Sunday, June 5, 2016

1st 5 Pages June Workshop - Devine

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

I ran away the summer I turned fourteen. The plan was to join a gang in Hanglan, but no one wanted me. Instead, I gathered stragglers. You know, the ones that in the old days would’ve been picked off by wolves. Two years later, I wish I could say we were running shit, but that kind of thing doesn’t actually happen. We were barely keeping it together. That’s why I was out here. I had a plan. 

It was a terrible plan. Going to the cherry swamp during the seventh full moon—it was like a ghost story. I’d been raised better than that. But at the time, the idea of power limited only by what I was willing to give intoxicated me. Because I was willing to give anything.

The cherry swamp was hot, even in the dead of night. The air sweated in that place which made the cherries absolutely cloying, but it still smelled better than the rest of the countryside in summer. The heat (or good sense) kept everyone in. It was deserted.

The moon reflected orange across murky water, its round face broken by cattails and swamp grass. Where was I supposed to go, exactly? I had an idea based on the map in that creepy old children’s book, but the swamp looked different in the pitch black than it did under mechanical light. Plus, the path had disappeared.

North. I was supposed to go north, but that way was submerged. 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 stuck your foot in the toilet. I shuddered. Come on, only a little farther. The water started to recede, and I climbed up onto the bank.

The path continued all innocent-like, like it hadn’t made me take a dip in the sewer. It was barely there 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.

I turned the corner and broke into a run. The tree was indeed white, shimmery, silver white like old snow. “Finally,” I whispered, laying my hands against it.

The evocation came out of my mouth automatically, and the electricity surged through me. The air smelled like burnt hair and cherry blossoms, and my arms shook. All the muscles in my body cramped, and my jaw locked shut. Pain shot through my neck and seized the thin muscles on the back of my skull. My calves had knives in them. My spine spiral fractured all the way up. I had to keep holding on, had to. Agony exploded behind my eyes, lights flickering at the edge of my vision. No, 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’d memorized everything. 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 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 skin tingled. Acid flipped my stomach. It was kind of embarrassing that I’d done all this, actually. Had I been misled? 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.

Heat rose up my face, and I pushed myself to my feet. Now what? All those plans I had, everything I wanted? I turned away and

Screamed. There was a shade, standing silent and stone-faced in the middle of the clearing. There was no emotion on its face, no contempt for me or annoyance at being awoken. Weird. They were supposed to be annoyed.

I swallowed and stepped closer. No telling how old this thing was. It looked the same age as me, but wasn’t that the point? 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.

I swallowed. This was becoming rapidly more real by the moment. “Sael, what is your pronoun preference?”

“My preference is yours,” it said softly, 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 Sael. I’d never chosen a pronoun for someone before; it seemed like a weird thing to do. How was I supposed to tell which one was right? But Sael didn’t seem concerned. These creatures probably 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. Seemed appropriate enough. “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.1st 


  1. This is a really great start! A few things:
    1) I think this would be stronger if you didn't start with the backstory. I would suggest you weave that in after you've established your setting.
    2) There are some places where you're telling. For example, when you say the swamp is hot. This would be stronger if you show her sweating or wiping sweat from her face.
    3) In the part where she touches the white tree, the pain really needs to come first. Pain is the strongest feeling a human can experience. She would not think about how things smell first. Also, I think you could probably drag this pain out a bit longer. It feels a bit like a list of things that hurt and then the end. If you want the reader to FEEL why she lets go, really make it hurt.
    4) You have a fair number of physiological reactions and some internal thoughts, but you don't have much emotion going on. There are some places where you are telling emotion (i.e., "It was kind of embarrassing..."). I think this would definitely be stronger if you showed this with some character building built it. For example, who is she afraid to be emobarrassed in front of? Is she normally a high achiever which would make this a big deal? Or is she normally a failure who's on her last straw? Try to find ways to show us what she's like as this scene happens and never miss an opportunity to let us in on how she is feeling. This scene feels like it should come with some fear and desperation, but I don't really see these on the page.

    Looking forward to the next version!

    1. Thank you! Some of this advice really resonates with me!

      My mc isn't a girl though. :) The character's gender is unstated.

