Sunday, July 3, 2016

1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Stringfellow

Name: Lisa Stringfellow
Genre: Middle Grade fantasy
Title: Dark Tide

Chapter 1

Kela leaned forward slightly, working against the heavy tug of the bright yellow scuba tank.

“Are you ready?” Pop asked, his ebony hands testing the straps of her equipment.

“Yes,” her voice carrying more certainty than she felt.

“Just like old times then. Take your time and lean back when you’re ready. I’ll be right behind you.”

She put her mask on and took a steadying breath. How can you be here without her? The little voice inside protested as it had this morning when she found Pop’s note asking her to come diving with him. It won’t be the same. But the gentle rock of the waves told her that she had made the right decision. She belonged in the water and abandoning that was one loss too many. Tucking her chin and holding onto her mask and regulator, she let the weight of the tank flip her backwards into the warm Caribbean.

Panic grabbed her at impact. Even her training couldn’t suppress the natural impulse of her arms and legs to flail, to resist being swallowed. The dizzying somersault lasted only a moment but not the sensation of being dragged down. She willed herself to stay calm, not to fight. Second by second, her body relaxed into the sea’s embrace.

Underwater the silence deafened her like an explosion of hush. Fish darted like silver bullets through the mirror world beneath the surface. No splashing or shrill gull cries pierced this side of the water. Fifty feet above her, the ceiling shimmered of glass and light, and she basked in the absence of sound. Nothing intruded except what she brought with her: the movement of her body through the water, the rhythmic intake of her breathing, and the percussion of her heart.

An underwater forest pulsed in a kaleidoscope of color and texture. Reefs were a living boneyard; coral polyps wore their skeletons on the outside and built their homes on the backs of their ancestors. Her throat tightened at the beauty she had missed.

When she was three, Kela had learned to snorkel in the shallows, and later helped her father during day trips with tourists. His patience and easy way made him a great dive instructor. Noting movement to her right, she saw him beckoning, trying to close the space between them. Even below the water, this seemed the way of things. She conceded this time.

Her body remembered what to do, and she made a slight twist towards the sea floor. A jagged cluster of rocks jut from the reef, broken coral scattered. An earthquake? She’d have to confirm that guess with Pop, but she knew there had been some tremors recently. This part of the Caribbean was prone to them. I bet you never saw it coming though, Kela thought looking at the sad shattered pieces of coral.

As she swam close to her father, he pointed. A spotted cleaner shrimp picked its way across the tentacles of an anemone, scavenging bits of food. Other citizens of the reef weaved in and out among the formations; flying gurnards with their large eyes and winglike fins, sandpapery filefish with neon scrawls across their flanks, and sharp angled jackfish prowling for prey.
She drifted away from the coral forest towards open sea. Safety required they stay within each other’s line of sight, but she was looking for more. Careful to avoid stings from urchins or scorpion fish concealed in the sand, she searched the sea floor. A glint of blue finally caught her eye.

It wasn’t a shell, only tinted sea glass with edges smoothed by the tide. Its translucent color made it a lucky find. Kela tucked it in her dive bag. She picked up a small brown shell and watched spindly legs and antenna pull back out of sight. She stroked its smoothness then gently put it back. She hated divers who killed creatures just for their shells. It meant there would be fewer for everyone to find in the future. A life should be worth more than a pretty trinket.

A few feet ahead, an angular shape jut out of the sand. It didn’t look like rocks or trash that had had settled to bottom. It was small but definitely out of place.

She glanced to see where Pop was. He moved just beyond the rocks and broken coral. As she turned back to the shadowy shape, the water felt unnaturally cold. Her skin pricked underneath the neoprene wet suit as she kicked forward. Her hand floated undecided for seconds before finally pulling it from the coarse grit.

It was just a box. A little bigger than the size of her hand and completely battered. Nothing but barnacles and sea-worn wood, its hinges oozed a rusty red. A tiny keyhole stared from its center.

