple, but powerful.

    I can feel the excitement and terror as they meet the sugar shade. I’m totally there. And I want to know what happens next.

    Nice job,

    1. Thank you!

      Yes, I'm struggling with adding more motivation now that we removed the paragraphs about the gang. That's something I'm working on with the next revision.

      The question you have about the pain--thinking that the MC would recoil? This is actually very important to the plot later and I'm glad you noticed it. :D

      No, this is not an actual sewer, it's just the mc being dramatic. Maybe I'll change it to like "sludge" or something.

      Thank you for your thoughts! Very helpful. :)