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  2. I was intrigued by this from the start. I agree with Holly that you might want to start the story a little later, not because I felt the backstory slowed us down, but because it gave me different expectations for the start of the novel. I thought we'd start in the middle of a gang, with the MC surrounded by xir friends/gang followers, not in an isolated situation.

    I like the voice you have here, it's very clear. I also assumed your MC was female, and I think that a gender assignment for your MC will come automatically to most people, especially since the novel's in first person. I'm not sure how you may want to emphasize that we shouldn't assign your MC a gender.

    This also sort of brings me to the pronoun point. I was a little thrown by the very first question, because if I saw this giant terrifying Shade, my first instinct wouldn't be, 'what pronouns would you prefer?' I like what this says about the world, but is there a way to put in this importance before your MC meets the Shade? Is it the very first thing you should always say to new acquaintances, and incredibly rude to overlook it?

    I like the setting. It's creepy, faintly gross, and I can almost smell the sewage stink from your description. One thing about the world building that I would like clarified is what kind of fantasy I'm reading. From the shade, the cherry swamp and the myth I get a more other-worldly fantasy vibe, and from your descriptions of the children's book and puke in a toilet, I get a very modern urban fantasy vibe. Of course, if this were a novel in a bookstore I probably would have looked at the back of the book and I might not have this question.

    Other than that, your MC is someone I enjoyed reading about, and I would continue based off these pages.

  3. Hi Jessie!

    First of all, I have to say that you're a gorgeous, gorgeous writer. I loved your prose and felt like I was really there in that swamp with your MC! They have a terrific voice as well, which made this so easy and enjoyable to read.

    As Holly mentioned, my first suggestion for revision is to cut the first two paragraphs (even though you had a great opening sentence!) and start around, "The cherry swamp was hot, even in the dead of night." You can weave backstory in later. The other reason I suggest start with the swamp is because when I read the first two paragraphs, I actually thought this might be contemp fantasy, but after reading the pages in full, I'm thinking high fantasy?

    Another thing that came to mind as I read: if this is high fantasy, I want to get a stronger sense in your opening pages that it isn't set on Earth (there was a mention of electricity, for example, and your description using a children's book- these things made me think this was modern/Earth-set). There are a number of ways you could go about establishing that this is high fantasy, from mentioning made-up places to mentioning the king or ruling government of this place early on! But basically, I wanted more of a 'this isn't a swamp in the modern American South' distinction.

    I was also thrown a bit by the pronoun discussion at this particular moment in the story (even though it's great world building!). But we were supposed to believe, I thought, that the MC was fearing for their life, and that they were very much afraid of Sael, who seems to be some sort of monster or wicked spirit. So the politeness of the conversation is what threw me--I had rather assumed, based on the tension leading up to this encounter, and the pain your MC just experienced, that they would stagger back in fear from Sael, and not politely try to chat with them. Or maybe they'd shout at Sael to stay back, something like that--but the courtesy and calm conversation felt out of place with the scene you'd built (and built quite well, I might add!).

    Lastly, I'd love a stronger sense of who your MC is as a person in these pages, their personality, which I think will come if you follow Holly's suggestion of adding in more emotion. I just felt like I needed to know a little more about your MC in order to feel a connection with them.

    Again, I really love your lush prose and your MC's voice. This was such a unique and beautiful opening, and I'm excited to see what you do with it!

    Good luck!
    Sarah, First 5 Pages Mentor

    1. Thank you! This is super helpful.

      Yes, this is high fantasy and I debated whether or not adding the made up name of the land would be helpful or more confusing for the reader. I will definitely slip it in there!

  4. Hi Jessie!

    First off, thank you for being brave and letting other people critique your work! Please accept or reject my comments as you see fit:

    I really enjoyed your opening. Your MC has such a great voice, and it really comes through immediately. One thing that I wanted to highlight was the mention of the stragglers in the beginning, I was half expecting the scene to include the MC and the stragglers, and was thrown off when it was just your MC.

    “Going to the cherry swamp during the seventh full moon” – this is such a good set up of the scene. Makes me excited about what comes next.

    “The air sweated in that place which made the cherries absolutely cloying” – great sentence that helps establish scene, but I had to read it a couple of times for it to make sense.