She turned it over in her hands and shook but nothing betrayed its contents.
Kela looked back over her shoulder and saw her father still exploring the reef, but getting closer. There were rules about what you could take during a dive and until now she had never questioned them.

Small and crumbling, the box seemed harmless, but she had the feeling that there was more beneath the surface. It wanted to be found. Adrenaline pulsed as she slipped it into her bag.

A sudden pressure on her arm forced her to take a quick intake of breath. It was Pop. He squeezed his hand into a fist next to his chest, his gesture indicating he was getting low on air. He then made a thumbs up. It was time to surface.

In matched strokes, they kicked up towards the boat. It didn’t bring her back, the nagging voice whispered. Kela tried to ignore it, but guilt still pinched. No matter how hard she wished, choices could not be taken back. As she followed Pop’s long shadow towards the bright ball of light above, she hoped she had made the right one this time.

Chapter 2

The light faded as Ophidia plunged her arms into every murky corner, her tail thrashing in her search. But the silence told her that her soul was gone.

Souls were not carried about like common belongings. Neither could they be crammed into hollow spaces between flesh and bone. They were too fragile and precious to risk on that. So, she had hidden it.

When the moon rose fat and high, spilling its milk into the water, she came. For centuries, she had made this pilgrimage to the cold solitude of the deep to make sure her soul was safe.

Lost or taken? The fact that she breathed confirmed it still existed. As her raw hands throbbed, she only knew the cavern was empty.

Even in the blackest trench, she could hear the sea’s voice, rolling and endless. She was not alone.

“Calm yourself, daughter,” it crooned. Its quiet voice resonated power. “You are not new-spawned.”


  1. Oh my goodness, I LOVE paragraph 7 - the descriptive words painted such an amazing imagery:)

    Paragraph 10 did confuse me a little. Did an earthquake happen to shift the box out of the water? Or had it already happened in the past?

    I would definitely READ this though! Love it!

  2. Lisa,
    I loved your 1st 5 pages. I wanted to read more when I got to the end. My critique, this round, is going use the questions that Martina has posted in the “How to Read the 1st 5” tab to give specific feedback, but I’ll also provide a general/overall take on what I’ve read.
    Specific feedback:
    I’ve never been SCUBA diving but your descriptions were great. The underwater setting and your descriptions of the sea creatures and characteristics were perfect. I felt like I was there with Kela. Take or leave any of this advice and suggestions. This sentence reads strange to me, “Underwater the silence deafened her like an explosion of hush.” You almost don’t need it since you go into detail for the rest of the paragraph to explain the lack of sound.
    I love Kela already, but I was confused about who she was diving without? Sister? Mother? Also, this is minor, but I thought Pop was her grandfather at first, so I was confused until I figured out it was her father. That might just be me though.
    Your voice was very strong, and I already have a sense for Kela – her personality, kindness, curiosity. Very well done. You also quickly established a sense of mystery of and suspense. I have no doubt that the small chest is very important.
    Does the chest Kela find contain Ophidia’s soul? If you want the reader to assume that, you may want to make it clear. Or if you want it to be a mystery, keep it hidden a little bit more. I’m curious about Ophidia – good or evil? I want to read more.
    You do a great job balancing description, dialogue, and action – especially underwater. I felt surprise when Kela’s father grabbed her arm. I could really visualize the whole scene with Kela. You might have more, but I don’t have visual picture of Ophidia yet.
    General feedback:
    I don’t read much fantasy, but this is an intriguing idea to have it start in the ocean. That must be unique. Your writing is very good, and I am already feeling for and rooting for Kela. I think you started your novel in a great spot, and I like the way you quickly established several possible levels of conflict.

    1. Ken,

      Thanks so much for your feedback and questions. I had another person also say they thought Pop was her grandfather at first, so I will work on making that more clear. I also appreciate your comments about the sound. Reading it again, it does seem a little repetitive so I will tweak that.

