Monday, June 20, 2016

1st 5 Pages June Workshop - Devine Rev 2

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, the cherries rotting ripe and sickly sweet. It would’ve been great if the solution to all my problems wasn’t out in the middle of this. But at least the temperature (or good sense) kept everyone away.

The moon reflected orange across murky water, face broken by cattails and marsh grass. I was supposed to go south, 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 as I slogged into the mud. I grimaced. This mythical white tree better be easy to find. Would it still look white at night? Would I miss it? Had I already missed it? I hesitated, and my foot slipped deeper into the muck. Now I was soaked through all the way up to my crotch. There were probably leeches involved. 

A cloud drifted over the moon, and I froze. I wasn’t even scared of the dark, but fear crawled up my spine. I took another step, and another, breath hitching, mud sucking on my shoes until one came off. Lost forever. I kicked off the other because I needed symmetry. Silt floated all around my feet, soft in a gross way. The way I imagined 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 receded, and I climbed up onto dry ground.

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. I was headed the right direction, then. 

The overgrown path continued all innocent-like, like it hadn’t just made me take a dip in the sludge. Quiet hung over this bank. The bugs were quiet, even. My footsteps seemed muffled, my bare feet light on the soggy 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 words of the evocation ripped themselves out of my mouth. 

“With power for breath, shade sweet as death,
We rend our souls with this violent request.
Wishes and whimsy contracted for spite,
Allow us the strength to turn day into night.
Slaves to your hunger, our bone made to bread, 
In the hour of darkness, leave us for dead.”

Energy surged through my body. All my muscles cramped. I tried to cry out, but 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 my bones were snapping. But I had to keep holding on, had to. This was my only chance. 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. None of the stories had mentioned this. Had I said something wrong? The sugar shade 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 in Gilda 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 . . .

No, this had to work. It was 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.

My face started to burn. It was kind of embarrassing that I’d done all this, actually. Magic wasn’t real. Sugar shades? Really? I was a damn fool, sitting out here, bleeding from the head and chanting nursery rhymes to a plant during the seventh full moon.

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 in the middle of the clearing. Its face was entirely expressionless, which was more intimidating than even rage could have been.

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 were 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!

    Great job once again; with this latest revision, I was having trouble coming up with anything to nitpick at all!

    And I know I've said this before, but it bears repeating: the language and setting and voice of your MC are so strong and gorgeous. I LOVE this opening.

    Also, great job adding in the place/kingdom name! This does feel more like high fantasy all around now.

    The one comment I have for you to consider is giving us a little more of your MC's motivation early. Xe thinks this white tree and summoning the shade will solve xir problems; I definitely gleaned that much. But...could you tease out a couple hints of what some of these problems are? I mean, it can be SUPER vague, like 'poverty' or 'hunted by a madman' or 'lost love' or 'finding the way home'... It's just, I feel like if we knew a bit about the problems your MC was hoping to solve, it would strengthen our emotional connection with the narrator from the get-go.

    My one suggestion aside, I think this is a strong opening for a YA fantasy!

    Good luck; I'd love to hear how things progress for you with this!

    First 5 Pages Mentor

  2. Jessie!

    Can I say that I really, really, really like the atmosphere of your story! The way you start it out is just the nice touch of horrifying, disgusting and yet intriguing at the same time. I also have to commend you on changing up the pacing of the story in terms of varying your sentence structure. It doesn’t read so choppy anymore yet we can still get a clue into how the mc thinks. Good job! Additionally (a side note), I’m excited to see how you include the gangs later in your story (which you already know…I’m such a sucker for those kinds of stories, I can’t help it). And lastly, I am very happy that you are writing a book about non-binary characters. And in a fantasy setting too! I’m super interested in where you go with that and how you explore the boundaries of your made up world, with full knowledge and context of our world. Now that I think about it…I think having the part about where your mc asks the shade about his preferred pronoun is superbly done. It forces the reader to yank out their roots and put in a new one aka adjust their pov from their world to yours. Isn’t that the point of fantasy, anyways? Good job, really!

    Some things: (Reject them as you see fit)

    1. “It would’ve been great if the solution to all my problems wasn’t out in the middle of this.” This read weird to me. Especially the “in the middle of this” part; possibly bc you have such vivid imagery and then the mc’s thoughts suddenly disrupt the pace.
    2. I think you should bring the mention of the tree before the “The moon reflected orange across murky water” paragraph to really bring the motivation very early in the piece. I think that the need to bring the motivation quite quickly, specifically for your story, is because you set it up so that your mc is on some kind of mission and the reader will definitely want to be clued into what the motivation for your mc is.
    3. The part where it says “All the fine little hairs on my body…” I really think to bring a sense of “suddenness and immediacy” to the story, you can add the word, “Suddenly, all the fine little hairs…”
    4. An idea…maybe have the evocation in the very beginning? Like have it start out your entire thing…like your mc is thinking it in their head while trying to find the tree…this might solve the issue of the motivation thing and bring uniqueness and intrigue to your story. I like the evocation though.
    5. The part where it says “none of the stories had mentioned this” is kind of confusing. You never clue in the reader what the stories were, or that there were even stories in the first place. I suggest building up from the very backbones of what your reader MUST know to really understand the situation and then write out the process of your mc going to find it. Unless, you want to immediately mention an example of a story right after that sentence…that could totally work.
    6. “Once. A long time ago. Okay, I’d been like ten and it might’ve been a dream. But.” Made me laugh out loud.
    7. “My friend once told me they identified only with the night sky and the spinning universe” part is a bit of unnecessary knowledge. Your reader doesn’t know who your friend is, nor do they have a reason to care. Maybe be like “The stories had said/mentioned that shades only identified with the night sky and the spinning universe.” It’d tie in the “story” element you got going on with relevant knowledge that your mc lacks.