    “The heat (or good sense) kept everyone in.” – this line made me laugh, but the parenthetical aside threw me off because it’s not used elsewhere in the scene. Not a major flaw but it did draw me out of the story and away from the line, which could really stand out.

    “I hesitated, my foot stalling to find a foothold.” – awkward, makes her foot seem disembodied/has a mind of it’s own

    “I kicked off the other because I needed symmetry.” – great line!

    “The way I imagine puke would feel if you stuck your foot in the toilet.” – forced image. Why would anyone do this?

    “The evocation came out of my mouth automatically” – what is the evocation? The placement of this line makes me think “finally” (line before) is the evocation. Is this right? (Please correct me if I'm wrong!)

    “The air smelled like burnt hair and cherry blossoms, and my arms shook.” – we get a lot of descriptions of what it smells like, which is FANTASTIC sensory imagery, but it happens quite often and it loses its effect after a while (especially since it's often focused on smell).

    While I’m 110% on board with respecting someone’s gender identity, when your MC asks Sael’s pronoun preference it’s a tad preachy. Like Sarah, I was thrown with this section. Is there a more subtle way of doing this while still maintaining the respectful idea? Is this the most appropriate place for this conversation to take place?

    Thanks again, and I look forward to reading your revisions!

    Carly Whetter

  5. Jessie,

    Thank you for sharing and participating in the critique. Hopefully my critique is of help!

    So we’re off to an interesting start. When I started reading I knew I liked the voice. Short sentences delivering a punch. I really liked that.

    The setting is definitely unique, but also it is a bit unclear. There are a lot of things that you sort of mention but don’t go too much into detail, which makes it confusing for me to keep up. Like, a lot of things are brought up then brushed aside (the stragglers, the plan, the swamp, the children’s book), so it creates a lot of question marks in my head as I go along. Now it’s good to raise questions, but as a reader if I have too many questions and not enough answers it frustrates me.

    The first few paragraphs have a lot of telling that maybe you could do away with simply showing the scene. Then you start showing more (maybe 6 paragraphs in?) and start doing a better job immersing me in the setting.

    It was really hard to get through paragraphs 2-5. It was hard to follow through with what was going on. After that though, after paragraph 6, you do a better job immersing me into the story. So by the end of page five I really wanna know what this Sael creature is about. Maybe in the next revision consider polishing up those early paragraphs so the reader isn’t so confused.

    The mention of a toilet made me question the setting and time of this story. It’s something I expect will be answered later.

    I wish I knew what she truly wanted with the tree before she touched it. This isn’t a big deal honestly, but since you went through the trouble of telling us some things about her life in the first two paragraphs, then it set up the expectation for me to want to know why she’s going through this nasty swamp for the tree.

    As a final note, I know you mentioned the gender of the MC isn’t mentioned yet, but it definitely reads like a female. As I was reading, I had no doubt in my mind of the gender of the MC. Though asking Sael about his (I’m saying “his” because the name “Sael” reads to me as male) pronoun was an interesting twist I wasn’t expecting and it makes a statement of their world. I like it. I would definitely keep reading!

    Good luck!
    Gabriela Romero

    1. Thanks for your input! I really appreciated the breakdown of the paragraphs and how they affected you/how you responded to them as a reader.

      Sael's pronouns are xe/xir, so please respect them! It is very triggering for me as a trans writer for someone to blatantly ignore pronouns that are written on the page in favor of their own perception. It's also just generally good practice. :)

      The MC (whose name is Glory, which we will learn later) is also non-binary, but I suspect this is something that will come across better having read a pitch/back cover copy beforehand. :)

  6. You've received some great advice, above. I'll add that much of the writing felt passive due to use of "to be" verbs, and 'filler' words (some, someplace, but). For example:

    North. I was supposed to go north, but that way was submerged. 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.

    Try revising without using 'was' and see where that takes you.