      The box does contain the soul, but I am working on walking that line between being too vague and too direct. It is something I need to keep working on. I'm glad Ophidia is intriguing. The best description for her might be dangerous. She does have an arc that changes as well. Again, thanks so much for the detailed feedback!

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  4. Wow, you are off to a great start! First of all, you write beautifully. I immediately was immersed in the underwater world, and your descriptions are just lovely – vivid enough to paint a picture, and not over done. I am totally intrigued by the box – and I would definitely keep reading, so that is fabulous!

    My main comment is that a couple of times I was pulled out of the story. Clearly, a tragedy happened, and alluding to it and not letting the reader know anything about it, can be risky. The box is intriguing, but the mystery about what happened that made her stop diving and makes her feel guilty, was puzzling to me, but not in a good way. If you sliver in pieces of back-story, enough to give some context, the reader will feel more grounded in the story.

    The second instance was the earthquake. Was it actually an earthquake? I’m guessing there will be an earthquake later, and you are setting the foundation? Or does the box become dislodged because of it? Perhaps saying something in the beginning – not many divers were out because of the tremors lately, or some such. And for someone who is very apprehensive about going back in the water, she seems very blasé about the earthquake. If you need to keep it, show a bigger reaction from her. If you don’t need it here, move it, and get us to the box sooner.

    Overall, great job! I can’t wait to read next week!

    1. Erin,

      Thanks so much! I love description and have a tendency to overwrite, but I've been working at applying other's feedback to pull back more. I'm glad it is working.

      Thank you for your comments about needing to be more clear about the tragedy. I had wanted to keep a little mystery about it until a later reveal, but enough people have mentioned it to me that I think it's a mistake for me to be so vague.

      Others have also mentioned being confused by the earthquake, so I will work on that. She is witnessing the results of an earthquake that happened maybe a few weeks before. I probably just need to say that and make it clear. Later in chapter 2, Ophidia witnesses what happened to her soul by accessing the sea's memory, but I think I just need to add a little bit more clarity to that in chapter 1. Thank you again and I look forward to more of your thoughts!

  5. Lisa, this is beautiful. I felt like I was right there with Kela underwater. I've never been scuba diving, but now I feel like I have! You did a great job bringing the setting and the sensations to life. And the descriptions are gorgeous. Really nice work.

    I did lose sight of Kela's guilt during the first chapter. It's there at the beginning and again at the end, but I lose it in the middle. I wouldn't overdo it, but a hint of it somewhere in the middle there would help keep it present amidst all that beautiful setting. There should still be a sense of the tragedy (whatever it is) in the undertone of the chapter. Ron Carlson calls that undertone "the thing swimming under the boat". So even as she's experiencing this amazing moment, there's something else there with her. Keep it subtle, though.

    The earthquake confused me a bit. I had to read it a couple of times, and I'm still not sure how to envision it. Perhaps use a couple more descriptors of what happens with the rocks to show what happens? Does the sediment also shift? Do fish react to it? I just felt like it happened very quickly and I wasn't really sure what I was seeing. I suggest looking over that passage and seeing if you can finesse it a bit more.

    The discovery of the box is intriguing. I love the pacing of it, how she sees it, hesitates, then pulls it up. Nicely done. The line, "There were rules about what you could take during a dive and until now she had never questioned them," piqued my interest. I kind of wanted another line expanding on that a little more. Maybe something her dad has said? Something to give it a moment's more presence to set up her hesitation and justify the adrenaline surge and her trepidation.

    I found chapter 2 to be equally as interesting as chapter 1 and I like the fantastical tone. Ophidia is an intriguing character, and I immediately wanted to know more about her. There's a change in pacing in this chapter, though, that felt jarring to me. It starts very abruptly, with a new character with big emotions and unusual concepts in an undefined setting. I suggest slowing down a bit and easing the reader into that setting. If it's the same setting as the first chapter, perhaps show some familiar markers to clue the reader in.