    That’s all my thoughts, really. Good luck with future drafts/revisions/edits and such. Thanks for your lovely comments on mine and I’m excited to see where this story goes.

    Whoop whoop,

  3. Hi Jessie,

    Love, love love your first line. It throws us into the atmosphere and the rest of your piece keeps it going, nicely balanced with the irreverent narration of your MC. It sometimes feels a little bit meta (in a good way!) in the way that xe is almost wry in xir descriptions of the area.

    I agree with Sarah's comments on the motivation. In technical terms, I think I'd like to have the motivation before we get to the invocation to summon the sugar shade. Your MC get shocked with immense pain at that point, but refuses to let go - so obviously something big is motivating xir, and I want to have an inkling of what that is.

    Like Teresa, I get pulled away from the immediacy of the story when your MC starts reflecting on xir friend. I don't know if this would mess with the plot, but maybe if xir friend is named earlier, and perhaps is part of the motivation for xir being out here in the swamp.

    A question I have, which doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the first five pages - how is the 'it' pronoun received? Mainly because your MC thinks of the shade as an 'it' before getting the pronoun preference. Is 'it' the catch-all for if you don't know someone's preference, or if they're not at an age to choose one?

    All in all I really enjoyed reading this, and I like the extra details you brought to this revision. I think it clarified the story and gave me a sense of both place and world.

    Thanks for being part of this workshop, and for all your feedback! Best of luck with everything!

    1. My MC refers to Sael is "it" only because xe isn't human--for other people, the default pronoun would be "they."

      Thank you for all your thoughts! :)

  4. I'm not sure I have anything new to add. Your writing is great and has improved with every revision, however your character still lacks motivation. There's a vague reference to wanting something for the crew back home, but we don't know what this means (and it doesn't come with any underlying emotion to hint that it really matters to her). Without knowing why your character is trying to summon this shade, I have no reason to care whether or not it works or hurts like hell.

    I also still think the paragraph where she touches the tree has too much going on. I like that you're trying to show intense pain, but the feelings are bouncing around so much, I almost don't know which to focus on. I also can't tell if this is real. Do all of her bones actually snap? If so, how does she stand up later like everything is fine?

    Good luck,

  5. Hi Jessie,

    I can't believe this workshop is almost over! Thanks for sharing this with us.

    So I'm really liking your first couple of paragraphs. Your first line is really great.

    I still have a couple of issues, though, and I'm going to follow suit on Teresa's numbered list:
    1. You have a couple of lines throughout that really pull me out of an otherwise really beautifully described world. For example "silt floated all around my feet, soft in a gross way" - this line is great at the beginning, but then 'in a gross way' just tells instead of shows. Just cut to the puke line. Also, what does "a pang of intensity" feel like? I feel like more description here would go a long way.
    2. I love that we get to see the evocation this time around. So much better. I like how we get to see your MCs bodily reaction to it afterwards, too. It's really intense, though, and it might be helpful to have some indication of how this affects your MC later.
    3. I'm with Holly on this one regarding character motivation. I think your first draft really had that motivation come through, but it needed to be sprinkled in throughout rather than dumped in the beginning.

    Please accept or reject my suggestions as you see fit. I wish you the best of luck in your revisions.


  6. Hi, Jessie!

    This is a very strong revision. Nice work! Thanks to your sensory detail and description, I really felt like I was going through the swamp with the main character. The evocation took the story to a whole new level of darkness--loved it! I agree with the suggestion to open the story with the evocation, and also to specify what sends the MC on this quest. You allude to a problem but I think you need to say exactly what it is--and to make it dire, in order to up the stakes. The MC gets to the tree fairly easily, and so the big question is, will they get what they want?

    I think it's wonderful that you're using non binary characters, and I thought the appearance of the shade was fresh and interesting. I do still think it sounds a bit forced for the MC to ask the shade for name and pronoun designation so quickly, especially after that creepy evocation. If the MC desperately wants something, and has to deal with this scary-freaky shade to get it, that charges the story with some good energy that will compel the reader to keep going.

    That said, I think this is an unusual take of fantasy--bordering on folkloric--and again, I love your use of non binary characters.

    Good work and good luck with it!