  7. Hello! I love your title. It’s very unique and promises the reader a very intriguing story. I also really liked the first sentence. From what I read so far, I think I am most interested in the character’s background regarding the stragglers. It’s as if your mc has found his/her own gang, rather than join one in Hanglan. I think you could go two ways with this: Really develop that part of your mc’s story and why they ran, how they developed stragglers, what were the consequences of that, and put your mc and their gang in the center of action (whatever is happening at the moment) OR ax that entire exposition/background story entirely (like the others have told you) and focus solely on your mc being in the swamp. Your mc could be in the swamp by themselves before developing a following of stragglers or you could somehow weave that background story somewhere else (preferably later in the text).
    The voice/dialect of the text is very interesting. It’s choppy, short, direct, and to the point. It’s very I’m-processing-through-my-emotions-and-surroundings kind of voice, which indicates that your mc needs this kind of thinking because of certain anxiety issues or perhaps because they ran away and they feel the need to counteract their impulsiveness with rational thinking? What a cool paradox! I suggest, though to vary your sentence structure and your mc’s thought process because it reads like staccato at some points and it doesn’t flow very well in a reader’s head. (purely my experience reading your piece)

    I agree with what everyone has said so far. The writing does seem very passive and I would change it to a more active voice to really put the reader in the center of the plot. I really like your mc. I like that your mc is (in a sense) politically correct and genuine and wants to be respectful but I do agree that the pronoun preference question threw me off a bit and took me out of the story. This is a fantasy story and although there is nothing wrong with asking about pronoun preference, it does seem out of place. I would suggest weaving that characteristic into your character’s thought process, rather than dialogue-wise and have each piece of dialogue that is exchanged between Sael and your mc to move the plot forward (aka why is your mc even in the swamp in the first place? What do they want?)
    Happy revising! And looking forward to reading more (:

    1. Thank you! This is very helpful!! I have some ideas about incorporating the MC asking for Sael's pronoun preference in a way that will read more naturally. It's as customary in this land to ask what someone's pronoun preference is as it is for us to ask for someone's name; we just haven't had a chance to get that far.

      You are right on the money with my character's thought process. The MC indeed has an anxiety disorder, and I'm glad that came through. :)

    2. Sorry for being a comment lurker. But I just wanted to say I really like that it's a sense of politeness and a natural thing to do to ask someone's pronoun preference. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two...

      I'm thinking that you could make the pronoun question a natural one by slipping in how customary it is. It will also tell us a bit more about your MC, whether xe insists on being respectful towards this terrifying creature that just popped out of the creepy swamp, or whether xe lets emotions get the better of xir.

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  9. Hi, Jessie! I really enjoyed this beginning. The cadence reminded me of Huckleberry Finn--an understated, down-home "I'm a gonna tell you this story" voice that made the "telling" aspects of the story work better for me than they might have otherwise. The fact that Glory is going through a cherry swamp was wonderful--backwoods, down-home--and I thought your descriptions were unusual and fresh.

    As Glory is undertaking this quest to gain power to keep xir's gang of stragglers together, what about bringing along one or more of the gang members with? Why is xe doing this in secret? If xe has an anxiety disorder, what about highlighting that a bit more? Maybe xe is anxious that the gang doesn't like xem anymore, and that xe won't have any friends at all--what are the consequences of failing at this quest? Xe is dealing with a real creep factor--xe has to be super motivated to take this huge risk.

    I honor your attempt to incorporate non-binary characters, but it seems a bit surprising that this story centers on two non-binary beings finding each other. It would seem a bit more organic and less coincidental if, as other people have suggested, Glory doesn't ask about pronoun preference so soon. If I were the main character in this tall tale/fantasy/horror story, I wouldn't be asking for a name or gender preference at that point. I'd be trying not to completely freak out!

    This is a great start and I think you're doing something very interesting here. Thanks for a compelling first five pages!

    1. Thank you! In this world, being non-binary is really common and asking for a pronoun preference is polite, like asking someone's name. I adjusted that passage in my revisions so hopefully it'll read more naturally now, but I can't take it out completely because it's crucial to the world.

      Your comments on my opening paragraph resonate with me. That's exactly what I was going for with Glory's voice, but all the other feedback suggested that I take out the telling in the beginning completely. I tried removing it for my first revision; maybe you could tell me which you liked better? Because I'm not sure myself.

      Thank you for your insightful feedback! I really appreciate it.

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