    Lastly, I suspect the box is Ophidia's soul, and Kela has taken it. That's a really interesting concept, especially given the last line of the first chapter. If the box is Ophidia's soul, then I think the connection is too apparent, too quickly. Consider having Ophidia searching for something (which the reader can infer is the box) without naming it -- either as the box or as her soul. That searching and her despair at not finding it will create good tension and raise questions in the reader's mind. I would give that space for the reader to wonder before delivering the answers.

    I would love to read more of this story. You definitely have me hooked. Beautifully done!

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    2. Amy,

      Thanks so much for your detailed feedback! I am glad the diving scene and descriptions of underwater sound authentic. You make an interesting point about the guilty feeling that is interesting because I noticed that I didn't come back to it and just made that change in my last revision. I agree that I need to drop another reference in somewhere else. In chapter 3 where we meet Kela on land, this guilt and self-talk come back again, but I need to be consistent with it.

      I appreciate your feedback on the transition of POV in chapter 2. It is something I have been working on, so that fact that it is still a little jarring is helpful. I mentioned in another comment that I've had trouble walking the line between being mysterious and not revealing everything and being too clear. I may have crossed over the line and need to go back to a middle ground. I want the reader to draw the connection to the box and the soul but maybe not so fast (it is clear by the end of chapter 2). The actual physical form of the soul is revealed later, so maybe that is the question I should try to keep in the background.

      I also found your comment about pacing interesting and will think about how I can address that in the opening of the chapter. Thank you so much for your help!

  6. Your writing is superb! The description about the ocean and the sensations Kela feels jumps off the page. I can sense the literary bent to your writing, and there are a few phrasings that while lovely, I wonder if they can be tweaked a bit to show more of Kela’s personal voice and tone.

    For example, when she puts on the mask, how does it feel? Pinching? Smelling of rubber and plastic? Are these familiar feels and sensations? A detail like this can then tie into the line about how “she belonged in the water.” She has conflicting feelings on this, and those great sensory details you wrote about the ocean can apply to Kela too.

    This line: Even her training couldn’t suppress the natural impulse of her arms and legs to flail, to resist being swallowed.

    This reads a bit formal for her age; she’s experienced, and you have good lines before and after, but this read to me much older. I think you could describe her actual struggle a little with action words and sensory details, like the feel of the water closing in. The “resist being swallowed” is great, I just want to see some “kid voice” mixed in at times.

    "Underwater the silence deafened her like an explosion of hush."
    This is another beautiful line that I am not necessarily telling you to change (because it’s lovely), but in keeping with that idea of a unique Kela voice, maybe to change it up a bit so some lines are lyrical and mature and others feel like something a kid might think. NOT to say this should be dumbed down at all, but we want to see Kela’s personality.

    I also hoped for a little more clarity on who she lost. Feeding in a few more concrete details so we know it’s Mom (or sister? Grandmother? Is Pops her father or grandfather?) And questioned the mention of the earthquake. I think making it a little more clear what you are trying to convey there would help.

    I LOVED chapter two with the fantasy element, and how right away we know the box is significant and belongs to someone. The transition reads very well.

    Wonderful job!!

    1. Stephanie,

      Thanks so much for your detailed feedback. I'm so grateful for your comments about the voice. It is something I have been working hard on. Several readers have told me it sounds more YA and I've been tweaking it to have more of the MG kid voice that I want. I will definitely look at those areas you mention and see what I can do to further develop Kela's voice and personality.

      Others also mentioned confusion with who Pop is, who is the missing "her," and what happened with the earthquake. Those are all things I will try to make more clear in my next round draft.

      I'm glad you liked the POV transition and the introduction of the fantasy. This used to be chapter 1 and I moved it to start with my protagonist, so it's been tricky to make it clear for the reader what is going on. I will continue to keep working on this though. Thanks again for all of your help!

  7. Dear Lisa,

    Your opening lines are so, so strong. I was pulled in immediately. I thought “Pop” was a grandpa, but maybe that doesn’t matter. I love the imagery – even “working against the heavy tug of the bright yellow scuba tank.” Loved that!! I’m also so intrigued by the woman/girl she isn’t diving with. That held so much tension for me. It seems to hold tension for Kela (great name) to. She’s reserved to dive without her. Would she be thinking of this person while she’s diving? I would love to see a few more details about “her” sprinkled through the dive scene. It’s compelling!!