    1. Thank you! Your comments have been very valuable to me! :)

  7. Jessie,

    Again, lovely work. Here’re some thoughts:

    You know, I feel like the use of the world “Temperature” makes a big statement about the MC and about the world they live in. If this was intentional, then great, it stood out for me as a detail of world building. If it wasn’t, then let me just point this out. Using temperature here tells us this is a fantasy world with its fair share of discoveries; that the MC is scientifically minded and knows what temperature is. It tells me it’s a world with scientific advancement mirroring our universe, post 1700s.

    I’m going to disagree with Carly here and tell you I think this line is awesome “silt floated all around my feet, soft in a gross way.” In fact, it’s one of my favorites (which is why I’m speaking up about it). I can feel the grossness, and it pulls me even closer to the story. It’s another statement of your simple yet poignant writing style. I dig it.

    I also don’t like the puke line.

    I don’t understand the point of paragraph 5. At first glance it comes off as they’re excited to be nearing the tree, but the last line throws me off. How do they know they’re headed in the right direction? Do the legends and children’s stories say that one is supposed to feel excitement and electricity if they’re near the tree?

    The moment before they chant the spell is kind of fast paced. This is a good place to inject some motivation, hesitation, maybe even consideration for the consequences. Here you have an opportunity to milk the emotions so the reader can feel the anticipation, as the MC is feeling it, right before they utter the spell.

    I feel like this sentence “Still, I couldn’t let go, I had to—I ripped my hands off the tree.” should be split to two, or at least the last part be put in a different paragraph. As it is, it’s anticlimactic, you know? She’s saying, “I can’t let go,” but she let’s go.

    The “fuck” makes the MC come off as sassy. But they’re not sassy anywhere else, just at that line.

    I found that the only thing keeping me reading during the first half (before the spell) was the distinctive narration voice, just not because I was interested in the character yet. Maybe it was a matter of “why should we care they’re crossing that swamp?” But as soon as they make the incantation, and I got a feel of their pain and of how terrified they were of the sugar shade, I was instantly drawn in. Also, the concept of the sugar shade is so creative I would read just for that. I think if you lay down the motivation/stakes a little earlier on, then I’ll be hooked the whole way through.

    So thanks for joining me in this critique workshop! I learned a lot from your comments and everyone else’s. I hope my critique was of some help :).


  8. Hi Jessie,
    What a compelling world you're introducing to us here. You've written so many vivid descriptions that help place the reader right into the cherry swamp, so that we can catch the putrid smell of the rotting fruit and feel the heat as our clothing sticks to us like a second skin.

    As some have already commented, I do think what is missing from this opening is motive: we are dropped into this trek across the swamp without much, if any context, as to why we're doing it...and so part of me wanted to turn around and get to drier land! I think what is somewhat clear is the goal (what our MC wants), which is to get to this magical tree; less clear is the motive (the why), and building motive into a story is tricky, as it has to be carefully layered in. So don't worry: you're on the right track, you just need to go a little further!

    One possible solution is to give us more specific plot beats before we get to the don't necessarily need to get us to the tree by the end of the fifth page, and you can make some of the challenges of getting to the swamp more difficult: after all, if this is some magical tree, we have to believe that it would be very hard to find and get to, so that there's a reason it is mythical, and that its existence or magical properties might be doubted. To that end, try to give us little set pieces that might build up to actually finding the tree, and within all of that action you might be able to layer in some of the motives: we will see your MC almost ready to give up, to turn back, and the interiority sprinkled in will give us a clue as to why instead we press onward. Right now, most of the danger of the swamp feels theoretical: you describe a splash that might be something that could eat a person; you say there are *probably* leeches involved. Make this danger more real. If there are leeches, show us leeches. If there's a swamp beast, let's see it...maybe even come face-to-face with it.

    Be careful, too, of overusing metaphorical and especially anthropomorphic imagery: we get the heat's 'putrid claws' and the trail is described as being 'swallowed' by the swamp and the silt is like 'puke', and sometimes I wonder if you wouldn't do better to cut back and let the actual action and more direct descriptions do the bulk of the heavy-lifting. It's not that you should cut *all* imagery and metaphorical language, but cutting back and being really careful about what images you use will make sure they reinforce the storytelling rather than obscure it. For example, I think describing the path continuing on "all innocent-like" felt a little I might strike that. I also found "fractures bit" wasn't quite resonating. When you write that "quiet hung over this bank", I was trying to wrap my head around this because we're in first person: really what you're saying is that now it was quiet, right? The character suddenly can't hear anything? I would just say that more reason to hide it around the somewhat unclear language of quiet 'hanging' around the bank, particularly because our character is on the move so who knows if it's the bank or if something else has caused the swamp to go quiet throughout?

    Someone else pointed out that in a few places the voice and tone gets a little more flippant, which I noticed with: "Okay, I'd been like ten and it might've been a dream. But." The tone here seems to shift unnaturally...we're at a point of high tension and there is great urgency, and suddenly this sentence feels much lighter than what came before.

    There’s some fantastic writing here and clearly a very driven character – now you just need to get some of the character’s motive out onto the page and tidy up some of the language.

    Best of luck!