    You have a beautiful lyrical voice and some really stunning lines. That said (and please disregard this if it doesn’t fit your style!!) I wonder if you should pull back just a little for clarity and also to make them pop a bit more. Also – try to balance the imagery, with the action, and the backstory – just little tweaks here and there. For example, paragraph 7 has some stunning imagery. However, you vacillate every other line between sound imagery and visual imagery. Maybe chunk them a bit? “Underwater the silence deafened her like a sudden, explosive hush. No splashing or shrill gull cries pierced this side of the water as she basked in the absence of sound. Fifty feet above her, the ceiling shimmered of glass and light while fish darted like silver bullets around her. Nothing intruded….(great last line!!)” Between paragraph 7 and 8, perhaps add an action before getting into more imagery. Then paragraph 8 might be the perfect opportunity to reference the lost woman/girl. Just a thought!!

    I liked the intensity behind finding the box and then her father’s “sudden pressure on her arm” snaps her out of that moment – great tension.

    Chapter 2 is also intriguing! I like the connection between the two characters, but I’d love to see you ease into the reveal of that connection and build the scene like you do with the first chapter.

    Overall, you have strong imagery, a great set up, and an interesting premise. I’d love to read more!!

  8. Lisa,
    I love your writing! Everything about this made me freeze up, hold my breath, and become hypersensitive as I read this (I am terrified of water and would never scuba dive!). Because of that, I thought Kela was brave to go in the water by herself and to not be afraid of what lurks underneath. I like how you mention the 'she' that is no longer her. It makes me wonder if it is a mother or sister, and it has me feel sad for Kela but admire her bravery for scuba diving anyway. I like the imagery and the way you describe the ocean. It makes it so beautiful.

    Some of my thoughts (please take or leave what you like!):
    1. The use of pop when Kela is on the boat vs. father in the ocean. It made me think her father and grandfather were both snorkeling with her.

    2. I really like how you describe the coral and saying 'did it ever see it coming'. This might be a subtle place to insert the 'she' that is no longer with Kela. I'm not sure how she died, but if she didn't see it coming, then maybe the coral could be compared to this she?

    3. The way the beginning was introduced up until the box was discovered, I thought the writing promised a sort of literary/contemporary book. Maybe if you described some of the ocean in magical terms, it would remind us that this isn't a contemporary novel, but a magical one and something magical is about to happen. I like how the area around the box felt different, and gave an aura of being magical, but also likely dark magic (I used magical quite a few times in that sentence!).

    4. The tone of chapter 2 was definitely darker than the first chapter, but in a different way. If the box that Kela took is Ophidia's (great name!) soul, was Kela diving in a cavern?

    Overall, I really enjoyed reading this and look forward to reading more! I can't wait to see your future revisions!

    1. Christian,

      Thanks so much for your feedback! I do think I need to be more clear about Pop being her father and not a grandfather. He used to be just "Dad," but I didn't think it was specific enough to her voice. It's a recent change and I need to smooth out all of the references.

      I also appreciate your comment about tipping the reader off to the fantasy elements earlier. Chapter 2 used to be chapter 1 and when I switched it (because it read like a prologue), I lost that instant reader recognition that it was a fantasy. I agree that I need to work on bringing a sense of magic earlier.

      I'm glad you recognized the tone change with the new POV and hope its not too jarring. I would call the story a dark fantasy. Ophidia's movements and appearance are very snake-like (but with a typical mermaid tail) and that word is the scientific name for the order that includes snakes.

      Thank you again for your really helpful ideas and feedback!

    2. I didn't realize Ophidia was a mermaid! That makes this story so much more interesting and different from other fantasy! I had actually envisioned Ophidia as a demon with a thrashing tail.